On ice: Finland by snowmobile

Eleanor Hughes waits to get the all clear to drive a snowmobile. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
Eleanor Hughes waits to get the all clear to drive a snowmobile. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
Eleanor Hughes heads outside to experience life in the Arctic Circle on a recent visit to Finland.

The skis on the front of the red and black Lynx machines look like gigantic transformer pieces, the track at the back an oversized Lego bit. But weighing 300kg, these snowmobiles are definitely not toys.

After brief driving instructions, I'm still not confident to take control. I mount the back of one. John, from my tour group, takes the front seat and attaches a springy cord from the snowmobile to his overalls. If he comes off, the snowmobile will stop. It won't if I do.

I cling to the grips positioned slightly to the rear on either side of my thighs as the snowmobile jars over the equivalent of judder bars on a road, but these humps of ice have barely any space between them. I'm thankful when we get off them and on to the frozen Ounasjoki River. The jarring turns to jiggling and shaking and doesn't stop. Viewed from above we must look like scurrying ants on a blank wall as we follow Markku, our guide from Lapland Safaris, across the great white expanse leaving Rovaniemi behind.

Guide Marrku uses an auger to break through the ice on the frozen  Pikku-Mellalampi Lake.
Guide Marrku uses an auger to break through the ice on the frozen Pikku-Mellalampi Lake.
My black helmet bangs up and down on my head over every bump as we roar along, but it keeps my face and head warm. The visor fogs up occasionally, I hope John's doesn't.

 Marrku shows ice-fishing novices how it’s done.
Marrku shows ice-fishing novices how it’s done.
After a while we take a left turn and enter a track, metre-high snowbanks either side of it, into pine forest. Markku puts his hand up several times to stop us so that everyone catches up. Then, pulling his left hand down twice like a train driver pulling a steam whistle cord, he signals we're off again.

John negotiates bends and hills like a pro, albeit a slow one. When Markku waves his arm we slow further to find a snowmobiler coming the other way. John remembers to keep to the right of the track, which may possibly be a road in the summer - there are occasional stop signs.

My fingers are icy, despite woollen gloves and mittens, I play the piano on the grips to warm them and try to take my mind off the coldness seeping into my toes by looking for shapes in the snow laden trees. A tree my height is so completely covered it resembles Casper the ghost. Treetops wear white nightcaps. Some branches bear such a load it's a wonder they haven't snapped.

We come out of the forest on to the great expanse of iced-over Pikku-Mellalampi Lake. It's hard to tell it is a lake; it could be a field under all that white. But this is Spot X. We're about to partake of one of Finland's popular sports, ice-fishing.

From the sled he's been towing, Markku brings out an auger, a large corkscrew-type tool about a metre and a-half in length. He winds it into the ice ... and winds ... scoops out loose ice ... winds ... scoops ... and winds some more ...

Enjoying the warmth in a lavvu.
Enjoying the warmth in a lavvu.
After what seems about 10 minutes, a gush of brown water flows on to the white ice. He's drilled through, roughly, half a metre of ice. Scooping loose ice from the water with a colander-like ladle, Markku then unwraps a bundle of plastic, 12-inch long rods that resemble children's toys. They look as if they might break with a good tug on the end of the line. The red rubber maggot and tiny silver-coloured sinker on the end of the nylon line is dropped into the 20cm-wide hole and goes slack quite quickly. The lake can't be more than 2m deep. Bringing the line up from the bottom with three turns of the reel, Markku jiggles the rod up and down. I take several photos, having to take my mittens off to push the shutter button. I regret it. My hands sting and ache from the cold, the pain like that from spending ages searching for something in a chest freezer. I clap and rub them vigorously but it's probably five minutes before the pain recedes.

I let a line down into the icy water of the hole John drilled and jiggle the rod, bouncing on the spot trying to keep my feet warm. Oversized boots, (supposedly loose keeps feet warmer) and three pairs of woollen socks aren't cutting it. How can anything survive in the water below me?

After maybe 30 minutes the surface of the hole begins to freeze over. The nylon line resembles one of those scientific experiments that grows crystals on string - but on this occasion it's icicles.

Snowmobiles on the edge of frozen Pikku-Mellalampi Lake.
Snowmobiles on the edge of frozen Pikku-Mellalampi Lake.
I give up. Not a nibble. An information board, situated near the lake edge - I presume it's the edge as the snow covered ground rises - shows what could be caught. I peruse pictures of perch, pike, trout, poach and whitefish then crunch over the snow to seek warmth in an open-fronted lavvu, tepee-like, nestled among pines. A fire throws out warmth, sausages brown and the hot berry juice is delicious. I don't want to leave the cosiness.

Plucking up courage, I drive the snowmobile on our return journey. It does the equivalent of a few bunny jumps before I get used to the accelerator button. Too scared to go fast in case I hit a snow bank or tree and wreck the machine which may cost me 980 ($NZ1670) for compulsory deductible expenses - the insurance excess - I'm like a very elderly driver to begin with. My travel insurance doesn't cover me for snowmobiling either ...

I wrestle the handlebars to navigate corners. The skis on the front tend to slide into the grooves already made by other machines and trying to get out of them takes a bit of muscle. After a while my right thumb and hand ache from holding the accelerator button down, although they're warm. The accelerator button is heated, as are the handlebars. Bliss. I want to wiggle my thumb and hand but taking my thumb off will stop the machine. Moving my hand around a bit, I manage to position my palm on the accelerator. Relief. The windscreen seems to distort my vision and I don't know whether to look through it or above it. I do both. By the time we get back to the Ounasjoki River I'm braver - there's nothing to run into, it's several hundred metres wide.

Pushing the accelerator button to max, I get up to 40kmh. It feels faster. Markku stops us and checks to see if anyone would like the snowmobile key changed to another that will give more power.

Those who take the fast option are soon black spots in the whiteness, apparently reaching speeds of 70kmh. I race back to Rovaniemi more slowly, better late than never, rather proud of my new skills.

The writer travelled courtesy of Bentours and Mondo Travel on a Bentours "Follow the Lights'' tour.



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