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“Winter in Finland? Are you crazy? Who does that?”
Having been on the receiving end of these questions not long ago, I gave my answers heavy thought. ‘Yes.’, ‘Unclear.’, and ‘Me, apparently.’ I don’t have the stats on winter tourism in Finland. But, I can say with absolute certainty, for those who crave unusual and adrenaline-filled adventures, winter in Finland is the place to go.
This is the first of two posts about our family trip to Finnish Lapland. It details our week of snow-filled adventures in the Arctic. Who knew there would be so much to say about a vacation spent in almost complete darkness?
Is it crazy to go to Finland in the dead of winter? You decide.
Winter In Finland
I wanted to go to Finland to witness the Northern Lights. In Finnish Lapland, I was told, seeing the lights is all but guaranteed. What other reason would anyone travel to a place with 22 hours of inescapable darkness each day? Why go, if not to see this spectacular natural phenomenon—the Aurora Borealis.
This was a family trip, however, and the rest of my crew had little interest in the Northern Lights. I had to convince them there were endless things to do in Finland in December. Were there? I started to panic, then googled ’winter in Finland’.
276,000,000 results. We were going to be just fine.
Explorations and Expectations
Winter in Finland, I assume incorrectly, is solely about the Northern Lights. As every Finn already knows, the lights are not the reason to come—they’re merely a bonus. Winter in Finland is a layered experience. One that is, at times, as subtle as an elongated afternoon shadow. Or, as obvious as the sound of dry snow crunching underfoot.
I expect unique cold-weather activities, like dog-sledding and ice carting. I expect warm fires, hot drinks, and cozy, if unusual, meals. What I don’t expect is the chance to be fully immersed in Finnish culture. To take part in centuries-old customs, like having tea inside a traditional Kota. The opportunity to get under the skin of this harsh, remote, and majestic polar landscape.
How does a person who isn’t fond of being cold, cold-weather activities, and long, dark days end up falling for the Arctic? It’s all about the adventure.
Where Is Lapland?
You don’t know? Ok, I didn’t either. Thankfully there’s this wonderful website called Wikipedia that answers all questions that ever need answering. If Wikipedia doesn’t know the answer, then it isn’t a question.
Wikipedia tells me that Lapland is the region of northern Europe that lies within the Arctic Circle. It includes the northernmost parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia and is home to the Sámi people.
Finnish Lapland has about 10,000 native Sámi and is widely associated with Christmas, Santa Claus, and the North Pole. Truth be told, it has the infrastructure for year-round tourism that extends well beyond St. Nick.
Geography lesson complete. Let’s move on to the fun part.
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Normally, I write about our accommodations first, to set the stage (literally) for our trips. Winter in Finland is unlike other places we’ve traveled to. It’s more like planning a polar safari than a traditional vacation. Whereas typically, I start my searches with a hotel or resort then back out to activities and excursions, Finland flips the script. It’s more about what to do than where to do it.
I consider how to best order our family’s week of Arctic adventures, of which there are four main daytime highlights. I use the term ‘daytime’ loosely, as the sun rises at 11am and sets at 1pm.
That’s not a typo. Twenty or so hours of near pitch darkness illuminated nightly by a few billion twinkling stars. Of all varieties of darkness, this is the most beautiful, no doubt.
Aha! I’ll ask the kids to weigh in. They don’t agree on the order. Have they ever agreed on anything? What follows are personal rankings from Ella (17), and Chase (15).
Keep in mind these are teenagers, that weird breed of human who’s impossible to please. Salty and moody most waking hours, of which there are few. Demonstrative happiness is rare.
Until Finland, that is.
Ice Carting (Chase #1, Ella #3)
Our alarm goes off at 9am. It’s pitch-dark outside. Let me be more clear. It’s obsidian dark, raven dark, swarthy, inky, coal mine dark. This is winter in Finland, I remind myself again.
Oh, and it’s -7 degrees. ‘What am I doing here?’. My lifeline, the in-room Nespresso machine, is only a few feet away. I crawl towards it like a weary polar explorer discovering shelter. That’s pretty dramatic. A luxury polar explorer. This room is pretty cushy.
Lapland winter activities are well-timed and designed to overlap the fleeting light-filled hours of the day. Yet without light cues, it’s hard to wake up despite the civilized hour.
The Arctic gods are testing us. Our coldest day aligns with our coldest outdoor activity—ice carting. If we survive this, the days ahead will feel like spring.
Nikita is our guide for the week. We pile into his toasty, pre-heated van. I’m wearing 14 layers of clothing and immediately begin to sweat. It seems I have much to learn about the art of layering.
At the gear hut, we add on a full-body snowsuit, along with balaclavas, helmets, and heat warmers for our gloves and boots. I’ve quickly surmised that fashion is utterly irrelevant in the Arctic, but don’t ever say that to your 17-year-old daughter.
The track outside looks desolate. Our Finnish instructors are doing jumping jacks to keep warm. A bad sign. I couldn’t do a jumping jack if I tried. Layered up, I weigh nearly 250 pounds.
The Fun Part
I’ve painted a bleak picture. But, the minute I hit the gas on the ice cart everything else is forgotten. I’m instantly taken back to my amusement park days at the Jersey shore. My competitive side kicks into high gear. I’m the worst driver in my family, which is depressing as my son doesn’t even have a license yet.
The extreme cold is blunted by extreme fun. On a glossy sheet of ice, we push the limits of our inner NASCAR drivers. We ‘accidentally’ crash into one another, which is frowned upon. These are not bumper cars. Luckily, our guides are too immersed in their cardio workout to notice.
The wind in my face, while cold, is exhilarating. Ice flakes crystallize our eyebrows and eyelashes. They sting our nose hairs. TMI? The guttural sound of revving engines is Pavlovian and I go full throttle. Lewis Hamilton would be impressed with my performance.
Winners and Loser
After several laps, our instructors stop exercising and signal us off the track. It’s time for a hot drink and snack. This, we will learn, is the routine that makes all Finnish winter activities tolerable. A mid-activity break to warm the senses. It’s noon. Is the sun going up or down? It’s too hard to tell. I’m too cold to care.
We drink hot berry tea from traditional Finnish cups at the trackside fire pit. It’s a moment to recalibrate before the finalé—a ‘friendly’ family race. I look over at the track. It reminds me of my TYCO Challenge 100 electric racing set, circa 1983. I channel my lost inner tomboy and prepare my racing mindset.
I slink back into my cart and start the engine. The flag goes down and I hit the gas with all 250 lbs of body weight behind me. My cart slides off the track as often as my electric race car did in 1983. Needless to say, I lose. Everyone else in my family, however, claims to win. And since we can’t tell who is who under all of the matching gear, we will never know for sure.
At 130pm, we return to the lodge for lunch. We argue over who won the race and decide how to spend the remainder of the day, I mean, night. For me, sauna, read, and sit by the fire.
I start shedding layers.
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Dog Sledding (Chase #2, Ella #2)
Beana Laponia, the family-run boutique lodge where we are staying, owns over 500 huskies. Interestingly, we learn they’ve been brought over from Alaska. Today, we are going to enjoy the peaceful sport of dog sledding. Our guide, Toni (the dog whisperer of Finland), has an ease and lightness about him that belies his 20-something years.
It’s a balmy, windless, 5 degrees outside. Toni is dressed like he’s about to take on the Back Bowls of Vail in spring. I wear fewer layers than yesterday, but not many. Toni gives us vital instructions on maneuvering the sleds and controlling the speed of the 17 huskies. I can’t hear a word he is saying. The dogs are yelping and barking at a decibel level that’s shaking the snow off the trees.
I let Ella drive first. Maybe she’s heard Toni’s instructions? I slide under the sled’s warm reindeer pelt. My view is less than ideal, lining up directly with the backsides of two decidedly male huskies. They leap over one another as if the snow beneath their paws is on fire. The howling could wake the dead. My ears are ringing. Am I having fun yet?
The Fun Part
Then the most amazing thing happens. Toni unleashes the sleds, and all at once, the world quiets. What was a tangle of huskies, ropes, and primal howling is now instantaneously tranquil.
The sounds of shushing sleds and huffing huskies envelop me. I take a deep breath and notice how the low-angled winter sun creates long dramatic shadows on the snow. Our color landscape reads black and white, and the snow-laden pines disappear into the milky sky.
Since I’m not driving, I get to take photos and admire the views. Not the view directly in front of me, mind you. The pines are dressed for winter, bundled up in their fluffy white coats, and huddled together like a troop of weary soldiers. The branches keel under the weight of heavy snow, which every so often surprise us with an invigorating snow shower.
Later, over the mid-ride fire Toni builds on a mound of snow (yes, he’s that bad-ass), we learn each litter of huskies has themed names. The ‘candy’ litter includes pups called Bounty and Snickers. But not Mars, however, who belongs in the ‘planet’ litter with Pluto and Venus. Toni tells there’s a ‘virus’ litter with variants like Delta and Omicron. But, that could just be Finnish humor I fail to comprehend.
Through a gap in the trees, I notice the sky. Lavender streaks the pointy tips of the pines. Ethereal shades of blue and pink emerge. The sun is rising/setting at a speed I can’t mentally compute. I run to a clearing and stand in awe, turning in circles to fully commit it to memory. Regrettably, this agitates the dogs who also start turning in circles. They bark, howl, and cause all-around canine chaos.
The color display vanishes. We head back to the lodge for lunch and argue over who the dogs liked best. I can’t wait to begin the chill portion of my day. Another sauna, more reading by the fire*, and a nap. My husband and son grab headlamps and a trail map to embark on a snowshoe trek. Ella doesn’t tell us what she’s doing. We don’t ask.
If you haven’t read Nathaniel Ian Miller’s debut novel, The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven, run, don’t walk, to your closest bookstore. This extraordinary account of a young Swede who seeks solitude in the Arctic Circle after a tragic accident is sublime and begs to be read by a warm fire. The descriptions of the Arctic are so convincing, I got chilly while reading it.
Snowmobiling (Chase #3 Ella #1)
Another 9am wake-up. Another arduous climb to the Nespresso machine. I can’t wake up. I hate cold. Not fun. We layer up and head to the lodge’s gear hut to meet Yonas, our snowmobiling guide. Yonas is ruggedly handsome and naturally charming. The Finnish version of Matthew McConaughey circa Dazed and Confused. Ok, this is getting fun.
After a few lessons on how to operate the snowmobiles, we pair up and are on our way. Again, I draw the lucky straw and get Ella, who takes to the throttle like a cheetah chasing the weakest impala. I cling to her for dear life as we round narrow forest turns, race over frozen lakes, and fly across the snow-covered landscape.
The Fun Part
The whole thing is the fun part. Ridiculous, fast, crazy fun. I haven’t seen Ella this happy since a Justin Bieber concert in 2017.
The sky is a rich, cloudy, cobalt blue, which casts a celestial tint across all of Lapland. The few pine branches not draped in snow become the only way to differentiate the earth from the sky. A remote, isolated and untouched world.
We pull up to the lodge exhausted and hungry, but happy. At lunch, I let the three of them squabble over who was the best driver. For the next four hours we cuddle up and binge watch space movies. I fall asleep, despite Matthew McConaughey’s stellar Interstellar performance.
Reindeer Farm Visit (Chase #4, Ella #4)
My favorite daytime winter activity is the lowest ranked on Chase and Ella’s list. A visit to a working reindeer farm. It’s the week’s most relaxing and leisurely excursion, which surely influences this imbalance. Embarrassingly, I didn’t even know reindeer existed until I planned this trip. Did you? I don’t believe you.
The farm has been family-run for generations and our guide is none other than the owner herself. Her traditional Finnish garb, coupled with the surrounding mystical reindeer, make me feel I’ve just gate-crashed Santa’s holiday party.
We learn the farm has over 150 reindeer. Thankfully the owner offers this information voluntarily, as our guide tells us it’s considered a rude question. The equivalent of asking how much money a person earns. Thank you, Nikita. Finnish faux-pas averted.
The reindeer are curious, friendly, and utterly loopy. Farm-trained for 3-5 years, they subsist on a diet of grass, lichen, and mushrooms. Hence, the perpetual loopiness. Their coats are all shades of the coffee rainbow from mocha brown to vanilla latte. Is it obvious my days are caffeine-fueled?
Reindeer roam the country freely for six months each year. Eventually, these half-wild mammals are rounded up and divided among their rightful owners. This is easily determined by a distinct cut on the ear, similar to the way a rancher brands cattle.
Babies are often born during this reindeer ‘rumspringa’. The farmers determine who owns which newborn just by noticing which mamas tend to which calves. A brilliant baby sorting system, indeed.
The Fun Part
The idea of being pulled on a sleigh by reindeer makes me as giddy as a kid on Christmas morning. With no prerequisite skills needed and lots of cozy blankets, reindeer sledding is the cold-weather activity for me. We swiftly glide along quiet narrow paths and take in the pure, powdery panorama.
I spot a large arctic hare sitting against a nearby pine. Ten inches of fresh snow sit atop a wooden fence on one side of me and endless forest views are on the other. Unlike the dogs, the reindeer are silent creatures (and high as kites, remember), so the ride is peaceful in its entirety.
We stop for the mid-ride warm-up ritual we have come to expect and love. Billowy puffs of smoke escape the roof of a nearby cabin. It’s a Kota—a rustic, enclosed, hexagon with a central grill surrounded by wooden, reindeer pelt-covered benches. It’s a scene from a fairy tale, and I half expect the fabled Snow Queen to join us.
Our master of ceremonies makes us tea and jam crepes. We grill juicy sausages on long metal skewers, turning them until they glow and sizzle. As we eat, she recounts stories of her family, her reindeer, and her life in Lapland.
We discover the biggest gift a parent can give a child is their own reindeer ‘mark’, even if they have yet to own many of their own reindeer. And, eating reindeer is an everyday occurrence. Our experience in the Kota is natural and organic—a slice of Finnish life.
Nikita meets us at the farm’s entrance and we pile into the warm van. Ella and Chase bicker over who would survive in the Arctic longer. I’m ready to let them give it a go.
At the lodge, we de-layer and find our own little nooks to cozy up until dinner. The sky is turning deep dark shades of blue and I feel totally at peace.
Don’t miss out on part two of our arctic adventures. Click here.
Embracing the Arctic
While I’ve only highlighted a few winter activities from our family trip to Finland, there are countless more to enjoy, as my 276,000,000 ‘Winter in Finland’ search results confirm.
Ice fishing, tobogganing, skiing, ice floating, ice skating, and kick sledding are the tip of the polar iceberg. Not to mention other cultural activities including visits with Arctic explorers and Finnish shamans. My next post will describe all of that and more. And why winter in Finland is a family holiday for the truly adventure-minded.
‘What did the kids think?’, I’m repeatedly asked since returning home. I’ll admit now that a part of me worried they’d hate it. They didn’t, of course. Extreme adventure is always a winner with my kids.
Out of curiosity, I googled how many visitors go to Finnish Lapland in the winter. In 2019, a record-breaking 3.1 million tourists headed to the far north.
Winter in Finland? Perhaps not so crazy after all?
Looking for more extreme family adventures? Just click.
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