British wilderness guide, Sophie Nolan, 28, lives in Finland and splits her time between running her own backcountry ski touring business, Sidetracked Adventures, and working as a guide on a Finnish husky farm.
Below, Sophie provides a beautiful and fascinating account of cold winters spent exploring and guiding within the untouched wilderness of Finnish Lapland. Thank you, Sophie.
A DAY IN MY LIFE
I studied graphic design at University and spent a couple of years working in an agency in Manchester, spending my evenings out on the bike or playing football and my weekends
hiking or climbing in the Peak district. Then I got the chance to spend three months in Finland on an expedition here during winter. The trip had me ice climbing, skiing across the Baltic Sea, diving under a frozen lake – it was a life-changing trip. Here I met some wonderful people and found out about the IWG – the International wilderness guide program.
Within two years, I’d signed up and moved here to Finland. The course covered a huge amount throughout the 10 months. The essential topics of the program were mainly wilderness skills, nature and tourism, and customer service. We learnt key wilderness skills; navigation, shelter building, cooking, gear maintenance etc, then implemented everything in practical situations during five expeditions, which included a 9-day solo expedition in the snowy wilderness.
Our first week was spent in the forest learning about different shelters, how to select and chop wood to build the perfect fire – I was in my element. As the year went on the expeditions got tougher and the work load heavier. One of the toughest tasks was the Ice hole self-rescue, where we had to jump into a frozen lake in all our gear and wait there before attempting to get out. It was to prepare us for an upcoming trip. I’m not the biggest fan of water, so had been dreading this drill for weeks. It wasn’t the cold I was afraid of, more my bodies reaction to it; we’d been told that often your body can go into shock – especially when fully submerged.
Because this could happen when we’re out skiing on the lakes, we need to know what to expect. I took a big step and submerged myself under the icy water, which took a few seconds to hit my skin as my waterproof jacket held it off for as long as it could. I tried to control my breathing, and relaxed as best I could. Next, I had to get out of the lake and attempt to make a fire. Starting the fire was as hard as I imagined; my hands shaking uncontrollably. Although you know you have matches in your hand, you can’t feel them at all. Then, just as I’d got my fire going, I sat up in triumph and released a small wave of water from under my sleeve… I sat there for another 25 minutes till I got my second fire going, my body now completely numb and the thought of it ever getting warm seeming impossible.
There’s a strange part of me that gets such a buzz from pushing myself beyond my comfort zone. The feeling of dread and fear which used to consume and hold me back when I was younger is now the driving force in my life. These things are personal, one person’s triumph can seem like nothing to somebody else – but that doesn’t matter. For me, as long as I know I gave it a go, that’s enough.
LIFE IN FINLAND
Now I split my time between working as a guide on a husky farm and running my own backcountry ski touring business: Sidetracked Adventures. Both days are quite different. I’m based in Saariselkä which is about 300km north of the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland and situated right next to Finland’s second largest national park, so a really beautiful part of the world. From my doorstep there are hundreds of kilometres of skiing tracks, hiking trails and untouched wilderness. It’s a very small place, not many people, but I love the pace of life here; it’s basic but it has everything you actually need and none of the nonsense. Everyone here is very capable and independent and it’s one of the reasons I love living in Finland.
ON THE HUSKY FARM
Typically my day starts at around 6am to get my van engine warmed up. With the temperatures sometimes getting down to as low as -30°c, I need to make sure the van is heated properly before driving it to the farm. This gives me time to have a decent breakfast as it’s possibly the only chance to eat anything before dinnertime. Normally a big bowl of porridge with cinnamon and apple does the job, and I load my pockets with snacks for the day; nuts, fruit and cereal bars. Then I head to the husky farm – where there’s over 250 dogs waiting for their breakfast.
We start with a briefing in the morning about the organisation for the day; which dogs are running, how many sleds we’re taking, and any updates on the dogs in general. We then go to feed them all with a meaty soup we’ve made; encouraging them to drink some water ready for the day. Then we start building the sled teams. We often try and keep roughly the same team of six dogs together, but there’s always a few changes here and there. I originally started working here as a trainee when I was studying to become a guide. I worked for a month during December, one of the busiest periods on the farm because of Christmas, and then again in March during the spring time. It’s possibly one of the most physically demanding jobs I’ve ever done. The days are long but for me the dogs are worth it all.
During the busy periods we only run 2-hour tours, taking groups round a loop in the forest. But once the crazy Christmas season is over we do longer runs with the dogs, often including a lunch spot in our kota (a wooden teepee style cabin) in the woods where we make salmon soup and hot berry juice for the group to warm up with. With so many dogs on the farm it took me a while to learn all the names, especially because most of them are Finnish, but working with them every day you start to learn their personalities and small differences between each other.
LIFE AS A WILDERNESS GUIDE
My other life has me organising backcountry ski tours in the national parks. I take small groups out into the wilderness for a week, making our way from hut to hut each day using a typical Finnish style ski. They’re called forest skis, as they’re very long and quite wide which makes them perfect for making fresh tracks in the endless Lappish forests. I run 7-night tours into the Finnish wilderness, based at the moment in Urho Kekkonen national park, with plans to run trips in other areas of Lapland in the future, skiing each day hut-to-hut pulling everything we need for the trip behind us in sleds.
A typical morning would has me waking up early to get the fire going in the wilderness hut. The whole of Finland has these great systems of open wilderness huts that are so beautiful and practical – equipped with a log burner, a gas stove, large bunk beds to accommodate everyone, and a nice wooden table to enjoy dinner round. The night before, I usually chop a pile of wood ready for the morning, because having to drag yourself outside in the dark to split wood is never too appealing. As the hut begins to warm itself up again, I start to prepare breakfast for the team. Some huts are located next to a stream which can be frozen, so sometimes there’s a pickaxe for you to open a hole up to collect water, or you grab a bucket of snow and get melting. Once the water is boiling I can wake the group up with the smell of coffee and a large bowl of porridge ready for a big day of skiing.
The huts have no electricity so it’s always nice to eat breakfast together by candlelight, just as the sun begins to rise outside. In Lapland the winters are extreme but that’s partly the reason I love them so much. Where I’m based we have around a month of polar night between December and January where the sun doesn’t rise. The days are very short and we have a few hours of pinky sunrise glow. The darkness doesn’t bother me that much because on a clear day during the polar night you can get some of the most beautiful skies, pinky-blue hues in one direction and this bright intense orange glow in the other. I run my trips in February/March time as the days are much longer and it means were not skiing a lot of the day in the darkness.
After breakfast the group packs away their gear into their sleds and we set off to our next hut. Our distances each day vary from 8-19km, determined by the distances between the cabins. Although Finland is very flat, the routes do include a lot of up and down and when you’re pulling a fully loaded sled this is no walk in the park. You have to be physically and mentally very strong to keep yourself going, especially when we get some super-cold temperatures. Typically in winter it can go from -5 to -30°c. The lowest I have experienced was -38°c, which was very tough. You can’t really understand it till you experience it, although the cold here isn’t as bad as it sounds; it’s a dry cold. I think I’ve been colder on a wet rainy day hiking in North Wales! With the right clothes on, and an activity that keeps you moving and warm it’s really not a problem.
For this reason we often have a very short lunch break. In the morning I fill everyone’s thermos bottle with tea etc and I make some extra thermos bottles of hot soup. If it’s not too cold we will have a longer lunch break, and perhaps heat a quick pasta meal but often I just do something that can be eaten on the go. Sometimes en route there’s a designated fire place (these can be buried in snow so a bit of digging is required) or if not we will just stop somewhere with a nice view.
This is my first winter running my own company, guiding groups in the National Park. I’ve done quite a lot of guide work in other places; Switzerland, the French Alps, and the Italian Dolomites but I wanted to share my love of Finland with others. I love the winters here, they’re so unique and changing all the time. From the extreme temperatures which freeze your eyelashes in seconds to the feeling you get when you see the sun rise above the horizon for the first time in a month. No day is ever the same. You’re surrounded by nature, by silence. Life becomes simple. It slows people down, and I think in this day and age that has become a bit of a luxury. To have no distractions, no phones, nothing but a warm place to stay each night, some good hearty food and a means to make your way through the snow – it’s pure bliss.
After lunch we get moving again, and each day can differ so much because of the conditions. If there’s been fresh snow any tracks will easily get covered and you have to make fresh ones. This is hard work, especially with the sleds, so suddenly a short distance can become a long day. The beauty of travelling in the national parks in winter is that you probably won’t see another soul for a week. Not so many people venture that deep into the park during winter.
But after a long day skiing the hard work isn’t over yet. The huts have no electricity or running water so the first job is normally to get the fire going and some water to boil. All the cabins will be stocked with firewood, but sometimes you have to split some for kindling. I often make a quick snack to fill everybody up until dinner. Some days we get to the huts late, so it’s all hands of deck to try and whip up dinner as fast as possible. I encourage the group to help out but of course it’s often been a long ski day so it’s also good to have a nice relax.
Anybody can come on my ski tours, you don’t need to have any previous experience (but it definitely helps if you have skied before – it’s very different to downhill skiing) what’s more important is a good level of fitness and strength. The ski days can be long and you need to be able to keep on trucking as often we have no other options.
My guide duties never end as I chop enough wood for the rest of the evening and the morning, then prepare dinner and sort out plans for the next day. As we all help with pulling the food for the week I often have the meal plan in place so I know exactly what I’m cooking each evening. Because we have a fairly light lunch I always make sure we have a big hearty meal and I’ll cook a big chilli con carne or a bean stew. As I’m vegetarian I try to make the base veggie then have meat on the side for people to add like chorizo or dried reindeer meat. I also make sure I do some traditional Finnish meals, including some local delicacies from the area. One of my favourites is Leipäjuusto, a squeaky Finnish cheese which I warm up on the stove and is eaten with cloudberry jam (a bright orange berry that grows in swampy areas).
The evenings are spent relaxing in the cabins. If people are interested, I show them how to whittle a spoon from the pine firewood. This gives them a bit of a project for the week and it’s a nice way to relax beside the fire. If the skies are clear then the chances for northern lights are often high, so if there’s a fireplace outside we go out and toast some marshmallows whilst waiting for the aurora to show up. In one of my favourite wilderness huts there’s even a wooden sauna. The Finns love sauna, and it’s a bit part of the culture here, so to get to share this with my clients deep in the heart of the Finnish wilderness is just the best. Then I chuck on the last log for the evening and we all tuck into our sleeping bags for the night ready to go again the next day.
Now you find me half-way through my first year of Sidetracked Adventures, I have two trips coming up in February and March and I’m splitting my time between working on the husky farm and exploring trails and preparing for my tours. Having a mix of both these worlds is perfect for me; the chaos of the farm contrasted with being in forest hearing nothing but your own breath and the skis gliding across the crisp snow. It’s a unique place, and is even classed as Europe’s last great wilderness, and I know I’ve only scratched the surface of it. Every venture out there is different, and the amazing job of showing people the wonders of life above the Arctic Circle is what keeps drawing me back here every year. My plans for the future include going on a log house building course in the spring and one day build my own place in the forest. Other than that, I don’t tend to plan that far ahead. Going with the flow has served me the best four years yet, so I’m just going to keep going and see where I end up.
To find out more about Sidetracked Adventures, Sophie’s guiding business, visit www.Sidetrackedadventures.co.uk. You can follow Sophie via www.instagram.com/sophienolan118 and www.twitter.com/sophieJNolan then check out her website, www.sophienolan.com, for more information.