About five months ago Ben Stofbergen (Dust Mountains) and I (Strange Towns) embarked on an adventure together with 50 others: A trip to Finland, all the way to the arctic circle, organised by a group of third and fourth-year Tourism Management students, and it was incredible. The things we have seen, the things we have done, it was truly a once in a lifetime experience.
The trip started quite early on a Monday, at 4 am to be exact, when we had to wake up, get dressed and head to Schiphol Airport. We arrived there around 5 am and it was not long after that that I got a call from a friend of ours … he’d overslept! But thank god, our flight wouldn’t leave for another 2 hours so he would still be able to make it as long as he got there within an hour. Forty-five minutes later he got to the check-in counter and told us that he had forgotten his toothbrush.
I thought that was pretty funny since that was not the worst thing that could have happened and we were all just glad that he had made it.
Once we’d gotten to Helsinki the drama wasn’t over … one of the bags from our group was missing. Apparently, it looked a lot like this other bag that was supposed to go to China or something so there had been a mix-up. Unfortunately, there was nothing that could be done about it right away, she just had to buy a bunch of new stuff and borrow clothes from her friends. The good news was that she was properly insured so that she was probably able to get a refund on all the money she had to spend because if this.
But now for some fun things 😉
We had these two bus drivers who drove us around all the time, their English was surprisingly good, as is that of most of the Fins we’ve met, and they were really nice. The first thing they did was take us to the city centre of Helsinki where we went to visit Radisson Blu, went on an audio walking tour made by the students themselves and had dinner at Vapiano’s. After a chilly but fun day in Helsinki we took the bus up north all the way to Rovaniemi, it was a loooong long drive – 13 hours – but in the end, it was totally worth it.
After a pretty smooth ride with not that much sleep, we arrived in Rovaniemi around 9 am with a temperature of -20 degrees Celsius. We had been prepared for this but it was not a cold as we had thought it would be. Our phones said that it was -20 but it felt more like it was maybe minus 5, minus 8. This because there was barely any wind and the sun was out. In Holland when it’s freezing it is a different kind of cold that is way more intense than this one was. So we were all pleasantly surprised when we got off the bus at a gas station to freshen up.
Since it was still early and we weren’t allowed into our cabins until four, we got to visit the Arctic Museum. It had a couple of beautiful displays about the very first people who had lived there and it had a recreational area for kids to learn about light, water, and animals in a fun and interactive way.
To be completely honest … we didn’t really pick up much that morning since we were all very tired from the bus trip, but the view that the museum had was pretty wonderful and the tea was good.
When we left the museum we went to pick up our thermosuits which were incredible! It was freezing cold outside and even though it didn’t feel like minus 20 it wasn’t exactly warm, but I haven’t been cold once the entire trip and it was all because of this suit! Yes there were unflattering and yes it was 30 euro’s for three days but my god was it worth it!
When it was finally four pm we got to go to our cabins. They were these really cute wooden cabins with a fireplace, sauna, a big couch, soft beds and a very decent kitchen inside each and every one of them. We got some time to relax, unpack, take a shower, try out the sauna and have dinner before we went on our surprise evening excursion.
We went to see the northern lights!
They took us out into the woods to this swamp that is completely frozen in the winter and therefore a big open space with barely any trees. The excursion leaders were students in Rovaniemi and they told us some stories about the northern lights. One of the legends about the northern light is that the Firefox, a shining, glowing, beautiful fox with a firing tail, is running through the forest. And while he does this, he is hitting his tail on trees and the snow. This creates sparks that fly up to the sky which light up the sky as the Northern Lights.
I thought this was a really cute story and kind of wanted to believe it was true even though I know it’s not. They did tell us the scientific explanation for the northern lights as well. As you may know, the sun and the air are both made up of different kind of gasses, when these gasses decay they emit light. Every decay has a different kind of wavelength and therefore a different kind of colour gas. The most common one is green, this is from when oxygen decays which happens most often.
Drowning in Snow
Once we got to the swamp they told us to be patient and to enjoy the stars – I have never seen that many stars in my life! – and to not be too disappointed if we didn’t get to see the northern lights since there is always a chance that it’s not happening that night.
We walked out onto the swap and tried to follow the path as well as possible, but since it was very dark, that was kind of hard to do. At one point, when we had lost track of the path we sunk into the snow up to our waist and, while trying to get to a path again, were basically drowning in the snow. It didn’t matter since we had our big thermo overalls, so we weren’t cold and it was also really fun to see everyone struggle like that to get out of the snow (we were with a small group of friends of 6 people at this point).
Ben and I were enjoying the stars, just the two of us, not really saying anything but just taking it all in while everyone else was back at the campfire. We started to head back at one point, not really looking up at the sky but mainly focussing on where to put our feet as to not drown in snow again. We had almost reached the campfire when we heard everyone being all excited and heading our way. We looked back up at the sky and then we saw it …
The Northern Lights
It was breathtaking, not exactly what you would expect since it’s not as bright as you see in pictures taken by really great camera’s, but still pretty incredible. I’m rarely speechless but this time I was, all I could say for almost an hour was “Wow”.
After this amazing adventure, we headed back to the cabins for a nice and cosy night in… at least for most of us.
Santa Claus Village
As a kid I, Ben, always thought Santa Claus was awesome, even though the kids in the Netherlands worship a different kind of man with a white beard handing out presents to children. Whether his face was on a coca cola truck or on a cartoon on tv, I liked the big, happy men and his reindeer. So can you imagine what I felt when I heard we were going to meet him the very next day?
Now there is some controversy on where Santa actually lives (Canada? Alaska? Norway?), but we saw him in Rovaniemi, in Northern Finland, in his own village nonetheless. Santa Claus Village was an amazing and magical place. After taking a picture with a huge snowman, we went into the workshop of Santa. We had to wait in a small line, accompanied by an elf, to meet him. But it was definitely worth the wait. As we walked into his office he greeted all of us in Dutch! We were so surprised, but when you think about it, it makes sense. How else is he supposed to read all those letters of millions of children all over the world?
After meeting Santa Claus and spotting his reindeers, we had some tea and chocolate milk and I got myself some stickers for my closet while Nienke got a magnet for her refrigerator. Our bus arrived and we headed to our next destination: the dogsleds.
This piece will be like the dogsleds: short, but fun. We hopped on one of the sleighs, led by the trainer of course, who controlled the ten dogs in front of the sleigh. If I’d have to describe the Huskies in two words they’d be: quick and cute.
After riding the sleighs, the local trainer told us a thing or two about the Huskies. The Huskies were bred in the camp itself. It doesn’t matter how they look. Whether they’re black, white, brown or all three at the same time, the most important thing was that they had the right genes to become a sled dog. Sled dogs are trained to run hundreds of miles at the same speed.
We also got to meet some of the puppies who were still in the learning process, their job right now is just to be cute according to their trainer. And believe me… they were!
After the dogsledding, we headed over to the Reindeers.
Whether you feed them twigs or ride a sleigh with them, reindeers are big and cute. But they can be a bit clumsy too. Nienke and I went on a sleigh together. We controlled and steered the reindeer by a simple rope, just like a horse. This time there was no trainer with us, it was a fixed track and we got to do it ourselves. Basically, nothing could go wrong but somehow two guys managed to steer their reindeer off the tracks. How? We’ll never know.
Cruising on the river with a snow scooter
I’ve driven quad bikes, dirt bikes and jet skis, but the snow scooter was still missing from my list. So imagine how excited I was to ride one. Especially when we were going to ride it on a frozen river. We did all the steering with our hands. Controlling speed and brakes was also done by hand.
We crossed the most beautiful sights Rovaniemi had to offer. Eventually, our (Dutch) guide had us stopping at the middle of the river to listen. Listen to what? Silence. There was no sound at all, nothing. It was magical.
When we got back to the city centre, it was dark already. After we brought back our gear, we stepped onto the bus and drove back to our cabins.
Unfortunately, I, Nienke, wasn’t allowed to join the snow scooter cruising myself since I don’t have a drivers license. So instead Jasper – who also doesn’t have one – and I headed back to the cabins to relax, take a little nap and a steam in our sauna so that we’d be well rested for a fun night, beers, drinking games and good conversation.
But the night went a little different than expected since two of my ‘friends’ went out for ‘one drink’ at 10 and didn’t return until three in the morning. That kinda blew since we had agreed to have a good time with the six of us. Nevertheless, it ended up being just fine, we had a couple of beer with the rest, played some card games and actually ended up having some heartfelt conversations. Looking back, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Lost in the snow
On our last day in Rovaniemi, we went on a hike after packing our bags and putting everything back on the bus. We wanted to hike to one of the two watchtowers that were close by but unfortunately, we weren’t able to reach them because of the heavy snowfall from the night before. We got a little lost because of this and decided to head back. Instead, we went sledding on trash bags, which worked surprisingly well and was loads of fun!
That evening we went for a typical Finnish dinner, Ben had the Reindeer and I – as the coward that I am – went with the fresh Finnish white fish (I’ve forgotten the name). The atmosphere in the little restaurant was great and the dinner was a great way to end our trip.
We got on the bus, drove all the way back to Helsinki and a short flight later, we were back in Holland. The trip was exhausting because of the long bus rides, but so much fun! Definitely a once in a lifetime experience.
Enjoy your travels!