So I ask “what should I wear?”.
“Well”, replied the lady in a charming Swedish accent, “you know the Michelin man?”
“Eh.. yes”, I reply tentatively,
“Well, that is the look you should be going for”.
And so began the Ice Extravaganza. Ten days trolling 1,200 kms (880 miles) through the artic circle looking akin to the Michelin man in search of adventure and, more importantly, warmth.
Our quest began in the north of Sweden in the town of Lulea (1). Here we picked up our noble steed, a shiny new Volvo V50 and headed straight for the Finnish boarder. Our car had several unusual features – a space heater, spiked tires and an electrical plug, used every night, to keep the motor block warm and to stop it cracking when starting in the morning sub-zero temperatures.
Through the snow storm, our first destination was the town of Kemi (2), on the Bothnian Bay. Kemi is a major port for Finland, where they import huge quantities of oranges e.t.c. to keep scurvy at bay during the long winter months. We were there to go to the beach. Leaving the hotel we enquired of the receptionist what the temperature was. “Well”, came the reply, “it is -15°c here, so it will be about -30°c (-22°f) at the beach”. That statement is wrong on so many levels, but we still headed off to rendezvous with our ship, the Sampo.
The Sampo is an ice breaker, built in 1960. However, she became redundant as container ships got bigger and her width could not carve a passage wide enough for them to pass. She was mothballed for a while until an enterprising Finn got the idea to offer ice breaker cruises. Starting in 2000 with 15 people, they now take 40,000 per year on a 5 hour cruise, teaching people about the nuances of how ice breakers work. (Interestingly they do not “cut” through the ice, the 9 engines delivering 12,000 horsepower pushes the rounded hull on top of the ice and the weight of the ship smashes down and breaks the ice. If it gets stuck, 250,000 liters of water are pumped from one tank to another in 40 seconds to make the ship wobble and thus crack the ice.)
After a ship tour and a reindeer lunch (the first of many) came the highlight of the trip – swimming the water of freshly broken ice. The ice was about 30 cms thick – 20 cms is thick enough to support a house and the ice can get to be 60 cms. We donned especially subtly coloured survival suits (allowing you to stay in the water for up to 7 hours) and went for a dip. It was great – cold, the wind chill bring the temperature down further so that getting out of the suits was a problem, the zippers froze the moment you got out of the water and had to be rinsed in warm water by a hot crew member before they would release their contents.
After a night in an igloo, we went on to the city of Rovaniemi (3), home of Father Christmas. Here we visited Santa’s Village, where in 2004 the post office received half a million letters, just before Christmas, they are coming in at 32,000 a day. Here Santa’s elves answer as many as they can, although only about 8% can be answered due to missing return addresses or illegibility – we were put to work. Then off to meet the great man himself – at an unreasonable 17€ per person. I gave him my wish list; a Ferrari, plasma screen TV, and world peace. He asked if I had been a good boy, and I confirmed that I had. Let’s see what happens.
That afternoon we went on an adventure tour, taking a 20 km snowmobile ride to the Husky men, and then a dog sledge tour of the countryside before returning on the snowmobiles. We had a 4 minute introduction to snowmobiling before setting off along the frozen river bed in a totally white alien landscape. As we got to the dogs it started to snow making it even more magical. After being warned never to let go of the dog-sledge we were off. Ten people, 2 each in a sledge, one passenger and one driver in single file, accelerated through the woods. The dogs knew where to go, but I watched with amazement as one of my traveling companions tripped, was dragged through the snow and finally let go of the sledge. The less-burdened dogs quickly accelerated, alarming the passenger, who in a move worthy of James Bond, hurdled the sledge and brought it to halt. Exciting stuff.
From there, after some warm juice and sausage on a stick, we drove back in a total white-out. I was amazed our guide got us home, it was about 4:00pm and already dark – the snow was coming down so fast I could only just make out the snowmobile in front of me. Reaching our destination, I asked the guide how he had done it, avoiding the perils such as open pools in the river, and he reassuringly said he had no idea, he had been terrified too. The perfect end to a wonderful day.
But from there the adventure was just beginning… (on to part 2)