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Falling in love with a Lap dog

My daughter, Anna, and her husband, Pasi, run two companies (Hetta Huskies and Cape Lapland) in North-west Finland, 380km above the Arctic Circle.  They offer husky safaris through one of Europe’s last great wilderness areas, as well as winter and summer survival courses, winter skills & snow-craft courses, alpine mountaineering, glacier safety and ski/ski-mountaineering products, polar preparation & expedition training courses, guided arctic journeys (by husky, ski, bike, kayak, etc), heli-skiing/heli-kayaking products, and  tailor-made small-group/corporate adventures. 

Anna invited her dad, her godmother and me to celebrate my birthday on a specially designed ten-day programme.  Unlike in the more touristy Lappish destinations further South, most of their clients had arrived by the end of March.  April, however, with its long sunny days, is a wonderful month in the far North.  It is the month when the locals go out to play.

I booked our tickets online with Scandinavian Airways (SAS); from Heathrow to Alta in Northern Norway, via Oslo.  It is just one of many routes we could have chosen, though all involve several hours by road at the end.

On the 1st April we set out early for Heathrow. Two hours after landing at the tiny airport of Alta we were to catch a bus to Kautokeino, near the border with Finland, where Anna and Paivi, Pasi’s sister, would pick us up for the final hour’s drive to Hetta.  Fortunately, a delightful Norwegian lady heard us inquiring about the bus.  She introduced herself as Lisa and said she was driving to Kautokeino and invited us to go with her.  A quick call to Anna warned her to expect us two hours earlier.  The idea of our ‘hitching a lift’ amused her! It was a pleasant drive along a quiet road through the mountains in softly-falling snow.  Lisa told us that reindeer herdsmen from around the world were in the area for the annual Easter Festival.  She was an interesting companion and her English was excellent. When we reached Kautokeino, Anna hadn’t yet arrived, so Lisa insisted on staying with us till she came.

Next day was my birthday. We looked out over the glistening snow-covered land at deep-blue skies and brilliant sunshine.  We then greeted Pasi’s parents and the three volunteers who were helping on the farm.  Matt and James, two 21-year-old friends from the UK, were enjoying an adventure before starting their careers in London and Sandhurst respectively.  Lotte, from Belgium, hopes to become a wilderness guide.

We dressed in our arctic clothing and gathered at the puppies’ cages.  The 20 puppies were born last October while Pasi was skiing unsupported to the South Pole.  Soon they will be moved to the farm in the woods with the adult dogs and next season they will run in safaris.  I soon spotted the one I wanted to take walking – Arrow, a beautiful, blue-eyed charmer, whose mother, Princess, I became attached to in December 2007.  We each took a puppy on a lead and off we went on a brisk nature walk through the woods.  We learned the three basic commands required when driving a team of huskies.  Soon, ‘gee’ (right), ‘haw’ (left) and ‘alas’ (sit) were part of our vocabulary as we practised the commands on the puppies.  Arrow was a bright pupil and so cute.  She would remain sitting, hoping to earn an extra treat!

That afternoon we met the 49 adult dogs.  Soon, six teams of huskies were being harnessed to sleds and driven out of the farm to a holding area.  I went in front with Anna, and Princess was one of our lead dogs.  When everyone was ready, we set off and how those dogs ran!  They were in their element.  We raced through woods, over marshes and across a frozen lake.  We rested and warmed ourselves by a huge log fire in a cabin that Pasi’s parents built there on a hillside last summer.  The dogs, meanwhile, lay down in the snow.  Anna let me drive on the way back.  It’s an exhilarating experience with the wind and flying snow and ice hitting your face.  I even had the courage to take one foot off the ski and help by pushing on ascents!  The sense of freedom as you race across the vast expanse of snow is wonderful.  You feel part of the landscape.

Evening brought a barbecue in a traditional lavvu (also known as a kota/tipi) in the middle of the farm.  A huge log fire was lit and light came from it and from our head-torches.  The food was good – skewered vegetables and tin-foil ‘surprise’ packages and sausages cooked to perfection.  Had Pasi been there, he would have ‘crucified’ a salmon – a traditional method of preparation in which the salmon is nailed upright to cook slowly in the heat from the fire.  Pasi, however, wasn’t there; he was in Karelia, taking his highest ski-instructor qualification, so we had no salmon!  We drank glogg (a non-alcoholic version of mulled wine).  Among my presents was a South Pole Buff (headgear) from Poppis, Pasi’s companion on the polar expedition, and a beautiful hand-crafted dish, made from juniper wood, and a lapel brooch made from a ripe boysenberry.

Near the tipi Matt and James had built an igloo and I was to sleep there that night!  It took me a while to persuade someone to accompany me.  It certainly was something out of the ordinary.  It would be scary on one’s own.  The dogs barked and howled as Anna tucked us up for the night in Rab and Marmot sleeping-bags.  They started again in the middle of the night when I woke to find myself on the cold floor, having slipped off the ledge of ice, and again, when we emerged at 7am.  A week later, as the weather grew warmer, the igloo collapsed. In hindsight, I’m glad the temperature was -22 Centigrade the night we were in it!

Another evening we visited Hetta’s Ice Castle, a magical architectural gem.  Entering through a heavy door of thick ice, we made our way through many chambers, including four double bedrooms and a little chapel with an altar.  Then we sat at a table sculpted out of ice, on tree stumps covered with reindeer hides, as we sipped hot chocolate.  The owner told us how the castle is constructed at the beginning of winter, using giant plastic balloons over which the ski slope machines blow commercially-manufactured snow.  The entrance door and the furniture inside are sculpted from blocks of ice that is dug out of the frozen lake.  It would be fun to sleep there.  It would be as cold as the igloo but the ‘bed’ would probably be more comfortable! 

Over the following days we enjoyed many husky safaris and I even rode the snowmobile across the frozen lake.  One bitterly cold evening Anna dropped Matt and James and us three at the entrance to a ridge between two lakes.  Before entering the forest we fastened snowshoes to our boots.  Moving too slowly for the lads, we told them to go ahead so that they could see the sun setting over the ridge.  We stayed in the valley, but my hands were so cold that pain was darting up through my arms and I felt really ill.  Resting on my Leki poles, I tried blowing some warmth into my gloves.  Then we made our way slowly and painfully back to the road and the lads caught up with us before we reached the spot where Anna was to pick us up.

Skiing would have been easier but there wasn’t time for that.  However, Lotte and James competed in a cross-country skiing race from Hetta to Olos, a distance of 80km.  Anna and Matt drove us to welcome them at the finish.  James took six hours, and Lotte eight.  We celebrated with pizzas in a tipi-shaped restaurant, made of glass, by the ski slope from where we could look out on the downhill skiers.
Finland has a long tradition of cross-country skiing and each year, in February and March, every child has a week-long skiing holiday.  Being able to ski is necessary for survival; it’s an important means of travelling across the snow and was essential in wartime.  Twice we visited the touristy area around Levi, further south from Hetta.  Pasi and Anna were visiting the Levi Husky Farm while we browsed in the up-market shopping arcade around the hotel.  We watched the skiers in their designer outfits coming and going and we witnessed some very skilful downhill skiing.  On our second visit we travelled in a gondola (cable-car) to the summit, alongside the World Skiing Championship ski slope.  We noticed the names of various winners on the cars. 

On top, there was a strong gale-force wind that blew icy snow into our faces.  We raced to the café where we sat drinking hot chocolate.  One of the gondolas has a sauna in it!  (Next time, perhaps?)

On our second last night Pasi was giving a public talk about his successful South Pole expedition in a hall in the Nature Centre in Yllas, and he invited us along.  On arrival, before the talk was due to start, we did a tour of the splendid exhibition, showing the history of the area from its beginnings to the present, ending with a presentation by local schoolchildren showing how they visualise the future.  Although Pasi spoke in Finnish, we still enjoyed the spectacular photographs he showed, all of which I recognised from their website over the two months that he and Poppis were on the journey, when I was checking the English version of the daily reports before they were posted.  Judging by the large number of questions from the audience, his talk went down well.  We had places of honour in the front row.

During our time in Hetta, the Hetta Music Days festival, performed every year at Easter, was taking place.  It is the most northerly church and chamber music festival in the EU.  The concerts are mainly performed in Enontekio Church and the music is of a high standard and includes traditional music from the Sami culture.

Across the road from Hetta Huskies is Minna’s Reindeer Farm.  One morning we walked there to meet Minna and accompany her on her feeding round.  She keeps 18 two-year-old tame reindeer, each one tethered to a tree.  The food comprises hay, pellets and sphagnum moss that is harvested in the autumn and then sold to the reindeer herders.  One of the reindeer still had his antlers but they usually fall off at this time and Minna collects the pieces and sells them to local craftspeople to be made into ornaments or tools or utensils.  Her husband is a reindeer herdsman owning over 1000 reindeer.  Primarily, the animals are killed for their meat, but the hides are hung up to dry and sold untreated as waterproof seating in the sleds and so on. 

Some go to local souvenir shops where they are softened and refined to be sold as indoor rugs.  Minna also supplies the reindeer for the sleigh rides in the Christmas Santa programmes.  Part of the tourist packages is a visit to the reindeer farm.  She also has horses there and in Rovaneimi, among them two Shetland ponies whose mother came from Cambridge! 

What a treat that holiday was!  There are no more than 2000 people in the whole of Enontekio, so you can enjoy real peace, beauty and solitude in this part of the unspoilt fell area of North-west Lapland.

As we were leaving, I hugged Princess.  My tears were falling on to her soft fur and I knew she understood.  Not only is she a working dog, but she is very much part of the family. Anna knows each husky by name and nature.  I hope that every one of her 1000 clients from around the world who visited during her opening session enjoyed their experiences as much as we did ours.

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