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Active Winter Vacation Ivalo, Finnish Lapland

By snowmobile and dog sled through white winter landscapes

Finland, Lapland - Husky sled ride

By snowmobile and dog sled through the white winter landscapes around Ivalu, 300 km north of the Polar Circle in Finnish Lapland. Over frozen rivers and lakes, through forests where reindeer are watching from between trees. Dinner by campfire on the way and spending the night in a cabin in the wilderness. An encounter with traditional Sami culture in a large round tent on a reindeer farm.

Travelogue & photos: Hetty Dirksen

Finland, Lapland - Ivalo lies 303 km from Murmansk, Russia

In Helsinki we transfer to a flight to Ivalo in Finnish Lapland, about 300 kilometers north of the Polar Circle. Ivalo is a village with 4,000 inhabitants and has a small airport.

We are welcomed by a hostess in the arrival hall. After waiting for half and hour it becomes clear that our luggage is still in Helsinki and will arrive on the first plane tomorrow. So we'll have to wear our clothes another night and morning. Fortunately I have chewing gum in my bag with a toothbrush, that'll have to do to make me feel clean.

Finland, Lapland - Ivalo

At 7 PM I have dinner with some travel companions in our hotel. My first introduction to Finnish cuisine turns out well: tasty reindeer meat and lots of fish.

After dinner the six of us take a walk in Ivalo. Outside it's not too cold, -2 degrees centigrade. Walking in the snow I get into vacation mood.

Snowmobile ride

The narrow, winding paths in the forest are a challenge

I wake up early, 6:30 AM. I see that it's already light outside, so I get up. After breakfast we meet our hostess again. She gives us information about what we can do this week and I decide to participate in every activity, the first one being a 60 kilometers snowmobile ride this afternoon. Our luggage arrives in the hotel lobby at 10 AM.

Finland, Lapland - Snowmobile ride

We gather in the lobby at 1:30 PM for our snowmoblie ride. Our guide takes us to a room where we get overalls, snow boots, balaclavas and crash helmets.

After a short introduction we start our engines and drive down the hill, following our guide. Somewhat ill at ease I follow the group onto the frozen Ivalo river which is behind our hotel.

Now I understand what the guide meant when he said that experience in riding a motorbike doesn't mean you can handle a snowmobile: the skis in the front of the snowmbobile follow the tracks in the snow. So I am constantly busy steering out of the tracks. I soon have to reduce my speed to 20 k/p/h and lag behind.

Finland, Lapland - Snowmobile ride

The guide returns to see how I'm doing and tells me to go faster. I do as he says and it works: by going faster the snowmobile can be steered more easily and I am beginning to see the fun in it: it's a kick!

After 15 minutes on the ice plain, we ride into the forest. This is even more fun: we can't go very fast, but the narrow, winding paths are a challenge in and by themselves.

Petra rides ahead of me, she still has trouble with the tracks. After veering off the path a second time, she gives up. Marjan takes over the steering wheel and Petra sits in the back of Wendy's machine.

Finland, Lapland - Reindeer cross the road during a snowmobile ride

On the way we stop frequently to look at reindeer who stand between the trees. They are used to people and if you don't get too close, they allow you to take pictures of them.

At some point we are riding on a narrow path. I notice too late that I am riding too far to the left, and to keep myself from falling over, I steer my machine to the left, down a slope, just avoiding a tree, and come to a halt.

I try to free the snowmobile from the deep snow by stepping on the gas, but the only think I achieve is that my machine sinks deeper in the snow.

Finland, Lapland - Reindeer, during snowmobile ride

The guide comes back to help me. I get off my machine and immediately sink a meter into the snow. With help from others I reach the path. The guide lifts the back of my snowmobile, moves it a little and then steps on the gas and brings it back to the path.

The last leg of the ride goes again over the frozen Ivalo river. There is enough space to step on the gas. These things can easily go 120 k/p/h, but we are not allowed to pass the guide and have to resign ourselves to a speed of only 50 k/p/h. We are back at the hotel around 5 PM.

Husky Safari

Over the huge Lake Inari by dog sled

Finland, Lapland - Puppies at the husky farm

I get up early again, put the luggage I won't need in my suitcase and take it to the luggage storage of the hotel. The bus that takes us to the husky farm leaves at 10 AM.

After 15 minutes we arrive at the husky farm and are greeted with loud barking from over 200 dogs. We are met by an employee of the farm who takes us to a room where we get overalls and snow boots.

Finland, Lapland - Huskies are harnassed

After some instruction about riding a dog sled, we proceed to the sleds. I get a sled with five dogs, tie my luggage to it and sit down with both feet on the brake.

The dogs can't wait to go and bark, they make a lot of noise. While running, they are quiet. The musher (owner of the sled dogs) removes the anchors from the snow and after the first sleds have left, I take my feet off the brake and put them on the sliders.

Finland, Lapland - Huskies make a run for it

The dogs run off like crazy and immediately take a right turn off the farm. The person ahead of me is catapulted off his sled in the first bend. The dogs keep running but are soon overtaken by the musher on his snowmobile.

After a few hundred meters the dogs slow down to a trot, the situation gets calmer and I can sit back and look at the surroundings. The weather is beautiful with temperatures around freezing, a blue sky and sun. The dogs freqently take a mouthful of snow, a good alternative for water.

Finland, Lapland - Over Lake Inari

After a few kilometers through the forest we arrive at the 80 kilometers long Lake Inari. The dogs run at a leasurely pace and I take off my hat and gloves, put them in my bag en get my camera to take a few pictures.

Soon I find out that not everyone's dogs run as calmly as mine: When we left I was in third place, but soon I end up in the rear with Maria. In the distance we see the others get far ahead of us.

We stop for lunch after 30 kilometers; it's 2:30 PM. We sit around a campfire and get soup with large chunks of salmon and tasty cheese sandwiches.

Finland, Lapland - Wilderness cabin

We arrive at 4:30 in the afternoon, after 50 kilometers, at the wilderness cabin, where we will spend the next two nights. I help the musher to unharness the dogs, which are chained in a fixed order to a chain in the snow.

The sleds are turned on their sides and we take our luggage inside teh wilderness cabin. In the attic, sleeping bags and pillows are ready for us.

Finland, Lapland - Sunrise

The dogs are fed at 6 PM with a kind of soggy cake made of meat and fish. My hands smell like fish and cleaning them with snow doesn't help, so I look for my lotion tissues. At 7 PM we get dinner: a large plate of mashed potatoes with reindeer meat and cranberry jelly.

When it's really dark, we all go outside to see the northern light. The sky is clear and after 15 minutes it begins. I can't believe my eyes: beautiful large green ribbons make lines and curlicues in the dark sky. It's breathtakingly beautiful.

Finland, Lapland - The writer with the leader of the pack (of dogs

The next morning it's already light at 7 AM and when I step outside, I see a wonderful sunrise. The silence is pervasive, there are no sounds at all. When the sun has risen, I take a walk on the lake with Janneke, Marjan and Wendy.

Back at the cabin I wash up with a lotion tissue and brush my teeth with a cup of water from the jerrycan the musher fills with water from an ice-hole in the lake. There is no running water here and the cabin is heated with wood stoves. The only luxury is electric power, which comes from a generator.

Finland, Lapland - Sometimes the dogs fight

After breakfast (with salmon) we leave at 10:30 AM by sled for a 30 kilometers ride on the lake and in the forest. The sun shines and it's a wonderful, not too cold day again.

My dogs are in a good mood: yesterday we were in the rear and I sometimes had to scoot, but today I frequently have to brake in order not to get ahead too far or pass the sled in front of me.

Finland, Lapland - Heating sausages over a campfire

We have lunch around a campfire again and heat sausages on sticks over it. We are back at the cabin around 3 PM. The sauna is heated for whoever feels like it. Others, myself included, decide to take another walk.

I bought cookies for my dogs in a supermarket in Ivalo, but unfortunately they don't take anything from my hand. So I throw it on the ground in front of them and when I walk away, I see they eat the cookies anyway.

Finland, Lapland - The sun breaks through the clouds

On the third and last day of the husky safari we leave at 9:30 AM for a 50 kilometers ride back to the husky farm. It's overcast and it snows a little, so I bundle up against the cold. It's not even freezing very much; I can't imagine what it's like when temperatures are around minus 30 degrees centigrade.

In the afternoon the sun breaks through the clouds and I enjoy the beautiful natural surroundings. For lunch we have soup with reindeer meat and after a wonderful ride in the forest we are back at the farm at 3 PM. We unharness the dogs and return our overalls and snow boots and then the bus takes us back to Ivalo.

Reindeer farm

An encounter with traditional Sami culture

Finland, Lapland - Inhabitants reindeer farm in traditional Sami garb

This morning we go by bus to Inari, a hamlet 40 kilometers from Ivalo, with less than 500 inhabitants. There we visit a museum and browse in a Sami souvenir shop. I was going to buy warm reindeer-leather slippers, but I don't want to spend 210 euro on them.

We have lunch in a hotel and afterwards we walk to the Inari river right behind it. Contrary to the Ivalo river, this one is not completely frozen over.

Finland, Lapland - Inari river

We are warned not to go on the ice; it's dangerous because the snow covers ice holes. If you fall into one of those, the current underneath will immediately drag you away. I take a few nice pictures of the river with ice-holes and floes that are pushed up a little by the current.

Finland, Lapland - Tour in reindeer sled

We continue on to a reindeer farm a little farther, where we are welcomed by the owner and his family, dressed in traditional Sami garb. After feeding the reindeer some bite-size chunks from our hands, we make a little tour in a sled drawn by a reindeer.

Finland, Lapland - Large round tent

Afterwards we have coffee and cake in a large round tent where we hear everything about Sami culture. In the middle of the tent is a fire and people sing old Sami songs for us. I buy a real Sami pocketknife, made of wood and reindeer antler.

Finland, Lapland - Sami songs

Back in the hotel we have dinner and talk for a long time on this last day of our vacation. At 10 PM we decide to go out and see if there is northern light. We cross the frozen Ivalo river and walk into the forest, where we stand still on an open spot.

At 10:45 the spectacle begins again, the colors are not as clear as they were last time in the wilderness, but still it's worthwhile to see.

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