Adventuring In Finnish Lapland
Updated: Apr 26, 2020
The plane landed in Rovaniemi around 10pm in white-out conditions. This shouldn’t have been surprising considering we were in the Arctic Circle. Santa and his elves greeted us at the single baggage claim as Adam and I huddled to stay warm. Landing after-hours in the tiny airport meant the car rental agent had to drag himself from his cozy home to help us into our car... poor fellow. Yet to have dinner, we had our first taste of reindeer at a nearby resort, then set off around midnight to find our dream cabin somewhere in the vast white wilderness…
Back in January 2019, I’d been in Southeast Asia for almost six months since my last trip to the Western world. The New Englander in me was craving winter! I longed to wander snowy woods, then curl up with a book in a rustic cabin, wrapped in a cozy blanket. With the fireplace gently crackling, I’d sip hot chocolate...and, well, you get the picture. This trip was about Adam and I relaxing. Sure, we’d snowshoe, dog sled, snowmobile and chase the northern lights - but I wanted a cozy base to explore from. Finnish Lapland definitely fit the bill.
A Midnight Sled Ride To Our Cabin
A seasoned winter driver, the near zero visibility brought me back to childhood. Luckily, when you’re in the wilderness of Lapland, you can sled your car down the middle of the road and not meet any other vehicles... which was handy as it was approaching 24 hours since I’d last slept. Cranking up an energetic playlist on Spotify, I navigated us through the snowy wilderness while we kept our eyes peeled for roaming reindeer. And to Adam’s credit: he tolerated my two hours of car karaoke quite well.
Our first place was very remote, situated on a frozen lake ensuring a relaxing few days to unwind. Being such a tiny cabin, it was clear the builder had to make some difficult choices. Luckily, he didn’t spare the essentials for a winter getaway: a fireplace, and - like the millions of other houses in Finland - a sauna!
I chose this Airbnb due to its proximity to Oulanka National Park, whose trails connected in the woods behind our cabin. Gems like this were only a peaceful stroll through the forest away…
Frozen Adventures Await!
When the daily high is -29F, your hiking outfit is literally your life support. Heading out for daily walks was quite an involved process. I’d prepared for the trip by purchasing the most unforgiving of garments: cold weather compression base tops and bottoms. Working from the bottom up, I’d warm up toe warmers before slipping on two layers of wool socks. Getting toastier by the second, I’d add a fleece top and leggings, the fuzz keeping me toasty underneath my first down jacket. I’d tuck in a wool neck warmer, pull on a hat, and stuff hand warmers into my gloves before throwing on my final winter coat. Finally, before I fainted from the heat of the layers, I’d burst outside.
Immediately, instinct told me to flee back inside - but that’s no fun.
It’d been almost a week since we’d left China. I was certain I’d conquered my jet lag, but it honestly seemed like the crack of dawn. We’d set out midday - though you’d never believe it from the sun’s angle. Lapland only gets a few hours of daylight this time of year, though it never surpasses dim. The sun barely peeks over the tree line, hangs there for a few hours, then ducks below to sleep. It barely made this appearance from 11am until 3pm each day, with not much changing since it never actually crossed the sky.
On our first walk through the frozen woods it hit me a few minutes in: the silence. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced. At first I was unsure if the past six months in Asian cities was altering my perspective, but Adam concurred: I hadn’t lost my hearing, I hadn’t left my earplugs in - this rarity was in fact utter silence.
I knew the area would be a peaceful, remote destination. But walking through this frozen forest, so still, devoid of even a bird chirp, was nothing this American had ever experienced. I paused to fully process the special treat. When my struggle to hear even the faintest drone of traffic proved impossible, we continued onwards, our chafing winter gear likely the only sound perceptible throughout the entire country.
Turns out, it doesn’t matter how many layers you wear or how many hand warmers are shoved in your crevices - Lapland in February is freezing. The longest we’d hike for is about two hours, despite ‘warming up’ from our exertion.
The struggle was real - but frozen Lapland is completely worth the struggle.
The silent, endless expanse of frozen trees against a sherbet sky is how I will remember Lapland - it’s generally the view you see as you drive the few roads around. The stunning region is basically a national park. We felt like kids again, trudging through the snow, it sometimes up to our waists. Playing hide and seek, we’d huddle underneath the startled, frozen pines. Breathless from the frosty air, we’d hike hills before turning around to slide down snowy hillsides. Unfortunately, there were no snowball fights - the snow was completely dry!
Returning to our cabin, after the process of un-layering, Adam churned out his usual gourmet meals. We’d also brought with us our arsenal of games which kept us busy by the fire in the evenings until..
Bucket List Item Crossed Off!
If spending twenty minutes layering up was daunting enough under the midday ‘sun’, it took serious initiative at night to leave our toasty fireside. However, these were special circumstances: the Northern Lights awaited!
I’ll never forget the first time we saw that magical aurora - not because it was new to me, but it was the most dramatic display we’d see that trip.
Our first night, I peered out the window and saw a green glow hovering near the horizon. It seemed like low clouds, but the slight color is what pulled me away from the cozy fire, excitement running through my veins as I layered up. Grabbing our wee drams of Talisker, Adam and I rushed off the porch and froze (no pun intended)!
Green, purple and red lasers danced above our heads. As shapes started to form, and our brains would try to make sense of the sharp angles that swiftly changed. Just how wee was this dram of whisky I’d drank? Clearly a drunken giant was playing with a magnet on earth’s atmosphere. His tomfoolery resulted in waves of colors that morphed as he slid it haphazardly. But this only lasted a few moments before the light show came to an abrupt ending and we were left with only our memories as the green glow reappeared on the horizon once more.
Other nights we’d drive to more expansive viewpoints, usually over one of the thousands of frozen lakes (118,000 in Finland to be precise!). Though in the car with the heat fully blasting (we had on the same layers we’d wear while hiking - down to the warmers in our boots) we were still uncomfortably cold. Across the expanse we’d watch the aurora come in waves, the hues brightening and deepening as they moved across the sky.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing - watching the aurora had been on my bucket list for decades. Adams’ gloved hand in mine, we stared up in wonder.
Under the bright northern lights the snow-clad trees sparkled below. Way too cold to consider operating my camera, that moment is only imprinted in my mind - forever.
Dreamy Cabin #2
Our next cabin near Ruka was truly a dream home, and close to other national parks I was eager to explore. Wrapped in throws by the fire, we appreciated the frozen landscape out of the floor to ceiling windows. The fully stocked kitchen had a bursting pantry of baking supplies, so naturally I churned out cakes and cookies during our stay (hey, staying warm out there required lots of calories)! The garage was stocked with skis and snowshoes - and of course the house had a gorgeous sauna.
Fueling Up With Scandinavian Food
We stocked up on the largest pack of smoked salmon I’d ever laid eyes upon, extra dark rye and local seeded crackers to enjoy our own version of Scandinavian brunches each day. Local specialties like tar flavoured syrup and tar mustard gave our dishes a most unique taste. But be careful when sampling that notorious salty, black licorice - I'll just keep it at that for now. Despite Adam’s talent in the kitchen (and my talent for appreciating it), we couldn’t miss out on experiencing the culinary side of Scandinavian culture!
Reindeer is the meat of choice up in lapland so we made sure to try various versions of the gamey meat. Flaky pies, creamy pates, chewy jerky, and the most common preparation - reindeer with lingonberries atop potatoes. Salmon and perch also dominated menus, and thick steamy fish stews provided us much needed comfort. But the most unique to me was roasted bear!
Dog Sledding For My Birthday!
“Driving” the sled was not the easy ride the Finnish make it out be. Half deaf from my hat and hood combo, I struggled to comprehend the instructions as the accented voice explained how to control the pack of energetic dogs whining restlessly before us. Kept in a pen purposefully to build up energy, it was clear these dogs were anxious to go out for their morning run.
Not confident in the slightest my future husband and I would come out of this alive, the dogs were unleashed and off the sled went. Cue the artic wind chill - it was brisk. Breaking before turns and leaning away as to not topple over, the dogs were really testing their new inexperienced driver. But soon enough I relaxed, letting the dogs pull us through the magical winter wonderland.
The ride was exhilarating, and every bend yielded a more spectacular view. I steered on, enjoying every second of the birthday treat.
After, we warmed ourselves by the fire in their cafe, drank warm cider and devoured Nordic buns - sans birthday candles.
Snowmobiling Through The Backcountry
It was our last day in Lapland - and unfortunately the coldest yet. Unfortunate because we were psyched to rent snowmobiles and explore even more of the wilderness. But adventure awaited, so we found a shop that rented us each a machine. Already in our warmest attire, they also provided special boots, a jumpsuit, gloves and a helmet. Even the snowmobiles had heated seats and throttle warmers! Giving us a paper map, we noted various trail routes, ultimately choosing one that would bring us through multiple landscapes in the next two hours. The two of us sped off, winding up mountains on snowy trails carved through the woods.
We zipped across massive frozen lakes, our only clue being the fact that there was a clearing of trees. We passed locals ice fishing and I shivered - though I knew this was just another winter day for them.
We warmed up with more warm cider and pastries before continuing on, the sun and I almost ready to call it a day. Whizzing down the mountain, the wind chill became overwhelming - I couldn’t wait to get back to my sauna!
After a few years of back to back travels, Finnish Lapland is firmly in my top few for truly unique experiences. If you want to get off the tourist path for some gorgeous adventure, and experience unexplored, undeveloped backcountry, you won't be disappointed.