Arctic Snow Days

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Rovaniemi, Finland
By Cassie Brown

Finland's Dumbest Animal
Finland’s Dumbest Animal
I don’t know why, but it never occurred to me that reindeer were anything but a myth, Santa Claus folklore. I thought reindeer hung out with elves and Frosty the Snowman. I had seen deer, caribou, elk, but never reindeer. I was booking tickets to Belize when I opened an email from a travel website and found the big eyes of a reindeer staring at me. The headline read “Vacation with Santa at the Arctic Circle”. I was sold!

“Insane” was uttered most often upon the discovery of our vacation plans. Apparently few considered 22 hours of darkness with temperatures below freezing to be perfect vacation conditions. Warnings abounded. My friends, honing in on my distaste of cold weather, questioned, “Do you realize that the Arctic Circle isn’t known for its warmth?” “I just watched a show on the Discovery Channel about how 60 people froze to death while building the Alaskan Highway,” my mother forewarned. Our destination being Finland, not Alaska, did not deter the descriptions of all the possible death scenarios.

Despite continual discussions of pending demise, we bought plane tickets. The overnight flight from JFK to Helsinki would take nine hours, then a three hour layover before boarding the two-hour flight to Rovaniemi.

Something about an “insane” vacation heightened the excitement. The lack of guidebooks to read made it all the more daring. The Internet became our travel guide. There were daily emails to Finland. Every morning I checked my email with great anticipation. The Rovaniemi tourist board web cam showed glimpses of the streets and bridges of the small town. Like a kid, I checked it often, eagerly waiting the day of our flight.

Finally the day arrived and as we waited for the plane to depart the JFK runway, water began hitting the side of the plane. I watched a man hold a hose in his gloved hands and spray every inch of the aircraft with a water-like substance. I later learned that it was designed to prevent the plane from icing over. It was slightly disconcerting to think about flying somewhere so cold that the plane had to wear a coat.

The moment my feet hit the outside metal steps of the airplane, Rovaniemi’s cold wind smacked me in the face. The bright white snow was like a frozen blanket on the horizon. I had seen snow before, but nothing like this. Although the sun was still asleep, the region was illuminated and the icicled filled trees sparkled like diamonds.

Inside the small airport, we were relieved to see the tri-lingual signs that included English. Unfortunately, the translations ended outside the airport door. Walking outside, we scanned the drive for the yellow bus mentioned in the email from the hotel. Several buses lined the curb, but the only yellow one was missing a driver. Tired and standing outside in 20-degree snow-filled weather with only knowledge of English, Latin, and kitchen Spanish, I doubted our vacation decision. A quick glance at my husband, John, told me he did too.

As if the universe knew we were contemplating getting back on the plane, a yellow mini-coach appeared. We boarded the bus, and paid the driver. When the inevitable question of “Where are you staying,” came up, John handed the driver our reservation confirmation at Hotel Rantasipi Pohjanhovi. Pronouncing the name correctly seemed unlikely. The bus left the snow-free street of the airport and proceeded onto an icy road. Staring out the window at the sea of snow and ice, it was obvious that this vacation would be like none other.

Within ten minutes the bus arrived in the center of the town of Rovaniemi. Passengers were dropped off at their respective hotels. Several times, the mini-coach literally dropped at the front door as the vehicle drove onto the glacial sidewalk stopping at the hotel entrance. Our hotel was the last stop. The hotel matched the descriptions exactly. The accommodations were clean with all the basics. Our small, simple room overlooked the frozen lake. A rarity, our bathroom included both a shower and a bath. To get into the shower, a footstool was needed – the step into the shower seemed at least three feet high.

Our first full day in Rovaniemi began with a snowmobile ride to a Husky Farm. As I was dressing for the day, my mother’s voice kept whispering in my ear. I kept adding layers of clothing. Our guide, Kai, from Arctic Safaris, met us at our hotel. We walked the block to the safari office where we were given helmets, boots, gloves, and a thermal suit. The thermal suit was barely zipped before I began to sweat. Hypothermia seemed unlikely.

Traipsing out to the snowmobile area, we were briefed on driving, safety and rules of the road. There were no waivers to sign; no proof of insurance to show; none of the standard US paperwork to fill out. The stern “Please stay on the path, I don’t want to have to go fishing today,” served as the reminder of the frosty water under all that ice.

I had never been on a snowmobile and the experience was exhilarating. Snuggled close to John, I held on for dear life as we sped across the wintry mix. My body didn’t feel the coldness. In fact, I was still sweating. I had over-layered.

With the guide leading, we flitted over the lake, down both marked and unmarked paths. Kai looked back often to ensure we hadn’t fallen into the lake or gotten stuck in a snow bank. With John being a snowmobile novice, Kai had reason to worry. We got stuck more than once.

We explored the woods via snowmobile for a long time before arriving at the husky farm. The dogs were crazy with excitement. They smiled and yapped happily as they were dressed in the harnesses. Four dogs were strapped to the sled. The driver stood on the back of the sled, feet placed on the “skis.” The trainer uttered a single word and the dogs sprinted around the track. John and I each took a turn driving the dogsled. Driving might be an overstatement. These well-trained dogs recalled every turn of the path and needed no instructions. We were merely novice tourists, and they knew it.

Because we were the only people with the guide, the dogsled adventure was completed faster than normal. To fill the time commitment, Kai took us on an “off-roading” snowmobile adventure. The snowmobiles climbed hills and slid over frozen saplings. The experience evoked childhood memories of being bundled up and spending the day sledding. I recalled being a child and wishing for snow on a school day. This was the ultimate snow day.

On occasion, the massive machine (due entirely to its inexperienced driver) didn’t make the turn or got stuck in a ditch and I flew off the back. There I sat, dumped into four feet of powder. Kai would look back and rescue us yet again.

Swimming in the Baltic Sea
Swimming in the Baltic Sea
At the end of the exhilarating day, we walked back to our hotel discussing the experience. Determining the best part of the day was almost impossible. Was it visiting the husky farm? Or was it being surrounded by walls of snow? Or maybe it was the experience of perpetual darkness? That night as we fell asleep, the anticipation of the next day was similar to a child on Christmas Eve. Could tomorrow possibly top today?

The next day we ventured out once again through the snow-white woods on a snowmobile. We arrived at the reindeer farm, where a large antlered creature awaited by the fence. As we walked towards the animal, the guide said, “Now you are about to meet Finland’s dumbest animal.” He didn’t look that dumb to me. Both the guide and the reindeer herder assured me that intelligence was not a reindeer’s best trait.

The Reindeer Safari allows tourists to drive a reindeer sleigh. John and I were placed in the sleigh together, John holding the reins and me sitting between his legs. Similar to the huskies, the reindeer knew the track well. Unlike the dogs, the reindeer was in absolutely no hurry. I couldn’t stop laughing. Here we were, looking at the backside of a reindeer while moving slower than a turtle. Santa needed faster transportation. The herder assured me that when driven properly, reindeer were quite speedy. He immediately demonstrated the swiftness of the animal. Apparently the reindeer is smarter than the herder thought – reindeer recognize naive tourists too.

Next, we received a tour of the working reindeer farm. The herder pointed out the various types of reindeer – including the Finnish reindeer and the Swedish reindeer. When I inquired about the difference between the two breeds, the herder retorted with a grin, “The Swedish reindeer don’t understand Finnish.”

Our desire to see the northern lights sent us on our final snowmobile adventure, this time at night. We had been warned that seeing the lights was unlikely, as the weather was too warm. Although we never saw the Northern Lights, the evening was still memorable. The snowmobiles during the day were fun, but at night, they were dreamlike. Using the small headlight on the snowmobile, our skillful guide led us through the snow-covered countryside. He hadn’t decided where he wanted to take us yet; he had several places in mind, and just drove until the inspiration came to him – all part of the adventure. After a while, we arrived at a hunter’s “tent.” We parked the snowmobiles and trekked up a small hill to the shelter. Our guide built a glowing fire. We drank hot Arctic berry juice and ate hot dogs while enjoying the serenity and darkness.

Toward the end of our vacation, we boarded a southbound train to Kemi, a town on the Baltic Sea. Kemi is the home of Sambo, the world’s only tourist icebreaker. The boat effortlessly crushes up to four feet of ice with its rounded belly. As the boat moved through the water, the ice crumbled in the icebreaker’s wake. As the boat continued its path through the Baltic Sea, massive blocks of ice appeared. The sea looked like a giant mint julep.

We enjoyed standing on the balcony watching the boat blend the ice. When our bodies could no longer stand the cold, we went inside. This inside-outside rotation continued the entire cruise. Toward the end of the excursion, the boat anchored in the middle of the sea. Passengers were encouraged to venture out onto the solid water. This four-hour adventure included a cruise, boat tour, lunch, and swim.

Stepping off the icebreaker directly onto the frozen Baltic Sea was surreal. Looking around, my eyes saw only ice. It was two o’clock in the afternoon and the sun was setting. The sun had worked a full two hours – it was understandably tired. Despite the pending darkness, the sky still glistened from the reflection of the colorless snow. “Come back,” John yelled when I got farther away from the boat. He didn’t quite trust the four feet of ice underneath us.

The time for swimming finally arrived. We put on the bright orange thermal suits; we refer to them as the “oompah loopah” suits. Yet again we were covered from top to bottom in thermal gear. My suit was too big, making it a challenge to keep my feet inside the prefab shoe portion. With every step, my feet came out. This only increased the folly of the experience. Like a seal, I slid into the Baltic Sea on my belly. Once in the water I rolled over on to my back, effortlessly kept afloat by the suit. Looking down, I was surrounded by water, and a wall of ice. We were floating in the Baltic Sea.

We hadn’t taken the train to Kemi just for the Sambo, though it had already made the trip worthwhile. We also had dinner reservations at a snow restaurant and accommodations at the LumiLinna Snow Castle. Yes, reservations are required to sleep in snow. Receiving a confirmation number and rules describing what to wear at bedtime was intriguing.

Staying in a Snow Castle has its logistical challenges. You cannot bring your luggage into the room. The front desk requests that you let them know when you settle in for the night. At that time, the front desk staff provides a thermal sleeping bag. You must sleep in long johns, a hat, and socks. And finally, you sleep on top of your next day’s clothes.

The entire hotel was made from snow. A different designer planned each room. One room had snowflakes carved in the walls. The room we selected had trees as the headboard. The bed was made of ice and topped with a layer of thick Styrofoam, a bulky foam pad, and a deerskin.

Spending the night in a snow hotel is not for everyone. There is something fun about being snuggled up in a sleeping bag, with only your face showing in a room that is entirely made of snow. But it has its drawbacks. There are no locks on the door. There is no room service. The room is small and kept at 23 degrees. And the restroom is a hike.

Using the restroom in the middle of the night is a bit of a challenge. You have to leave the warmth of your sleeping bag, jolting you awake. My husband was soundly sleeping while I redressed in my clothes, heavy jacket, hat, gloves, and thermal boots and trekked 100 yards to the bathroom.

The Sambo, the world's only tourist icebreaker
The Sambo, the world’s only tourist icebreaker
Dinner at the Snow Restaurant was a novelty. John was embarrassed that I kept taking pictures while people were eating. I just couldn’t help it. I had never seen someone dressed for a blizzard serving food. Again, this experience isn’t for everyone. The couple sharing the table with us was from Thailand, where it was 80 degrees that day. She was freezing and barely touched her dinner. The ice table definitely didn’t impress her. Sitting on a reindeer pelt that covered the ice bench was not fun to her. She wasn’t amused that her blue cheese soup congealed despite the steam rising from it. All she noticed was that the she could see her breath.

Northern Finland is a fantastic vacation spot. There is plenty for the outdoors adventurous as well as the indoor enthusiast. There are museums, shopping, movies, restaurants, and Santa Claus. The people are charming. It is an easy place for a visitor to assimilate. And the weather, it is cold, but not miserable. It is only fair to mention that the weather was unusually warm during our trip. Temperatures never dipped below zero. When our flight landed in New York City, it was one of the last flights to land that day. The airport had been shutdown due to weather. Ironically, it was colder in New York City than the Finnish Arctic Circle.





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