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Northern exposure

Northern exposure

So you would have to be crazy to go to the Artic Circle in mid-winter right? 

With temperatures of -25C (and colder) in the frozen far north normal in December, all my friends thought that I'd lost my mind, in terms of my travel choices.

And when I considered the option of celebrating Christmas, with a beach BBQ, at the height of an Aussie summer, I did think they may have a point.

Freezing, north and festive

It turned out when I went to book, that I wasn't the only mad Aussie who was pumped for a freezing, festive season.

The Artic Circle and Lapland is - to be punny - so hot right right now, with trips booked out months in advance.

Lapland actually covers four countries - Sweden, Norway, Finland plus Russia, and parts of it are further north than Alaska, Canada and Iceland.

It's vast and it’s also largely undiscovered by tourism.

Snow, space and santa

Northern Lights Finnish Lapland

After a lot of onlline research I booked for Finnish Lapland because it sold itself as one of the last great wildernesses in Europe.

There's only three people per square kilometre and the air in parts is considered the purest in the developed world. It practically screams unspoiled.

And of course it’s the home of big man in red.

Santa calls Finnish Lapland home.

Apart from Mr Ho, Ho, Ho, there was also the chance I might see the Aurora Borealis, otherwise known as the northern lights, which was on my bucket list, and also pretty much on everyone else's I knew.

Wilderness, quinzee's and snowmobiling

It’s only in the last five years or so that Finland has really opened itself as an adventure destination, which means intel on independent travel is hard to uncover.

I wanted to skip the bigger resorts with glass igloos and  go somewhere more remote.

Finally, after hours online, I found Basecamp Oulanka, an eco-resort in the Oulanka National Park - a stunning, snow-laden wilderness, which is very close to the Russian border

The camp perched on the edge of Lake Juuma, is built in the traditional style of wooden log cabins and looks like a picture-perfect postcard of a white Christmas on the website.

I signed up for the seven day Wilderness Adventure tour, which offered downhill skiing, cross country skiiing, ice wall climbing, husky sledding, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, river floating in dry suits and something called Quinzee building and an apparently above average chance of seeing the northern lights because of the almost zero light pollution.

Reindeers, bears and thermals

Bear trail Oulanka National Park

I flew Finnair (which is cutely the official carrier for Father Christmas) to Helsinki then on to Kuusamo, which is about an hour's flight further north from the capital.

The fact they sprayed the wings of the plane with anti-freeze before they took off, that I was welcomed by a stuffed reindeer on the luggage carousel and that there was a three metre snowman next to the taxi rank outside the terminal, pretty much signaled that I'd hit winter wonderland.

Kuusamo is a frontier town. There were stuffed bears in the town's hotel lobby and the roads were sheet ice with a wall of snow on each side.

Despite the treacherous driving conditions, buses and taxis gunned along roads at a cracking pace.

After a 30 minute white-knuckle bus ride I arrived with a group of twenty other guests for our week of snow fun.

Where the wild things are

Base Camp Oulanka

We were greeted by the owner Keijo Salenius, who grew up locally and who bought a 1000 hectares of land to protect local endagered species and to give visitors the chance to experience one of the last truly wild places on the planet. 

A place where golden eagle were hunting and bears were hibernating just down the road.

Keijo from the beginning, worked to create a genuinely environmental tourist experience, with everything about basecamp being sourced localy for mimimum impact.

"The logs to build the cabins were from 40 km away to west, the central heating is done with recycled wood pellets, we use local food, buying Elk meat from local hunters.

One of the biggest thing we do is to provide all the clothing to people visiting because there's no point for everyone to buy winter equipment for one week's use. No shopping equals sustainable", he explains.

Which was good because it was pretty clear that the warmest clothes I'd brought from Australia were not going to cut it.

Silence, darkness and ice

Frozen Lake Juuma

Apart from the constant shock of the sharp cold when you stepped outdoors, the other striking feature of Lapland was that it was mostly dark.

Light didn't break until nearly 10am and dusk fell by 3pm. Five hours of daylight. 

It was also serenely silent.

Giant boreal forests, caked in snow, stretching forever to the horizon, broken by the stillness of mysterious, white lakes of ice.

Lapland was spellbinding and otherworldy in a way that was entirely magical.

Snowshoes, lights and apps

Ice Wall Climbing Base Camp Oulanka

There's were so many activities available at at Basecamp Oulanka, that it was hard to decide each day what to do without suffering from massive FOMO (fear of missing out). 

Snowmobiling by moonlight, snowshoeing along the bear trail, climbing an ice wall with snow picks and Quinzee building - a snow shelter that can help keep you alive if you get caught out in a snow storm were just some of myriad of artic experiences that were available.

After dinner there was northern lights hunting, which I was lucky to see twice.

It was a surreal experience to stand out on the frozen lake at midnight watching the fingers of light move across the sky as if it was alive.

Some of our fellow travellers even had an app which gave the location and time of the lights.

Moomins, gingerbread and huskies

Husky Sledding Finnish Lapland

Christmas eve and day in Lapland probably ruined me for life in terms of yuletide perfection.

On the evening of the 24th there were candles in snow moulds shaped like bears leading up to the lodge, which was being gently dusted by lightly falling snow.

Inside, the cook, who had spent three days making Finnish delicaces was putting out a traditional feast, while children were baking Moomin shaped gingerbread cookies and decorations from paper and stone, beside a roaring log fire.

Kids were competitvely kick sledding outside, with no sign of electronic devices, while the adults relaxed inside with the local Juniper flavoured vodka.

The Christmas tree has been cut down from the forest earlier, with the kids choosing the best one.

There was no gift shopping at the mall, no plastic baubles for an artificial tree and no coloured flashing lights.

Just nature it all of its magnificence.

On Christmas morning we headed out for eight hours of husky sledding through the snow caked trees.

It was amazing.

Experience of a lifetime

The trip wasn't cheap but it was a life changing experience.

Lapland is worth the trek and I loved the Fins for their sense of humour and laid back vibe.

They're quirky - this is a country that does sauna yoga - and very welcoming, which is amazing considering they've been invaded for centuries by both their neighbours - the Vikings and Russians.

If you're thinking about a trip to the frozen North this Christmas, book it, you won't be disappointed. 

Exodus travel organises wilderness trips, alternatively book directly with Basecamp Oulanka.

And remember your travel insurance, which may not cover snowmobiling, so check the small print.

Article by Julie Hamilton.

 

 

 

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