Rhionna's month in Lapland
With time to fill this winter, having left my career in the charity sector to focus on building up Sutherland Adventure Company, I applied to work in Finnish Lapland for a month with a UK based tour company. I stayed for a week in the small village of Karesuvanto, home to 140 people, where there’s one pub which opens only on a Friday, a store/cafe/petrol station, a gift shop and the main resort. A short walk over the river and I was in the Swedish village of Karesuando. I then moved 1.5 hours further north to work at the Tundrea resort in the village of Kilpisjärvi. Located 11km from the border with Norway and a few km from Sweden, our activities took place on a frozen lake which only thaws for 3 months of the year.
The main event was visiting Santa, or ‘joulupukki’ in Finnish. I can’t say where he stays but it involves a snowmobile journey across a frozen lake to the reindeer, who wait while you toast marshmallows over the fire, then transport you further into the wilderness. Santa’s elves meet you to walk to the cabin where Santa chats to you and gives you a small gift before you jump back on the snowmobile to return. A 14 hour day in -20 temperatures for us but an unforgettable day for the kids.
I visited the reindeer ranch run by a local Sámi family who have been herding reindeer for generations. The Sámi are the only indigenous people of Northern Europe, nomadically herding their animals across countries until the mid 20th Century. Reindeer are farmed for transportation, meat, milk and hides. During the tourist winter season the family offers reindeer trips on traditionally built sleds at two resorts. Per-Henrik, the herder, explained he is focusing more on education about traditions and culture due to a noticeable generational shift away from animal based activities by tourists
One of my favourite days was the husky experience. The mushers and dogs came over the border from Sweden to deliver husky trips for families. Every musher has their own pack of 12 dogs but not all dogs have a passport so packs had to be mixed which made for interesting canine politics. The dogs prefer temperatures of -20 and below, with their thick winter coats and lots of exercise they stayed warm and happy.
My first snowmobile experience, on number 13, resulted in breaking down due to a wiring fault and the snowmobile being abandoned. I was let loose a few days later with a different snowmobile and joined a tour to the 3 borders where Sweden, Norway and Finland meet. Snowmobiles are harder to use than I’d imagined and the damage liability waiver fee was fresh in my mind while I navigated the narrower, rocky parts of the journey!
Experiencing spectacular Northern Lights shows, where the sky lit up with streaks of green and purple, spinning and dancing before your eyes, was incredible. When you’re in the arctic circle you don’t look north, you just look up. There was little daylight while I was there. When on the lake watching the first light appear I asked the reindeer herder when the sun
would rise, I was told ‘17th January’. Not the response I was expecting.
Of course, there was one activity that I had to do and that was taking a dip in the frozen lake! I even persuaded a colleague and two guests to join me. A frozen lake feels quite warm when you are coming out into arctic temperatures.
I’m grateful I was able to experience ‘true’ Lapland. Even the 3 hour airport coach transfers, where the road is pure ice and it’s -34 freezing fog outside. Experiencing activities in such extreme environments was eye opening. What activity providers need to consider, the equipment and kit they need to have, the training and experience the staff need and their operating locations and terrain is very different to what we do at Sutherland Adventure Company.
People keep asking me how my holiday was, not believing it was a paid job. It was without a doubt one of my most unforgettable jobs so far.