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Chasing Ithaca

Husky Safari

FINLAND | Tuesday, 29 September 2009 | Views [1565]

Christmas Eve in Finland: it is cold, freezing actually, and very, very white. Far from the familiar Australian summer, I am at last experiencing a white Christmas, and it is beautiful.

Eager to sample some Finnish culture, as well as a dash of adventure, I commence my Nordic sojourn in the picturesque town of Porvoo, 50km east of Helsinki in Southern Finland, where I meet with some Finnish friends.

The cobbled streets of Porvoo’s old town meander peacefully towards the frozen river, which is lined with red timber warehouses and a forest of skeleton trees. I curiously explore the labyrinth of welcoming little stores whose sweet aromas of chocolate, hot wine and salted liquorice easily entice the euros from my pockets.

The temperature has plunged well below zero and every surface is covered in a thick layer of perfect, powdery snow, its flawlessness disturbed only by the soft light of flickering candles, carefully placed in shop windows and doorways to let passers-by know they are welcome to enter.

Excited children, buried in thick coats, woolly hats and mittens, take a last look in the windows of toy shops, wondering if their letters reached Lapland safely. We, on the other hand, are hoping to hand deliver our letters to the man himself, or at least have a look around his home turf.

Alas, it is time to leave behind the quaint delights of Porvoo, all too briefly visited, and head north in search of the wilder, tougher and colder side of the country. Piling into my friends car, complete with chains on the wheels and heated seats, we begin our road trip which will take us through the heart of Finland to Kuusamo, a remote area teetering on the southern edge of Lapland and flanked by the Russian border, some 800km north of Porvoo. Kuusamo, it is said, is blessed with ample forests, abundant lakes and rivers, and spectacular National Park.

Our road trip is long and painstakingly slow and my hopes of enjoying the scenery are quickly extinguished as the already scarce hours of daylight are besieged by an incessant blizzard, disguising the landscape and cloaking us in an impenetrable, icy cocoon. Patches of hazardous ice and frequent bouts of snow-blindness forced us to regularly pull over, the road and countryside merging into one indistinguishable blanket of white.

No shops or service stations are open during the journey, making obvious the fact that Finland is a sparsely populated nation currently in hibernation. Wisely, the Finns are safely tucked away in their houses, sheltering from the bitter cold and preparing to exchange Christmas gifts and munch on pastries, liquorice and other sweet delights.

The only other cars we pass along the way betray glimpses of jolly old men donning red suits and fake white beards, likely destined for Christmas party gigs and perhaps even a sooty chimney or two. The previous Christmas, I am told, there was a five car pile-up on the highway along which we are now ploughing. Bemused police had arrived on site to find five Santa Clauses, chilly but unharmed.

The dearth of places to stop for sustenance soon sees the packs of dried reindeer meat (consumed with ever so slight pangs of guilt) and deliriously good Fazer chocolate, originally destined for a place beneath the Christmas tree, sacrificed to stave off our hunger. Improvised toilet stops are made by the roadside, in holes swiftly dug in the thigh-deep snow. Hurried attempts are made to bare as little skin as possible and as quickly as possible, the fear of ill-placed frostbite, or a passing Santa, all too prevalent. The fuel tank is topped up at deserted self-serve petrol stations and arguments are fought out over who gets to sit in the front of the car, thus enjoying the added comfort of a heated seat.

Finally, a treacherous 800km and 13 hours later, we arrive in Kuusamo, tired and more than happy to fall into our cosy log cabin beds.

The midmorning dawn welcomes a spectacularly clear and mild Christmas Day, and we wake to the permeating and delicious scent of native pine. Munching on rye bread and beetroot salad, we don our thermals and reluctantly abandon the comforting warmth of our snug cottage.

We are heading to Oulanka National Park, where a yuletide adventure awaits: Husky Safari! This, I am hoping, will soften the memory of our long and tedious road trip and will most certainly offer a stark contrast to the heat, sand and barbecues of which our southern hemisphere Christmases ordinarily comprise.

Arriving at the Husky camp, a fractured chorus of piercing howls greets us. Tied to their snow-peaked houses, the Huskies sense our approach and thrust their noses skywards to perform their boisterous song. Overcome with excitement, the dogs begin pulling desperately against their long chains, frenetically anticipating imminent action.

“This is what they live for,” explains Laura, one of our guides, bounding over to greet us. “Sleighing is in their blood. They just want to run.”

After carefully absorbing the sleighing instructions from our guide and heeding the warning that, due to their diet of raw meat, we may occasionally be bombarded with bouts of doggy flatulence, we are ready for our overland adventure. The dogs are organised into teams of six, the humans into teams of two. Then, sturdily strung together, we set off in convoy across an immense frozen lake, the dogs setting a blistering pace as we approach a sea of snow-covered pines on the horizon.

The sleighs are traditional, fashioned from treated timber and leather. The passenger sits inside the sleigh, huddled in animal skins and intimately feeling every bump over which the sleigh hurtles. The driver stands on the back, buoyed by the wind in their face and charged with controlling speed and direction. This requires the driver to lean heavily into corners and, when needing to stop, throw all their weight onto the clawed metallic foot-brake, straining against the adrenalin-fuelled strength of the dogs.

Intermittently swapping drivers, we weave our way through kilometres of pristine and silent wilderness, our ears filled only with the soft sound of panting Huskies and the crunch of ice and snow under paw and blade.

The energy of the dogs seems boundless, though during the more strenuous uphill runs they cheekily glance over their shoulders, ensuring that the driver has jumped off the sleigh and is helping to push.

“They’re temperamental,” shouts Laura. “They don’t like to think they have to do all the hard work!”

Leading the sleigh seems to be hot work and the Huskies sporadically plunge their muzzles into the powdery snow, seeking cool relief. The human contingent, plunging frozen hands into woolly mittens and tugging thick scarves over frozen noses, desperately wish that they were as well insulated as their furry chauffeurs.

Mid afternoon arrives and the gentle twilight succumbs to darkness as our convoy arrives back at camp. The passengers, stiff from the invasive cold on idle limbs, gingerly uncurl themselves, while the drivers enjoy the final lingering chill of the evening air on their sweaty brows. Exhilaration and exhaustion make for a satisfying combination. Much to our delight, a raging campfire awaits us, hot tea and foil-clad sausages placed among the crackling flames.

Perched upon tepid logs and warmed by the fire’s intensity, we reflect on our day. Nobody speaks as we slurp our tea and devour our well-earned fare, with more than a morsel or two being flung towards our canine companions. Our tired but content faces, glowing in flicker of the fire, say it all: what an incredible way to spend Christmas. Just magic.

If you go: http://www.kuusamon-era-safari.fi/eng/huskysafaris.html

Tags: christmas, dogs, huskies, lapland, safari, sleighs, snow

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