Finland, or more precisely, Finnish Lapland, was not a place I had considered visiting; I do not have children to take to Santaland and couldn’t imagine another reason for going. But when my sister said she was planning a week’s cross country skiing with some friends, my curiosity was piqued. What was it like? I asked. She said she couldn’t explain it and I would have to come along and see for myself. She urged me to buy a small rucksack if I intended coming.
“What for?” I asked.
“For your sausages which you grill on fires along the way…..”
“Aren’t there restaurants or cafés?” I asked.
“Some, but most are shut this time of year.”
What was January if not the middle of the skiing time of year? “The Fins like to come at Christmas and New Year,” she explained “And Easter when it’s a bit warmer and they’re the majority of the people who go there.”
Well how cold was it going to be? I asked.
“It can be anything between -5º and -25º. And this year is supposed to be a good year to see the Northern Lights.”
I had never cross country skied, have never seen the Northern Lights and never barbecued sausages in – 25º, so I signed up. My sister came round to my house and inspected my cold weather gear and told me what I’d need to bring.
“You’ll work up a sweat, so you need lots of layers, I wouldn’t bring that big down jacket, you’ll be too hot.” We were obviously going to be working those muscles hard!
A few weeks later I found myself 150 kms inside the Arctic Circle in the Lappish village of Äkäslompolo located on the northern side of the Ylläs Fell (apparently it’s not high enough to be called a mountain) and the first day it really was -25°, it warmed up to -12° whilst we were there and once the temperature even got as far up as -5° (balmy!).
I spent the week we were there learning to cross country ski, falling over a lot, being pulled by huskies on a sleigh, eating a lot of reindeer meat (reindeer, I was told are really very stupid animals, but provide well for the local people in terms of food, pelts and leather) and fish, all of which were generally accompanied with berries and lots of mashed potatoes. And yes we even saw a spectacular show of Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, apparently the best sighting for six years!
Although it was cold, it was dry, so as long as you wrapped up warm and kept the circulation moving in your fingers, it wasn’t at all unpleasant. I did take my down jacket and I did get hot, but I just ditched the thermal vest.
I realised that sometimes it is good to not know anything about where you are going as the joy of discovery can then exceed the expectation, as it did on this occasion.
This was the view from my window of the neighbouring cabin at five to nine in the morning.
And this was 8 o’clock at night. We were lucky enough to witness this spectacular show of Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. Apparently the best sighting for six years!
Many Finnish myths are associated with the Northern Lights. They start off as a feint light and then come gradually into deeper focus and seem to pulsate for a few moments before they disappear again.
This was one of the highlights of the week.
and the best way to enjoy the magical snowy countryside……
There are little shelters along the ski routes where you can stop and cook your sausages and warm yourself
And a sausage never tasted better…..
And this, I learned, is what the Finns always have in their rucksacks, a wooden coffee cup hand carved out of birch called a kuksa, you can find them in all the gift shops, a flask of coffee and a bar of chocolate.
There are also cafés along the way, where you can thaw out around the fire and enjoy a sandwich, coffee or hot chocolate made by someone else, before going back out to tackle the homeward ski…
This one even had a reindeer and her calf grazing outside the window to complete the perfect picture (the owner admitted feeding the reindeer, which belonged to a nearby farmer, for the enjoyment of his patrons).
This is how most of the reindeer end up…(look away vegetarians and small children who still believe in Father Christmas)
You will find this on every menu, or even done three ways
And you even get some of what the reindeer would have eaten, lichen, served on reindeer tongue (I think the chef was having a laugh) along with reindeer mousse and reindeer terrine…..
For the pescatarians there is plenty of fresh water fish, this one was apparently fished by an old man from a frozen lake nearby and cooked in salt.
And finally for the vegetarians, there was wild mushroom soup made with mushrooms gathered in the summer and frozen, cooked with cream and little else…….
Last but not least, something everyone can enjoy, dessert
Cheese cake with a wild berry sauce and served with edible flowers, all sourced locally.