Saariselkä, Finland, March 2016

It took a while until I finally made it to the Inari area.

About 15 years ago, I had a meeting scheduled in that area. But then the project got into problems and the meeting was cancelled.

But this time everything went fine and I got to go to Saariselkä.

The general area of Finnish Lapland I went to is called Inari, named after the Inari Lake. You usually arrive at Ivalo airport, but most tourists (including me) don't spend much time at Ivalo, but head on to Saariselkä, which is the primary tourist hub.

Saariselkä seems to be home of Santa's Office, but, besides of providing a photo opportunity, it turns out that it's just the local booking office of the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort (more about that resort a bit later).

Santas Office

I started the week by getting a cross-country skiing lesson.

I have been cross country skiing in some places, but I had no idea how it should be done. I usually just rented a pair of skis, looked where the beginners track was located and just moved along the track, shuffling my feet. (And, in most cases, every time the track went up and down even a little bit, I took off the skis, walked up or down the hill and put the skis back on once I was on level ground.)

As there is a ski school in Saariselkä and there are a lot of very and well maintained cross country ski tracks in the area, I figured that it would be a good idea to get an introduction lesson. (I went for the three hour lesson - there was a lot of stuff I didn't know and 90 minutes seemed way to short to make up for that.) And then rent cross country skis for a couple of days and practice.

As expected, the actual skiing lesson didn't help that much and we never got as far as going up or down even simple slopes - turned out that there were more deficits about my moving even on flat ground than could be addressed in three hours.

But it was quite helpful for the skiing I did after that. At least I now know what I should be doing, so instead of just shuffling my feet somehow to move forward, I had something specific to aim for and practice. I'm still bad at this (and still avoid hills), but now I know specifically what I'm bad at.

But, as a result of this, there aren't that many pictures of the cross country trails - I was too busy not falling over to stop and take pictures.

Cross country ski trail

As I expected that I would be a bit sore after a day of cross country skiing (which I was, but not as much as I thought), I had something requiring less muscle power planned for the next day.

I like driving snowmobiles and I wanted to go on a tour that was going some distance, so I was looking for a multi-day trip.

I had been hoping for a three-day tour, either up through Northern Norway to the Arctic Ocean, or maybe on a multi-day, three-country tour through Finland, Norway and Russia.

But none of those tours was available during the timeframe when I was in the area.

So I tried to settle for a simple overnight tour.

But even that turned out to be difficult. They have a minimum number of two customers on that tour and they didn't have anyone else interested by the time I tried to book, but promised to let me know if someone else would book.

But nothing happened and about a week before I went to Lapland, I asked them whether the two person minimum rule meant that they needed to have to actual persons on the tour or whether they just needed the money.

Turned out to be the latter, so in the end, I ended up paying for two, which made the snowmobile tour somewhat pricey. (It then turned out to be even more costly, since I had already booked a hotel room for that night, which was non-refundable, so I ended up paying twice the tour cost plus a hotel room.)

The Lynx snowmobile I was riding

But the driving was fun, so I didn't mind. And it was an exclusive experience (in the sense that it excluded all other tourists...)

The tour goes via the village of Ivalo, then does a big sweep across the Lake Inari, followed by lunch in the village of Inari and ends up close to Ivalo airport, roughly a 240 km drive.

On the second day, it's usually a short trip back to Saariselkä, with just a 40 km drive heading back.

The sky was overcast for most of the time I was in Finland (no Northern Light sightings at all on this trip, even though conditions were quite favourable otherwise - while I was staring at a dense cloud cover, there were newspaper articles of Northern Lights seen in the UK as far south as Oxfordshire and the northernmost bits of Germany). But on the first day of the snowmobile trip, the skies turned blue and I had a nice view across Lake Inari from the Ukonkivi rock (traditionally a place of religious significance to the Sami people - a sort of small northern Uluru - but now mostly a good place to have a look at the scenery), so I had some nice views (and pictures) from there.

View from Ukonkivi rock View from Ukonkivi rock View from Ukonkivi rock View from Ukonkivi rock View from Ukonkivi rock

In the late afternoon, we arrived at an unexpectedly posh wood cabin - a rather nice weekend home for someone in summertime.

Cabin from the outside Cabin main room

We arrived there a couple of hours earlier than expected.

It turns out that the driving speed on these tours is highly variable.

I talked with the tour guide and in his experience, the Japanese clients are often the most careful drivers. Which means that they tend to drive at about 25 km/h on a snowmobile. Including lunch and sightseeing stops, that means the average speed over the whole trip sometimes is roughly 20 km/h, so the 240 km drive takes half a day.

The most extreme case the guide recalled was a situation where he was driving a two-stroke snowmobile (most modern ones have four-stroke engines) and he couldn't drive any slower than 7.5 km/h per hours for longer periods without his engine stopping. And he still once had a client who asked him to go slower.

Well, we went a bit faster than that.

Not because we were driving recklessly. But the trails in the forest were good, well marked and well maintained, so we could drive most of the time at the allowed speed of 60 km/h.

And once we were on Lake Inari, we were allowed to drive at 90 km/h, so we made good progress. At least after he switched my snowmobile to 'normal' mode.

This, by the way, showed an interesting example of an asymmetric 'user interface'. When the guide did speed up on the lake surface, I couldn't keep up. Turns out that the snowmobiles for the tourists are limited to a maximum of 70 km/h by default. But there's a little semi-hidden switch where you can switch speed limiter off and drive as fast as the snowmobile can.

The interesting thing here is that, when in 'limited mode' there is just a green light on the dashboard indicating this. Once the 'normal mode' is activated a small blue text lights up on the dashboard indicating 'normal mode'. So if the snowmobile is in 'limited mode' here is no obvious sign of that (after all, the green light looks just like a confirmation that everything is fine) - only when switched out of this mode, there is a readable status information.

In any case, we arrived a earlier at the cabin than usual (even for a less cautious group - if the guide just has to pay attention to one person, there is always less stopping and waiting time than when moving in a larger group), so we decided to head out onto the lake and try some ice fishing.

According to the guide, there are two approaches to ice fishing, depending on whether you just want to spend a nice day outside or whether you want to catch fish.

Ice fishing on Lake Inari

If you just want to spend some time outside, you drill a hole into the ice, put your fishing line into it, wait and enjoy the scenery.

If you actually want to catch fish, you realize that fish don't actually move around that much, so if you haven't caught one for about 15 minutes, you realize that there isn't one in the vicinity of your ice hole, move to some other place and try again.

But even though we went into 'fish catching mode' and drilled a fair number of holes into the ice at different location, we still came back to the cabin empty handed.

But, in any case, it was a pleasant time spent outside.

Lake Inari sunset Lake Inari sunset

Luckily, our dinner didn't depend on our fishing success.

When we were back at the cabin, our dinner was already delivered.

(While, from the lakeside, the cabins might look somewhat isolated and the snowmobile trails are a bit away from civilization centers, so it feels like you are in 'real wilderness' when you approach them with a snowmobile after a long drive, the cabins are usually quite close to the road, so that their owners can easily get to them in summertime. This particular cabin was only a couple of kilometers away from Ivalo, so while we were out on the lake, someone from Ivalo had delivered a box with dinner and breakfast food.)

Next morning, we had a (reasonably) late start. The skies were overcast again.

Snowmobile driving

View from snowmobile View from snowmobile

(The clip is 57 MB large and lasts 101 seconds.)
The ride felt a lot less bumpy than it looks on video.

As there were only about 40 km real distance to drive back to Saariselkä, and we were (even with a long breakfast) still early, we did drive there with a bit of a detour (so we drove about 60 km) and stopped at a 'Lapp tent' for making some coffee and barbecuing some sausages.

Snowmobile outside lapp tent Preparing some coffee

After getting back to Saariselkä again, it was time to grab my luggage that I had stored there and make my way to Kakslauttanen, a place that's about 10 km further south.

Originally, it was just a collection of vacation huts and cabins for rental, but a while ago they had a clever idea that put them on the 'unusual places' map.

Glass Igloos.

Glass Igloos Glass Igloos Glass Igloos
Glass Igloos Glass Igloos Glass Igloos

The basic idea is great. Lapland is a place where people often go to see the Northern Lights and as they might at any time during a (clear) night, this means either staying outside for extended periods or rushing outside the accommodation many times during the night.

Having a glass igloo allows visitors just to lie comfortably in bed and look at the skies, without needing to get up and get (or stay) dressed for outside conditions.

Of course, if weather is overcast, all you see are grey skies.

Grey skies from glass igloo

That's just bad luck.

Although I didn't mind too much - I had seen Northern Lights before (in Sweden and in Svalbard), so whether I would see them on this trip didn't make or break my vacation.

Still, of course, it would have been better to see from this comfortable 'Northern Lights Observatory'.

Something that was a bit unexpected was how exposed you are in these glass igloos.

In the advertisement pictures, it looks a bit as if the igloos are a bit 'submerged' in the snow and have something like a domed glass ceiling.

In reality, the igloos are at ground level and the glass dome goes roughly down to hip level, so if you are in there, you are quite visible to anyone outside. And while there are 'modesty' courtains along the rim of the glass dome, they just reach up to chest height, so they give you just a limited amount of privacy.

Glass Igloo interior Glass Igloo interior
with modesty curtain

I didn't mind too much, but given the fact that the only piece of furniture is the bed in the center of the room and it's covered with zebra print covers, you feel a bit 'on display' when you are lying there. (There is a small controller next to the bed and I almost expected that this would make the beds rotate, but it was just for raising and lowering foot and backrests in the bed - as there is no other furniture in the room, raising the back of the bed is about the only option for sitting somewhere.)

Inside of glass igloo Inside of glass igloo Inside of glass igloo Inside of glass igloo

Surprisingly, the glass dome itself is not the most exposing feature - someone would actually have to walk up right to your igloo and stare through the glass at you. And nobody does that.

But the path between the igloos is right next to the entry door and that not only has a glass window to look through, but right next to it, there is a glass section that allows you to see through the internal doorway, just walking to your own igloo. (Neither the door window nor the internal doorway has a curtain.)

View from path View from path View through door

All in all, this makes things sound a little weirder than it actually is. In Finland you usually go into the sauna naked, so the possibility that someone might be able to see you walking around in your underwear in the igloo doesn't seem to worry anyone.

It's just something that I was a bit surprised by when I went into the glass igloo.

(And while the igloo does have a toilet, that part of the igloo has frosted glass, so you have a bit of privacy there.)

Glass igloo toilet Glass igloo toilet

But in any case, these igloos are an unusual place to stay in.

Which starts when entering the igloo through the small door, which I immediately thought of as the Hobbit Door, even though this is a bit silly - igloos had small, almost crawl-through entrances long before Tolkien came up with the idea of hobbits. And doors to Hobbit homes were quite a bit taller than hobbits were, so it's not as if they would have to bend down when entering. (And it's not a round entrance door to the igloo anyway.)

Glass igloo door Glass igloo entrance Entering glass igloo Beside glass igloo door

So it's not a Hobbit Door at all. Still somehow feels that way, though.

The Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort covers quite a large area - actually two of them. The original resort is now the 'East Village' with an additional (not surprisingly named 'West Village') about 6 km away.

Not only do these have more traditional vacation cabins in addition to the glass igloos, they also offer a lot of activities themselves, so they have a large dog yard for dog sledding tour, a large reindeer corral for their reindeer sled activities, a horse stable for their horse tours and so on.

Reindeer Reindeer Reindeer sled

I took a walk along one of the trails in the area and walked for about an hour without ever leaving the resort grounds (although I was walking through a bit of deep snow, so I probably only covered two or three kilometers on the walk - it is still a large resort area).

Kakslauttanen scenery

As I had done snowmobiling on the previous day, the cross country ski trail starts at the "East Village", reindeer sledding is somewhat dull and I didn't want to go dog sledding on this trip (a proper dog sledding trip is coming up in a month, so I didn't want to "spoil my appetite", so to speak, by having a "small appetizer" on dog before the "main course" next month), I decided to go horse riding in the afternoon.

I'm not much a fan of horses (I've been on a horse for three times in the last thirty years or so...), but I did like the riding in snow when I tried it in Sweden two years ago. And it tends to be reasonably easy, since in snow you always just go in a slow trot - there's no question of going for a quick gallop or something, so the difference between people who know how to ride and those who don't isn't that pronounced.

I was riding on Hippu, who is a well behaved horse, even though she looked a bit scary at first - while all other horses were in their boxes in the stable, Hippu was (quite literally) chained to the walls, which made her look like a horse that was likely to kick and bolt.

Hippu in stable

We spent about 10 minutes in the horse yard, getting on our horses and trying to get accustomed to them and then went along a trail for another 50 minutes.

The trail was not the 'usual one', as that was covered with deep snow and they had a horse sinking in to its chest on a previous day, so we stayed on the more travelled (and thus better compacted) trails.

The ride itself was more like a caravan. The horses stayed close to each other (well, most of them - mine liked to get out of line, probably for the better view, and needed to be directed back into the line) and moved leisurely.

Horseyard Glass igloo from horseback Glass igloo from horseback Horses on snow trail Horses on snow trail

The movement was extremely smooth (the back of the horse stayed very level, so there was little need to follow the horse's movements) and it was fun, even though (as an experience) I preferred the riding in Sweden, where I got more of a feeling that I was in control of the horse. On this trip it felt more like a pack animal walking with some weight (i.e. me) on its back than horse riding. But then, I'm clueless about horses, so it was interesting anyway.

My lack of horsemanship was quite evident when I tried to get a picture of me on the horse and the horse did about everything but to just stand still for a moment.

Me on a horse Me on a horse Me on a horse Me on a horse Me on a horse

In any case, the cats living in the stable seem to be a lot more relaxed than the horses.

Cats living in horse stable

I spent a second night in the glass igloo and I checked out the next morning.

As there was a bus leaving at the "East Village" leaving at 3 pm and the cross country tracks are near the "East Village", I took the shuttle van to the other part of the resort, left my luggage at the reception, rented a pair of skis and headed towards Kilopää, which is about six kilometers away along the beginners track.

The track was nice and mostly level, so I only had to leave the track and make my way down by walking sideways two or three times.

View of cross country ski trail View of cross country ski trail View of cross country ski trail Tree near cross country ski track

Arriving in Kilopää, I was a bit surprised to be greeted by Angry Birds.

The company that created the Angry Bird video game is Finnish, and they also do Angry Bird related real-life events as well, which are mostly aimed at children.

So on that weekend, they had an "Angry Birds Go Snow" event in Kilopää, where they had a "real life enactment" of the video game (with plush birds catapulted with a rubber band stretched between two trees, trying to shoot plush piggies down from wooden poles).

The also had things like curling, with large plush birds instead of the usual stones and also other competitions as well as a (somewhat silly) mascot.

Angry Birds Go Snow Angry Bird real life game Angry bird mascot Angry Bird prizes Angry Snow Bird
Angry Bird Curling Angry Bird Curling Angry Snow Bird

There were also a few snow sculptures around, but they probably had nothing to do with the Angry Birds.

Snow dwarf Snow bears

I had a bit of a look at the activities there, went for a coffee and then headed back to Kakslauttanen.

As there was still some time before I needed to catch the bus, I had some time to look at the glass igloos there.

The "East Village" area is the area where the arctic resort originally started and this is where the first glass igloos are located.

The setting is a bit different here. The igloos are the same, but they are located amidst some trees, making the setting look a bit more idyllic. (The igloos in the "West Village" are on more of an open field. They providing a better view of the sky - and the Northern Lights, if it's not cloudy - but the fixed rows and columns of igloos make them look a bit like a science fictional Mars settlement.)

East Village glass igloos East Village glass igloo East Village glass igloo East Village glass igloos

There is also a 'snow igloo' nearby, which offers a more traditional arctic sleeping experience in wintertime.

Snow igloo interior Snow igloo entrances

I caught my bus, went back to Saariselkä and spent the next few days in a meeting.

Usually I wouldn't mention this (as it was working time, not vacation time), but there is a neat sled track at Saariselkä. Seems like it used to be the longest sled track in the world (at least that was the claim), but then they shortened it by about a third (it's now about 1200 meters) and someone built a longer one somewhere else, so now they just claim to have the longest sled run in Finland (or Lapland), which sounds a lot less impressive.

But regardless of its place in the (doubtlessly very important) worldwide ranking of sled runs, it's still fun to go down this one.

On sled run On sled run On sled run

So during the meeting, we decided it would be fun to go up the hill in the morning and sled down as a group activity. And while we were at it, it seemed like a good idea (at least to me) to hire a drone operator and get some aerial coverage from this.

Drone over ski track

This is the result:

Sled run

(The clip is 71 MB large and lasts 159 seconds.)

After the meeting I did a bit of walking around in the area.

Originally I wanted to do a bit more skiing, but the beginners tracks were only going to specific places and 'loops' always included advanced tracks, which I didn't feel comfortable about, so I walked instead of skiing.

Urho Kekkonen National Park Urho Kekkonen National Park Urho Kekkonen National Park Urho Kekkonen National Park

I wasn't quite sure whether this was ok. Usually skiers strongly dislike people walking on their trails, but I assumed that was mostly about others either stepping into their actual tracks (which I avoided) or leaving holes in the trail when walking (which I didn't, as the snow was well pressed down). And on the trail signs, there were walkers and bikers as well as classical and modern cross country skiers.

Trail signage

And on the 'big trails' (the main beginner trails) there were just skier symbols on the signs and also 'no pedestrians' signs at the entries to the track.

So I assumed that walking on the trails (when done carefully) would be ok.

It wasn't until the last day until somebody asked me on the trail what I thought I was doing there and whether I didn't know that the hiker signs just mean that these are nature hiking trails in summer, but in winter these are just ski tracks.

At that point there wasn't much I could do (I was about 7 km into a 9 km loop, so turning around and walking back wouldn't helped much and the last place where could have gotten off the trail was 4km back), but I felt a bit embarrassed and guilty towards all the people who had walked by me in the previous two days and didn't say anything when they passed me, but possibly were annoyed for a while afterwards.

(Although singing karaoke in a Finnish pub is a surprisingly good method of reducing somebodies (in this case mine) capability of being embarrassed by quite a significant amount.)

Especially nice was the trail that went halfway around the Kaunispää hill (which is also the hill where the sled run is located) and then goes up the hill, changing from a trail through the trees to the treeless, snow-covered, windblown scenery closer to the top of the hill.

Kaunispaa Scenery Kaunispaa Scenery Kaunispaa Scenery Kaunispaa Scenery
Kaunispaa Scenery Kaunispaa Scenery Kaunispaa Observation Tower Kaunispaa Observation Tower detail

Even though I did do a fair bit of walking and skiing around in the area, I didn't spot any wildlife. For a while I assumed that this was because the local wildlife was shy and just stayed away from the cross-country skiing paths.

Saariselkä is next to Urho Kekkonen National Park, which is quite large, so there is a lot of room for animals to roam that is far away from any regularly used paths.

While this might be the case, it also turned out that a good place to spot reindeer around Saariselkä is Saariselkä itself.

I've spotted reindeer twice right next to the sidewalks - either looking for leftovers on the ground or just using the snowdrift created by the snow moving machines to have easy access to some trees (and I also suspect that even for reindeer, it's easier to walk on compacted snow paths than going through the deep snow through the forests).

Reindeer at Saarriselkaa Reindeer at Saarriselkaa Reindeer at Saarriselkaa

On the last afternoon in Saariselkä, I didn't do any activity on my own, but joined a sport event as a spectator.

Saariselkä was host to a downhill skating race, the final of the Finnish ATSX-cup (All Terrain Skate Cross), so I went to watch that.

The event consisted of a number of runs down an icy track of about 350 meters length, which included four jumps, with two or three participants in each run. I am not quite sure about the scoring system, but it seems to be based on who comes first in the individual preliminary runs - and then the winners get to compete in later runs. (I didn't see any timing measurements, so the ranking doesn't seem to be done on the fastest times.)

Finnish ATSX Cup Finnish ATSX Cup Finnish ATSX Cup Finnish ATSX Cup

The most interesting part of the track are, obviously, the jumps. Which was also were most of the spectators were located. Who wins the individual runs seemed a lot less relevant - the only people next to the finish line were the officials.

Jump at Finnish ATSX Cup Jump at Finnish ATSX Cup Jump at Finnish ATSX Cup Jump at Finnish ATSX Cup

Of course, the jumps sometimes go wrong (as it did for the guy running in third place on the run shown below), but the participants are well protected (they usually wear ice hockey player gear), so nobody got hurt and everyone who took a fall just got up immediately afterwards and continued running.

Jump fall at Finnish ATSX Cup Jump fall at Finnish ATSX Cup Jump fall at Finnish ATSX Cup

While the ice skate track was next to one of the skiing slopes in Saariselkä the location of the ski lift was inconvenient for the skating event, so the organizers had their own 'shuttle service' to get the participants from the finishing line back to the starting point.

Waiting for shuttle service Boarding ice skater shuttle Driving ice skaters back to starting grid

When I flew home the next day, I noticed an unusual airport vehicle - a quad bike with chains on the tires.

But even though it looked a bit like it might be used for moving the planes around, all it did in the end was move the stairs leading to the plane (after they were pushed back a bit with muscle power).

Airport quad and Ivalo airport

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