As I walk through the bitter cold and slowly falling snow, carrying a large steaming pizza and a 2-litre bottle of Pepsi Max, I realise I am in the middle of one of those unforgettable memories. It’s nine o’clock at night and pitch black, except where the light from sporadic streetlamps are reflecting off the snow. The crunching of compressed snow under my boots and my own ragged breath, amplified by the severe cold, are the only sounds I hear. I’m alone and all my senses are screaming at me that this is not a safe thing to do.
Ahead, a young man is lazing in the snowy bank on the edge of the pedestrian walkway on which I am walking. He avoids eye contact as I approach. My nerves are tingling. As I walk past him, I see movement from out of the corner of my eye. I turn around to confront him, wondering if the bottle of Pepsi in its semi-frozen state would make an adequate weapon. The boy runs off the walkway and makes a somersault into the soft snow beside the road. I turn around again, laughing quietly – at him or at myself, I’m not sure.
And so our week in Äkäslompolo began. Situated at N67° 36.135’ S24° 09.369’, about 150km into the Arctic Circle and part of Finnish Lapland, it is the most northern place we have ever been. And we decided to visit at the height of winter. When we arrived we were thrilled to see the thermometer dipping to -10°C, but as the week progressed, we watched with ever-increasing amazement (and a little trepidation) as temperatures fell to -18°C, then to -23°C, finally peaking at -35°C!
Believe me when I say it was cold. It was so cold that our first purchase was a balaclava, without which I am convinced we would not have survived the arctic temperatures. “What does -35°C feel like?” I hear you wonder. It feels like a heavy weight on your chest, making it hard to inhale. The moisture in your nose freezes and you have to breathe through your mouth, forming a frozen layer of condensation on the front of your balaclava. Snow falling on eyelashes melts from your body heat, then immediately ices up again, freezing your eyelids together. Seconds after you’ve taken your gloves off to operate the camera, your fingers start burning. You layer and layer your clothes, and then add another layer, and finally you are wearing so many layers that you can no longer reach your feet to tie up your shoelaces.
But despite all of this, it was one of the best weeks of my life.
We stayed in a little wooden cottage on the edge of a frozen lake. Sometimes we would find fresh deer tracks in the deep snow next to our cabin. Bright red dots representing skiers in the distance were our closest neighbours.
The sun rose at around 11 AM every morning, hovering low over the horizon and bathing the surreal white landscape in a pinkish glow for about four hours, before night time fell again. But the cold and the dark did not deter us. We walked the 1.4 km stretch between our cabin and the two or three shops that serve as the town centre many times, admiring the scenery and pelting each other with snowballs along the way.
People were few and far between, but we were overwhelmed by the kindness of the Finnish people we met. From the public bus driver at Kittilä airport who phoned our resort on his own mobile phone to find out where to drop us off, to the restaurant owner who offered to make us pizza to take home on that first night even though the kitchen had already closed, to the friendly guides of Ylläs Adventures who changed their route to pick us up at our doorway when they realised we had such a long walk into town, to the taxi driver on the final day who offered to let us wait in his vehicle for the bus for half an hour free of charge. We learned a lesson in old-world kindness that will hopefully stay with us for a very long time.
Would I visit the Finnish arctic circle again? I wouldn’t even hesitate for a second.
For more posts in the Winter Escape 2012 series, click here.