“Don’t worry about wearing make-up this week, if you do you’re much more likely to get frost bite and guys also don’t worry about shaving, having a beard will protect your face.” This was part of our welcome talk by our head guide Bjorn when we arrived. This was the real Finnish wilderness where your 4×4 taxi – despite having winter tyres – has a real chance of becoming stuck on the snow-compacted roads and if you dare to go outside without your provided layers of clothing you could seriously harm your health.
Basecamp Oulanka was to be our home for the next seven days. Set deep in the forest of Oulanka National Park, the camp consists of a series of cosy log cabins, a communal dining room complete with a real wood burning fire and a bar serving up potent Nordic specialities such as blueberry and cloudberry liquor. In true Finnish style, there’s also an on-site sauna and hot tub overlooking the frozen lake (although only the bravest residents try the Scandinavian tradition of rolling in the snow afterwards).
During our visit the temperatures hovered between an unusually balmy minus 1 and a cripplingly cold minus 30 centigrade. Although, this trip is easily worth braving these kind of temperatures. Located near just south of the Arctic Circle and right on the cusp of Finnish Lapland, you get to see the kind of scenery the organisers promise will ‘melt even the iciest of hearts’. You also have a pretty good chance of seeing the Northern Lights, and you get to participate in the kind of winter activities that you’re very unlikely to try anywhere else. We were on an Exodus Finland Holiday. A Finnish Wilderness week aimed at nature-loving, adventurous types and a trip quite unlike we’d ever experienced before…
Skis and snowmobiles
The week’s programme is balanced between organised activities, free time and optional added activities. During the week you’ll get to snowshoe through magical forests, cross-country ski over frozen lakes and hone your wilderness skills in a day’s quinzhee building. If deemed safe by your Ray Mears style instructor, you even get a chance to spend the night in your newly built snow shelter.
For those looking to step the action up a gear you also get the chance to ski down some serious slopes at the nearby resort of Ruka, climb the resident ice wall or take an adrenaline fuelled journey into the snowy wilderness on a Yamaha snowmobile. For all the activities, full instruction and equipment is provided, including clothes. You feel like you’ve been given enough clothes for three people but afterwards you will never be so thankful that you’ve been bumped up several dress sizes.
The husky safari was easily the highlight of everyone’s week. Being on a wilderness adventure week, you don’t just ride in a sleigh pulled by the huskies – you get to drive your very own team of six very eager, panting dogs. After a quick introduction (mostly about knowing when to brake) we set off into the snowy landscapes following each other’s team in a line. In their excitement the dogs sprint like crazy for about 50m before settling into a lope on the trail which cuts through crisp, Narnia-esque scenery. They’re very focused, but the odd distraction can happen – one bossy female kept turning to her younger pack member to tell him off and another had a fondness for sniffing passing leaves.
The huskies are clearly well looked after and are treated as part of their family by their Finnish owners. I fell in love with an icicle-eyed husky named ‘Amor.’ I found the feeling was mutual when he came to find me when we were just about to get into our taxi back to camp. I like to think he came to say goodbye…
A natural light show
Back in November we spent several cold and frustrating nights in Iceland, glued to the spot, in the middle of nowhere trying to catch even the faintest glimpse of aurora phenomenon. Finland, on the other hand just made it feel so easy. We only had to take a short walk from our cabin to find the polar darkness lit up with gently moving and playfully dancing streaks. Although of course there are no guarantees – we could have just been very lucky – but almost every night our group went down to the frozen lake for a bit of communal watching of nature’s famously elusive, beautiful light show. We swapped camera shots, told jokes to distract ourselves from the cold and occasionally defrosted our hands by the on-site tepee’s camp fire.
A sad goodbye
We spent our last night eating Nordic stew under the stars and learning how to cook pancakes alfresco in minus 28 temperatures. Our bottles of pear cider froze solid as we sat talking. At the end of the night, Bjorn led our group to the forest river. He wanted us to take a moment and reflect on our week. As we stood in silence I thought about returning to tarmac-ed roads and grey buildings. I knew I wasn’t the only one who was sad to be leaving.
Written by Becky and all photos taken by Gray. All opinions are our own.