Kay Burley takes a sun-loving friend thousands of miles out of her comfort zone to Finnish Lapland, and their winter’s tale has a surprising twist
“Fancy a husky safari in Lapland for four days?” I asked my ridiculously risk-averse buddy, Sophie Greenyer.
“You know I don’t do cold or speed, so no,” replied sensible Sophie, who would get off her bike and walk it down a gentle hill rather than having to apply the brake.
Sophie’s idea of a fun holiday is a fortnight in the Caribbean lying by the pool while occasionally forcing herself to lift an arm to hail the barman for another cocktail. All of which made her the perfect candidate for my latest Kay Made Me Do It: travelling at speed behind a team of frisky huskies through Finnish Lapland’s undulating frozen wilderness. After much arm-twisting and weeks of reassurance that of course it would be a perfectly safe trip, she finally agreed to come with me.
It was early morning in Lapland. As the January sun made its brief appearance, Sophie and I harnessed up our hounds at the Harriniva wilderness hotel, high above the Arctic Circle, ready for their 18.5-mile run. I paused for a moment, to gaze out at a forest of fir trees buckling under the weight of a fresh dump of the white stuff, and breathe in the cleanest of air.
Then we were off. Within moments I had misjudged the gradient of the hill – and the energy of my dogs who, after a night in the snow, were keen to warm up with a bracing run – and lost control of my ride on a downhill bend. Steering and braking were futile. I found myself flying through the air with the greatest of ease before face-planting into three feet of virgin snow.
Husky sledding is much harder than it looks, especially if you’re my size. I often found I didn’t have the strength to bring the team easily to a stop, and with a top speed of 30mph, four-paw forward planning – and pushing heavily on the footbrake – is a must.
Sitting up, winded but otherwise unhurt apart from my wounded pride, I had a brief moment of panic. What must Sophie – who had been driving the sled in front of me – have thought as my working dogs hurtled past her, dragging along the sled with empty running boards where yours truly should have been standing? Would my timid travel companion simply apply the brake and call it a day?
I scrambled to my feet and began lumbering through the snow in my winter wonderland onesie. I rounded the corner to find my fabulous friend firmly holding my lead dog, Ikarus, and chuckling at my misfortune. Ikarus looked at me with disdain in his eyes. I deserved it.
His reins – and those of the rest of the pack – had become impossibly entangled with those of Sophie’s dogs. I shamefacedly spent the next 10 minutes trying to unravel the Gordian Knot of cables before eventually re-harnessing them all, offering an embarrassed hug to each husky and gingerly clambering back onto my sled.
For the next half an hour, at every corner, I was convinced I would fall off again. My legs had turned to jelly and I was holding on so tightly I couldn’t feel my hands. Fear saw me apply the brake even while heading uphill and Ikarus often turned to look dismissively at me before returning to his duties as top dog, dictating pace, speed and direction. Some of the others took the opportunity to pee.
Huskies can run and run for hours, answering any necessary call of nature without breaking stride. Sprite, my old boy in the back row of the pack, often ran on three legs while cocking up the fourth and leaving a telltale trail of yellow snow. Other necessary bathroom functions are also carried out at speed which can be a relief – and not just for the dog. The more they poop on the move, the less we have to clean up in the morning – and husky poo absolutely stinks, as I discovered.
Part of the safari experience is caring for your pack, which includes feeding, laying down fresh straw ahead of them curling up for the night in the snow in temperatures that can fall well below -30C, and then cleaning up after them. The early-morning task of chipping at frozen husky poo is not for the faint-hearted, especially when you discover the droppings are fresh and not as solid as you’d perhaps hoped.
Caring for your canines does pay dividends though. This is their Arctic playground. Their strength, speed and endurance meant that once I regained my confidence, my only concern was what I might like prepared on the open fire when we stopped for lunch. Breathing in the pure air, basking in the total silence save for the sound of the sled whooshing along the trail and surrounded by nothing but nature, I decided on a reindeer burger with extra cheese. (I know – but when in Rome…)
When we stopped in an enchanted forest and tied our charges to trees, Sophie cantered over and told me excitedly how this was one of the best experiences of her life.
From the moment we arrived in our fabulous wooden cabin at Harriniva, Sophie had embraced the winter wonderland. We had been kitted out with snow suits and boots and woolly deerstalker hats that looked faintly ridiculous – not that fashion was top of mind that night as we bedded down in a wilderness cabin with temperatures plunging ever lower outside.
Our guide was not only an expert musher but also something of a canny cook. He rustled up a brilliant stew and some of the best mashed potatoes I have ever eaten on a two-ring portable gas stove that I would have had trouble boiling water on.
Later, as we relaxed in a wilderness sauna – tired, happy and relaxed in the middle of nowhere, with happy healthy dogs sleeping contentedly a few feet away – Sophie chatted happily about her experience of reconnecting with nature.
After a blissful night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, all too soon we were saddled up with our sleds and heading back to civilisation, of sorts. On the way I encountered my new nemesis – the snowmobile. They sped noisily past me, leaving the smell of fuel in their wake.
Back, at base we unharnessed the hounds and indulged in a final cuddle before returning them to their kennels for a nourishing bowl of hot doggy soup. Our wonderful Artisan Travel guide, Greta, was waiting with more surprises, and after a volcanic hot chocolate with whipped cream, marshmallows and a mint liquor which would have seen me die happy, we were whisked off to the next part of our adventure: glamping in one of the luxury Aurora Domes on the shores of Lake Torassieppi at Jeris.
Far, far away from any light pollution, the warm-as-toast bubblelike domes are designed for prime Northern Lights viewing – though sadly it wasn’t our night. But our disappointment was short-lived as we once again headed through a freezing night, guided by head torch, to another of Finland’s two million saunas. As our fingers and toes began to warm up and tingle, Sophie was already planning our next foray into the frozen forest – snowshoeing.
We woke early to wander through the forest with tennis racquets on our feet. Actually, modern snowshoes are much more ergonomic than the old-fashioned kind, and padding through the powdered snow was a breeze. Pausing to watch the sun come up with our wilderness guide, Soile, we followed the trail of field hares and hoped to see red squirrels and rabbits. Sophie was keen to encounter a brown bear. I assured her that that would be a very bad idea.
There was nowhere else in the world we’d rather be – as we kept telling each other. After a couple of hours, Soile stopped, raised her hand and said: “Can you hear that?”
I strained to listen, but couldn’t hear a thing. “OK, lie on your back in the snow,” she suggested. We dutifully obliged.
Looking ever upwards to the tops of the trees that can each support up to two tons of snow among their branches, it finally dawned on us what we were listening to… The sweet sound of silence.
Sophie’s side of the story
It was when the packing list arrived that I realised I was in trouble. First aid kit? Balaclava? Head torch? Hang on, I’m a beach person. The limit of my vacation exercise is a paddle. Clinging on to a sled powered by turbocharged huskies in sub-zero temperatures is not what I do.
The moments of terror came thick and fast. We’d been told how to use the brake in training, but not that the brake was no match for five super-excited huskies who had been waiting an hour to get going. We flew (pretty much literally) downhill and I had no way of stopping or frankly having any influence on our direction.
As a determined speed-hater (Kay still teases me about walking my bike down hills) this was out of my comfort zone. It was even out of my discomfort zone. It was in my “I can’t believe she made me do this, I should have said no”, zone. But somehow, when I reached the bottom of the hill, I found myself laughing – largely from relief but also for pure joy.
In the low sun, the forests and frozen lakes were enchanting. But the real beauty came from the five canine powerhouses in front of me. Wild and noisy before we started, their silence as they ran was absolute and their focus awe-inspiring.
All that seemed to distract them from their mission, was some idiot braking as they picked up speed – for that I would get a backward look icier than the weather. But all was forgiven when we stopped, and as they curled up in the snow for a snooze they were generous with cuddles.
It was the most terrifying, most exhilarating, and certainly the coolest thing I’ve ever done. And yes, I would do it again, but I’d ask for only four dogs… and a much bigger brake.
Kay Burley travelled to Finnish Lapland with independent holiday specialist Artisan Travel (01670 785085; artisantravel.co.uk). An overnight husky safari is included as part of the seven-night Harriniva – Winter Adventure trip, which costs from £1,995 per person, based on two sharing).
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The price includes return flights from London to Kittila with Finnair, transfers, seven nights’ full board, additional guided activities such as a reindeer-pulled sleigh ride, snowshoeing and a snowmobile safari, and cold weather clothing. Upgrades include a night in an Aurora Dome (from £107pp) and a visit to the Arctic Elements Lakeside Spa (from £46pp).
Departures until April 5 2020, and Nov 29 2020 to April 4 2021. Finnair (020 8001 0101; finnair.com); flights start from £210 direct from London Gatwick to Kittila in Finnish Lapland (until March 8, after that, connect via Helsinki).