by Hannah Robson
It's been a couple of months since I joined Sidetracked Adventures on their Finnish Arctic Winter Skills trip & even though I wrote this blog on the plane home I somehow haven't got around to getting it up until now, so here you go...
In the summer of ‘21 I was supported by Outdoor Provisions to attend the first Sisters in the Wild Summer Gathering. It was there that I met, amongst many other amazing people, the unassuming Sophie Nolan. Contrary to her first impression of being a quiet, nervous and potentially a little unsure of her place at the event it later emerged that Soph did in-fact own her own outdoors adventure company running trips out in Finland each winter season.
Fast forward to the beginning of ‘22, Soph and I had kept in touch, mid text chat a casual ‘do you fancy heading up to Finland to ride fat bikes, we have a spare room?’. Filled with self doubt that I wouldn’t be ‘good enough’ to ride fat bikes in the Arctic with a group of women who all have much more experience on bikes than myself I cautiously agreed to join.
Safe to say it was one of the best trips of my life. Since the end of that week I had been making a plan of how to return. Kiilopää and The Urho Kekkonen National Park are like nowhere I have ever experienced before. The marshmallow-like landscape, trees covered in cartoon-like snow, it’s like traversing a cotton wool ball (sort of).
As luck would have it I have both a boyfriend and a few good friends that also love an adventure (Dan, Abby and James). They gave in to my constant pleading and agreed to head back North with me to try out Soph’s new trip - Arctic Winter Skills.
The preparation in the run up was all encompassing. There was unanimous worry about our gear, how much merino is too much merino? How long does a battery last in -20°C? How many clean pairs of pants do you really need for a week long trip without running water or electricity? (Ans: everything that can be should be, longer than we thought, 2). My main worry pre trip was would I be fit enough to be able to enjoy myself. Instead of letting this worry paralyse me into burying my head in the sand I managed to somehow harness it and work on my strength training in the run up. Although the trip was tough in parts I’m proud to say I felt strong enough to really be able to enjoy it.
So, the trip…
We landed in Ivalo from Manchester (via Helsinki) on the Friday evening. A glorious sunny and cold day greeted us on the Saturday so we decided to walk up Kiilopää hill. Having arrived the the dark of night (any time after 4pm at this time of year) I was super keen for the others to see what I had been going on about for the past year, I was nervous they had trusted me with their holiday but as soon as we set off I knew they were all going to love it as much as I do! Clear skies, freezing cold winds and snow up to your waist our little yomp had left us incredibly excited to get going on our main trip. We met our guide Justin that night, organised our supplies and kit for the week before heading out for some glorious Italian food in Saariselkä.
Sunday morning, we had breakfast at the Sidetracked cabin before packing up our backpacks and pulks (the sled you pull behind you with all your gear in), collecting our skis, boots and poles and with only a minimum amount of faff set off to our first cabin. The trip is a backcountry ski trip in which you wear specific backcountry skis with full skins. You take it in turns to pull the pulks (normally 50/50 in the group). Our trip was a mixture of camping and pre booked huts. In Finland they have much better access to land than we do in the U.K., with ‘Everymans Right’ you are allowed to camp and roam in around 95% of the park. The huts are similar to the bothies that we have in the U.K. although they’re split in to two, one side pre booked for commercial guests, one open to anyone who wants to use it, a semi detached if you will. They’re kept in incredible condition and the mutual respect for retaining them for everyone’s use is admirable and sadly something I find hard to see working back home.
Most of our group had skiid before but this kind of skiing is quite different from downhill skiing that we were used to. The heel lift and foot slide took a bit of practice as well as the push, pull of the pretty heavy pulk following you up and down the undulating terrain. Luckily I think we all picked it up relatively quickly and after our first day of practice we were moving at a decent pace for the rest of the week. As Abby and I pulled the pulks up what felt like a never ending hill we pondered the ever common ‘why are the hard things always the best things?’ …
As well as nights in the huts we had two tents with us to camp out in the wilderness. This brought a whole new level of organisation and potential faff to the day. No water or heat source on the fell meant carrying extra water and firewood in our already laden packs and pulks. Dinner was dried pasta with a side of campfire sausages. With only the campfire to keep us warm in the -15°C weather it was early to bed. A surprisingly good nights sleep in a tent with two others and a dog, amazing what you can sleep through after a big day out on the fell.
Our trip was an out and back with our furthest hut being the far side of a frozen lake crossing. Arriving there early after one of the shorter days we all set to work with the daily jobs (collecting water from the nearest river, making the fire, setting up beds, prepping tea) but with the additional & very welcomed job of firing up the smoke sauna! An absolute highlight, a series of huts nestled in the trees, we had the place to ourselves. The tradition of sauna in Finland is inherent with approximately 3 million saunas in a country of 5.5 million. It can be seen as a social place to share a cold beer or traditional long drink and chat as well as to relax. The extreme heat followed by a cooling off period in the snow, repeat for as many times as you like then finish off with a sauna shower (a hot water tub heated from below by fire poured over yourself with a bucket). Clean socks and pants all round and some dubious vanilla sass cocktails we all tried to push away the thought that we were at the half way point of our trip and were soon the be making our journey back to Sidetracked basecamp.
As we retraced our steps the landscape viewed in reverse seemed brand new. The meditative movement through the snow, the concentration and effort it takes to stay upright all meant that dwelling too much on a trip dreamt of for a year couldn’t be mourned before it was over. I made sure to keep taking the time to pause and soak in my surroundings, trying to convince my brain to live in the moment.
Reaching the Fell Centre that we had left just 6 days before for a celebratory pint felt surreal, like we hadn’t even been away at all. After unpacking, cleaning and tidying all of our equipment ready for another group to use we headed out for a burger and beer that we all inhaled in a contented silence.
Of course we had to squeeze in a day of fat biking which was heavily broken up by a long leisurely buffet lunch at a local hotel. From my trip last year the trails seemed to be way easier to ride this time around. Whether that’s down to the weather, the time of year or the increasing popularity of the sport out there I’m not sure but it made for a very fun day! Our last stop was the sauna and ice hole dip in Kiilopää. Surely you can’t go that far north and not try an ice dip …
I’m writing this sat on the plane home to Manchester. Two colleagues sat behind me chatting marketing strategies while I stubbornly refuse to think about the fact I too will need to be back in work mode imminently. But before that, a massive thank you to everyone at Sidetracked Adventures, I hope I can speak for the whole of our group in saying that we had the most amazing week. A special thank you to Justin & Jura the dog, what can I say, 'send it'?!
If you have any questions about the trip and our experience then please do drop me a message or email I cannot recommend their trips enough and would love to chat more about them.
Finland '22 photographs by Lucy.
All other photographs by Dan MacGregor