Many of us “elderly”, or rather, those of us who were children during the ‘60s, have read the book series about the children of the world, and of course the one about Elle Kari, the Girl of Lapland, written by Riwkin-Brick and translated into Hebrew by Lea Goldberg. And so, many years after the ‘60s, when we can almost be considered senior citizens, I sought out the landscapes in which Elle Kari (who wise men say truly lived) in order to experience them.
Little Elle hugged her Huskies, lived in a “Kota” (a Lavvu, similar to a teepee) and traveled with the Sami tribe in Reindeer driven sleighs, and so did we, though in a more comfortable manner.
Lapland, which stretches out across northern Finland, Sweden, Norway and even Russia, enjoys 19 hours of darkness every winter and temperatures that in their height (or rather, low) reach -52 degrees Celsius. Around 200,000 reindeer call Finnish Lapland their home, and there are 200 nights a year in which the Northern Lights can be seen, provided the sky is clear. The indigenous Sami tribe that dwells in Lapland to this day earns .most of its income through its reindeer herds, animals that provide almost everything necessary.
Returning to our fascinating experience, after a flight to Helsinki, Finland, we caught the night train and come morning found ourselves in Kemi, one of several welcoming towns residing in northern Finland’s Lapland, which is located on the shores of the Gulf of Bothnia. We were welcomed by a winter unknown to our own regions, and those of you who haven’t experienced such low temperatures haven’t experienced true cold. Waddling through high snowfall, followed by a short drive, the Hotelli Merihovi awaited us – Hotelli Merihovi opened in 1949 and has since been extensively refurbished, it enjoys a superb downtown location. The hotel offers comfortable, spacious, and most importantly, warm rooms. The crowning glory was the phenomenal restaurant, offering a selection of delicious meals ranging from breakfasts to dinners that include a variety of fine local cuisine, heartwarming soups, main courses such as juicy salmon and grade-A Reindeer venison A sauna, heated (obviously) pool and a good meal ended the first day among the endless snow.
After a hearty breakfast, we met with the local tourist office and Lapponia Safaris representatives, who were in charge of all the pleasures provided to us by the town and its surroundings. Kemi offers its visitors an abundance of winter attractions and activities.
Equipped with arctic suits, warm socks, hats to shelter our faces from freezing winds, boots and gloves, we climbed aboard the snowmobiles which were parked on the edges of the frozen sea, at the bearing that separates Finnish from Swedish Lapland. Starting the engines and heading out for a joyride across the frozen sea, we reached a Lavvu village and a warm Kota an hour later. We were met with mugs of steaming hot berry juice and reindeer sandwiches. Afterwards, we went for a “Rudolph”-pulled sled ride around the snowy forest.
As we sped across the frozen sea, the 35 year old icebreaker Sampo was leaving Kemi port. Sampo spent years of hard service working for the port, crushing ice and creating pathways for incoming and outgoing vessels. Being an abnormally heavy vessel, Sampo launches up on the ice, crushing it beneath its weight and thus creating a way.
As we are having fun riding the 40mm thick ice, Sampo is making its way towards our scheduled meeting point with us. We met with Sampo around noon, parked our snowmobiles near the ship and climbed on board for a fish soup lunch (what else?). With us on board, the ship continued to grind away through the ice. The deck is windy, and we are battling those winds with hot punch. A tour of the ship reveals its hidden size, which accommodates 150 tourists daily, who arrive in Frozen Lapland every winter.
All of a sudden, Sampo comes to a halt and with it the cruise’s big surprise. We each get a special water tight rubber suit, zip ourselves up in it, and… plunge into the icy waters. Initially you are worried that the cold will seep in and freeze you, but after a few moments of floating around you realize that whilst it’s cold, .it’s also manageable, and you can have fun acting like an iceberg.
Eventually the ship starts making its way back towards town, but not before dropping us off at our snowmobiles. We jump on and head back at speeds that won’t shame professional riders.
As a new sun rises, it seems as though someone has removed the batteries – we were determined however, and set out to the Torne River, which flows between Finland and Sweden and is full to the brim with salmon. Pohjolan Safarit Nordic Safaris organized this, as well as an ice fishing experience. Arriving in Kukkola fishing village, they create a hole in the frozen river, lower a wicker basket, and wait for the fish (which will later become lunch). After fishing we enjoyed a .relaxing sauna, with the option of a frozen dip in the river or a snowy blanket, for those brave enough.
The last day was spent among incredible Husky dogs. We arrived at the dog ranch, and a flurry of tail wagging and joyous barking greeted our senses. Harnessed to the sleighs, the huskies led the way, and off we went. This was perhaps the greatest experience of them all. The dogs, enjoying every moment of running, tow the sleighs behind them without any difficulty, in a silence pierced only by the sound of the dogs’ paws and the blowing winds. Passing through the trees and over frozen lakes, the sheer joy of our furry friends, combined with the breathtaking views and the never-ending snow make for one intense experience. As noon approached, we had a small break, one which was more for us than for the dogs, who couldn’t wait to run again. The dogs, each of who know their place and role in the pack, don’t let out a single bark throughout the sledding; the instant we stop, a barking symphony ensues, as if they’re trying to say: “when are we going again?” The sleighs rocket at 20kmph, and we return to the ranch in high spirits, drinking heated local juice in preparation for the night to come.
“Snow Castle” – every year an ice and snow castle is built in Kemi. The builders wait for temperatures to drop below -7°C, then carve 100 truckloads worth of ice, and build the castle. The castle is comprised of halls, sleeping rooms, a bar, a large restaurant and even a chapel. Any visitor can tour the castle or stay the night. The restaurant offers hot meals in a cold room (-5°C), which is as cold as the rooms in which guests sleep. Those who choose to spend the night have the option of an ice room, or alternatively an outside caravan with a transparent roof, the “Olokolo” through which one can gaze at the sky, and hopefully even see the northern lights. Each guest also receives a thermal sleeping bag (good for temperatures as low as -25°C) and a winter hat, but it’s advisable to keep your clothes on, or at least bring very warm pyjamas!! As our Snow Castle hosts “.say – “cold snow in a warm atmosphere”.
The town of Kemi is cosy, hospitable and welcoming. The choices are plentiful for every kind of tourism whether you choose the Snow Castle or a modern hotel, the snowmobiles or the dog sleighs; each attraction .will provide great pleasure. The town also offers different activities in the summertime.
Travel and enjoy