“If you boil the bud you can survive on its nutrients and vitamins for up to two weeks,” our guide Jorma bellowed as he held up a sample plucked from the thicket of pine trees. It was the first day of our ride through Sami reindeer country – a vast and uncompromisingly beautiful wilderness on the edge of the Arctic Circle. But riding alongside the Bear’s Ring hiking route, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be left to survive out here for two weeks. According to Jorma we were unlikely to see any bears unless we visited Kuusamo’s Carnivore Centre, but I didn’t fancy becoming ursine hors d’oeuvre on any chance encounters.
As we clambered up Kiutavaara to the Oulanka National Park we learned a great deal about our surroundings, once inhabited by the Sami. Forced to live a separate existence from the Finns, they were denied their own language or schools and left to survive on nature’s gifts. Not that they were in short supply if the fruits of the region we sampled were anything to go by – cloudberries coloured the bushes, whitefish and salmon crowded the rivers and herds of reindeer roamed the wilds. When Jorma first led hardcore survival rides in these remote parts he may well have served up pine buds for dinner, but since then he’s swapped bush tucker and tents for three-course banquets and forest cabins – and the pine buds are more commonly eaten by resident moose.
We were entering one of the last virgin forest areas of Europe – nestled in north-east Finland, the virtually untouched landscape is overpopulated only by spruce, pine, birch, juniper and mountain ash. According to local folklore the mountain ash keeps at bay any devils and bad luck, hence one is planted alongside each of the few properties scattered across the region. As my sturdy Finnish mount climbed nonchalantly over the boulders strewn on the winding trail I struggled to catch what Jorma was saying up front. “...Beard moss shows the absence of pollution in these parts...” I heard him say in his rough drawl, and saw he was clutching a cotton-wool-like growth that decorated many of the trees.
After sampling the ‘kitka wine’ – water scooped straight from the Kitkajoki – I didn’t need any more evidence to testify to the lack of pollution. My city-bred lungs were shocked at every breath of the freshest air I had ever inhaled – I’m sure the Sami would have suffocated in the London smog. And as the call of a sandpiper broke the echo of the horses’ hooves, we were also reminded that the absence of pollution has encouraged an abundance of bird life.
Jorma is the only guide with permission to lead rides into this remote area, and to preserve it he is careful to keep his group sizes small and to take good care of the trails. So far removed from the commotion of modern life I was distressed to witness the trill of his mobile phone challenge the sandpiper’s call. But taking guests into the middle of nowhere means taking his role as a survival guide seriously, and if he fails to make regular contact with the ‘outside world’ a helicopter rescue search is launched.
As a guest I could safely detach myself from reality and, kitted out with a saddle bag for my supplies, I was temporarily seduced into playing the part of a rugged bush-woman exploring an untamed forest. Admittedly a short-lived roleplay, as the thought of the comfortable cabins that greeted the end of the day justly reminded me that I was teetering at the softest end of ‘roughing it’. Even the Western saddles – “the Harley Davidsons of horse riding”, as Jorma described them – added that little extra luxury to the experience. Although unfortunately for my gluteus maximus, even the Harley upholstery didn’t cushion the constant bounce aboard Jellmiina – the horse who was ‘always jogging’.
Jellmiina, Salama, Arttu, Herku and the rest of the crew were all pure Finnish horses originally bred for logging – strong, sure-footed and, surprisingly, very fast for their stockiness. As we tackled the challenging and sometimes steep terrain, I envied Jellmiina’s uncanny ability to dance gracefully over every crag, branch and uneven gradient as if it was as smooth as a race track. Meanwhile, I concentrated on my white-knuckle grip on the pommel of the saddle (a feature I had snubbed as unnecessary at first) and spent the rest of the time ducking under branches, finding the brakes and trying to capture the essence of the Finnish wilderness as it flashed by. Fortunately for me, the landscape, though exquisite, unfolded like an endless reel of dappled green fabric – so vast, yet so unchanging that I was afraid the absolute serenity might eventually become bland.
At the end of the first day in the saddle we reached the Kiutaköngäs campsite – a cluster of Heidi-style log cabins that resembled Wendy houses for grown-ups. Simple yet sweet, with chequered bedding, a picnic table and mini netted windows peeping into the forest, the lodgings were a childhood dream come true. Even as a weary adult my excitement was only mildly subdued, and the top-bunk beckoned as the perfect place to rest my aching limbs.
However, as I was quick to learn, trying to rest was a futile pursuit, and my introduction to the Finnish lifestyle didn’t end just because the horses were left tethered by the river for the night. In the land of the midnight sun, where the fading light merely teases the horizon for a few hours just past midnight, there is barely any rest at all in the summer – apparently the Finns make up for time between the sheets in winter.
So, my fatigue forgotten along with any concept of time, I soon found myself barefoot and bikini-clad, following a tree-shrouded trail to the hut sauna. Coming from the UK, the term ‘sauna’ conjures up terrifying images of sweaty pot-bellies crushed into a small box in the corner of the local gym – not a venue I regularly haunt, not least because I can recreate the experience fully clothed on the London Underground.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached my first Finnish sauna – and with some surprise that I found it housed in a spacious log hut with a tranquil view over the Oulankajoki. Inside, I sizzled and was rapped with damp birch leaves (apparently to improve circulation) before disturbing the perfectly mirrored forest scenery by plunging into the cool water of the river. Baked and dunked several times, I was a well-prepared feast for the mosquitoes that gnawed at my flesh and, still in my bikini in the balmy evening light, I was startled to be reminded that it was 10pm and time for dinner.
“Hölökhutölöku,” we chanted as glasses of the potent Finnish schnapps were raised before the salmon starter. “It is a polite Finnish tradition to drink a shot with a fish dish,” Jorma explained, as I forgave myself for hopping off the wagon for the sake of good manners. “Hurli... gen... gurligen,” I repeated in an elementary Finnish accent, slightly disconcerted that it wasn’t half as convincing as the German, Swiss and French attempts from around the table.
According to our hosts, not only was it polite to make a toast before a fish dish, but essential with almost every platter that was served. “Hölökhutölöku,” I stammered as the reindeer was served.“Hölökhutölöku” – it almost rolled effortlessly off my tongue before the cloudberry mousse. Initially I blamed the merging of the dusk and dawn on the surreal atmosphere around the day-lit campfire, but it had as much to do with the hybrid European languages being used and our literal abidance to the translation of Hölökhutölöku, ja tolkku pois – Cheers, drink until your head spins.
Trying to sleep in the daylight, like grasping the Finnish accent, is not an easy talent to acquire overnight, so the next day I needed a change in the relentlessly beautiful scenery to revive my tired eyes. As it turned out, my speculations about an endless calm proved far too hasty and, just as the hills once came alive with the the sound of music, the forest now came alive with the sound of gushing water. The horses might well have been capable of descending the steep drop over quartzite and dolomite walls, but I wasn’t volunteering to remain a passenger, so we approached the source on foot.
The thundering Kiutaköngäs rapids left my assumptions humbled. Even the rocks beneath my feet tremored above the unharnessed torrents that surged onto craggy boulders. It seemed that the Oulankajoki, stocked with salmon, pike, whitefish and trout, is not only a source of life and sustenance to the people, but also the life amidst the sleeping forest.
The Finnish are a warm yet serious people, but they have seen beyond the natural use of their land and found ways to enjoy its givings as a playground. Where there are rapids there will also be white-water rafters, and on a bumpy ride out of the saddle and along the Kitkajoki between Käylä village and Juuma, mother nature took a second opportunity to belittle my city-chic complacency. One minute we’d been paddling on a glassy mill pond, the next we were unnaturally moored in the middle of torrents of swirling water – and these had been graded the ‘family rapids’. Not only did my failure as an oarsman leave me unqualified for the local rafting championships, it now left me wondering if even the professionals could tackle the power of the Kiutaköngäs.
Back on the road, where the reindeer outnumbered the traffic, I noticed the elements of the unexpected that made this Lappish corner of the world so enchanting. And camped in a teepee by the Russian border, looking forward to my tent-sauna under the midnight sun, I realised I’d tapped into a lifestyle left untouched by the city fast-lane. On arrival we’d been warned that “if you can’t find yourself in Kuusamo then you will be lost forever”. I wasn’t sure I’d ‘found myself’ exactly, but I had temporarily lost myself in the wild isolation and tranquillity of the wilderness (and also lost a bit of my bottom to that Harley upholstery).
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