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Kel&Cez’s Travel Diary

Monday, 06 Feb 2006

Location: Kemi, Finland

MapYoo-haloo from Kemi!

Welcome to Finland's winter adventure-land! From Husky sledding to snow-mobiling at night, to staying in a snow castle, to swimming in the wake of an ice-breaker, we did it all in Kemi!

For you to fully appretiate these experiences, this diary entry will be a little longer, but we'll try to make it more reader friendly by dividing it into days.

DAY 1
After a pretty train trip from Rovaniemi we arrived at the small Kemi railway station and prepared ourselves for the long cold treck to our hotel. It was about minus 22 outside and I had so many clothes, coats and bags on I could barely move, so you can imagine that navigating through a foriegn, snow covered city in this state was no easy task! I was grateful for all my extra padding however when my feet found an icy patch on the pavement and I promptly found myself on my ass! No physical injuries, just my pride. Carey and I did have a good laugh though, and reminisced about his hilarious stack on the icy Gulf of Finland (St Petersburg) which he sneekily neglected to mention! Now it was one all!
So tonight we were off to the coldest hotel in Lappland, the snow castle, Lumi Linna (feeling my fingers go numb, I did question why anyone in their right mind would want to PAY for a hotel room in Lappland that wasn't heated!). The rooms are kept at a balmy minus 5, so any belongings you don't want to stuff inside your sleeping bag with you are kept cosy in a locker at the heated reception room - the only structure NOT made of snow. For this reason, we decided to ask Hotel Cumulus (where we'd be the following two nights) to store our stuff overnight so we didn't have to lugg it all there. Lucky for us, when we turned up buggered and freezing on their doorstep they were very obliging.

After a quick feed at Hessburger - the Finn's answer to McDonald's, offering good quality burgers (grilled salmon for $3) and a couple of playstations for entertainment - we headed off in the direction of the snow castle. We didn't exactly know where it was, but figured it wouldn't be hard to miss, and right we were! Constructed right on the bank of the Gulf of Bothnia, this enormous white mass was lit up like Disneyland! Once through the grand entrance, we realised it was actually constructed like a real medieval castle, with several buildings and structures enclosed within a big external wall. There was a chapel, a restaurant, bar, veiwing tower, kids snow park and of course the hotel rooms. Carey and I spent a good two hours exploring the grounds, taking a small break at the ice-bar to have cake and hot-(soon to be cold)-chocolate after tiring ourselves out in the snow park! We then 'defrosted' in the warm reception for a while before plucking up the courage to put ourselves to bed! The cold must have killed off half our brain cells because for months we had talked about getting a double sleeping bag (much cosier), then when we went to pick up our 'bedding' we completely forgot. So we both got a single Arctic sleeping bag and a thermal liner to sleep in on our fur covered beds, and after at least half an hour of fumbling with all our layers, Carey managed to snuggle down in bed, while I struggled to get even remotely comfortable for the rest of the night! As well as the sleeping bag zip that kept coming undone, the hood that woodn't stay on my head and the pain running down my left side because I couldn't roll over, the sheer act of breathing was such an issue I almost threw a hissy-fit and went to the reception. Can you imagine: either you leave your face exposed and breathe the arctic air that makes your teeth and lungs freeze, or enclose your head in your sleeping bag and breathe the warm stuffy air rank with the smell of your own socks!? I tried the first way for about an hour but couldn't feel my face, so dealt with my claustrophobia and the smell and shoved my head inside the covers til morning....


DAY 2
Hooray! After what has to be one of the longest (and certainly coldest) nights of my life, we got our knock at the door at 7am which meant we could put on our icy-cold boots (which sat on the floor of snow all night) and run through the castle grounds to breakfast! 5 cups of tea later in the warm reception and we said goodbye to Lumi Linna and trekked through the snow again to our new hotel "Cumulus". Here we took a scorching sauna and I actually felt warm to my bones! I have never been so cold and so hot within a single day of my life. The crazy Finns truely love their extreme temperatures and LOVE their Saunas - in fact, there are more saunas than bathrooms in Finland, and they are considered an essential part of everyday life!
AT 9am we were off to get kitted-out for husky sledding in our 'arctic safari' suits - one inch thick, heavy-duty, insulated overalls that are worn over ALL your normal clothes, jackets included, so you look and feel like a Michelin man! They also gave us huge sheepskin mittens and enormous felt-lined rubber boots (which I managed to fit 3 chunky pairs of wool socks in to try and keep my feet warm)!
We travelled by minibus to the husky farm and although it was almost 10am when we got there, the sun was still only just above the horizon! Our 'sledding team' consisted of 2 Finnish guides, 4 Dutch tourists, 28 mad huskies, 4 sleighs and us! We were pointed to the last sleigh in line and simply told to "press the foot brake if they are going too fast and NEVER leave your sled" - these were our official driving instructions.
With Carey 'Mushing' (driving) and me perched on the little wooden sled, the huskies bolted into the winter wilderness leaving me clinging on for dear life! Unfortunately, no white-knuckled gripping was going to save me from what lay ahead - a sharp right turn and a driver who'd already forgotten how to use the brake! Just 25 metres into our idyllic sled ride and I was covered in snow, crawling out of the bushes and running after the sled I'd just been thrown off! Thanks Cezza.
After the rocky start however, we really did have an amazing ride. Crystal clear skies made for an unforgettable sunrise and the scenery was like something out of a fairytale. We crossed big open fields of snow up to 3 feet deep, then wound through forrested areas and followed sleigh tracks, stopping only once in our two hour journey for some well needed hot drinks. I must say that this was definitely the coldest Carey and I have ever been in our lives! My eyelashes actually FROZE together (check out the photo of my face mask - they're are not snowflakes)!! It was -24 and despite all our clothing, niether of us could feel our feet after about 10 minutes, and they soon became so painful, we had to swap drivers every 20 minutes through the journey. As Musher, you can run behind the sled - which is very tough work in our 20kilo suits and boots - but worth it to try and get the blood pumping! (Driving was actually heaps of fun too, so it took your mind off the cold). The Huskies on the other hand, got so hot, that they actually rolled around in the snow and ate it to cool down! They are such STRONG, intense, wildly energetic animals and thery're really quite small (about the size of a dingo). Our dogs would constantly run up the heals of the sled infront despite Carey having his FULL bodyweight on the brake, and as soon as we'd pause for anything, they'd howl and bark like crazy until they could run again. Definitely not an inside pet!
Back at camp, we sat in a teepee-like structure for about 20 minutes playing with Huskie pups (very cute) and drinking MORE hot berry juice whilst trying to defrost our feet around a huge fire. (Carey actually couldn't feel his feet for another couple of hours after this - I am NOT exagerating about the cold!)

Such excertion definitely deserved a good feed - and where else to go in Finland but....the local Chinese all-you-can-eat buffet! I swear there are Irish pubs and Chinese restaurants in every city of the world!
Stuffed silly, we chilled out (or warmed up rather) for the rest of the afternoon in preparation for our next arctic adventure that evening - a snow mobile ride in search of the Arora Borealis! (Northern Lights).
8pm and we were back in our Michelin-man costumes ready to do battle with the chilly night air! After a few brief instructions (much like the sledding) we were driving the snow mobiles across the Gulf of Bothnia, out towards an island in the middle of nowhere (like stars, the Northern Lights are best seen in areas with no other light sources). We had a tiny group of 4, so our safari guide let us drive the snow mobiles up to 90km/h along parts of the Gulf, and let me tell you, I am glad I had my 3 pairs of gloves, arctic mittens, 8 thermal tops, 3 thermal bottoms and 4 balaklavas on under my helmet and suit, (I also upped-the-anti in the footware department with some more socks) it was freezing! But again, Carey and I shared the driving and reluctantly swapped to passenger - the heated hanle-bars and the thrill of speeding into the pitch-balck night were something neither of us wanted to give up! After about 45mins we arrived at our island 'Hut' - a round wooden cabin with that good old roaring fire inside again - and were 'refreshed' with, you guessed it, warm berry juice. Here our jovial host boasted about how many pots of stewed reindeer he'd eaten while we ducked in and out of the cabin to view the night sky. Thankfully, we WERE lucky, and the Arora Borealis danced and swirled before our eyes in beautiful shades of green, before disappearing and re-appearing minutes later in other shapes and patterns. It had been a real gamble to take this tour because if the conditions aren't right, you really don't see anything! Apparently the best time to see the lights is midnight.
After a very quick trip home, Carey and I decided we'd stay up and take a 'stroll' out onto the gulf from our hotel to see if we could spot the lights from there. Not so lucky this time, all we saw was black , but we did have fun playing in the metre-high snow banks on the way home!

DAY 3
Today was D-Day - our Sampo Ice Breaker adventure! And I woke up feeling like I'd been hit by a bus! Determined to go however, I forced down Nurofen with breakfast and geared up for the last time in my spunky red insulation suit. By 9am we were outside being greeted by another beautiful day - clear skies and a big golden sun. It's amazing how much this gives you a false sense of warmth - it was still -22.
We had a big group of about 20 Norweigens with us today so the snow mobile ride out to the ship was at a much slower pace (about 50km/h) but gave us about 1 & 1/2 hours of breathtaking scenery across the Gulf. Funnily enough, it's so easy to forget that you're actually 'driving' across the frozen ocean, that when we realised we'd turned onto an island and were actually wizzing up a river, past fishing huts and summer houses nestled on the banks, it makes you feel a little uneasy! How does a moving ocean actually freeze so solid? Our guides took great pleasure in scaring us with stories about melted sections they'd driven over!
Our river cruise eventually took us to a small reindeer farm (on land) where we were again grateful for a big fire inside a teepee, and more warm berry juice to wash down some very (believe it or not) yummy cured reindeer sandwiches! It was then time for our reindeer sleigh rides (talk about meet them and eat them). One by one we each drove a little sleigh behind a reindeer and qualified for our reindeer driver's liscence (valid for 5 years and presented with much authenticity back in the teepee).
Unfortunately, the two reindeers pulling the slieghs were rather sluggish and many of our group went around the track at a pittiful pace - not fun. Determined not to have my only riendeer experience ruined, I gave my beast a little 'yeehah' and with a whip of the reigns we were flying around the track! I skidded over the finish line to a round of applause from a rather shocked audience and felt pretty proud of myself! Carey was not so lucky.

After our little island stopover it was back to the vast openess of the Gulf. Even though most of the ocean had frozen fairly flat, I did manage to get some 'air' with our snowmobile going over some of the snowdrifts and banks that build up! Very cool!
Just as my fingers felt like they were going to fall off, we reached 'the pick up point' for Sampo - one lonely pine tree stuck in the middle of an endless plane of ice. About 40 other snowmobiles were already parked at this point and it was a pretty strange sight! Eventually, the big icebreaker ship appeared on the horizon and slowly crushed its way through all the ice and came to grinding hault in front of us. It was very impressive! We were all herded up a ramp from the ice and guided into the ship's restuarant where we got to ditch our suits and defrost for a while, dining on hot salmon soup and sauteed reindeer (definitely the two staples of lappish cuisine). We then took a tour of the ship's engine room and facilities and got to meet the captain up on the bridge. From there we could really witness the power of this incredible machine and had an amazing view of the bow crunching through the ice! After a brief stroll around the front deck (just a little chilly!) we were sad to see our 3 hour cruise was almost over, but super excited about what was about to happen next! We pulled into our pick up point and with an army of staff helping us, each person was dressed in an enormous orange wetsuit - hood, rubber gloves and booties all in one - and with tremendous difficulty, we slipped and slid our way up a ladder to front deck then down the ramp, onto the ice and INTO THE WATER!! Yes, as the photos prove, we actually swam amongst the broken up segements of ice that Sampo had crushed through and bobbed around in the freezing water! The funniest thing was that the suits are so big and fully sealed off (apart from the hood around the face) that they fill with air and become exceptionally bouyant, so we did literally 'bob' around, because that's all you can do! I sort of 'sat' in the water most of the time with my massive inflated booties floating out in front of me, but Carey managed to stand upright which was hilarious because all the air from the suit was pushed up around his shoulders and neck making him look like the incredible hulk! We spent about 15minutes swimming around with the big chunks of ice and despite the little leak in the back of my suit, I don't recall feeling cold at all, it was just so much fun and so beautiful. While we were in the water the sun was actually setting so all the ice glowed a pretty amber colour. It was really quite surreal actually - sitting in arctic waters in a huge orange wetsuit, surrounded by ice, watching the sun set over a frozen gulf! In any case, neither of us wanted to get out, but our poor camera had started to seriously freeze up, so Carey rellinquished his spot in the 'pool' and went to defrost it.
I must mention two special thank-yous here, one to Dawnie and George (Carey's Grandparents) for providing us with the waterproof camera we took the amazing photos with, and one to Carey for going to much effort to take them! This is a moment both of us will remember for the rest of our lives, and now we have plenty of boasting material to back up the stories with!
So after dragging myself out of the water I made the very tricky accent to the ship, again via a ramp and climbed down a ladder into a pit of chaos where the Sampo staff were hurridly stripping wet people of their siuts and whipping them on dry ones. Re-clad in our Safari overalls we took the next 1/2 hour just to soak up the atmosphere on the ship and enjoy the sunset. It was then time to take-off on our snowmobiles and head for home, and what a spectacular end to the day it was! As you may know, the sun stays very close to the horizon during winter in Finland, which does not only mean the daylight hours are short, but that sunsets last forever! Our entire journey home was highlighted by an incredible display of oranges and pinks across the sky, and as we went through forrests massively laden with snow, all the trees glowed and formed strange shapes, making it feel like we were on another planet!
Finally we reached the shore of the Gulf, disembarked our snowmobiles near the snow castle, and made a very weary trek back to 'headquaters' to offload our arctic outfits for the very last time. We proudly received our Sampo certificates and went back to the hotel to finish the day in Finnish style - a Sauna!

As you all know, I am pretty terrible in the cold, so this part of our trip was a HUGE accomplishment for me. And although I had apprehentions about the Sampo adventure before we left Australia, I absolutely LOVED every minute of it - especially the swimming!

Our 3 days in Kemi were certainly not a relaxing holiday but Carey and I both agreed they were full of some of the best experiences wev'e ever had. If anyone has the chance, I would definitely recommend that you embark on this sort of holiday - truly UNFORGETTABLE!!

DAY 4
Well we were both truly buggered when we woke this morning but still had to muster up the energy to pack (after sufficiently avoiding it all last night)! Cramming all our stuff into our packs at record speed we managed to fit in our last enourmous buffet breakfast before working it off with our trek back to the train station. Despite the trip only taking 20 minutes the first time, Carey wanted to give us 40 minutes, so we arrived at the tiny deserted station and faced 20 minutes of boredom. Little did we know however, that a little adventure awaited us in the next few minutes.
The cashiers were closed, ticket machines broken and the PA system was only in Finnish so we actually had no way of purchasing a ticket or confirming that our train was due to arrive. Carey tried to call a help number and I did try to ask another tourist for help - the only other person in the station - but all our efforts were fruitless. 10 minutes later, the station started to fill with people which we hoped were for our train. I decided to take a quick bathroom break, and this is where things got interesting. Just as I was washing my hands and getting over the embarassment of being walked in on, I noticed someone banging on the door of the ladies and yelling...he was saying 'Kelly!'. I figured this was Carey just panicking that the train would be here in five minutes and he wanted to get onto the platform (5m away) early! I opened the door however, to a frantic Carey who just said "Our passports are still at the hotel..." and then he burst out of the station doors and all I could do was wait and hope...
Yes, Carey had been doing some triathlon training recently but sprinting back to the hotel (about a three km round trip) in sub zero temperatures was a whole 'nother kettle o' fish! The reason this was such a drama was that the train due in 11minutes was the ONLY train to Rovaniemi today, and if we missed it, we missed our flight to Helsinki at 3pm, our accommodation overnight, AND our flight to Milan the next morning (and thus we probably would not be able to go to Italy for at least another 3 days because ALL flights had been fully booked 2 weeks ago!). Big Problem. I sat in the station with my eyes fixated on the clock, watching every minute pass with dread. Then the PA system kicked in and 1/2 the station crowd shuffled outside - 3 minutes to go, No Carey. The next minute a train pulled through the station but stopped 150m up - NOT at the platform. I asked a young local girl for help and she told me she was travelling on the same train as us, but it was delayed, so not to worry, just follow her. The crowd grumbles and moves back inside. About three or four minutes later, Carey crashes through the station doors Kramer style, glasses all fogged up, yelling blindly into the crowd "Kelly! Our train's here!! Kelly!! Kelly, where are you!?" I try to cover my embarassment and push through the crowd to calm Carey by telling him it's OK, I have it covered. But he insisted that the train parked up the tracks WAS in fact ours and ALL the locals were wrong. I don't know why, but I chose to follow him and we ran as fast as we could up the snow covered platform (laden with our 50kg of luggage) to a couple of old rail workers having a cigarette break. "Rovaniemi?' Carey asked pointing to the stationary trian a few tracks over, "Yah yah" nodded one of them - and THAT was meant to convince me. "But I heard it on the PA, and I asked a local, and ALL the other people are still in the station - this doesn't make sense!" I wailed. But Carey insisted we trust them, so off we stumbled over the railway tracks and clamboured up the next platform where I used every last bit of energy I had to run up to the the train driver and ask him if this was indeed our train. After some initial confusion I managed to wave my arms hysterically and give Carey the thumbs up. Now we just needed to lugg our bags on a cattle-class carraige, find a seat and pray a nice conductor would sell us a ticket rather than giving us one! We managed all of the above and 15 minutes later we were on our way to Rovaniemi, leaving all the locals still couped up inside the tiny Kemi station, waiting for their delayed train that was never going to come. I must say, as we sat in the carraige, red faced and panting from the run, muscles aching all over from the exertion of carrying our bags, I did feel like we had a gaurdian angel. We really should've missed that train for a number of reasons, and actually I'm surprised we didn't. The only bad thing that came out of the experience was that Carey actually got pretty nasty windburn / frostbite on his cute little wing-nut ears. For two whole weeks they were red and swolen and extremely sore, then they peeled and became wonderfully crusty. What an experience! We had so many laughs about that crazy, freezing cold morning during the rest of our trip, and yes, we did manage to catch our following flights to Helsinki and Milan without any further hiccups.
I must appologise again for the essay length of this entry, but these couple of days were some of the most unusual and memorable of our lives and we knew people like my parents would appretiate every last detail. Congratulations to those who've read this far, I hope it doesn't put you off the rest of our travel page - I garauntee the entries will be reasonable from now on!!!