Alice in Scandinavia III.iv: Rovaniemi

07.12.16 Tampere to Rovaniemi

Before leaving my hostel in Tampere, I had decided to bravely embrace the technology by buying my final train ticket online – with due amounts of incredulity at being on the last leg. Thus the only difficulty with catching the train involved my turning up at the station half an hour before it did.

I was alarmed by its minor lateness because I would have only a 7-minute layover at Oulu in which to find and board the connecting train, but soon forgot these concerns as my final dose of stupendous scenery began to flash past. Even sitting at a red signal for ten minutes was no hardship, owing to the enormous pine forest outside the window. It also did not escape my attention that the train was racing through conditions that would have brought the entire British train infrastructure to a grinding halt long before.

I shouldn’t have worried: although the train was late, Finnish public transport involves such levels of joined-up thinking (unimaginable to a British rail traveller) that the connection was on the other side of the same platform, and had been held until the train from Tampere arrived. Thus, comfortably established on the second train, I passed much of the six-hour journey sitting next to an old-ish lady who didn’t let my total lack of Finnish and hers of English get at all in the way of her chattering cheerfully away to me about everything from (I think) the weight of her luggage to the unsuitability of her hat.

At last, I descended the steps onto the platform at Rovaniemi into a good few inches of snow. Six kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, the capital of Finnish Lapland enjoys just three hours of full daylight in December, and so night had fallen long before I arrived. Fortunately the temperatures were not as devastatingly negative as they had been before my arrival. My hostel was also a single hairpin bend away, so I found my way between the enormous banks of swept snow and checked in without too much difficulty.

Once I’d removed the chunks of snow from my hair and generally restored myself after a day of travelling, my thoughts turned, as they often do, to dinner. Deciding that, on my penultimate evening, a return to local cuisine was in order, I did a quick whip-round of internet resources to identify a nearby Lappish restaurant. I duly traversed a number of streets whose corners were marked by towering heaps of snow cleared by council diggers, and found myself in the town centre. Here, there was the smallest but most blindingly-lit Christmas market of the entire trip, complete with excited children sledging down the heaps of snow. It felt not so much like a Christmas card as a festive Hollywood film.

I somehow managed to arrive at the restaurant just as a table for one became available. As a kind of toast to the conclusion of my trip, I had an aperitif consisting of brandy and cloudberry liqueur, an adorable Lappish wooden mug of mushroom soup, and sauteed reindeer with mash accompanied by Finnish crowberry wine. The traditional décor only added to the appeal, and even the tableful of boisterous children nearby couldn’t tarnish it.

I returned to the hostel full and happy, then began a minor mission to plan the following day. I had decided that, with only one full day in the town, there would only really be time for one or two activities, and, having been baulked of the opportunity by the (insufficient) weather in Kiruna, I was extremely keen for one of them to be husky-sledding. An hour and several dead ends later, I was, unbelievably, booked.

08.12.16: Sunrise and husky sleds

The shuttle bus to the husky centre wasn’t due at the hostel until 1pm, so after breakfast I identified on the map a nearby point from which I was likely to be able to see the sunrise (at 10:41am).

After walking a route of varying aesthetic appeal, taking in both riverside paths and bridges over highways. Eventually, I found myself on the shores of what I had expected to be a narrow channel of water but was in fact a large lake, frozen, covered in snow and indistinguishable from the surrounding terrain. The sky had been glowing pink for an hour already, but the glow grew steadily more fiery, spreading across the snow, as 10:41 came and went.

I stood transfixed for about half an hour, but eventually concluded (aided by the gradual loss of feeling in my toes) that the sun wasn’t going to make it above the trees and that it was time to go.

On my return to civilisation, my tummy told me that an early lunch was necessary. I therefore stopped in a café for some fabulous smoked salmon soup. Steeped in book and cosiness as I was, it was tempting to stay and segue seamlessly into early afternoon tea, but the café was filling up, so I eventually managed to chalk up a victory to the Better Judgement.

En route home, I passed a souvenir shop, which prompted me to realise just how few I’d seen, and how I’d therefore forgotten all about postcards. Hastily bought and wrote two, spent an embarrassing amount of time tracking down a postbox, and then returned to the hostel in perfect time – just as the sun was starting to sink again.

P1000781 02Unfortunately the shuttle bus’ timing was less perfect and it didn’t turn up until about 13:20, but I was the last pickup on the route so the journey out of town wasn’t too tedious. Soon we (about 15 people plus the driver) were speeding along snowy pine-flanked highways, and then down smaller winding tracks, arriving at last in the middle of nowhere to be greeted by a very large boomy man with a very large sociable husky.

What struck me immediately was how much care, knowledge and genuine affection these family-run kennels demonstrably had for their dogs. Almost the first thing we were told was that the boomy man lived in a trailer on the site, ensuring that these working dogs have 24-hour care, and are always well-fed and happy.

We were conducted into a circular hut to wriggle into snowsuits, gloves and boots, and the large boomy man barraged us with instructions on how to drive the sleds. These are not the miniature wooden or plastic things on which children career down snowy slopes; think more along the lines of an antique dining chair with skis instead of legs. It is exactly as rickety as it sounds.

Each sled carries two people; one sits in it, swathed in blankets, while the other stands on the runners behind, holding onto a handrail, and is the one who actually drives the huskies. There are no reins; the dogs are harnessed directly to the front of the sled, and the driver’s only control over them is a large metal brake, resembling one half of a bear trap, which is applied by stamping it into the ground.

Most alarming of all was the warning not to let go of the sled if you lost your footing; the dogs would take the reduced resistance as an invitation to go faster, thus abandoning you in a snowy wasteland.

Apart from that, it was easy, apparently. I started to wonder what I’d got myself into.

After this crash course (…) we left the hut again and approached the kennels, where several teams of dogs were already in harness, and where those who were still in their kennels were quite literally straining at their leashes to be allowed to go out too. The hysterical barking and howling was deafening.

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As a solo traveller I was paired with a total stranger, who promptly decided that he would like to sit in the sled first. It thus fell to me to stand on the runners, and to attempt to learn on the job how to control five dogs who could each pull four times their own body mass. It turns out that huskies have one speed setting: as fast as they can go. This means that the only way to slow them down is to increase the resistance of the sled: the purpose of the brake.

As we set off into the silent, snow-blanketed forest, our dogs were so much keener than the team in front that I had to brake pretty much constantly. As a result, the general ambience was of not so much peaceful snowy-soft silence as the teeth-grinding grating of metal on ice.

Moreover, bringing the dogs to a complete halt requires standing fully on the brake, which I duly did the first time the group leader stopped – to no effect whatsoever. There thus followed several seconds of me trying to push myself further down onto the brake while the woman supervising the trip from a snowmobile shouted to me to do what I was already doing. From which I conclude that I wasn’t quite heavy enough to drive huskies.

Even so, the pink and lilac blaze of the sky and the ridiculous weight of snow on the trees made me deliriously happy, and more than once I took my eyes off the dogs to stare gleefully around – and then had to stamp on the brake again to prevent our team overtaking the sled in front.

The first part of the track was the ‘training’ area, where it was possible to practise going downhill (where the driver must brake constantly to keep the harness from going slack and sending the sled careering off the track at the next bend) and uphill (where the driver must help the dogs by regularly pushing off with one foot). The team pulling our sled, however, seemed so completely unfazed by any change of terrain that there were moments when I actually had to brake while going uphill.

P1000790 02Eventually, as we swung onto a vast frozen lake in the fading light, the supervisor rearranged the procession. After that I didn’t have to make quite so much noise with the brake, and could appreciate the exhilarating, sweeping views across the sheet of snow-covered ice.

Another stop was made for drivers and passengers to swap places, so at last I huddled myself into the actual sled, under a blanket. I was so snug that the boomy man mistook my swaddled appearance for shivering, and asked me solicitously, ‘Are you freezing, madam?’

As we continued, my more exposed feet did gradually become colder, but there was enough light left for me still to be enchanted by our darkening surroundings, at which I could now gaze in full without fear of crashing the sled.

At some point we must have looped round, because soon we were crossing the lake again, in the last embers of sunset. The exuberant dogs were showing no signs of tiring, and pounded as keenly as ever across the glowing ice.

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One and a half hours had passed in a flash. By the time we returned to the kennels it was completely dark. However, once they’d managed to extract their stiff limbs from the sleds, this didn’t stop most people from descending on the dogs with intent to fuss, which the dogs were perfectly happy to allow. The leader told each pair the names of all the dogs in their team, which seemed to incorporate the entire cast of the Moomins.

Cold and stiff, but very very happy, the group trooped back to the hut for hot juice and the removal of many cumbersome layers… and the boomy man walked in with AN ARMFUL OF HUSKY PUPPIES. They were five weeks old – apparently on the threshold of becoming mischievous. Nobody seemed to believe that they could ever become anything other than adorable.

As they fumbled around being adored by everyone, there followed a kind of husky Q&A, covering everything from the dogs’ diet to why, as Siberian huskies, they were better than Alaskan huskies. (The boomy man was very definite on this. He referred to Alaskan huskies, the kind anyone will picture when thinking of a husky, as “Hollywood huskies” because of their great PR; Siberian huskies, which more closely resemble Alsatian dogs, are the ones who do the real work.)

I asked if the dogs needed mental as well as physical exercise, in the way that dogs like border collies do, but the answer was that they are blissfully happy as long as they get as much physical exertion as they can.

At last, reluctantly, we were shepherded back to the shuttle bus, where the boomy man bid us farewell.

There was an air of quiet contentment in the dark bus on the way back to the city centre; I at least was completely full of husky-shaped joy. And it turned out that being the last to be collected meant I was the first to be dropped off.

Unfortunately this then meant I had a lot of packing to do, but aided by the newly purchased suitcase it was much less of a mission than trying to convince everything to fit in my backpack. In fact the main difficulty was getting the backpack itself to fit in the case.

Wrestling complete, I identified a final restaurant (one of those to engage in the trend of Posh Street Food) wherein to have fish and chips and one last glögi. Which was very, very hard to believe.

09.12.16: Rovaniemi to London

I decided bravely to trust in the infrastructure one last time and booked a place in the airport taxi, which would depart a scant 70 mins before my flight. I had to tell myself repeatedly that these times were deliberately coordinated with the departure schedule so it would leave enough time, and tried to consider it a good exercise in not panicking when less than two hours early.

The taxi did indeed reach the airport with plenty of time to spare. Aided further by the fact that there was almost no queue for the baggage drop, I found myself very quickly on the other side of a much more cursory security check than that which we’ve come to enjoy at home, and in not a maze of duty-free shops but the departure lounge. There, I waited for an only slightly delayed flight… and at last departed from these lands.

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