My wilderness adventure began as soon as I left the airport at Kajaani in Finland. I stepped out of the small building and was shepherded through swirling snow towards the hotel’s bus. Before clambering on board I was given a hot juice and a gingerbread biscuit – both very welcome. The bus set off into the night and we drove for over an hour along snow-covered roads lined with trees bowing down under the weight of their snow-laden branches. These roads were deserted and the only sound I could hear was the swish of the buses tyres. I think everyone on the bus was mesmerised by the wilderness outside.
Just before arriving at our hotel we passed through the town of Kuhmo – the first bright lights we had seen on our journey. Kuhmo is only forty kilometres from the Russian border and was invaded during the Russo-Finnish war also known as the Winter War in 1939. As the Russians advanced the Finns destroyed their own property to deny them shelter. When the Second World War ended the Finnish government supplied the materials (and the instructions) to rebuild their houses. It was no wonder the houses all looked similar. But over the years these houses have developed their own characters and are now popular, sought-after residences. Kuhmo itself is strung along the four roads of a major junction and features one hotel, one bar, an excellent bakery and several supermarkets.
Soon after we passed the boundary of the town we turned into the drive leading up to our hotel, Hotel Kalevala – the only hotel in the area. Once inside I was encouraged to go straight into dinner – they eat early here – and I was soon seated in the warm, spacious restaurant tucking into a buffet of local food. Through the large windows all I could see was trees and darkness. The hotel is on the bank of Lake Lammasjärvi in the Wild Taiga and I would have to wait until the morning to see what was out there.
In the dull light of early morning I could see the huge expanse of the frozen lake that surrounds the small peninsula on which the hotel is situated. When the snow falls and this lake freezes the area is a huge winter playground for adults and children alike. I was eager to get outside and explore. As a skier I had all the gear I needed but the hotel does rent appropriate clothing to guests if they need it. I was immediately tempted by the array of toboggans outside the main entrance and dragged one to the top of a small hill. It was exhilarating and fun. After a while I decided to try the kick sled a popular means of getting around for the locals. This was more challenging as I had to balance on two thin runners once I had kicked the sled into motion. It was two hours before I mastered the technique of going downhill without leaping off in a panic when it gathered speed at an alarming rate.
What next? Snow shoes or cross-country skis. These were also available outside the main entrance. I decided it would be more fun to do both with a group so I booked myself on the afternoon snow shoe safari. Perti was our guide and after a quick demonstration of how to walk on the large tennis racket shaped plastic shoes strapped to our feet we set off. The snow was deep and we soon learned to follow in our guide’s tracks. Perti kept up a brisk pace and was not inclined to re-trace his steps to pull anyone who strayed off his beaten track out of the deep snow. We soon learned to fend for ourselves amid much laughter. It was a good way to get to know the other guests.
Hotel Kalevala offers a comprehensive programme of activities throughout the week (at an extra charge) and the next morning I joined the snowmobile safari. As I had done this before and we were an odd number I was given my own snowmobile. Martti was our leader and Hannu brought up the rear. We set off in an orderly line making our way around the perimeter of the frozen lake. I was able to appreciate the vastness and beauty of this frozen expanse. The sun was struggling to break through and the horizon was bathed in a pink glow. When we turned into the woods to follow a narrow rutted track I had to concentrate hard to keep my machine out of trouble. Once, after hitting a deep rut it flew off the track into a bank of snow. Hannu was soon there to dig me out and I was on my way again. After an hour we had a break for some hot juice before making our way back to base.
As it had long been an ambition of mine to drive a husky sled I signed up for the Family Experience. Husky sledding is the most popular of the activities and all the husky safaris were already full. The hotel uses three companies for this activity all offering slightly different experiences. Some start from the hotel and utilise the lake and others take place elsewhere. My experience was off-site and six of us were collected by Suvi who works with Aki the owner of Routa Travel. They are based in the wilderness a half-hour drive from the hotel. The whole experience was magical. We drove along deserted roads to their home where we met their twenty-five dogs who live in a series of large enclosures. Once the dogs were harnessed to the three sleds the first two drivers set off behind Aki’s sled while the rest of us walked through the woods to meet them when they completed their circuit. We took it in turns to drive the sleds and it was even better than I had imagined. The dogs clearly loved working and bounded through the trees after the lead sled. After two turns each we returned to the house where Suvi gave us some warming elk and vegetable soup before driving us back to the hotel.
Saunas and museums were also on offer during our stay. Guests can use the smoke sauna in the woods at an extra charge. Dressed in bathrobes they are transported there in a sledge pulled along by a snowmobile. I opted for another traditional treatment – bone-setting. Every joint in my body was stretched and manipulated. I certainly felt the benefits after the treatment as I was moving more easily but found it difficult to relax during the session as I could not help wondering what was going to happen next. The War Museum close to the hotel documents the invasion of Russia into Finland and the events during the Second World War. On my last afternoon I walked the short distance to the Petola Nature Centre to learn about the wildlife in the area. Bears, wolves, wolverines and lynx are just four of the many animals that inhabit this wilderness. In the winter visitors have to make do with the images and wooden replicas in the Centre. But I vowed I would be back in the summer to see them for myself. Meanwhile I had some wonderful memories to take home.