Beyond Santa’s Workshop | We Went to Finnish Lapland to Find Adventure in the Arctic Circle
We explore the wilds of Lapland that lie behind the legends of flying reindeer and elves...
“I don’t allow visitors to my toy factory," Santa lets me down gently, a few moments after forcibly removing me from his lap. “We must keep the surprise of Christmas alive. You must not know what you’re getting for Christmas."
I’m in Lapland, of course. Ruka in Finnish Lapland to be exact, a small ski town in the Arctic Circle a few hours flight north of Helsinki with stunning views to spare.
When we got off the plane there was a stuffed reindeer awaiting us in the middle of the conveyor belt. They don’t exactly do much to disarm the stereotypes themselves here, but then again, there are as many reindeer in Lapland are there are people.
There is only one real Santa Claus though; employed year round to be the main man in Finland, and you can visit him around the country. I thank him for that Fisher Price pirate ship my parents have been taking credit for since I was six and question him on the logistics of getting to each home in the world in one night.
Mr. Claus provides sufficient off-the-record answers and asks what’s on my list for the next time December 25 comes around.
This would’ve been my moment to call for world peace, or ask for true love maybe, or a massive cup of tea that automatically refills. But having just spent over a week exploring the ferocious Arctic landscapes of Finnish Lapland, skiing under brilliant dark blue skies, snow-shoeing and hiking around beautiful boreal forests, snowmobiling into endless white nothingness and figuring out how to photograph the Northern Lights hours after midnight, it’s hard to think of anything that could possibly improve the experience.
“I wouldn’t mind coming back here at some point," I suggest. Santa smiles, “I’ll do my best".
Beyond the Myth
Before I went to Lapland, whenever I heard of the place the only thought that came to mind was of Santa, igloos and elves. Obviously. I couldn’t have even pointed the place out to you on a map if you’d asked me – I probably would’ve just asked who you were and why you were waving a map in my face and slowly started backing away.
Having now explored the region, it’s clear to me that while the myth may be the reason for their tourism, the reality that really defines the region is far more enticing, far more extravagant… and at least every bit as magical as the famous fables.
We’re talking about a place where the sun doesn’t rise for two months over winter, and doesn’t set for two months over summer. And where they love saunas so much they put them in your hotel room.
Cut scene to a different setting.
Forget the fluffy beard and let a boundless textured whiteness descend on your imagination; metre-deep snow on the ground visible through the endless forest, only changing in colour beneath the shadows of bare trees or branches bowing to the beat of Arctic wind.
Rows of woodland are broken only by murky darkness where black ice has replaced flowing water, or on the narrow path we walk through the rolling hills, where every footstep makes a fresh crunch in the snow.
This is Korouoma National Park. And I’m no stranger to winter conditions, but this is truly like nothing I have ever seen before. Each angle on the forest is a fresh painting, each view in the distance like some alien alteration conjured to test every physical attribute while distracting the mind with unbelievable aesthetics.
At the front of our expedition is a man far more fitting as an ambassador for the region than Mr. Claus. His name is Pasi Ikonen, and he has spent his life racing through bamboo forests in Patagonia, kayaking the Arctic Oceans, hiking to the South Pole and heliskiing the heights of Scandinavia and beyond before returning to his native Finland.
There’s a running joke that there is a grizzly bear carpet on the floor of Pasi’s living room. The bear isn't dead, he just stumbled in by accident and is now too scared to move.
I asked Pasi about his skiing venture to the South Pole, which to any regular person would drop somewhere between extreme and unthinkable.
Pasi describes it as “quite hard work."
He tells us, straight-faced and serious: “We were already used to the temperature from [living in Arctic Finland]. It’s dangerous to start thinking that you are used to it, but we know how to deal with it. Being used to camping outside in winter conditions is a huge benefit.
“There are a lot of days when you just ski into nothing, but we learned to ski when we learned to walk in Finland, and with the wind directing you most of the way, you don’t really need a compass for navigation."
The cold on our hike is pinching but bearable with the appropriate layers, mostly because although it’s pushing -25, it’s a dry cold without wind.
“This is not a hostile environment," says Pasi, quashing any chance of me complaining about the chill on our adventure. “Experience is necessary when you come out here, but if you stick to the paths, it’s not so hostile. When you get out to the big plateaus, there’s a lot more there that can happen."
Our treks occasionally take us onto those planes, where we tread carefully for fear of thin ice but are always guided safely through, and the only other time we take on such landscapes is later in the week on snowmobiles, where we are strictly directed away from certain sketchy patches.
A snowshoeing exploration with Pasi through Korouoma takes us further afield into the snow-lit boreal forest. Snowshoeing proves a serene meditation in the wilderness; the group naturally spreading out as they work the route and large periods being spent alone with one’s thoughts, concentrating only on the movements involved in the process.
We’re guided to the edge of clifftops and onto banks of white-water rivers, where we regroup and calorie-cram on fresh salmon soup cooked over a log fire. It’s a signature food source that becomes a common theme throughout our explorations, and one as tasty as it is fitting in the wilderness.
Polar Night Magic
Our expedition soon brings us into contact with the ‘Polar Night Magic’ group – a collection of six adventurers from around the globe who won the chance to live in Finnish Lapland for three months and learn the outdoor survival skills needed to thrive in extreme conditions.
Sophie Nolan, a designer previously based in Manchester, was the only Brit lucky enough to be chosen for the project. She applied after reading about the opportunity on our sister site Cooler Lifestyle – a good start in our conversation.
While a long-time outdoor enthusiast, Sophie admits she never thought she would find herself ice climbing, sculpting knives or herding reindeer in temperatures of -42 in the Arctic Circle. Though then again, it’s hard to imagine yourself doing something you didn’t even someknow exists.
“It’s been a complete shock coming out here," she told us. “Even though I was still doing all these things [skiing, mountain biking, football, climbing…] around my 9-5pm, I always used to sit and my desk and want to be outside.
“I didn’t even know Lapland was part of Finland, which was embarrassing! I was coming in blind and it’s been incredibly surreal. For three or four weeks we didn’t see the sun. We were camping in -30 when we saw it rise again. It hadn’t been complete darkness and we had got used to carrying a head torch, but we didn’t quite realise how much we’d missed the sun.
“The landscapes blow my mind some days, and other days it’ll just be how we’re moving through the nature that gets me; the skis or snowshoes or telemark skiing, or even just walking.
“Hunting the Northern Lights was a lot of bundling in vans and it was all very go, go, go, but the first night we got to see them was really spectacular.
“The different ways you can experience the environment are amazing."
We can attest for Sophie’s statement from our brief spell in the region. If we weren’t hiking or snowshoeing, we were skiing. The skiing in Ruka resort was surprisingly good – the park is renowned already and the off-piste through Lapland trees is like shredding through a storybook. It certainly defied the stereotype of flat Nordic countries.
On top of that our methods of transport ranged from snowmobiling to husky safaris, and one day we literally put on giant orange boiler suits and floated down a rather scenic river in a national park. It was every bit as weird as it sounds.
The huskies were a particularly memorable addition though; possibly because we were put in charge of guiding them ourselves, and if you forgot to stick the brake on the reigns those furry balls of cuteness were gone in an instance.
The establishment we dropped by was called ‘Era-Susi huskies’, and it was run by a man whose second name literally translated as Wolf. He’s been running a husky farm for 18 years, and clearly has a natural flair for both marketing and his line of work. There’s currently a magnet of his face on my fridge at home.
“Huskies have been pulling sleighs for 1000s of years," he told us, in front of the hundreds of huskies I almost shed tears having to walk away from. “They know why they are born.
“Huskies are nice. They are always nice to humans. They just want to run and pull the sled, and it’s not possible for it to be too cold for the huskies here. They can handle all situations."
Like Sophie, we too had our own rather frantic Northern Lights experience, waiting patiently under a T-bar until 1.30am in the morning to (first figure out how, and then at great effort attempt to) photograph the Northern Lights. Needless to say it was worth the sleep deprivation.
But the Northern Lights while worthy of bucket-list status are not the only, nor the main, reason you should travel to Finnish Lapland.
Lapland is not the myth you believe it is. Lapland is not just reindeer and Santa Claus – though those two things are welcome additions to the trip.
Lapland is wild salmon soup by the side of a gushing waterfall. Lapland is seeing the curvature of the Earth as your skis point down the hill. Lapland is brilliant boreal forest towering over trails sculpted out over hundreds of years.
Lapland is infinitely more exciting than a fat man with a white beard who delivers presents at Christmas. And as a writer who owns in excess of seven Christmas jumpers and has no problem wearing them in October, you shouldn’t take that closing statement lightly.
Do it yourself: Finnair flies from the UK, via Helsinki to Kuusamo with fares starting from £219 return in Economy Class including all taxes and charges. (www.finnair.com / 0208 0 010101). For more information on Finland visit www.visitfinland.com