Short stories from my adventures in Lapland (and a few crazy experiences from times in Scandinavian cities).
Somehow, I can’t seem to go anywhere in Scandinavia without something wild (excuse the pun) happening. But it’s precisely because of this that I keep going back!
Here’s a few short stories from my adventures in the Wild North of Scandinavia.
Prehistoric man from a distant ice age
It was early December, in the middle of the 2-month arctic night, at the start of a 9 day trip into the wild of Swedish Lapland. It was a ‘boys trip’, just West of Kolari near the Torne River. This is how our trip began…
Arriving at our AirBnB cabin in the woods, many miles from the nearest living neighbor, there was so much snow that we couldn’t drive any further. Our trusty AirBnB host had left ancient-looking skis hanging from a nearby tree, so we strapped on our skis, laden with bags and skied the last 500 meters or so across frozen lakes and rivers to the little wooden cabin.
Skiing in -35°C (-31°F) across a frozen river in the middle of literally nowhere puts your mind back 1000’s of years, as though you were prehistoric man from a distant ice age, trekking through the arctic tundra with your tamed wolfhound and a few rabbits slung across your back.
Yellow eyes in the wild night
After a blissful sauna cranked up to 90°C (194°F) during a stunning winter night on the Russian-Finnish border of Lapland, we went wading through the snow to a frozen lake down the way to try our hands at ice fishing.
Within minutes, the amazing Finnish beer I was drinking – Lapin Kulta – froze solid in my hand. I could literally feel it turning to slush and then ice. Of course we had to turn around and get another one, and this time we were careful to store the beer under our jackets in between sips.
Lapland is the one place where you’ll be tempted to put your beer in the oven rather than the fridge.
Anyways. We tried and failed to drill through the ice with a hand drill. And while we were hanging out in the middle of the lake in the pitch darkness, we suddenly saw gleaming yellow eyes on the far bank of the river.
Yellow eyes in the wild night… Wolves.
I’ve never run so fast in my life (this is also one of the reasons I recommend eskimo snow suits rather than typical two-piece snow gear – you don’t want to be caught with your pants down). Heading back along the path we came, paw prints were dotted across our footpath. They had clearly been circling us while we were on the lake failing miserably at ice fishing.
After a bit of research, it seems these may really have been wolves – there are an estimated 235 wolves in Finland, and they are known particularly to live in the Eastern parts of Finland, bordering Russia. There have been regular cullings in recent years as the wolf populations in Scandinavia seem to be growing and people have been complaining for fear of safety. (Reference)
Bend over sauna
If you’ve never been to a public sauna, I recommend checking the dress code before trying one in Finland.
On my first ever trip to Europe, I was dragged along by some friends to a public sauna in Helsinki (which is pretty much the Finnish equivalent of going to the movies, for most Western nations). We took the subway and walked for at least 10 minutes down the streets as snow ploughs cleared the streets in the dead of night, and eventually turned a corner into a dark and dingy alleyway. There were people hanging around outside a nondescript venue in the frozen winter air, knee-deep in snow, wearing nothing but towels, sipping on wine and beer and laughing heartily.
That alone blew my mind, but there was more.
The sauna inside was big, wooden and amphitheatre-shaped, with separate ones for men and women. Being the unwitting foreigner, I undressed, wrapped a towel around my lower half, and walked into this daunting amphitheatre, which was baking at 90°C (194°F) in steam and sweat.
From the top ‘box’ (a literal wood-slatted box with a bench at the top right of the amphitheatre) stood an enormous Finn, clad with a grim beard and stark naked like everyone else. He came booming down from the uppermost stair and shouted at me, “Towel. Off!”. Taken aback at having offended this scary giant, I flung the towel aside and awaited further instructions.
Then he grabbed a clump of branches, the leaves still on, and said gruffly, “Bend over.”.
Now, I had never before been stark naked in the center of an amphitheatre of other naked men watching me while I sweated in near-boiling steam. Then this huge foreign man grabs some ominous-looking branches and tells me to bend over? Hah!
Well this was something, and at this point my friends up on the 4th step of the amphitheatre were choking back laughter. But I bent over, and “thwack!”, the Finn hit my rear end over and over with these branches.
After a thorough beating, I was released to go sit with my cackling friends and let it dawn on me that I had just been subjected to a Finnish tradition of a Birch-branch beating, which is supposed to release minerals into the skin and beat off dead skin cells.
Red means go
Skiing at Lapland’s biggest ski resort, Yllas, is awesome. Not so much for a first-time skier during a snowstorm.
After just 3 cracks at the green (super easy, child’s play!, come-on-seriously?) slope, I decided to try a red (hard-as-hell, locals-only, come-on-seriously?) slope.
Catching the last lift to the top of the slope before the operators shut it down for fear of a snowstorm moving in, we headed up to the top of the mountain. And got lost within seconds. The storm had moved in, and it was a full-on whiteout. It took us 20 minutes to find the start of the slope, and it felt like a sheer cliff face.
Without many options, we went for it, and a while later (after many ‘give me a minute’ breaks and whipping wind), we saw the lights and joined the party inside the resort.