Sunday, March 8, 2009

Mushers for a Day

My favourite activity on our northern vacation was dog-sledding. The sled dogs are beautiful and amazing. They live to run, and the colder the better; they function best at temperatures of –10 to –25˚C. Because of this, they get the summers off. The winters are for working and the summers are for grooming and relaxation.

We visited two dog farms. The smaller one had 115 Siberian Huskies. Each dog has a name and their own house. These were the friendliest dogs I have ever seen. This farm was within walking distance from our hotel, and Gilles and I strolled over there one afternoon to meet the dogs. We spent over an hour just petting and playing with them. We were covered in hair and a waxy substance from their fur that helps insulate them, but it was worth it. The second farm we visited had over 300 dogs from all three breeds of sled dogs: Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Huskies, and Alaskan Malamutes.

Our first mushing experience was at the larger farm. Gilles and I had a sled of four dogs, and we took turns being the musher. We were a parade of about five sleds, with the professional at the front setting the direction we were to take. The dogs we used were competition dogs: a cross between a husky and pointer. They were not as pretty or calm as the pure huskies, in fact they were rather crazy! They were clearly designed to race, and as soon as they were harnessed in, all they wanted to do was run. Even with my full weight on the brake, they could make the sled move! I will try and post a video of the dogs going ballistic, waiting to run. We went around a short course, and did we ever fly! We had so much fun that we decided to go on another husky safari the next day.

Our second excursion was at the smaller farm with the dogs that Gilles and I had already met. This time we had six dogs to a sled. This was a much more peaceful ride through the snowy countryside. The dogs were less speedy than the racers, but much stronger with great endurance. The trail we took was not groomed, and the dogs had to run through some pretty deep snow. These dogs understood their job: they ran when it was time to run, and relaxed when it was time for a break. I just loved sitting back, watching their six fluffy tails pointing straight up (apparently a sign they are happy and in no distress) as they hauled us through the snowy woods.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Not Quite a Good Night's Sleep

On our second night in Finland, the hotel we were staying in was overbooked. To free up a room, they asked us if we were interested in spending the night at the nearby ice hotel. The otherwise costly 240 euros/night stay would be free thanks to our flexibility. We thought about it for a little while, but in the end decided that we could not pass up the unusual opportunity.

We were driven to the hotel after supper. I warmed up my feet by the fire before we left hoping to start the night off as warm as possible. The young couple that run the hotel was very welcoming and proud of their endeavour. They showed us around the ice/snow buildings: six large suites, a bar, a chapel, two ice saunas, and two large buildings with numerous small bedrooms. We stayed in one of the small rooms. The mattress sat atop a bed made of ice, and there was a bedside table made of ice. They assured us the temperature inside the bedrooms remains between 0 and –5 ˚C, regardless of the outside temperature. We rationalized that we have spent the night in our tent around 0 ˚C, so it couldn’t be that bad, right?

They also have a large, heated, wooden lodge. This facility is available for use all night long. Among other things it contains bathrooms, a large sauna, fireplaces, and two rooms with beds in case their guests choose to abandon the icy rooms in the middle of the night. They provided us each with a pillow and two sleeping bags: a thin, fleece mummy bag to be placed inside the large, thick mummy bag. They suggested we keep only our base layer on to be in close contact with the sleeping bags.

Once in our room, we undressed as quickly as possible and hopped into the two bags. I kept my gloves, socks, base layer, and toque on the entire night. At first I was nervous of sleeping under a snow roof, but soon forgot about that for another fear: suffocating. It was hard lining up the two face openings of the bags. As soon as I rolled over, one of the bags was always covering my face. We did manage to get a decent sleep. I was not cold, but not really warm either. Our faces were very cold, and there was frosty condensation from our breath covering the sleeping bags. It was much colder than the cold camping experiences of our past. The couple greeted us in the morning with warm juice and certificates for having survived a night in arctic conditions. It was a worthwhile experience, but I was certainly glad the hotel was not overbooked the next night!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

It Looks Like Home!

That is what we said as soon as our bus pulled away from the Rovaniemi airport en route to our hotel. More specifically, it looked just like Northern New Brunswick. Northern Finland is where we spent last week, frolicking in the snow. The social committee at Gilles’ work has a travel agency that offers about a dozen trips a year at competitive prices. When we saw the trip to Finland, we jumped on it. We were surprised that we missed winter last year, so thought a week in the great white north would fill the void. People in the South of France think this winter season has been great because the Pyrenees actually have snow, but if they think that wet, slushy snow, zero degree temperatures, and over-crowded ski hills is winter, they don’t know what they are missing.

So we retrieved our winter clothing out of storage, and headed north: Arctic Circle north. We were part of a group of 26 people: 24 French, and 2 Canadians. All meals and activities were planned. We took part in many different cold-weather activities, several for the first time. We went cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and on several skidoo trips. We went ice fishing, but did not catch anything. We fed, were pulled on a sled by, and ate reindeer. They are really small and slow (not sure what Santa was thinking!). We spent a night in an ice hotel and went on two dog-sled outings (more on those later). And, we visited Santa’s house. According to Europeans, he lives at the Arctic Circle near Rovaniemi, not the North Pole. But I am not sure that they can be trusted because only Gilles and I could name his reindeer. Regardless, Santa has his own post office there and charges 25 euros to have a picture taken with him. He is probably using the funds to upgrade to a dog-sled team (much faster than reindeer!).

It was funny traveling with the French. They marveled at things that are different than in France: double-paned glass in windows, houses made of wood, no shutters on windows. They were amazed with my winter boots because of their rubber exterior. And the food just didn’t quite cut it. I don’t think they could travel anywhere in the world and be truly happy with the food. The stewed rhubarb wasn’t cooked enough, we were served too much warm berry juice, and I overheard the following complaints: “they are serving potatoes again!”, “they call this bread?”, and “I can’t believe they are serving cucumbers and tomatoes!”. The latter statement shows how much the French are seasonal eaters. They do not eat cucumbers and tomatoes in the winter because they do not grow then. They are not used to northern climates with a growing season of two-three months, requiring that most fruit and vegetables are imported the majority of the year.

We did have a wonderful time in Finland. I will write more about the ice hotel and dog-sledding experiences later.