What to do when you are about to turn 50 years of age, are on the brink of a mid-life crisis, have just recently been made redundant from your job but still desperately feel the need to do something big and out there before it gets too late in life?
I know, blow all your redundancy money in one roll of the dice and bugger off to take part in an epic five-day long dog sledding adventure across the wilds of Lapland! Obvious isn’t it!
So it was that my wife and I chose to embark on a journey through the frozen wonderland of Pallas-Ylläs National Park with a small group of like-minded people in the winter of 2017, spending our nights in wonderfully remote and basic log cabins north of the Arctic Circle, off-grid and away from the stresses of the modern world.
We arrived in Kittilä on a direct flight from London just a few days before my impending 50th birthday and were driven onward along the icy highway to the Harriniva Wilderness Hotel, our new found base in the north-west corner of Finland high above the Arctic Circle.
Harriniva is situated in the very heart of the Aurora Zone (Northern Lights to you and me) in the stunning Pallas-Ylläs National Park and is a winter wonderland of vast snowy forests and pristine frozen lakes in an almost untouched wilderness, exactly what we were searching for.
Our journey began the very next morning at the Arctic Sled Centre where we became acquainted with our new best friends for the week “our huskies’.
My own dog team consisted of five wonderful canines taken from a pool of 400 or so huskies that were looked after by expert mushers at the centre. I was lucky to have as my dog team: Cilja, Miisa, Qutta, Xyzitol and Rakku. I would come to know and love each and every one of these wonderful dogs through our shared travails over the coming week.
After what seemed like a very brief lesson in dog handling and sledge steering we all set off into the wilderness led by our Finnish guide Marko. Iditarod level mushers we were not!
We’d be travelling for somewhere between 40-60 kilometres over the next five days staying in remote wilderness cabins here and there that had no running water, no electricity, no heating nor any communications with the outside world. All we had was whatever we took in with us on our sledges. Water was taken from ice-holes in the frozen lakes, wood was cut and chopped from the forests for heating, lighting was by candlelight and our food was only what we were able to carry with us on the sledges.
As we sped off through the snow covered pine forest it was hard not to pinch oneself to make sure it was all real and not some fascinating dream. But the all too real -30c temperature ensured that it was no daydream. With the dogs howling and our faces rapidly freezing we rushed through the landscape in a plume of crystalized snow.
Where we were headed, how far were we going and what the wilderness cabins would really be like were all questions that were rushing around inside my head. Then a sporadic jerk or a bump in the trail would jolt my mind back to the matter in hand which for all intense and purposes was hanging on for dear life to my sledge handles in the freezing cold as the huskies pulled me at warp speed along the thick forest trails.
Communication was impossible between sledges at the speed we were travelling, cocooned in my furs and thermal clothes I was suspended in my own little world feeling for all the world like my hero Captain Falcon Scott as I sped through the arctic landscape a miniscule dot in an immense wilderness.
The Northern Lights would pay us a visit most evenings in the clear arctic night skies. They danced across the darkness like curtains on a stage. They were never the same and I never grew bored of looking up at them. The cabins were as expected basic and rustic but all the better for it. Each evening everyone joined in to help collect and chop wood for the fires, gather water from beneath the frozen lakes and saw through endless frozen meat to feed the huskies. Participating enhances that wilderness experience.
With no showers or bathroom facilities in the cabins taking a Scandinavia sauna became the norm and once I had managed to shed-off my self-reserved English mannerisms I was stripping off like my new found european colleagues and making Snow Angels in the powder like the best of them.
Toilets were basically compostable mulch, they were very cold and were nothing more than a basic wooden shelter in the woods, a torch was a must to avoid any nasty accident in the dark. Preparing to go for a pee involved 10-15 minutes or prep work to layer up and then boot up before braving the sub-zero temperatures outside. Visits were short and brief. It is amazing what can be achieved under the threat of a permanently frozen private part!
And so we lived blissfully like this for a week speeding across frozen lakes and through Boreal Forests, following sledge tracks that wove through the woods and stopping here and there for a well earnt and warm Scandinavian Brew-Up. Distance travelled was unfathomable and without Marko our guide nobody had a clue where they were or where they had been.
When the last day dawned I don’t think anybody really wanted to head back to the comforts of the Harriniva Wilderness Hotel in their heart of hearts. But with flights to catch and real life to return to we guided our sleds back into the Arctic Sled Centre a cold, dishevelled and scruffy bunch of adventurers fatigued and sore all over but all agreeing on one thing, we had had a once in a lifetime experience.