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soity banerjee | Updated on September 05, 2014

Snowmobiling near Levi (photos were shot with the Nokia Lumia 1020 and 1520)

A dip in the frozen Ounasjoki river

A meat-heavy Lappish meal with lingonberry jelly

Warming up to the Arctics in Lapland

All my adventures so far have been entirely unplanned. Learnt to ride a bicycle; rode it straight under the chassis of a public bus. Signed up for swimming lessons; nearly drowned in five feet of water (scarlet swimsuit and cap, notwithstanding). Went skiing in the Alps; returned with pulled hamstrings you could play a quartet on. It is no minor matter then that my travel insurance (and visa) arrives hours before I set out on my greatest adventure yet. In northern Finland — hunched across the Russian border, extending right up to and beyond the Arctic Circle.

That Lapland has hospitals and tall, strapping paramedics on call, is subzero comfort — what with Accuweather predicting, quite accurately, a balmy -26°C on arrival. But what really sets off a polar freeze of spinal fluids is the final itinerary in the inbox. Ice carting, ice dipping, reindeer and husky sledding, snowmobiling (on Yamaha-ha, are you kidding me?)… it’s like a death wish in Helvetica. The only bright spot in this minefield of misadventures is the promise of sighting the northern lights, in a year expected to throw up some of the most brilliant spectacles in the last decade.

Overcompensating for my cowardice, perhaps, I wake up on my first morning in the resort town of Levi at 5.30am to watch the sunrise. In the footsteps of a reindeer, plodding through knee-deep snow past an army of pine trees, a fellow traveller and I make our way to a river that runs across the Lappish countryside. In March though, frozen over with three-odd metres of ice, Ounasjoki is an open field. Bereft of trees, it affords a great view of the rising sun, but only if you’re camera-ready — fingers parted from the glove to press the shutter, and brr, freeze the moment.

I soon find out, however, the sun can be as elusive as the northern lights in the Arctics. Over an hour later, with frost on my eyelashes and truant snow in my boots, the fool refuses to rise. Defeated, we tread back to warmth and to a fantastic breakfast that includes among other things, an unleavened barley-based flatbread called rieska and an orange-gold jelly of cloudberry, the ephemeral fruit that sends the Finns foraging in the woods for three weeks every summer. (For the rest of the year, you can find cloudberry on the Finnish €2 coin and of course, in expensive jam jars.)

Back on the frozen river, this time on a sled with 12 huskies, I prepare for my first taste of feral speed and wind chill. The sled driver, 20-year-old Yohanna, who moved here from a neighbouring town two years ago for the love of huskies and foxes, seems perfectly amiable and disconcertingly young. Addressing the barking pack by their names — some of whom can run up to 200km a day — she pushes the wooden throttle down with such great force that we go flying through the snow, battling the wind and errant shards of ice, over endless bolts of white. A few brave punters even record the ride on their cell phones (for a full 15 seconds, if you must know). But I hold on for dear life (photos be damned), pulling the reindeer skin rug under me tighter and tighter around the shoulders.

Although we go riding again — once on a gentler reindeer sled and once on a snowmobile on overdrive between the village-towns of Kittila and Levi — the thrill of the husky sled is never outdone.

It is not until that evening however, that I finally meet my Waterloo. The Finnish sauna, lovingly prepared by splashing water on hot stones in a dimly lit log cabin, is well outside my comfort zone. But with a sauna for every two people in Finland — where grandparents born in saunas and multi-million euro deals struck in the buff are kosher — the one thing you can’t do, is avoid an invitation to one.

And oh, come buck-naked, would you?

In the changing room, however, in a largely Asian huddle of tourists, I’m not the only one loath to shedding my inhibitions and my clothes. Au naturel may be the default dress code here, but I’m not bartering my modesty yet for a scraggy branch of birch — the token fig leaf with medicinal properties. Belligerent in my scarlet swimsuit (sans the juju cap) and scrambling to find my birch in the dark (just in case), I’m hot and sweaty long before the sauna is.

Once inside though, it’s all a haze. Loose-limbed and toasty, spirits are periodically revived with cold beers, cider and a local mix of gin and grape juice called lonkero. I could get used to this (lucky Finns!). But all light-headed mirth, and any air in my lungs, is knocked out the moment Frida, the only Finn in our all-girl group (they may not have a stitch on, but traditional saunas are perfectly prudish single-sex zones), insists we do what the locals do, go where the locals have been. The latter, as it turns out, is down the hatch and into a hole punched into a frozen river or lake, skinny-dipping under an open sky.

“No half-measures here,” says Frida, darting into the subzero darkness in a barely there bikini. I follow suit, and live to tell the tale — mandible and hamstrings intact.

Finland: Travel log

Get there

Finnair has several direct flights every week from Delhi. Other major European carriers, such as KLM, Air France, Lufthansa and British Airways, also offer one-stop connections through their hubs.

Stay

We stayed at the Levi Spirit, a cluster of charming villas adjacent to the Ounasjoki river, about 10 minutes from Levi town and 15 minutes from the airport at Kittila. All wood, stone and glass, the double-storey villas come with their own saunas, Jacuzzis and ‘kammis’, a partly covered lounge with a crackling open fire, otherwise found in traditional Sami lodges (from €500; levispirit.fi). You can also consider booking a room at K5 Levi (from €100; golevi.fi).

Get active

If you’re not too focused on skiing on the gentle slopes of Levi or cross-country skiing in the woods, make a short pit stop at the Levi Husky Park for dog sledding. They also offer guided tours in summer (closed between April 29 and June 20; polarspeed.fi). For snowmobile safari routes and operators and ice carting, contact the local tourist office (levi.fi).

BLink tip

Save an afternoon for the charming hostess and her rustic Lappish meals at Tikun’s Tii Pii, close to town ( >facebook.com/Tiikuntiipii). On the menu, among other things, are reindeer meat, warm crowberry and lingonberry juice and a homemade dessert of fresh cheese smothered in cloudberry preserve.

The writer travelled to Finland at the invitation of Nokia Lumia last month.

Published on April 04, 2014

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