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Group in the snow and (inset) Jay Sivell
Group in the snow and (inset) Jay Sivell (Photos from Jay Sivell)

Traveler interview: Jay Sivell - Finland snowshoeing vacation

Chatting with Responsible Travel writer, Catherine Mack.

What made you want to go on this trip?
Snow, Sibelius, wildlife and childhood memories of The Tales of Moominvalley. I had never had a winter vacation, so it was the snow that initially attracted me. And I have always loved Sibelius, although of course up near the Arctic Circle is not where Sibelius came from, I am aware of that. And in fact I didn't hear a note of Sibelius the whole time. I didn't take music with me. The other thing was that, although I wanted a winter vacation, I didn't want the ski crowds type vacation. So the snow and the wildlife were what attracted me. I hadn't been to Finland before either. I had been to Norway and loved that, but that was in summer!

Had you been snowshoeing before?
I hadn't been snowshoeing before and, in fact, haven't ever been skiing either. But snowshoeing is so great for people who wimp out of skiing really. Skiing always seems to involve crowds and hanging around lifts, and lots of hanging around full stop. Whereas with snowshoeing you just put on your shoes and go. And the nice thing about this particular vacation, being in the Oulanka National Park, it was all waymarked, so any free time that you had, you could just go off and follow the green dots. It is just fantastic.

How was the weather?
We had one brief glimpse of the Northern Lights one night - more like a green thumb print in the sky, rather than the dancing things that you imagine, but it was very cloudy. We didn't get a big dump of snow, but more a constant, light dusting. And even though it was often cloudy, we did get these wonderful bursts of light between the trees and over the edges of things, and at sunset and at dawn. The light really was amazing.

Light between the trees
Light between the trees. Resting by the river. (Photos by Jay Sivell)
Some people might think it is just dark all the time in Finland in winter - was that not the case?
Not at all. One of the things that I did was go for a night time walk. Our guide took us out there with head torches on and then she stood us all in a circle once we were well into the forest and said, 'Now, switch your torches off and listen'. And we stood there and we listened, and the rest of the walk, for the next hour, we didn't walk with torches. Because by that stage we had realised that the moonlight on the snow was so bright we didn't need torches. Magical. Completely magical!

What is the most useful thing you packed?
I wish I had packed a more flattering woolly hat! I took a thermal headband with me, and I took a very small hat, which looked a bit like something Mark Rylance would have worn in one of his Tudor things. And as a back up, I took my husband's Polartec thing, and that was the one I ended up wearing in most of the photos, which was just so unflattering. So, thought should be given to headgear that will appear in photos! It is also worth following the advice that you are given to not bring water-based cosmetics, as they are not good in freezing weather. And my face did look a bit beaten up by the time I got home. If I had taken a non water-based face cream, it might have helped.

Did you learn or use any Finnish?
I didn't learn much, to my shame, beyond 'thank you'. Which is kiitos. But apparently the Finns don't have a word for 'please'. They just inflect the end of their sentences instead.

What was your favourite souvenir?
My favourite souvenir was a very large bar of salt liquorice chocolate. I did not know such a thing existed, and I am afraid I have eaten it. All of it... in the space of four days. Salt liquorice is sort of northern European, from Holland upwards, but I have never come across liquorice chocolate before.

Were your preconceptions very different from reality?
It was just generally better. Better, wilder, quieter. Just more. When I went to Norway, it was with my family and we were doing trains and things. So we were looking out on fell landscapes, but I wasn't actively moving through them, and I think it was the engagement, putting one foot in front of the other, that was so wonderful.

Snowshoeing (Photo by Jay Sivell)
Was snowshoeing very tiring?
It was tiring, and my level of fitness is not as good as it ought to be. I love hiking but I don't get out often enough. I did go to the gym for about a month beforehand, doing a bit of rowing, cycling and cross trainer. They have a cross trainer that pushes outwards which I wanted to do, because I was a bit concerned about my hips, and having to swing my snowshoes outwards. In fact I didn't need to worry at all. I found the snowshoeing no more difficult to get my head around than hiking, putting one foot in front of the other. I had sort of envisaged that the snowshoes would be so wide, I would have to swing my legs. But I didn't. I used poles, which really helped with going up and down and backwards, too. Because you anchor your toes, and then use the poles to go backwards. They taught us all that on the first day.

How was the group?
There were twelve of us, and most of them were older than me, and I am 57! And they were shit hot fit, all of them! I tell you what, hanging out with retired people is very bad for morale when you are self employed. I want to retire now... they are having so much fun out there! There was one 50-year-old, and the oldest was 70, and he was very fit.

What did you think was going to be hard that turned about to be ok?
I expected it to be hard to make friends as a solo traveler. I was a bit concerned about that, as I normally travel with my husband. But it was fine, lovely in fact.

Did you have a scary moment?
I had a wonderful scary moment. I did the husky run, and we went round the edge of Riisitunturi National Park, which is where all the frozen trees are, you know the ones in all the amazing shapes? And on the way back to the dog farm, I knew we were coming to the edge of the escarpment, and the team in front of me, which was in fact the owner, vanished over the edge of the escarpment! I knew that now was the moment that I had to put my entire weight on the foot brake to keep my sledge and the person I was carrying well behind the dogs - to avoid crushing the dogs on this (probably not very) steep downhill track. And I have to say, NO fairground ride could possibly beat the thrill. It was the real deal. And I was chuffed to bits at the end of it all, when the dog owner in front of me told me, 'You handled that well!' It was amazing. They had talked us through it in advance, of course. On uphills you push, like a scooter, to help the dogs pull, and downhill you have to really thump on the brake to prevent the loaded sledge overtaking the dogs and crushing them. And you only have a metre or so freeway, so there is a limited amount of wriggle room there, and it all happens so quickly, but it was great. Really great.

Do you have any sense memories from your trip, other than 'sight' ones?
I have so many, yes. The little sounds that you get walking in the forest at night. The distant rush of the rapids - which caused great hilarity, because the first morning when I heard that sound I thought it was a big road in the distance. I have lived in London for too long! Then there were smells, like when we stopped for lunch, our guide would strike a fire in these fire pits in the snow at the wildlife huts that are sprinkled around the national park for people to do long distance walks by. So, they would sweep the snow to one side and produce a fire! And the smell of the wood fire is still very vivid. I have to tell you though, our guide used a tampon to light it… amazing! So, there we are, all carrying a log, and get to where we are going to have lunch and pile up our logs which the guide chops up. And then she pulls out an egg box and a candle, and a tampon, and she lights a fire….just like that!


What about wildlife?
I could hear all the birds so clearly out there. There was a woodpecker near where we were staying, and tits, Siberian jays. You could hear them all, and sometimes you could see them too. It is hard to explain the sound of what appeared to be teeming wildlife. Every morning there were fresh tracks. There were hare tracks, some fox ones and ermine ones, and sometimes even otter tracks. And although I didn't see them, or hear them, in this sort of muffled, snowy world, somehow the silence was very lively. If that makes sense. I did take the optional wolverine trip, and four of us got bussed up to the Russian border for dawn, and we found wolverine tracks, and lynx too. But we didn't see any. We were also coached on what to do if we encountered a bear, because even though they should be hibernating in February, the weather has been so up and down recently there was a possibility that the mother bears, who had all 'younged' by then, were awake and hungry. And if they had emerged, they would have been crabby. There are brown bears in Finland, and we were taught to walk backwards on our snowshoes, as that is what you have to do if you see a brown bear. You don't meet their eye, walk backwards calmly, and then turn around and run as soon as you can! However, we didn't encounter one, sadly.

Was there one local person that you met whom you will always remember?
I will always remember our host at the reindeer farm who had spent 13 years in the Finnish army, including seeing action in Kosovo, but he was now carving a new life with his wife's people. It was his wife's father's reindeer farm. I was very moved by him reaching back into the old life for a new life, if you see what I mean.

What was your "turnaround moment" on this trip for you?
I think it was probably on that very first morning when I went out before breakfast, still didn't know anybody really as we had all arrived late the night before. I didn't have my snowshoes yet, but I took myself off with my hiking boots along one of the dotted trails. And it was just so tranquil and so beautiful that I kind of felt that it was going to be great, whatever happened.

Is there anything you wouldn't recommend about the places you visited?
There were lots of extras, and it was quite expensive to do all of them. I didn't have enough time or money to try everything. And Finland really is expensive.

Was there anything that was a pleasant surprise?
The really pleasant surprise for me, apart from all the other things that I have mentioned, was the amount and quality of the winter clothing they provided. They did tell us that they would provide snow shoes and poles, but actually there was far, far more provided. They got me size 3 snow boots, woolly underlayers, waterproof overlayers. And in fact, when we did the dog sleighing, which was an expensive extra, they gave us another thicker layer of overlayers, so that we wouldn't be cold in the sled. So they made a huge amount of equipment available to us - gloves, rucksacks, torches, Thermos flasks. It really isn't sufficiently highlighted in the trip notes just what is included in the price. I had gone out and bought quite expensive kit, which I will enjoy using on other occasions of course, but I really didn't need to. Plus, you don't need to pack as much.

What is your favourite photograph?
There is a photograph of me, grinning madly on a frozen lake, waving my snowshoes. I think that is the one I like best. Probably because of the mad grin, because it just sums it up.

Grinning madly on a frozen lake
Grinning madly on a frozen lake (Photo from Jay Sivell)
Has this trip influenced where you would like to go next?
I would definitely go back to Finland. We did the Little Bear Loop, and some day I would like to go back and do the long distance trail. But I must admit, I might have to take a city break first, to acclimatise myself back to crowds!

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