I’m lying in a ditch in the snow, looking up at the stars and wondering if I’m still alive or if I had died and the white stuff surrounding me are puffy clouds. I wiggle my toes tentatively. Nothing seems to be broken. And then a circle of worried faces are looking down at me. Someone asks if I’m okay. “I think so,” I reply as they lift the heavy snowmobile off me. An offered hand helps me to my feet. “Thank you. I’m fine,” I reassure everybody. I watch in a shell-shocked daze as the others try to navigate the snowmobile out of the ditch.
What the hell had happened?
About three hours ago, Gareth and I signed indemnity forms and joined the rest of the group for our first snowmobile safari. It was around 19:00, but quite dark, and we were about to set off across the wild Finnish landscape of the Pallas-Ylläs National Park in search of the northern lights. Our group consisted of ourselves, our Ylläs Adventures guide, Helena, a young Spanish couple and a Finnish father-daughter team. Gareth and I were each assigned a snowmobile – he right behind the guide, me third in line with the rest following behind.
Helena gave us a quick briefing on how to drive and what to do in case of falling, and then we were off. I was nervous, at first. The visor on my helmet kept steaming up, making it impossible to see anything beyond my own snowmobile’s headlight. I felt exposed and out of control as I struggled to keep the machine on the track, my arms aching from the unusual exertion. It was a cloudy night with very little chance of seeing the aurora, which was just as well, because I had no time to concentrate on anything other than safely navigating this crazy vehicle.
In front of me, Gareth’s hand shot up – stop. I parked behind him and lifted my helmet’s visor. He was grinning from ear to ear, clearly exhilarated by the ride.
“This is fantastic!” he exclaimed. “I hardly have to steer,” he says as Helena came to hear how we were doing.
“Yes,” she replied. “It’s a lot like a train. Just stay in my tracks and the snowmobile will do the rest.”
It was as if a light went up for me. Here I was, trying to forge my own tracks through the hard snow, when all I had to do was stay in theirs!
I asked Helena what I could do about visibility (seriously contemplating spitting on the visor like you do to keep your goggles clear when scuba diving). She said I should try lifting the visor just a little bit, enough for cold air to come in and keep it clear. It worked like a charm!
With sight restored and my snowmobile safely skiing in Gareth’s tracks, the second leg of our journey flew past in a rush of blurry trees and numb fingers. I was almost disappointed when we stopped at a log hut for a break.
Inside the hut, Helena quickly lit a fire. She made hot beverages and doled out delicious biscuits, while the rest of us warmed our frozen digits in front of the hearth, telling stories and tentatively got to know each other. Helena gave us the scientific explanation of the phenomenon known as the aurora borealis, but I liked the folklore version better, which claims they are caused by an arctic fox sweeping up snow with its bushy tail.
The Finnish man then turned to us and told us that he had recently returned from a few weeks on safari in South Africa. He found it funny that he now encountered South Africans on their version of an exotic holiday in his own country! He congratulated Gareth on being lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a rare white bird that dove into the snow while we sped past.
Soon it was time to head out again. Helena said that we would be driving across a frozen lake where we would be allowed to travel a little faster. A little faster meant about 40 km/h and I felt confident that I would be able to handle it.
Sure enough, as we reached the flat surface of the lake, the two in front of me sped up, and I followed suit.
And then it happened.
My joy at seeing the landscape whizz past suddenly turned into anxiety as I realised I was going too fast. I tried to brake, but instead the snowmobile shot forward. I was getting alarmingly close to Gareth’s snowmobile. I let go of the handlebars completely, knowing that the snowmobile would slow down if I stopped accelerating. It didn’t. Wide-eyed and now gripping the handles, I was about to collide with the snowmobile in front of me.
I swerved at the last minute, rearing off the track and onto virgin snow. I managed to keep control, but couldn’t slow the snowmobile down. I shot past Gareth, swerved around a lamppost to the left, avoided a road sign on the right and just had enough time to think: “I might actually pull this off” when I ramped up a small incline, flew spectacularly through the air and landed in the ditch.
Eventually, Helena manages to drive the snowmobile out and, after a quick inspection, assures me that it isn’t damaged. I sigh in relief. Trembling slightly, I climb back on the machine and slowly, carefully, drive the few hundred metres back to the safari lodge.
Once inside, everybody teases me about my daredevil stunt. The Spaniard, who had been quiet most of the trip, launches into an unintelligible barrage of words, his gestures and facial expressions speaking volumes, ending with an impressed “professionnale!”. Everyone burst out laughing.
And so ended my first snowmobile experience. Gareth and I were to spend the whole next day on the machines, and I wondered whether they would let me drive again after the evening’s escapade…
Have you driven a snowmobile? Have you had more success with it than I had?
For more posts in the Winter Escape 2012 series, click here.