Tackling the High Ropes

It’s no ‘Go Ape’, which is somewhat surprising given the number of trees in Finland, but the High Ropes course at Basecamp Oulanka provides enough height and challenge for a group of friends to have a laugh at and with each other or even co-workers to get competitive and do some team building.

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Starting on the lower route gets you used to walking on the rope; building confidence in your own ability..or falling off and realising the safety harness works ;)..whilst learning the techniques that will be needed to get round the higher route.

and if you need to cheat slightly, like me :), there’s always the top rope to hold onto as you make your way across..

 

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Even if, or especially if, you’re scared of heights (as I am!) this little course is a great chance to put yourself out of your comfort zone without the pressure of holding up people following on behind, as can happen at bigger and busier courses. It’s also a great laugh when you’re with friends so easy to forget any nerves.

The view’s not bad from up there either!

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Reflections of Winter – Snowshoeing

I don’t usually go away in the winter but had read that 2013 was going to be good for seeing the Northern Lights so I had a look at trips which would offer that opportunity. My attention was drawn to those offered by Exodus which also had a variety of winter activities over the course of a week. The Finnish Wilderness Week, staying at Basecamp Oulanka, was decided upon as I would have a chance to build an igloo and sleep in it too, there was cross country skiing which I fancied trying, a day at the local ski resort so I could try snowboarding again without committing to a whole week and also the option of doing some ice climbing. It ticked alot of boxes!

The first activity of the week was snowshoeing..the word conjured up visions of tennis rackets strapped to my feet and for once I hadn’t googled to see the reality. I don’t even know where the image came from, maybe it was the description in books I read when young.

The day starts with equipment being issued – a red plastic flipper for the right and one for the left plus a set of poles each – and off we went, down to the lake, first for the fun of putting a snowshoe on without falling over and then to fling ourselves around with a game of frisbee! Warmed up, a few more names learnt and now comfortable enough in a snowshoe to be happily walking, we venture off in our guided groups to explore part of the Oulanka National Park.

We are told to lean forward and use the claw under our toes when going uphill, with the poles helping provide balance and leverage. Going downhill we bend our knees and face the direction we’re going, letting our arms, and poles, hang loosely by our sides. Our guides make it sound so easy but it’s only a lack of confidence, bit of fear maybe, that makes it otherwise – it is afterall, just walking on snow 🙂

Through the wilderness we go uphill and down, stopping to hug a tree in a lovely setting overlooking the river…yes, I did just say we hugged a tree…why it is done I do not know but we go along with it, giggling to hide the embarassment whilst all the while looking aound to see if we’re really going to do this or will someone speak up and risk offending our Finnish hosts in declining to do something so silly..

Once we have had our snowshoe introduction, we are able to use them in our free time and after a warming soup lunch a few of us set out again, this time to find our way to Juuma the nearby village which can be reached by following the Little Bear Trail to its official start.

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That was when the urge to do a snow angel became too much and we all launched ourselves back into the soft deep snow – getting back up again with snowshoes on required a bit of team work 😮

The next opportunity to take out the snowshoes came on the weekend when we had a whole day free and we decided to go with the recommendation of snowshoeing the Little Bear Trail. With a packed lunch and thermos of hot water, we headed off at around 10am, heading towards Jyrävä after Myllykoski to ensure the 250 steps near Kallioportti were tackled upwards! Despite being covered in a thick blanket of snow, the variation in the stunning landscape was clear to see – the trail following the river sometimes from above and sometimes running alongside.

At one of the wilderness huts halfway round we took advantage of the chance to sit and shelter from the cold while we cracked open our packed lunches and supped much needed hot chocolate from our kupilka cup. We were enjoying this. No one else around, the silence disturbed only by the sounds of our snowshoes…or an ‘ooo that’s lovely’ as someone spotted another ideal photo opportunity 🙂

The steps werent nearly as bad as we had expected – head down, find a slow steady rhythym and up you go – and we arrived back at Basecamp around 3pm, nicely tired, refreshed and satisfied with some great photos…just in time for a sauna and pear cider before dinner 🙂

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The Finnish Smoke Sauna

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So this is what the inside of the smoke sauna at Basecamp Oulanka looks like when it’s cold and just opened up for use. For those who have stayed at Basecamp during the winter, like me you’ll just have walked past the building and wondered what was inside…so I hope you find this little insight interesting..

I was invited to learn about and experience the smoke sauna at Basecamp Oulanka by heating it up from the start…some 5 hours before use…yes, that was 5 hours. I still can’t get over it, I may need to do it again 😀

At around 10am I took my instructions, which I have by my side now, and went down to get started. First thing to do was to remove the wooden seats and mat from the sauna then open the three vents – the photo above is taken at the point that was complete.

Next comes the fun bit..getting the fire going. I’m a girl guider so I should know what I’m doing in that respect..but it proved frustrating, I think I was impatient 🙂 I had been told to start with a small fire, using only birch wood (plenty of that around at Basecamp) to gently warm the stones up and to keep it small for about 20 minutes. The photo below shows my lovely small fire…before it went out…

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Eventually I got it going again, after a telling off for putting big logs on too soon, and the smoke started to rise through the stones..cue next photo below where you’ll see the (too) big logs and you might also spot the obligatory designated poking stick 🙂

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It was interesting to see how the smoke rose and filtered out of the sauna in a way that gave a clear and smoke free lower level so I was able to sit low to stoke the fire without getting the smoke in my eyes and throat. Despite what you may think about such a smoke filled space, it is interestingly such a clean environment that in days gone by smoke saunas were the place where babies were born and bodies prepared for funerals.

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After 20 mins of warming with the small fire, I was at the next stage; time to throw on the big logs and stack them right up. All this time the sauna door and all the vents are still open. The birch burns quickly so I was in and out stocking up on logs and finding space to fit them in. It soon started to feel very hot but it was important to keep the fire full for another 3-4 hours.

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At about 2pm it was time to stop stoking and let the fire burn out. At that point all the vents are closed up and the door closed. It is important to remain by the sauna and check on it every 15mins or so as this is the time when the sauna is most likely to catch fire. Not too much pressure on me then 😮 Another interesting fact – most smoke saunas have a five year life span due to the likelihood of it catching fire. The smoke sauna at Basecamp is older than that…and was still standing when i left 🙂

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(note the poking stick survived, although there were a few moments of panic when I thought I had thrown it on by mistake. It makes me smile to see that picture of it 🙂 )

After about another hour or so, it is time to get the leather gloves on (yes, don’t touch any of the metal without them..ahem) and clear out the ashes. A couple of cups of water are then poured onto the top rocks, the railings cleaned off from the smoke and the seats put back into place.

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It is then ready for occupation!

Despite being called a smoke sauna, and somewhat surprisingly from the amount of smoke produced during heating, when people sit in there, there is no smoke. It is very hot, especially when you have a Finn throwing more water on just when you’re getting used to it, but I felt that I could take the heat in there more than I could in the electric sauna. It didn’t feel such a dry heat..or maybe it was just after so many hours of tending to it and worrying that I would get enough of a fire going for the temperature to gain Finnish approval, I was determined to stick it out!

I was happy to follow the tradition of taking a drink into the sauna with me but I drew the line at then running down to jump in the lake, standing outside for a few minutes was enough of a cool down for me. I was also spared the blushes of following other traditions although I like to think I’d have given it a go – well, when in Finland.. 🙂

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Rovaniemi, Geocaching and Artikum

So here I am, once more back in Starbucks with my mint hot chocolate (non-alcoholic version!) and there’s Christmas music playing this time 🙂

..back to Rovaniemi memories…

Leaving Santa Village, we headed into town for some lunch. Being the business capital of Lapland, the ‘big city’ I was interested to see what it would be like. Only a few buildings were left standing when Germans attacked during World War II so there is not the historic architecture that I’m used to seeing in England; it’s actually quite concrete looking in the centre with the impression that it’s in need of a facelift. I think it’s only natural to relate anywhere new to ‘home’ not to compare which is ‘better’ or ‘preferable’ but because everything is relative so there has to be a base point. I love Oulanka and the Ruka area so I like seeing more of what Finland has to offer to see whether it is those regions in particular or whether it’s the whole country. It also feels so much like home and I have the ‘could i live here’ thought going through my head alot so that may be more the reason I go a bit deep with my thinking…

Anyway, I’ve digressed..again 🙂

As we arrived in town and headed towards a car park, we passed a McDonalds and i had to laugh – they get everywhere don’t they and it’s like a game when travelling; how long until you see the golden arches :D. It is also a very good benchmark when comparing the cost of living in a country..as is the Starbucks test! The answer on the later is not as much different to the UK as you’d think. Interestingly there was no Starbucks in Rovaniemi; not only because they also get everywhere but the Finns seem to love their coffee. Maybe there’s a considered effort not to open one…I shall google later. By way of other recognisable names, there was a Subway, H&M, Body Shop, Intersport (still going over there, where did they go in the UK?) and a Clas Olsen. I mention Clas Olsen because I’ve noticed (since I’ve been back) that a few stores of sprung up over here – it was like going into the part of Ikea (can I get away with mentioning that or are all Finns reading this now frowning..) where the useful smaller items are and also coming out with something you didn’t know you needed.

A few small arcades of shops including a couple of department stores, we wandered in and out – for once i didn’t buy any clothes (spent enough in Clas Olsen 😉 ). It occurred to me how indoctrinated you get without realising it; in the UK I can list the quality shops and the cheaper shops (all IMHO of course) but without those names on the high street or recognisable brands on sale, I can’t gauge ‘fashions’ or the quality of clothing. I’d be left going on price, layout of the store, appearance of the staff – all reliable instincts but ones overlooked, or maybe subconsciously noted, when in familiar territory. I found it fascinating just to wander and look around. I concluded if I lived there I’d save alot of money on clothes but would have plenty of useful gadgets and storage boxes.

Last stop was for food and drink for that evening and breakfast. This was when I was introduced to the traditional Karelian Pies – I didn’t take a photo so here is a screen shot from good old Wikipedia –

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they look like a pasty with the crinkled edge and that ‘base’ is made from dark rye flour which is then filled with a rice pudding mixture. They are warmed up and spread with a mix of butter and boiled egg. You could put anything on them, ham or cheese, it’s different to anything we have here but very nice and I now have all the ingredients to try making some myself…which’ll be interesting! Maybe I’ll try it and do a blog on my attempts at Finnish cooking..

The next day we headed off for a bit of walking at the top of the hills overlooking the town. The ski jumps and chair lifts are all still there on Ounasvaara, to the west of the city, and provide extra height to some great vantage points and views across Rovaniemi.

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I was pleased to discover that geocaching is popular in Finland so we looked at the geocaching app on my phone to see if there were any nearby..and then spent a good hour or so geocaching whilst looking at the views and heading making our way back to the car. A couple of the caches were easy to find but i had to log a couple as not found – as you’ll see from the photo below, there are plenty in the area.

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There are also a surprising number to be found in the area around Basecamp Oulanka..although I struggled to find a few of them in the time allowed by a combination of myself and my phone’s battery life.

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For anyone who is yet to try geocaching, it is like a treasure hunt but using GPS and is a great way of exploring an area especially if you have children with you or want to provide different interest to an otherwise familiar area. Many cache’s have been set as part of a series which offer a pre-planned walking route with guidance on time and distance detailed. For more information or to get started, visit http://www.geocaching.com.

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This is my travel bug which I had taken with me to Finland so that I could drop it into a cache somewhere close to Basecamp Oulanka. The aim of my bug is to travel as much as possible and find its way around the world eventually. Everytime it’s logged I receive an email to let me know and I can look up where it is – my bug has passed through a few hands since I left it and is currently in a cache in the south of Finland 🙂

The last part of our trip to Rovaniemi was a visit to Artikum, located on the edge of the Ounasjoki river. Museum’s aren’t top of my list of places to visit but this is said to be one of the best museums and science centres in Finland and I was interested to learn more about life in Lapland through the ages. I wasn’t disappointed, actually I was pleasantly surprised. For €12 there is alot to see – lots of displays, a number of them interactive, and all different in how they present the information. There’s even one where you can recline in darkness and watch an animation about the aurora borealis, that was almost too comfortable 🙂 I thoroughly recommend a visit if you’re in the area as it has plenty to keep adults and children engaged. http://www.artikum.fi/EN should take you to the english translation of the site for more information.

Next up on the blog is my experience of the Finnish smoke sauna 🙂

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Roadtrip to meet Santa Claus!

So here I am, back in the UK, back at work and life away from the relaxing wilderness at Basecamp Oulanka. It has turned colder here now and there are whisperings of ‘snow’ and ‘harsh winter’. I even looked into winter tyres the other day..if only our winters were that reliable! When you witness a plane landing on icy ground without sliding out of control and then sit comfortably on a coach driving at what feels like normal speed, it does make you wonder how we just grind to a halt over here, ‘snowed in’ and unable to go anywhere..the answer is in part due to only using summer tyres I’m sure..

Driving in Finland was easy on a number of levels. When I was planning my most recent trip (this could get complicated if i go back too much! :)) I was nervous about driving on the ‘wrong side’ of the road as it had been a while. But that was me in England and having not really ventured outside of Basecamp when I was there in the winter. In England you don’t have time to think too much on the road; there’s traffic all around you, and if you sit at a roundabout working out where you need to go or waiting for the right gap, you soon get beeped at impatiently….or do I just spend too much time in rush hour commuter traffic?!? I needn’t have worried, there was hardly anything on the roads over there, even in Kuusamo! The flip side is that you need to think about roundabouts rather than being able to rely on flow of traffic to remind you to go anticlockwise…and yes, i did sit and wait at my first one until something came along to follow 🙂 I ended up really enjoying driving in Finland, the lack of traffic on the roads make distances easy to cover, roads are well signposted and it doesn’t seem to be hard to get parked. Reindeer or Elk crossing the road are another matter! Interestingly if you hit a reindeer you have to report it as that is someone’s livestock. If you hit an elk then from what i understand you’ll be more concerned for yourself and your car..

On a more practical point, fuel is about the same price as it is here and the cheapest rental I found from Kuusamo Airport in September was circa €25 a day. Not as cheap as you may expect for overseas car travel but not so much more expensive in the way that people are led to believe Finland is. I will definitely be hiring a car and planning more road trips the next time I’m over in Spring or Summer.

So why am I woffling on about traffic and driving – well, the fast approaching festive period has me thinking back to our road trip to Rovaniemi and meeting Santa Claus (or Father Christmas as he is to me); I’ve just been doing the big build up.. 😀

Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland with population of circa 60,ooo people and official hometown of Santa Claus, is only about 205km from Basecamp and it’s a straightforward drive with some lovely scenery along the way.

First stop, Santa Claus. No messing around, i was excited. I’m too old to be but i couldn’t help it.

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Santa Claus Village, which crosses into the Arctic Circle, has the Santa Claus Post Office  as well as a number of gift and refreshment shops..but even shopping could wait on this occasion..

Entering the building there’s a sign prohibiting photography beyond that point, a video camera watching you and an ominous door. Rather refreshingly, there was no charge – whether that changes during the winter season and busy Christmas period I don’t know, but there was nothing to suggest it’s any different.

Regressing further to become a shy child once more, i wasn’t going through on my own so the three of us went through together. You walk through something of an exhibition (photos of famous people who have visited and an explanation of how he gets round the world in one night), no doubt to provide distraction while you queue during busy periods, and then you’re in his house being beckoned through to meet him..

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Santa Claus is impressive – great shoes and stripey socks that I just kept staring at; childlike shyness needing something else to focus on. He is fluent in seven languages (handy!) and not one of them has a hint of the others when he speaks – there Santa was interchanging between English, Swedish and Finnish  with ease and accuracy. We were in there a while, chatting about where we were from etc and having the official photos taken before it was time to move on. One thing was lacking however…Santa Claus did not ask what we wanted for Christmas 😦 ..maybe he really does know or maybe he just draws the line at engaging grown adults in conversations about how good they’ve behaved that year…

As you leave comes the money part and who isn’t going to want a photo of them with Santa! What? Just me that did then. I see. The prices weren’t that bad considering where you are and compared to how much it costs to meet Santa over here or go on a Santa Train etc.  There were a few packages and the one I went for was the most expensive (but still only about £30) which was the USB stick containing the official photos, video of the whole meeting and a few extras with the copyright for all so I could print as many as i wanted off (some of which are used in this so you can see the place looking pretty with snow). Then it’s time for the usual exit through the gift shop 😉 I can’t say anything in the Office of Santa Clause gift shop, or any of the other shops on site, were noticeably more expensive than I saw things priced in Ruka or Kuusamo and they did sell everything…including the tacky end of the scale!

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This has become a rather long post so I’ll finish off Rovaniemi in Part Two..coming soon 🙂

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When I was told that the bear print which forms part of Basecamp Oulanka’s logo was from a bear called Vyöti and I could see him at the Predator Centre in Kuusamo it immediately became somewhere I wanted to visit.

The Predator Centre is owned by a man called Sulo Karjalaisen, famous in Finland for being the ‘bearman’. The centre came about from Sulo’s love of animals and is part of the farm that he has lived on all his life. The animals there are all predators in Finland – bears, wolves, lynx and fox – who were taken in when orphaned through traffic accident or hunting. With Sulo being in his 70s, a successor needs to be lined up if the centre is to have a more certain future; whilst there is a little cafe selling souvenirs and guides are employed to take visitors round in groups, this is not a big commercial establishment.

http://www.kuusamon-suurpetokeskus.fi/index.html

We pass by the wolves on the way to the bears

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Bears are the main stop on the tour of the centre and they come over to the fence ready to take whatever food is offered to them. There are c1000 wild bears in Finland, each one can weigh more than 400kg and run at speeds of 60kph

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At this time of year they are preparing to hibernate so their diet consists mainly of fruit, to build up their fat stores. Vyöti had already built his nest and was sleepy so he was certainly prepared for it but he ventured out of his nest

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occasionally for food while we were there. Vyöti is housed with his daughter but there are no breeding issues as bears are monogomous and recognise the family relationship.

The bears will be hibernating from October to April, their natural habits remain despite the captivity, so the centre is closed during those months…in case you were thinking of a visit whilst in the area 🙂 When a bear comes out of hibernation their jaws are that strong they can eat four reindeer in one sitting without leaving any trace of it!

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The guide told some very interesting tales of the bears and their intelligent antics which include how they lived in the house with Sulo and went shopping with him!

http://www.visitfinland.com/article/meet-sulo-the-bearman/ (there are also alot more on the internet)

If the animals are able to be returned to the wild then they are but one of the bears was seen kissing a reindeer – at that point they knew it couldn’t return to the wild!

After the bears we see a fox and then several lynx.

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The fox is very common here too with c100,000 in Finland. Similarly they will nose around rubbish bins near houses but I thought this fox looked so much healthier than the ones we see wild at home so you can tell the animals at the centre are well looked after.

There are also c1000 lynx in the wild in Finland and a fully grown adult can weigh up to 30kg. When the fox was near the part of the fence closest to the lynx pen, they were all sat looking over; it took me a while to work out what they were looking at as I couldn’t see or hear the fox but they obviously could.

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Worth a visit if you are in the area especially if you have children.

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Further into Oulanka National Park

Spanning approx. 105 square miles, Oulanka National Park is one of the most popular in Finland so I took the chance to explore further afield from Basecamp Oulanka and have a night even closer to the wilderness.

http://www.outdoors.fi/destinations/nationalparks/oulanka/Pages/Default.aspx

Driving to a spot further into the Oulanka National Park and leaving the car there for the night, we hiked towards the River Kitkajoki to find a viewpoint high up the side of the valley through which the rafts travel on their way to Russia along the ‘Pretty Route’ (see previous blog post as that’s not the correct name, just a shorter one for me to type!). The view we were aiming for would allow us to see the River meandering for some distance. It is also from there that some great photos have been taken of the morning mist engulfing the river and the trees below (hence the plan for camping overnight). I started to refer to it as ‘Middle Earth’ as it felt very Lord of the Rings…I do a poor impression of Treebeard but if you know the film you’ll know what i was trying to come out with 🙂

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The route isn’t marked although there are ‘paths’ through, nothing that deliberate however or you can just head in your own direction across the springy undergrowth following the sound of the water. We did a mixture of both and soon found the view we were aiming for..

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One of the things you can do in the National Parks are pick the berries and mushrooms. The mushroom season was in August so those we saw had ‘gone over’ but there were plenty of blueberries to eat as we walked along.

We also ventured down to the river…for some mad reason because that meant getting back up to the top after!

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Unfortunately it ended up being a cloudy night so no sighting of the Northern Lights and no morning mist below but still great views and a worthwhile trip.

The next day Oulanka Canyon was on the agenda so off we went – it’s about half an hour drive from Basecamp Oulanka. This time there is a proper trail, again marked with green blobs on trees, which is a circular 6km long. Part of the trail is also the route of the Great Bear Trail.

The river at the bottom this time is the Oulankajoki which the joins with somewhere toward the Russian border.

Now maybe it’s me but ‘Canyon’ created some expectation of a deep and rocky expanse and I couldn’t help but think ‘that’s more of a gorge’ although it was also less rocky than I would even think of a gorge as being. I’ll leave you to decide…

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In May when the rivers in the area are at their peak then it may be more impressive, and noisy, a sight but it was still a scenic and good healthy walk though as the trail passes through forest and alongside lakes as well as the canyon itself 🙂

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