On ‘the way home’ from South Africa I thought I’d chase the Northern Lights, another bucket lister. As I was mapping out the first few months of my travels I kept seeing ads for this Igloo Hotel up in Northern Finland in my Facebook feed… and everyone knows what a sucker for advertising I am (and igloos)! Figured if I was gonna head up there I may as well do it right…
As you can imagine, this place books up pretty far in advance with others also hoping to get a glimpse at the Auroras, in addition to participating in some of their fun arctic activities. So, I basically booked my stay around their openings (otherwise I probably would have hung out in Cape Town longer!). But… I had a reservation and I was on my way to the North Pole!
Flying into northern Finland was magical. One of the things that I’ve loved about these trips is looking out the window on the flight in and getting my heart ready for the next adventure. I’ve been treated to some incredible landscapes- the green mountains of Cusco, the Islands of Indonesia, the volcanoes of Guatemala, Table Mountain in Cape Town, and now a most amazing winter wonderland!
Talk about a vast change in climate! I went from the heart of summer in Cape Town to sub-arctic temperatures in Lapland! No shit, it was cold. Very cold. But, I had been lugging around a second bag with all my cold weather/ski gear and my favorite super-warm Norwegian sweater so I was all set!
On the bus ride in to Kakslauttanen, I sat next to an older lady named Jo. She was also traveling by herself to the resort. We chatted a bit about what we’d hoped our experience would bring, shared other travel stories, and just got to know each other in general. She told me that once a year she took herself on a trip for a month or so to visit another one of her bucket list locations. Her husband didn’t care for traveling all that much so he stayed home and golfed while she checked out places like Antarctica, Chile, and Egypt (her favorites so far) and this trip would find her in Sweden at the ice hotel, Norway on a fjord cruise, and here in Finland at the Arctic Igloo hotel! She was a total badass, very inspirational!
When we got to the resort, it was even cooler than I imagined (and seen in all the advertisements). Rustic log cabins, reindeer just roaming around, ‘Santa’s house’ for the kids, and of course, the igloos! Everyone was bundled up as it was a little bit chilly (found out the exact temp the next day… wait for it). Folks that were just checking in were transporting their luggage via toboggan to their homes for the week. And though it was a bit of a pain lugging the extra suitcase around, I was suddenly even more thankful for my abundance of warm weather/snow gear I had packed.
As I checked in, I also sorted out my activities for the week- these would include dogsledding, snowmobiling, downhill and cross country skiing AND of course hoping to see the Northern Lights. I was prepared for a week of fun. Like the kind of fun you had just running around playing in the snow as a kid, except now as an adult with a bit more danger…
After hitting their food store (mostly to grab a few bottles of wine and some chocolate of course) I was headed down to check out my igloo. HA! It was awesome! Super weird. It was in the middle of a large field containing ~60 of these domes, some which slept 2, some which slept 4. When I checked in I realized that I had actually booked a 4 person thinking I may have had friends that wanted to join, but nope, just me in a funny Arctic snow globe. Although… only the 4 person igloos had a shower in the room, the people staying in the smaller ones had to use the communal shower which was in by the sauna. So, it worked out. Walking back and forth every morning to shower would’ve been extra chilly! Speaking of temperature, people have asked me if the igloos themselves were cold. They were in fact pretty warm. They were designed to take advantage of some local geothermal heat source so they were able to stay quite warm without wasting a ton of energy. Thumbs up to the designer!
Meals at Kakslauttanen were in a big communal dining area. Every morning at breakfast, you would also book when you wanted to eat dinner based on what you had going on that afternoon/night. The menu was set with a few options to choose from, generally 2 meat and one veggie, featuring food from the Lapland region. My favorite was probably the sautéed reindeer atop a pile of mashed potatoes with a side of lingonberries that you just mixed all together and ate. Sorry Rudolph (but if it’s any consolation, you tasted pretty good!)…
As I didn’t have anything booked the first night, and I was still recovering from the flight up, I decided to turn in early. Before falling asleep though I did just lay in bed looking up at the stars (hoping to see a flicker of neon green light) with a glass (maybe 2) of red wine while listening to the Walter Mitty soundtrack. For those of you not familiar with it, give it a spin… The movie itself is one of my recent favorites and the music really does make you want to run through a field, climb a mountain, or jump off a cliff into some crystal blue water! Life was good… bedtime, up early for skiing!
In the morning (after a decent buffet-style breakfast) I was off to the Saariselkä Ski Area. Funny how fate works out but the instructor I had booked for 10-12 was having car troubles and they didn’t have another one free until the 1230-230. Quick side note regarding booking a lesson- although I feel pretty comfortable after picking skiing back up last year, I’m nowhere near ‘good’ so any minor adjustments somebody who IS ‘good’ can recommend tend to help me improve tremendously. PLUS much like at Sundance I thought it’d be an opportunity to meet somebody cool and local who could recommend things to do, join for a beer etc. Back to the story…As I now had a few hours to kill, I hit the easy slopes to reacquaint myself with flying down a mountain with a few sticks strapped to my feet! It was cold to be sure, but it was also absolutely stunning. This time of year the sun just peaks above the horizon for a few hours so the light of the sky is ever changing. Although it was quite icy (there hadn’t been a fresh snow for a few days), I picked things back up rather quickly and moved up to the ‘harder’ runs. Now, I say harder, but the truth is the mountain’s toughest run is a fairly easy intermediate anywhere else. Although this is allegedly the resort with the highest/longest runs, it turns out that Finland just doesn’t have that many large mountains? Oh well. At the top of the lifts you could see for miles and miles, it was amazing! In fact, way off in the distance you could even see Russia! I was anticipating a great sunset… (which would be at like 3pm 😉 )
I hit the lodge to grab a quick bite and a coffee while warming up and then headed back to the ski shop to meet my instructor. His name was Aleksi, was 29, from Finland, and had skied his whole life… so I trusted he’d be knowledgable enough to give me a few pointers. After discussing my level of experience and what I was hoping to get out of the day we went up the bunny slope so he could see what he was working with. After watching one run he confessed he was relieved as the majority of his clients tended to be foreign tourists that had never skied, barely spoke English, and somehow wanted to master both skiing and snowboarding in the same lesson. He was happy to have a friend to just run down the hills with, as was I. My plan was in full swing. He definitely saw a few technique-related things that I had forgotten, which improved my form/comfortability tremendously… skiing is weird like that. On the way up to the hardest run, he told me that this would be the first time he had actually seen the sun in months! Most of his days (the light hours anyway) were spent on the training/beginner slopes and as I mentioned before, there’s not a whole lot of sun at this point anyways. Thought that would be a cool moment to enjoy together/capture on film. Also so weird to think about… considering I was just in South Africa with long sunny days and epic sunsets pretty much every night only 2 days before! Another cool moment we shared atop that run was when he invited me to look up at the sky and notice how many different shades of blue there were. The sky was super clear and now that I actually was focused on it, I could see at least 20 different shades of blue. The angle of the sun in the sky, the way the light hits the atmosphere up here he said made for really amazing skies most clear days, especially in the winter… all one had to do was look up and enjoy.
As we wrapped our ‘lesson’ we hit the lodge so I could grab a well earned beer (he was still on the clock so a hot chocolate for him). He asked if I’d ever cross country skied and I said I hadn’t. He said it was his favorite thing to do, his preferred mode of transportation (apparently most people in northern Finland would rather ski around than drive), and asked if I was free to join on Thursday. Why not? I’d try something new and get to hang with him again. He promised to show me some cool back country trails with cool views and such- I was in. He also said he’d be down to do a little bar crawl that night, inviting some of his other clients/local friends if I was interested… now we’re talking. Mission accomplished. He headed back to work and I got back up the mountain just in time so watch the sun start to dip back down below the horizon- what an incredible view. Have a hard time remembering another sunset I’ve seen like it (or another sunset at 245 pm!). As it was getting a little colder now and my bus back to the resort was pretty soon- I decided to hit one more run (landed my first ever jump!), catch the lift back up to grab a beer at their other restaurant, then ski down to return my stuff, and head home… side note- as I finished my last run I looked at the digital thermometer on the side of the lodge, it was now a balmy -23 degrees… and dropping!). Next up, Dog Sledding!
After a glass of wine, more Walter Mitty, and a stop through the Sauna it was time to grab a quick bite and head to the Dog Sledding area of the camp. We all met in the the main lodge and walked over together, along with our guides. The dogs always know when they’re about to get to run around so they were already howling with anticipation- sounded like a crazy pack of wolves… this was gonna be fun! We all got into coveralls, boots, gloves, fur hats… the whole nine. It was freezing outside, so I was thankful for all the extra layers. Now it was finally time to meet the dogs and get moving! We got set up in our sleds and were given instructions- which was pretty much just how to use the foot brake to keep the sleds a safe distance apart from each other. Outside of that, they said the dogs knew the path to just relax, hang on, and have fun! Most sleds had 2 people in them (one ‘steering’ and one sitting) but as I was solo I got to lead the charge. My dogs took off like a bat out of hell! They were so ready to get going, I almost fell right off! …that would’ve been embarrassing. As my sled had much less weight we were hauling ass! HAHA how much fun this was! I had to learn to shift my weight properly around corners to avoid dumping the sled as I had no intention of using that brake unless I absolutely had to. The dogs seemed to be loving running through the forest and the last thing I wanted to do was cramp their style! I unfortunately had to stop/slow multiple times while issues behind me (damn tourists!) got sorted out, but for the most part it was an incredibly blissful/liberating experience. I will say that although this was billed as an ‘Aurora Chase’, I don’t see how people had any extra time/attention to be looking up at the sky (perhaps the passengers?)… these dogs were flying! At the end of our ride we got to pet the dogs, and grab some photos- though my iPhone had frozen and turned itself off so I didn’t get too many pics unfortunately 😦 The trainer then gave a little background on the dogs themselves, the different roles they played (leader, puller etc), how the older dogs actually trained the younger ones, how well they ate and were treated (I was initially a little concerned about this- but it seemed like these dogs were royalty around here)… she even knew the names of all 98 dogs on the ranch. It was a fun day/night all around. I was exhausted. Time to hit the sauna once again to warm my bones and then pass out. Tomorrow would be another fun day!
The next day’s activity was a 2.5 hour ‘Snowmobile Safari’ around the back woods of Lapland. It wasn’t until after lunch so I was able to ease into the morning a bit. Had an early breakfast, hit the sauna, did a workout in my igloo, hit the sauna again, napped… (yes this is all before 1130) then began to ready myself for the snowmobile. Same drill, met in the lobby, though this time we piled in a van to drive out to the snowmobile center before donning the same arctic-fighting outfit we wore for the dogsledding (plus helmets of course!). Once again I was riding solo and once again I was thankfully in the front of the pack- meaning I’d always be in control of how fast I went not having to wait for anyone with a bit less ‘need for speed’ in front of me. Though it was pretty awesome, there unfortunately wasn’t a whole lot of scenery this time of year. Just lots of snow and trees. We just bombed through the frozen tundra on trails that were thankfully pretty easy to follow. As it had snowed pretty good the night before (again, no northern light show), there was a fair amount of powder to play in… so we had that going for us, which was nice.
We wrapped up the experience at the local ‘bar’ for some warm beverages. Although there was a nice apple cider, most opted for the Glögi (the Finnish version of Mulled Wine). It was crazy to think that people would come to this little wooden cabin (pics below) in the dead of winter, in the snow was getting going again, via x-country ski, snowmobile, or even dogsled… yes there was a dogsled parked out front! Too cool.
Returning home I hit the sauna yet again to warm up before dinner. Earlier in the day I had seen Jo and she asked if she could join me for the night’s meal, ‘of course’ I said! So after sprucing up a bit I headed to the cabin for my ‘date’. She was a very nice lady, told me all sorts of interesting stories from her life, about her husband and son, growing up in the south, joining the Air Force, and even being one of only 2 female FBI employees in the state of Missouri for a brief time! And here she was almost 50 years later still exploring the world- was very inspirational. Oh, this is about the time she also sprung on me the fact that she had seen the Lights the very first night around 2 AM when she couldn’t sleep (I, if you recall, was resting up for a big week). Though they weren’t super bright, there they still were right there on her camera… at least one of us had seen them, and if it had to be her or I, I’m glad it was her.
Cross Country Skiing
For my last day in Finland I was rejoining my new friend Aleksi to try my hand (feet as it were) at Cross Country Skiing. Again he told me that this was the unofficial national sport of Finland and outside of the major cities, most’s preferred method of transportation! I had seen many people skiing around tracks in the area and of course have done the machine at the gym- how hard could it be? Turns out, it could be VERY hard! Given that I’m not the strongest skier to begin with, tossing these super skinny skis onto my feet, only clipping onto (essentially) the top of my 2nd toe while my heel remained totally free felt SUPER weird. As he taught me the basics I now felt like one of his tourist friends… turning was much more difficult and I was falling all over the place. WTF! We had a good laugh about it at least. Seriously, I looked like Bambi first learning to walk… I finally got the hang of things and off we went into the woods. He had said he’d take me around the back side of the mountain where if we hit the sunset right, we’d get some pretty cool photos. It was so so peaceful just gliding through the trees. It was a cold, yet clear day, and all I could hear were the sounds of our skis and a few animals off in the distance. Aleksi reminded me that this was his happy place. He skied as much as he could. To work, at work, from work. Kid was in ridiculous shape… I asked him if he let nature be his soundtrack or if he ever listened to music and if so what kind. He surprised me by pulling out an archaic mp3 player with some even older Guardians of the Galaxy-esque headphones and told me to give it a listen… Mind blown. Apparently he rocks out to early 80’s hip hop/breakdance music! I was dying. It was perfect. As the discussion continued around music I learned that he loved playing the guitar as well as singing karaoke, 2 things he said were potentially on the docket for tonight! Game on. So random, yet so not at the same time. We did, in fact, catch a pretty cool sunset while out on the trail and after grabbing a couple of photos we headed back for another pint for me, and coffee for him. I could now check x-country skiing off my list of things to try and although I’m not ready for my first biathlon yet, at least it ended better than it started…
Last Night Out
After dinner at the resort, I headed back into Saariselkä to join Aleksi. We had agreed to meet up at a bar called O’Poro, which according to their sign was the northernmost Irish Pub in Europe. Irish in italics as ‘Poro’ is really just the Finnish word for ‘reindeer’, so the actual name was the O’Reindeer Irish Pub… very authentic indeed 😉 Even if their name wasn’t authentic, their scotch/whiskey selection certainly was! I was quite happy when I sat down and gazed over the bottles behind the bar. It was a fun little place, AND it did have little pieces/pictures of Ireland all over it. Even of some of the places I had gone with my Mom back in November! I of course had to call her and say hi, I know she appreciated it… and the snow hat I brought back for her with the O’Poro logo on it 🙂
Aleksi showed up a bit later with 2 of his other students from the week- a couple of girls from London who were also there on vacation. The bar wasn’t terribly packed, but there were 15 or so people there so I was a little surprised when Aleksi just pulled a guitar off the wall, tuned it, and jumped right into singing some Finnish folk songs. Once again, mind blown. What a surreal experience. I’m in Northern Finland, in an Irish Pub- by the way seated at a table made out of an old snowmobile- and here’s this dude just singing with this sly smile on his face, Finnish accent and all without a care in the world. It was awesome. We kept encouraging more songs and over the course of the night we got everything from Bowie’s Starman to Chuck Berry’s Johnny Be Good to Ben E King’s Stand by Me… then out of nowhere he breaks out NWA Straight Outta Compton!!! I couldn’t process what was happening. My insides were both smiling and laughing like never before. How in the hell does he know Straight Outta Compton??? On an acoustic guitar no less! The icing on the cake came when he started the intro to a song anyone who knows me knows I’m quite familiar with. I smile at him and take a sip of my scotch as he fires up the first verse of Rapper’s Delight. I had mentioned it in passing earlier while discussing 80s rap during our ski trip. He tells me he only does the first verse and I could take over after, which I happily obliged… Around now most of the bar had taken part in the singalong and now we had a crowd of people watching this show. HA! It was awesome. I don’t think anyone was ready for what was happening- so glad we got a bit of it on video (below)! Will forever be a moment that makes me smile.
After a few more drinks and good conversation it was time to say good night. I had an early bus to the airport in the morning to begin my journey back to NYC. All in all it was a fun, yet slightly weird trip to the North Pole. I was reminded of how much I like to play in the snow, I kept pushing the edges of my comfort zone a bit, I met some cool new people, but most of all I’m taking with me some incredible memories of experiencing simple, yet genuine joy. Nothing too crazy or fancy, just pure and fun. Oh yeah…
The Northern Lights
You haven’t heard much about them… really anything about them, in fact, from my perspective. That’s because try as I might (I didn’t blog about all the time at night I spent laying in my igloo- with a glass of wine of course- looking up at the sky…asking the universe for a little peak), I never saw the Aurora Borealis. At first I was a little disappointed, but got over it rather quickly. It plain and simply just wasn’t my time. That’s pretty much all there is to it. I have faith that I’ll see them if and when I’m supposed to see them. As much as I had to learn patience in the Amazon with regard to seeing the stars, and hopefully one day flying through space as a phoenix, the same must apply to this. I’ll humbly wait, I’ll patiently wait… and when it’s my turn, I’ll be grateful.
Much love and bliss to you all.
Flying in! What a view…
Welcome to Lapland! Looks warm here…Igloo Camp!Room with a view 🙂Really, really far north… What’s up Russia!Aleksi’s first glimpse of the sun!Saariselkä Ski ResortCold… very cold.The sun just barely pops above the horizonPic for Mom… 😉Pretty solid local beer in a pretty solid glass!Sun setting on my first ski day…Did I mention it was cold???!!!One of my friends for the dog sledding adventureGo Dawgs!Snow Mobile excursionLeading the pack!A cool bar in the middle of the woods…Enjoying some warm Finnish LibationsFrom one bar to another, this was the ‘Igloo Bar’ back at the resortSunrise at Kakslauttanen Arctic ResortCross Country skiing A peaceful, easy feeling…Sunset in the forestCute little church in townThe O’Poro Public House, we’d do some damage here later on (note the snowmobile someone had ridden up on…)Snowy shoutout to South Africa!A table made out of a snowmobile (now if only had the Ms Pac Man/Galaga game)!Aleksi on the guitar and lead vocals!Rapper’s Delight… so fun.
Peace out Finland, thanks for the memories!Heading home… (you can actually see the ski resort right next to the engine)
Just a guy on a hero's journey...