Finland’s native Sámi adventures
Sleds of visitors are pulled through the forest in the same way that the Sami people used to transport goods. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty)
From trying to control a pack of over-excited huskies in the wilderness to doing handbrake turns on ice in a rally car, Finnish Lapland is an adventure sports hotspot. However, what makes these arctic activities unique is they were born out of the indigenous Sámi peoples’ need to live within the limitations of an incredibly harsh winter environment.
One of the northern region’s most popular adventures is a multi-day expedition where visitors run a team of snow dogs, organised by the tour operator Kamisak. Sleds have been used as transport in the Arctic region for thousands of years and old sleds and leather reins have even been found in bogs, estimated to be more than 3,000 years old.
From the village of Ivalo (and with the help of a guide), visitors drive their own team of dogs through pristine, snow-covered fells, covering between 30km and 50km a day, sleeping in remote wilderness huts each night and experiencing the isolation and beauty of Lapland in a section of forest just 50km from the Russian border.
A milder, but quirkier thrill is reindeer sledding in Saariselkä, a ski village about 30km south of Ivalo. Since reindeer need to be fed less meat than dogs, locals used the antlered animals to pull their skis and sleds from the 14th Century onward. Today, sleds of visitors are pulled through birch forest in the same way that goods were transported from the summer to winter feeding grounds of the semi-nomadic Sami people. Sled rides vary from two to four hours.
The region’s only challenger to the dominance of dogs and reindeer was the Finnhorse -- a stout, versatile and reliable chestnut coloured horse that was originally bred for farm and agricultural work. In another Ivalo-based tour run by Kamisak, thrill-seeking guests can gallop the sure-footed Finnhorse through the icy forest for two hours.
The introduction of motorised vehicles changed life in the Arctic region of Finnish Lapland. The region’s first road -- which stretched from the far northern village of Inari to the town of Rovaniemi, nearly 400km to the south -- was completed in 1925, and cars were a common sight by the 1930s. The road brought a supplies and goods from Finland’s southern regions to the remote communities in the far north, but it also brought new dangers; collisions with reindeer were common and drivers faced often icy roads.
Today, the cold weather conditions and stunning vistas are a major drawcard for a number of private car clubs, who come from all over Europe to test both their cars and their driving skills in Arctic conditions. For other visitors eager to give ice driving a go, Action Park near Saariselkä has a specially-designed ice and snow track where thrill seekers can learn how to handle high performance rally cars (a modified car that races both off road and on). For those not keen on doing handbreak spins – an important skill to learn if ever driving on ice -- Action Park also has an excellent ice go-karting track.
Despite the introduction of cars, the most useful motorised vehicle in Finnish Lapland is the skimobile. Known commonly as the ski-doo, it first appeared on the Finnish market in 1962 and the Sami people used them to revolutionise reindeer herding.
Today there are more than 1,000km of skimobile tracks in northern Lapland, and it is not uncommon to see Sami herding their reindeer with the noisy machines through the forests around Inari, riding home along a snow bank of a highway, or using them to ferry hotel guests to the airport shuttle in the early hours of the morning when the roads have yet to be cleared by a snowplough.
Easily hired from most village centres or arranged by hotels, guests can zip along with a guide through the forest in a thrilling, if slightly noisy adventure, possibly stopping for tea or coffee along the way to stay warm.
But there are also some adventure activities in northern Finland that are just good old-fashioned fun. Saariselkä is home to Finland’s longest toboggan run -- a 1.2km slope that starts from the summit of Kaunispää and offers a four-minute ride to the bottom. Punters can grab one of the few dozen sleds often available at the bottom of the run and either drive or take the lift to the top of the 483m-tall mountain for the slide.
And perhaps the greatest adventure activity of them all is ice dipping. Temperatures in Finnish Lapland can plunge below 30C in winter, but that does not deter some from taking a frosty dip at the Hotel Kakslauttanen in Saariselkä. After warming up in a Finnish sauna -- a national tradition -- guests don socks for a 50m, often naked run through the snow to a manmade hole in the ice, where they can safely use a step ladder to dip in the icy lake waters below.