Dogsledding in Finland, February 2015

That didn't go well.

It didn't go horribly wrong, but it wasn't a good trip.

To avoid needless tension, here's the short of it: I went on a dog sledding trip, crashed the sled twice and the trip was ended about halfway through. No dogs or humans were hurt and even the tree looked mostly unharmed, but at the end, the sled looked like this.

Crashed sled

As there were no assurances that the sled would be repaired in the next couple of days and the dogs already reassigned to day tours, I left early and went to Helsinki instead.

So that's the summary version.

Now the long version.

I wanted to do a long dog sled tour again this year (more than a week).

After the 2013 Herschel Island trip (which didn't go that well) and the 2014 trip in Sweden (which was great), it seemed that cabin based trips in Europe were the more sensible choice.

In addition, Constanze, who also prefers longer dog sledding trips and was on 2013 Herschel Island trip as well (and also on the 2012 trip), had visited a dog sledding company in Finland in the summer of 2014.

Obviously not for dog sledding, but the company offers rafting trips in summer. So she went rafting, had a look at the dogs and talked to the people there and asked the people there whether they would be willing to offer a longer dog sledding tour in the winter (usually they do shorter trips - longer trips are essentially upon request). They said yes, plans were made and in the second half of February I went to Finland to do some dog sledding.

Originally there were two alternative options regarding the date, but after the warm winter in the previous year, it seemed better to take the earlier date, as it was likely to be colder then, which would be better for the dogs and the condition of the trails. It would also be, well, colder, but that was just a matter of proper gear, so no problem.

At least that was the idea.

Arriving at the dog yard, temperature was around freezing. And it pretty much stayed like it the whole time, with at best going above and below freezing by 2° or 3°.

Which is already much too warm for dog sledding (having about 15°C lower temperatures would have been good and also expected at that time of year).

'Freezing' is quite warm for the dogs - a rough equivalent for humans would be that a good temperature for running is about 18°C (65°F) and you need to run a marathon at 33°C (90°F). It's doable if you are a well-trained runner (after all, there are people that run desert marathons), but much harder.

And dogs like to run on hard, well packed snow. Again, they can run on soft, deep snow as well and can also manage wet, slushy stuff, but the situation is similar - you can run on sand dunes or in mud, but there's a reason why most marathons are done on roads instead...

So we were a bit unlucky with the weather.

Nothing that can be done about that, of course, but given that we specifically selected the dates to increase our chances of suitable weather, hitting a warm weather period seemed even more frustrating.

But even though the conditions weren't great, they were workable.

Dogs can run at that temperatures (and more) and there was snow on the trails - so while it wouldn't be an easy trip for the dogs, at least there would be a trip.

The plan was to have a short day trip at first, then a day off for planning and packing, four days of cabin-to-cabin sledding, one rest day and then four days of sledding back to the dog yard (mostly on different trails, staying mostly in different huts, only one hut would be visited twice).

There was another day tour that left before we did, so we went to see them prepare and leave (and help if requested), so we had a good chance to see the 'starting procedures'.

It still surprises me how different the set-ups in the different companies are. There's no 'agreed best practice', but everyone seems to have an individual methods that works best for them.

I assume there is no real 'best way' to do things and all more or less work equally well, as long as it is done consistently by everyone during a trip, so it is a good thing to be able to stand back and watch someone else doing it first.

At the dog yard, the (working) dogs are kept in kennels with two to four dogs. All these kennels have doors into one big yard. And none of the dogs is wearing a collar.

Dog kennels

Then one of the dog handlers goes into the yard, releases a couple of dogs (usually four) that will go on the trip, and lets them run free in the (closed) yard.

Dogs in dog yard

The handler then moves to the yard gate, waits for a dog to come, grabs a collar, buts that on the dog and hands it to a client waiting outside.

Dog ready to go to client

The client grabs the dog and moves it to a permanent stake-out line.

Once the four dogs are well secured, the next ones are let out of their kennels, until all dogs needed for the trip are on the stake-out line(s).

Then the guide walks down the line and puts a harness next to each of the dogs. (Neither harnesses or collars are specific to the dogs - so if trips leave from the dog yard, a dog might have a different harness or collar the next day, so there are no name tags anywhere. So if you want to call your dogs by name, you have to remember them. (Luckily, the company has a full list of dogs and their pictures on their web page, so it's easy to look them up match names to looks.)

Once the dogs are harnessed (and, where needed, got their booties) they are put in front of the sled (secured by a safety line with snap release to a tree and also the usual snow hook) and it's time to leave. (On "Ready...go!" every company seems to have its own starting command as well - but giving the usual noise at the start of a run, if the dogs can hear you at all, anything that sounds like a command will have the dogs running, so it probably doesn't matter.)

So after the other teams were gone, we got our 'team roosters' our dogs were brought out and it was our turn to go.

That meant Corinna (the guide), Constanze and me, as well as Cola, Ducati, Exit, Geronimo, Itran, Karhu, Kello, Laverda, Mogli, Nero, Pedro, Polaris, Roxy, Ruunaa, Suomi, Taivas, Tequila and Zorro

Dog assignments
Dog assignments Dog assignments Dog assignments

Notes: The dog driver names should logically be below the dog's name - the dogs in the lowest position (Zorro and Karhu for me) are the wheel dogs (and hence closest to the driver), the dogs in the top position (Laverda and Ruunaa in my Team) are the lead dogs (farthest away from the driver). The little arrow under Suomi indicates that she should always run on the left side. (All other dogs can be put at either side. There's no guarantee that they will actually stay on that side, but it doesn't really matter which side the dog ends up on. Although if the dogs change position a couple of times during a run, you should disentangle their ropes from time to time.) And the note pasted to Exit's sign (not an Exit sign...) notes that Exit needs to always have booties on her back feet.

For my sled this meant this configuration:
My picture is from the end of the trip, so it's a bit disheveled looking.








The idea was to have a short trip of about two hours, covering less than 20 km, just to get a general feel of the teams (and our skills) and sort out any potential problems.

The trip started reasonably well. Some bits of the trail had deep snow and there was a bit of overflow on the lakes, but no real problems occurred.

First day of dogsledding

Then we had a short stop and the guide asked whether she should tell us about tricky bits in advance or let us find out on our own.

Trying not to do anything wrong, we asked for advance warnings, which in retrospect maybe wasn't a good idea.

A short time later, we were about to go for a left turn around a wooden pole and we stopped and the guide told us about the upcoming turn.

Trying to drive safely, I did step on the brake just before the corner. But that doesn't mean you get around the corner safely - that means the dog get around the corner safely and then pull you right into the pole.

Result - a crack in one of the sled runners.

Damaged sled

I could drive on, but the sled would not be fit for the long tour.

Ironically, Corinna had never warned anyone about the turn all season and there hadn't been any problem at all. I just managed to run into it because I was aware of the 'tricky' turn and then was going to slow to be able to maneuver around it. (And while the dogs didn't have much speed at the moment, they sure had power and momentum on their side.)

A bit later Corinna announced two more left turns. I took the first one at a bit more speed (which worked well), but then flipped over the sled on the next one, as I was going too fast. (But that was (sort of) ok. Sometimes you just run into a bit of deep snow and you tip over. As long as you don't run into anything solid, don't let go of the sled, stop it and get onto the sled again, it is something you don't want to do, but no problem.)

After she had announced two tricky parts of the trail and we had problems on both of them, Corinna decided to announce only potentially dangerous tricky bits for the rest of the trip. Which went (essentially) well, except for the very last bit (where I was no longer involved).

Back at the dog kennel we checked the situation. My sled needed repairs and Constanze wasn't happy with her sled. The brake pad was a bit small and it was difficult for her to reach the pad and stand on the runners at the same time. Also, she managed to step into the gap between the brake and the brake pad and got her boot trapped in between them. Nothing critical, but not a good thing to happen.

So the decision was made to give me the sled she was using, as I had larger boots and was less likely to encounter the same problems, get her a spare sled and set the damaged one aside for repairs.

The following day was a day off and designated mostly for packing.

Our tour was going out four days, spending a rest day at the most comfortable cabin and then heading back four days. Some dog food supplies were already in the cabins we would be visiting and someone would drop additional supplies at the midway cabin, so we needed to figure out what we we would need to take with us and what would be put aside and brought directly to the cabin.

It was also a good time to go visit the puppies.

There were three small dogs (two months old) and they were very playful.

Though it might have been a good idea not to wear any shoes with shoelaces when visiting them.

As sled dogs, they already have the right idea - if there's a piece of rope, you go and pull on it.

Playful sled dog puppies Playful sled dog puppies Playful sled dog puppies

Not quite the proper rope and not quite the proper way of pulling, but the basic urge is clearly there...

There was also some time to help feeding the dogs and get to know the dogs that we wouldn't be running with.

Including this canine escape artist.

Canine escape artist Canine escape artist

There's a reason why the bolt on the door is secured with two separate pins on chains. And why there's an additional piece of wood keeping the pins from falling out when, for example, a dog rattles the door for some time.

But even then, the bolt is already chewed halfway through again...

Other dogs are a bit more relaxed when they don't have any sled-pulling to do.

Relaxing dogs Relaxing dogs

Next morning, it was time for us to head out.

Resources were packed and ready to go.

Supplies (for humans) in boxes

And the sleds were ready as well.

Dog sled ready for departure Dog sled ready for departure

Time to fetch the dogs.

Weather remained constant during the trip. Grey skies and temperatures around freezing.

Overcast skies

But at least the trail was improving over time. While there were a fair number of bits with deep snow (to the extent that at some place you couldn't really help the dogs much, as your feet were more likely to get stuck in the snow when 'pedaling' than helping to propel the sled forward) and there was lots of overflow on the lakes, making some bits feel more like waterskiing than dog sledding. The situation got better on the last two days, when the trails got a bit more firm again, but beyond that, the temperatures and the overcast skies remained.

The first day was mainly a big circle. The real distance between the dog yard and the first hut was only about 3 km, but we did go the long way and covered about 33 km. (Which is fine, by the way - the idea was to do dog sledding, and not really to get anywhere far away, so going in circles didn't matter much, as long as the trail was fine.)

Some tricky bits again along the way (including the corner where I tipped the sled over on the first day), but this time everything went well.

The only problem was that one of the two ropes that connect the sled to the tugline did break at some point, making the sled pull to the right. (From the point where the tugline is attached, there are two ropes that connect to the sled in a Y shape - one to the right side and one to the left of the sled. And these ropes go through a little hole in the bottom of the sled. For some reason, the hole wasn't as sanded down as it could have been, so after a while it just cut through the rope. Not a big problem as such (the sled only slightly pulls slightly to the side and there are two ropes for a reason - so the dogs are still attached to the sled), but we needed to stop for a bit while Corinna did some quick repair and put in a new rope.

Then it was time to go and dog sled some more.

Happt dogs during break

In the early afternoon, we arrived at the first hut.

First hut

Time to make some straw beds for the dogs, fetch some water and make the dogs and us comfortable.

Putting out the straw

Of course, the dogs get up again when it looks like there might be snacks coming up.

Sleddog Suomi Sleddog Zorro Sleddog Karhu

Next day, we were heading out again.

But first, there was some straw-clean-up activity to be done.

Collecting the straw Collecting the straw

But once that was finished, it was time to hook up the dogs again.

Ready to start Ready to start

As far as the weather and the trails were concerned, it was mostly more of the same.

On the trail again On the trail again

A (photographic) bonus of the day was that I had given my camera to Corinna, and she did take a lot of pictures, so here were a couple of pictures of me on the sled.

Dogsled, dogs and me Dogsled, dogs and me Dogsled, dogs and me
Dogsled, dogs and me Dogsled, dogs and me

Ruunaa tends to come out in pictures a bit manic looking, although that is just due to the way her eyes look. As a lead dog she's calm and competent - in my team, Karhu was the crazy one! (Not crazy in a bad way, just a bit overly enthusiastic. If the dogs were named after "Cabin Pressure" characters, he would be Arthur...)

Ruunaa in action Ruunaa in action Ruunaa in action

After a while, it was time to have a short rest and give the dogs some snacks.

Waiting for snacks Getting some snacks
Short rest on trail Short rest on trail

Well rested, it was time for some more dog sledding.

Lead sled view Dogsled, dogs and me Lead sled view
Dogsled, dogs and me Lead dogs in action

In the afternoon, we arrived at the second hut. A bit less convenient than the first one (the hut was smaller and all the utilities, such as water, toilet, firewood and straw, were farther away), but still pretty good. Better than camping in any case...

Second day hut

Again, we put out some straw (once again conveniently already stored nearby, so we didn't need to carry it there on the sled) to make the dogs comfortable.

Mogli resting on straw Itran resting on straw Zorro resting on straw
Karhu resting on straw Suomi resting on straw Ruunaa resting on straw Ruunaa resting on straw

On the following day we were mostly retracing familiar territory, with more than half of the trail being the same one we had been on the previous day and the third hut being closer to our starting point than the one we had spent our second night in.

On the trail again On the trail again

There were a couple of tricky bits on the 'new' sections, such as a trail going through a gap between trees only slightly wider than the sled itself, which required some precise driving. And there also was one tricky corner when turning off the main trail and heading the final few hundred meters for the hut, but we all managed to get through without problems.

The hut itself was quite comfortable, with multiple rooms and a nice sauna building (with another guest room) nearby, so it was a relaxed stay. But first, of course, some straw to make sure that the dogs would have a relaxed stay as well.

Dog on straw Dog covered by straw Playing with the dogs Dogs near large hut

Next day, it was the usual routine - clean up dog droppings and straw, harness the dogs and hook them up.

Hooking up the last wheel dog Dogs ready to go

The fourth hut was some distance away, so we were heading out pretty much directly towards it and not running in circles.

The terrain got more variable, including some bits up and down small hills.

As an experiment, I attached a camera to one of the lead dogs (Laverda). As a sled dog, she's accustomed to wear a harness and putting a second (camera) harness on top of it didn't seem to irritate her much.

As video footage, it's not that interesting to watch - it's probably more useful to test whether you're likely to suffer from seasickness than anything else - but here's a short bit of it anyway.

Lead dog viewpoint video clip

(The clip is 38 MB large, consists of three short segments and lasts about as minute.)

As the camera kept slipping to the side after a the dogs started running, I just let Laverda run with the camera for a total of ten minutes or so, before taking it off again. The weight of the harness and the camera was unlikely to have bothered her, but having something that is bouncing slightly off-center on your back was likely to become annoying.

I intended to have another go on the way back, putting the camera harness partly below the sledding harness, so the webbing of the dog sledding harness would hold the camera in place, but I never got around doing that.

At the end of day four, we arrived at a multi-building 'holiday homes' site, where we (and especially the dogs) would have a rest day before heading on the four day trip back.

Rest day hut

As they would be here for two nights, we put out some more straw for the dogs than usual.

Dog on stake out line

The rest day was also a good opportunity for some repair work on the sleds. Nothing major, but the rope connecting the tugline to the sled was half abraded again, so it needed replacement and Constanze's sled had taken some beating at well.

Sled needing repair

Unlike the other huts, this one was connected to the main utilities, so there was power to charge cameras and batteries, flush toilets, showers, water taps, electric heating and all these conveniences.

Also, two of the dogs were allowed indoor and enjoyed it very much, at least for a while. But it was a bit too warm got them in there, so they couldn't stay inside all the time.

Sled dogs relaxing inside

To keep the dogs from getting bored on their day off, we took the dogs off the stake-out line for some playtime.

Close to the houses was an open field, so we took three dogs at a time and brought them down to that field, so they could do some playing and running around - as long as they stayed on the field. Most groups did get the idea, but the last group took off to the woods (heading for the other dogs on the stake-out line) after a minute or so, and didn't come back when called, so their play time was cut short.

One bit of unhappy trivia: The birch tree that can be seen on the left of the first picture was the one that ended my trip the next morning.

Walking a dog to the field Dogs at play Dog running Dog running
Dog running Dog running Petting a dog What could be in there...
Dogs at play Dogs running Petting a dog Petting a dog
Dog running Dog running Petting a dog
Dog running Dog exploring area

But in any case it was fun to see them running without having to pull a sled. (And it was very obvious that these dogs really love running.)

In the afternoon there was also a bit of time to head down to the lake and look around. (During the summer, the holiday camp is mainly a base for rafting and canoe tours.)

Holiday camp from lake Frozen lake

The lake was frozen, but as there was a sauna building at the lakeside (this was Finland, after all), someone had cut a little plunge pool into the lake.

Plunge pool

Another unusual feature on the lake was a little 'sled carousel' - just a stick with a thin tree trunk nailed to it and a wooden box on a runner at the end. Hard work to get it going, but a fun 'playground'. (Might have been fun to hook up some dogs to it, but after all, this was their rest day.)

Sled carousel

About an hour before sunset, there was even a little break in the clouds, giving us the first glimpse of the sun for about a week.

Not much sun, but it lifted the mood and it gave us a bit of hope that the weather would improve in the next couple of days. (It didn't, but then it didn't really matter anymore.)

A bit of sunlight Sled carousel - with sunlight Sun setting Sled carousel - at sunset

Next morning we went through our usual routine, packed the sleds (this time we started out with fairly heavy sleds, as this was a resupply point and we added lots of dog food to the sleds), harnessed and attached the dogs and started our way down the track.

The start was normal for about eight seconds, but then I switched from one sled runner to the other, tried to step on the brake again, misstepped, put my foot between the brake pad and the brake, and got stuck there.

As the dogs were well rested, the sled was heavy and we were going downhill, the sled was going quite fast and I had no control over it. In the (probably) half second it took me to pull my foot out again, the sled had swung outside the track and hit a tree, breaking the runner (and some minor struts of the sled).

Nobody was hurt, but the sled was unusable.

Broken sled Broken sled

So we returned to the stake-out line, de-harnessed the dogs and put them back on the line.

Broken sled but dogs unhurt Broken sled but dogs unhurt

As the sled damaged a week ago hadn't been repaired yet and there weren't any other spare sleds, I was told that my trip was over and that someone from the kennel would come over and collect me, the dogs and the sleds.

Corinna and Constanze would re-pack their sleds (after all, they would need the dog food that was on my sled at that time) and continue the trip.

We waited until the truck with the dog trailer arrived, put the sled on top of the trailer and the dogs inside. I said goodbye and we left with the truck.

After about five minutes we got a call from Corinna - it seemed that one of her dogs might have been injured (I think it was Pedro, but it might have been Mogli instead) and while she wasn't sure, she would prefer to replace the dog.

So we drove back, she selected Karhu as a replacement, switched dogs and we were off again.

But that Monday turned out to be a really bad day for the trip.

We had been driving for about 40 minutes and were almost at the dog kennel, when the phone rang - Constanze's sled had crashed as well, so the trip was over and everyone (and their dogs and sleds) needed to be brought back.

So we drove to the kennel, dropped the dogs and my sled, before the truck turned around to collect the others.

And that was the end of the dog sledding trip.

Constanze had a problem going over a bridge. There was a corner at the end of the bridge that was difficult to do, so the plan was to cross the bridge, stop and push the sled around that corner, but the bridge was iced over and she couldn't get the sled to stop on the icy surface. So the dogs pulled her into the tree at that corner and that was it.

Three damaged sleds within a week. Not a good week.

At least none of the dogs or the drivers were hurt in the accidents. (Except possibly Corinna's lead dog, but that had likely no connection to the crashes.)

There were some unpleasant discussions after this (which I don't want to get into), but it boiled down to the fact that it was unlikely that we could continue the trip in any way.

So instead of staying there for another week, staring at the ceiling, being grumpy and spoiling the holiday mood of the other customers (as we originally had four more days of dog sledding planned, followed by two rest/buffer days were it was originally assumed that we would do at least another half-day tour and a departure day at the end, we would have stuck around for quite a while without nothing to do), it seemed a better idea to leave early and spend a couple of days in Helsinki instead.

Here is the trip data for the individual days.
Day From To Start
Pause Moving
23.02.2015 Eräkeskus Eräkeskus 11:28 12:49 01:21 00:06 01:15 16.57 23.3 12.3 13.3
25.02.2015 Eräkeskus Hähnjoki 10:27 14:00 03:33 00:32 03:01 33.42 22.2 9.4 11.1
26.02.2015 Hähnjoki Olkikoski 09:54 12:36 02:42 00:37 02:05 29.87 22.6 11.1 14.3
27.02.2015 Olkikoski Puutuu 10:30 13:20 02:50 00:25 02:25 33.97 25.2 12.0 14.1
28.02.2015 Puutuu Ruunaa Matkailu 10:19 13:03 02:44 00:36 02:08 31.02 29.4 11.3 14.5
02.03.2015 Ruunaa Matkailu Tree 10:13 10:13 15 sec 0 sec 15 sec 0.08 23.1 19.2 19.2

Overall trip data:
Total Time13:10 hours
Pause02:16 hours
Moving Time10:54 hours
Distance145 kilometers
Average trip speed11.0 km/h
Average moving speed13.3 km/h

And here is the trail we took. As the trails from the individual days overlap, I used an animated GIF instead of a static image to show our route.

Dog sled trail 2015

And that's all about the dog sledding trip in 2015.

Changing the vacation plans to go to Helsinki turned out to be needlessly annoying, due to customer-hostile airline rules.

Originally I had a flight for Sunday to Helsinki and then a flight home from there on Monday.

I was pretty sure that they would cancel my 'connecting' flight home if I just didn't show up for the Joensuu-Helsinki segment, but I assumed that I could just cancel that segment, go to Helsinki by train and fly home on Monday as planned.

Of course, that's not how it works.

The airline considers that a 'rerouting', which wasn't possible with my ticket, so I would need to buy a new ticket from Helsinki back home. Which, incidentally, would cost more for that one flight segment than I had originally paid for the whole flight from home to Joensuu via Helsinki and back the same way.

For a while it actually seemed like the most 'sensible' way would be to go to Helsinki for a couple of days and then take a five hour train ride to Joensuu, just to fly directly back to Helsinki from there, in order to be on the flight I had booked originally.

The whole thing was getting ridiculous.

In the end, I just booked a flight home with another airline. Which ended up costing about a third of what the other airline would have charged for taking a flight I already had booked and paid for...

After two days of frustration, I found myself in Helsinki with four days to spare and no real plans for anything.

I hadn't been to Helsinki for about 17 years and I remembered that I liked the 'Heureka' science center and decided to start there.

 [Heureka Science Center near Helsinki] 
 [Heureka Science Center near Helsinki]
Heureka in 1997
Heureka science center Heureka science center
Heureka in 2015

The main 'hands-on' science area is still cool. Lots of stuff to play around with, whether it's lifting a real car due to the power of pulleys (yes, you can demonstrate pulleys in a more 'educational' manner, but lifting up a car is cooler), kicking a ball to measure the speed, riding a 'flying' (hovercraft) carpet, building a log cabin from foam rubber logs, pulling out the (cloth simulation of) human intestines from a torso, seeing food in various digestion stages or watching rats being trained to play basketball. All cool and interesting stuff and also (which I consider important for a science museum) stuff you can't easily do at home.

Build a log cabin

A bit of an oddity was the presentation on mining (the underground kind, not the blowing up ships kind - that was the next day). Inherently a dull subject, since the idea is to transfer information more than science (which I always distrust in science museums - you can always look facts somewhere else, it's the experience that makes a museum worth visiting). And the presentation was 'right' from a computer science point of view, but a bit useless for the subject at hand.

For example, at some point you needed to 'blow up' some rocks (the background story was that there was a tunnel being dug from both sides and you needed to blast the last bit of rock between the sections open). As they don't let you play around with explosive charges in the museum (which would make the exhibition a lot more popular, but presumably also quite short lived), there are some buttons set in a rock face and a 'charge loading device', which you press against the button and can 'insert a charge' with a strength from one to three into each of the 'bore holes' (the buttons light up in one of three colours).

You get also told that the center charges need to be more powerful and the ones around the rim less so.

So you set your charges and press a 'detonate' button and if all the charges are set correctly, you get an animation of an explosion on a nearby screen.

So far, so good.

But if you don't put the charges in the right place, pressing the 'detonate' button shows a text screen telling you that the charges were not set correctly and that the wrong charges will be removed (upon which the buttons with the wrong colour are turned off).

And that's it.

As there are three different charge strengths and the layout of the 'bore holes' suggests three different 'zones' (central area, ground area, side area), this then basically turns into a 'debugging game', where you just set three different charge strengths in each of the areas and then see which colour doesn't get deleted in each area. Then you set all other charges in that area to the same colour and 'kaboom' you get the 'everything went right, you completed the tunnel' animation.

So far, so good - as a computer game.

But as a teaching tool about mining explosives, it is severely lacking.

First of all, you're not really told why you are placing the different charges in these locations - you just switch them around until the 'work', without any understanding why.

Which would still be ok, if the 'what does work' came from the actual 'experiment'. But all you do is to play a puzzle game to figure out the right answer. In a real environment, you wouldn't put a mixture of charges in different areas, just to find out which ones are the right ones - because, in a realistic scenario - how would you tell?

The whole thing only works because of the specific 'game like' set-up in the museum.

It would have been much better (and easily done technically) to simulate an explosion with the charges as set. And then point out what possible problems occurred. "The tunnel has been completed, but a lot more rock has been blasted then required." "There is a bit of a hole, but now there is lot of work to do with pneumatic hammers to get the hole widened up." "The tunnel has been completed, but the rock pieces are still quite large and need to be smashed before the rubble can be moved away." And so on.

And then you could try to set the charges differently to get a better result.

Then you might actually get an idea on what you are doing, why you are doing it in a specific way and about a scientific approach.

Based on feedback on what you tried to achieve, and not some arbitrary feedback of some lights turning off.

There was a similar approach regarding rock identification.

On a table were three pieces of rock and three tools (a magnet, a nail and the shell of a ceramic fuse).

The idea was to identify the rock based on a sequence of tests.

At first you needed to select the rock you tried to identify (so the system already knew what rock you were using).

Then there were a couple of consecutive tasks with multiple choice answers.

For example, "Scratch the rock with your fingernail. Does that leave deep scratch, a barely visible scratch or no scratch?" Or "Does the magnet cling to the rock sample?" or "Scratch the fuse with the rock. Does it leave a black mark, grey mark, reddish mark, no mark?" "Does the rock look blueish?"

Which would be a good and sensible approach - if good computer programming hadn't overruled good science.

Because every time you gave a wrong answer (the one that the program wasn't expecting for that rock), you immediately got a "wrong answer, try again" message and were send back to the previous screen to make a different choice.

From an interface design point of view, this is really good - if the user does something obviously wrong, provide feedback immediately and let the user correct things right then (and not five screens later).

But to illustrate rock identification, it is a failure.

Not every test gives a clear result. It's not always clear whether a mark on the ceramic fuse is black or just grey. And the rock might have kind of a blue-ish tint, but that might just be an artefact of the lights nearby. And as I was originally planning to be dog sledding that day, my fingernails were extremely short (my fingernails break easily in the cold, so I cut them as short as possible when going for winter activities), so I probably couldn't even have made a deep scratch in a piece of chalk. And while providing a horseshoe magnet for testing is good again from an interface point of view (as this is immediately recognizable as a 'magnet shape'), ferro-magnets are quite weak and it is difficult to tell whether it 'clings' to the rock (unless it's an almost pure-iron meteorite). A stronger magnet would have given much clearer results.

And so on.

A much better approach would have been to go through the 'identification process' and then give some percentage on what kind of rock would have been identified, the kind of rock that it actually is, the differences and why they might have occurred. And what can be done to avoid these misidentifications.

Scratching with a fingernail is not exact. Identifying a 'deep' or 'shallow' grove is not exact. So you might consider scratching with something of a known hardness with a known amount of pressure. And do measurements of the depth of the grove.

And distinguish between 'blue' and 'blueish tint'. You might also mention (or provide) a light box with a well-defined light source. And colour strips for comparison.

And mention other potential sources of error. There was only one ceramic fuse available for testing, with 'rock marks' all over the place. How sure was I that my 'grey mark' was really the one I just made and not one that was already there earlier?

How sure was I about my individual measurements?

What was the margin of error?

If I could rate my answers "Yes, I am sure", "Very likely" and "Not sure at all, but I had to select something", would I get a better identification of the rock sample than I had before?

There's lots of interesting stuff that could be brought up there. The rocks that were on display were fairly uniform - but what if you got bit that contained a mixture of two different rocks?

What other methods could be used to identify the rocks?

But it all just came down to a simple quiz game with "right" and "wrong" answers. But someone (in this case) the computer already knows what are the right answers, why not provide the really important answer (to "What kind of rock is this?") right from the start.

The way it comes across now is just "science from authority". You got the expert, who already knows all the answers and who just tests you. That's not educational (ok, it is in the sense that this is how most education works, but still..), it is just smugness.

Letting someone go through the identification process and then discuss what went wrong, why it did so and how the process could be improved would be a much better approach.

Yes, that's just me rambling on, but given how good the rest of the exhibition is and how much effort they put into the mining exhibition, trying to make it interesting (and operating a digger is always fun, regardless of age...), it is really a pity that it doesn't work as well as the other exhibits.

But all in all, "Heureka" is still worth a visit. And it also has a fairly nice museum store, where I spent more than I planned to.

The next day in Helsinki I spent mostly by not being in Helsinki.

Or in Finland.

As I have never been in Estonia and it's only 80 kilometers away, I decided to take a ferry over to Tallinn (a two hour trip) and spend a couple of hours there. And since Estonia (like Finland) also has the Euro now, I didn't even have to worry about changing money somewhere.

Everyone seems to like the Old Town part of Tallinn, but I have to admit that I haven't really seen any of it.

The reason for this was a misleadingly labeled museum.

It is called the 'Seaplane Harbour Museum' and it's a bit out of town at the shore (obviously). It's not that far away (about 1.5 km from where the ferry arrives), but I didn't know how easy it would be to walk there, so I decided to visit the museum first and go to the Old Town (from where it is not far to the ferry) afterwards.

Now, given the name 'Seaplane Harbour Museum', I assumed that the museum would feature mostly seaplanes. (And I usually like airplane museums - not as much as science museums, but still...)

It turned out that it was the 'Seaplane Harbour Museum', as the seaplane harbour used to be there, not because it featured seaplanes.

Or planes in general.

They did have a single seaplane hanging from the ceiling somewhere, but that was essentially the aircraft part of the museum.

And given that they had an anti-aircraft gun simulator where you could use a realistic looking anti-aircraft gun to shoot down planes on a large video screen, it was more like an anti-aircraft museum than an aeronautical one.

Anti-aircraft museum Anti-aircraft museum

Ok, they also had two 'historic plane simulators' where you could fly through a number of aerial markers while dropping left/right/back/forth, which was fun. And not linked to the anti-aircraft simulator on the other side, so you could try to fly the course without being shot at. (Fortunately they weren't full feature simulators, but limited in their mobility range - since I got into a couple of spinds during my 'flight' I appreciated that...)

But except for the one historic plane and the two biplane simulators, the rest of the museum was mainly dedicated to nautical exhibits.

So the attractions were a couple of sport boats, an old submarine, some naval guns, a couple buoys, some mines (in this case, the explosive, not the underground version) and the museum building itself. Which looked like it was right of a Bond movie. Three big concrete shells, a large, slowly spinning propeller under an opening in each top. It's probably worth visiting the museum just for the architecture.

Seaplane Harbour Museum Seaplane Harbour Museum

The interior design was also well done. From the entrance, you walk around the exhibits on a elevated, winding walkway before you get around to ground level. And halfway through, there is a fairly impressive bridge (or curved set of stairs), which you, unfortunately, are only allowed to walk on when accompanied by a museum guide. But even so - cool and daring architecture.

Museum bridge

And noontime on a weekday doesn't seem to be the prime time for that museum, so I had, for example, the interior of the submarine all to myself.

Museum submarine interior Museum submarine interior Museum submarine interior Museum submarine interior

When I went to see the old steam powered ice-breaker outside, it was similarly empty.

Suur Toll Icebreaker Suur Toll Icebreaker - bridge Suur Toll Icebreaker - engine room Suur Toll Icebreaker - engine room
Suur Toll Icebreaker - cabin Suur Toll Icebreaker - facilities Suur Toll Icebreaker - dining room

So I had the museum mostly to myself (I guess there were about five visitors around when I entered the museum, and probably about twenty when I left).

But even with the impressive building, the various exhibits, the submarine to walk through and the additional exhibits outside (the already mentioned steam-powered ice breaker and a couple of smaller military vessels, as well as a (closed for the winter) exhibition of military land vehicles and the replica of an early submarine), I probably wouldn't have stayed at the museum for more than an hour.

Outdoor vehicle exhibition

Mostly it was a 'look at these exhibits' kind of place anyway, so there wasn't much to do but to walk through look, at things (like a cannon that looks a lot like a fat Dalek) and walk on.

Dalek shaped cannon

There were some good ideas though.

I usually don't like 'on screen' presentations in museums, since they always feel like a waste of time. If I go to a museum, I either want to see some 'originals' (whether that are pictures, art installations or historical artefacts) or 'play around' with stuff in a way I couldn't do at home.

But reading stuff on a screen, I can do more comfortably at home and it irks me when I go to a museums to stand there and read panels full of text, listen to recorded explanations or watch short movies.

But at that museum, they did it in a clever way. You get a chip card at the entrance and can link your e-mail address to the card.

And every time you walk up to some info display screen of an exhibit, and you don't want to read it all at that point, you can just put your chip card in front of the screen and at the end of the visit, you will get an personalized e-mail with links to all the explanations that you were interested in.

Which seems to me like a good way to combine original artifacts in the museum (which is something you need to go to the museum for) with background information to be read later in the comfort of your own home.


But the reason for staying longer than expected was a small interactive exhibition tucked away at the end of the hall.

The theme of the temporary exhibition was called "Sail or Sink" and about "how the forces of nature act at sea and how they have influenced maritime history."

Admittedly, I would be hard pressed to explain the scientific value of some of the exhibits, but there were lots of fun to just play around with.

One of the more straightforward exhibits was this machine.

Modern ships often don't have propellers with fixed blades anymore, but can adjust the angle of the blades. So in this exhibit you could set the angle of the propeller blades and then turn the propeller by hand, to find out how much water you could move from one transparent tank to the other with different settings of the blades.

Adjustable ship propeller

Or this one, where you could adjust the shape of the underwater coastline and then run some waves over it to see how the shape of the land underwater affects the waves hitting the coast.

Coastline wave simulator Coastline wave simulator

Or an aquarium with submarine cameras to control.

Or a container ship model with pressure sensors on which you could stack stone 'containers' and the base plate turned red when the ship was dangerously misloaded. (Though I was a bit surprised that loading the ship quite top-heavy, leaving the lower bays empty and stacking containers on one side of the top deck only - not to mention the containers stacked on top - only resulted in a mild reddish warning light and not a full 'stupid and dangerous' kind of alert...)

Container ship stacking

This one allowed to move different kinds of shapes in a streaming fluid to see how the shapes create distortions in the water flow. (The actual objects are encased with the fluid - the black things are magnets that you use to move them around.)

Fluid dynamic

Or you could create whirlpools.

Water tornado Water tornado

The thing I liked most was the sandbox.

There's a projector on top of it and some sort of altitude measurement. (I assume that it's based on some grid projected onto the sandbox in infrared and the distortion is used to determine the shape of the sand, but it could be some active laser measurement instead).

The projector then projects contour lines onto the sand and colour codes the altitude as well (and some ocean surface onto the deeper bits just to add some motion).

High tech sand box High tech sand box

So while there is no specific aim to the whole thing (basically, you make a hill with the sand and the exhibits shows you that there is now a hill), it is presumably a good way to teach about the connection between the map and the terrain, as well as about contour lines. (In this case, the territory is the map...)

But, frankly, it's just fun to play around with it.

And you can also hold your hand over an area to create 'rain' and the system will show you how the water will flow over the terrain. (Yes, Peter Molyneux, that's what an immersive landscape creation interface should look like. I'd really like to see a Populous port to that sandbox...)

High tech sand box

There was also a quite realistic looking 'swimming pool' with just a small layer of water over a Plexiglas sheet. The water movement on top was very convincing, since they put in a lot of effort to keep the surface in motion. (Otherwise a layer of two or three centimeters of water on a flat surface would be suspiciously calm.)

You could then enter the 'pool' from the side and have some interesting pool pictures.

Fake pool Fake pool - inside Me in fake pool

Unfortunately, it doesn't look that convincing on the pictures I took - in retrospect, I should probably have used video, since the water motion on top adds a lot to the illusion, but, if you are prepared, you could probably stage a lot of interesting pictures and video sequences there.

Anyway, a really fun exhibit to be in.

There was also a 'storm chamber', where you could select different wind strengths and observe the effects of standing in them.

That's me at 15 m/s wind.

Me in wind tunnel Me in wind tunnel Me in wind tunnel

Obviously, a mohawk wouldn't really suit me...

There was also a 'raise a sunken ship' exhibit, where you needed to use a combination of inflatable bags and pumps to get a shipwreck to the surface and floating, without tipping it over and sinking it again.

There was also a very impressive 'feel the water pressure' exhibit, where you put the hand on a rubber pad under a Plexiglas column that gets filled with water.

That was surprisingly unpleasant - I only managed to fill the larger column about two-thirds up before it became painful. I assume that the designers of the exhibit have thought this through, but I got the impression that you can really damage your hand if you fill the container all the way.

But in any case, a very convincing demonstration of the effects of water pressure.

In the end, I spend a lot of time in that exhibit (as there was only one other visitor in that section during that time, I also had all the toys (make this scientific and educational exhibits) essentially to myself and could play around with whatever I wanted for as long as I wanted) and by the time I was ready to leave the museum, there was less than an hour until the ferry would leave again.

So I made my way back to the ferry and did only a small detour through the old town. Mostly to take some pictures while walking by and at least to have seen a bit of it.

Tallinn towers Tallinn towers Tallinn city wall
Tallinn artworks Tallinn artworks Tallinn-Helsini ferry

But in the end, I went to Estonia mostly for a museum visit.

To see airplanes in a museum that only had a single airplane in it.

But it's good to have some unexpectedly nice surprises from time to time, especially after the not-so nice end of the dogsledding trip.

On the next day, I did the obligatory picture of the Helsinki Cathedral.

Helsinki Cathedral

Mostly to have a companion picture to the one I took in 1998.

  [Helsinki Cathedral]

And I had a go on the Helsinki equivalent of the 'London Eye', the 'Finnair Skywheel' (though, given the size of the Helsinki ferris wheel, it feels more like a 1:3 scale model).

Finnair Skywheel

The 'Finnair Skywheel' seems to be a direct copy of the Brighton Wheel.

As Helsinki is fairly flat and without many high-rise buildings, the views are still good, even though the wheel isn't that large.

Or at least the view would have been good if the weather wouldn't have been that dodgy.

And it's a bit annoying that all the windows are tinted blue.

So any pictures taken need a lot of white balance shifting to look even slightly realistic.

Picture from skywheel as taken Picture from skywheel, colour corrected
Picture as taken Picture after white balance shift

Here are some views from the skywheel.

Helsinki Market Square from Skywheel Helsinki ferry docks from Skywheel Helsinki Market Square from Skywheel
Greenpeace Artic Sunrise from Skywheel Helsinki Church from Skywheel Skywheel structure
Helsinki Skywheel Me on Skywheel Helsinki Cathedral from Skywheel

A cheaper sightseeing alternative, by the way, is a roof on top of a building close to the western harbour (where the Tallink ferries leave). Not quite as close to the center, but good views across the water and towards the city center.

Definitely worth a visit in good weather.

On an overcast, rainy day - not as much.

West harbour view West harbour view West harbour view

And, for some unexplained reason, they also have a MIG plane standing on the roof. I assume, given the number of left-over MIG planes after the end of the cold war, it was cheaper to put an old plane on the roof than some sculpture or other piece of artwork.

Mig plane on roof

The same building also hosts the "Helsinki Computer and Game Console Museum".

Which is essentially a bunch of old computers in glass cases standing in the empty space in front of the elevator.

When I left the elevator, at first I thought this was the entrance lobby of the museum and that the door to the left would take me to the actual museum, but it turned out that the door just leads to some storage and shelf space unrelated to the museum and the stuff visible on the picture actually was the museum.

Helsinki computer museum, 4th floor

Well, half of it. There was a similar sized display in front of the elevator one story above.

Helsinki computer museum, 5th floor

All in all, a couple of interesting machines in there and worth a look if you're interested in the topic at all (or just want to go around muttering "I have one of those. And one of those too. And that one. And the successor of that one...") and it is free, but unless you are really an enthusiast, probably not worth a large detour.

(On the other hand, if you're unexpectedly stuck in Helsinki for a couple of days when you really wanted to be dog sledding, you're getting bored and you've got nothing else to do - it's better than sitting in your hotel room all day.)

I also just walked around the city a bit and took some random pictures, including one of a surprisingly sinister looking bear sculpture near a playground.

Smoking chimney Sunken boat Bear at playground Bear - up to no good

On the final day in Helsinki I went for another ferry ride.

But this time only a short one to visit the 'sea fortress' Suomenlinna. It's a big attraction in summer, where there are long queues for the ferry, but on an overcast, windy and rainy day in early March, there aren't that many visitors, so you can walk around pretty much in solitude.

Suomenlinna ferry Suomenlinna walls Suomenlinna walls
Suomenlinna walls Suomenlinna lake Suomenlinna cannon

One more slightly frustrating bit at the end.

After having grey, overcast skies for more than two weeks in a row, on the day I flew home, the weather looked like this:

Nice blue skies at airport Good weather over Finland Good weather over Finland

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