Being in Finland for 4 months affords a bit of time to go forth and explore a bit. Rovaniemi is a common, accessible destination at the very south part of Lapland (and some Finns do not consider Rovaniemi to actually be part of Lapland.) Our journey began on Saturday night when we boarded a 9:40pm train to Tampere where we sat for two hours before boarding the 1am train to Rovaniemi. Sitting in upright seats, we snuggled in as much as possible. I listened to Rachel Dratch's audiobook to drown out the sounds of a woman across the way chewing crackers and the young people a few rows away giggling into the wee hours of the morning. Rachel kindly lulled me to sleep. Sarah slept a bit, but she's not quite as impervious to lights, sounds, constant stops, and the shaking of a train. I thank my year with Up With People for building my capacity to sleep just about anywhere.
We were very much in tourist mode these past days which is a different experience for us here in Finland. I can say that we had a great time, but you should read about how really great it was....
Yes, Virginia, Santa lives in Finland
Joulupukki is the Finnish father-Christmas figure; thus, it has evolved in these parts that Santa is, indeed, Finnish (this is a simplified version; please go forth and research!) In Rovaniemi you can visit Santa's village and, yes, meet Santa. I was conflicted -- kind of corny, commercialized...but, we're here...right? As much as I said I would not get in the line....that I would not even look at the photo...that I would certainly not purchase the photo...I did.
And, Santa was charming. He shook our hands. He looked us in the eye. He asked questions. I found myself grinning maniacally. Sarah and I giggled and enjoyed the day, remembering when she first asked if Santa was real - we were on a bus in China, on a narrow mountain road, climbing to 13,000 feet, looking over the edge to the abyss below. Sarah, at the precious age of 8, looked up at me and asked, "Mom, are we going to die?"
"Well....is Santa real?"
Yes, facing a potential fatal tumble off of a mountain-side, Sarah's last wish was to know if Santa was real. I asked her, "Do you really want to know?"
"No." And, we lived to tell the tale, years later, in Finland.
They served salmon after our reindeer ride; we ate reindeer the next day
I signed us up for a tour called "Chasing the Northern Lights with Reindeer." It was a clear, stunning night when we set out, cuddled together and being pulled gently through the snowy forest. Truly, it was charming. Even while we watched the clouds take over the starry sky and the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights vanished, it was a wonderful night and particularly wonderful because of the guy there on the left in our picture. This reindeer - well, he kind of loved me. I think I smelled especially sweet to him which might mean that I smelled particularly....pungent. Either way, while he was pulling the sled behind us, he kept close to me. His head, in fact, was quite often right next to mine (luckily, his left antler had already fallen off, otherwise I may have lost an eye.) I was cautioned not to pet him, that he did not like that. But he didn't seem to mind our cheek-to-cheek ride through the forest. At one point, he put his head on top of mine.
After the ride, we all cozied up in a little traditional hut, a blazing fire in the middle to keep us warm. We were served warm juice and a rye cracker with a thin slice of salmon, and we learned about the reindeer and the life of reindeer farmers. We crawled into bed that night quite dazzled and warm with contentment.
Realization: The ice in Jyväskylä was my training ground
My camera battery ran dry and I forgot to pack an extra, but that was not my challenge for the day. It was the ice. Oh, the ice. Every inch of every walkway and trail was covered in inches of ice. See this photo to the left? -- that's ice. But I was prepared - I had my spikes! I knew how to walk like a penguin! And I walked with a new sense of confidence after training on the mean, icy streets of Jyväskylä for 5 weeks. I watched other tourists slip and slide and if I could have wiggled my nose and produced spikes for them all, I would have. At the same time, I felt ridiculously like I had passed a test of sorts.
To save 100 Euros, we'll walk up that hill
We could not have asked for a more beautiful night - gorgeous, clear, star-filled sky with a late rising, nearly-full moon. At 10pm, we were suited up, and while the Spanish husband and wife duo learned to ride their snowmobiles, Sarah and our guide and I began the trek up the hill with our tiny flashlights. The snow was packed well in most spots, but occasionally I'd step and sink into thigh-high snow. Listening to my labored breathing, Sarah leaned over and said, "It would have been faster on the snowmobile." In a clearing, we happened on three people set up with tripods, hoping to see the Lights. I took my final steps towards them, turned around and in the low sky we began to see a green glow. My photos are highly imperfect captures of a nearly perfect experience (we lost sight of the aurora when those blasted snowmobiles rumbled up the mountain, shining their lights directly in our eyes.) After 20 minutes, the lights dimmed to a light, white glow and we moved into the teepee to warm up with tea and sausages. I peaked outside again to see another few minutes of flare. Our confident, cautiously-optimistic, salesman-esqe guide said that the lights had gone away for the night.....we were lucky to see what we did, but, well, they were gone. I pointed to the northwest sky and said, "Well, look at that!" I don't mean to be annoying that way, it just sort of happens.
At 1am, our Spanish friends hopped on their snowmobiles and we stumbled down the snowy hill. An hour later, we were back at the hotel, tired but happy and even willing to wake up 4.5 hours later for our next adventure.
One Flew Out of the Husky-Pulled Sled
It was glorious. Within a minute, I was feeling free and confident and just so happy. Sarah and I talked about how awesome it was. She was a good, appropriate front-seat driver, advising when to brake and ease up. We were laughing and sailing over the snow. The group stopped periodically, giving me a little break to stretch out my hands. The handle was a bit too big for my hands; I could not wrap my hand around it entirely. I'd stretch and kick off the snow that had accumulated on the running boards and off we'd go again.
We'd just rounded a corner and I was feeling sassy when our team headed up on a bank, revealing a tree right in front of us. I pulled left - left, left, left, LEFT and then I flew left, left, left, LEFT (and there was no way I could have hung on to that sled.) I flew and I bounced and then I thought about being trampled by the team behind us so I rolled, rolled, ROLLED into the trees. The team, the sled and Sarah kept on going.
When I landed, I heard a definite crunch/ pop from my left shoulder. When I stopped rolling, I lay in the snow taking stock -- what's hurting? what is that........ok, it's my shoulder. I went from flat on my back to kneeling in the snow, reassessing -- yup, it's my shoulder. I got to my feet - shoulder! I struggled to get my hat off when one of the guides got to me. I relayed that I hurt my shoulder. Did I need to get to a hospital right away? No....I could do that after the tour, I was sure. Could I drive the sled? Um, no, thank you. I got a ride on the back of a snowmobile (when you fall, you don't have to pay the 80 euros, it seems) to catch up with Sarah and the group. They added some dogs to our sled and one of the guides drove us back. I had been driving for about 45-minutes and we had a lovely 30-minutes left through the forest. I had wanted to be a passenger, but I didn't expect to do that under these circumstances.
A few hours later, while we were at the hospital waiting to see a doctor, Sarah and I talked about her experience....after that turn, she, too, saw the tree. Right in front of her. And she thought, oh sh*^.! She banked left and braced herself while the sled bumped back onto the trail.
"We did it!" she exclaimed before realizing that the sled felt...different....lighter.
She wondered if she'd lost the camera. No. That's around her neck. Her phone? In her pocket.
Then she started to count the dogs -- maybe we lost a dog....
Then she turned to ask me and...aha! Mom's gone! And the team was going full steam ahead until the guide on the snowmobile chased down the sled, jumped on the back and hit the brakes.
We laughed about this for hours! For days! By then, I had ingested codeine to relieve the pain. I was in and out of the exam room and for x-rays and I was just done -- done putting my clothes back on; so I put my shirt and my sweater and my bra in the clear bag they gave me and hung out in my coat in the waiting room. Add to this image my cackling while listening to Sarah explain, over and over, how she thought we lost a dog!
Our tour guide stayed with us for those 5 hours at the hospital (and the company picked up the bill.) I left with an initial diagnosis of a rotator cuff injury and a referral to visit a doctor in Jyväskylä. While we were inside, 4 inches of snow fell and I wondered, how long were we in there? Our guide, a kind Kiwi who recently moved to Finland, drove us to our hotel, at one point turning into oncoming traffic. After getting into the correct lane, I queried, "So, they don't drive on the left side here in Finland?"
My shoulder is sore, and I am fine. Waiting to see a doc. And even after the fall and the hospital and the near-death experience of having been driven into oncoming traffic, it was one of the best days of my life. We were in Finland, in the forest, with a team of dogs. I had the wind on my face and felt so happy. I was with my girl who kept me laughing and who carried all of the luggage for the rest of the trip.
We'd missed the tree but we didn't miss a moment of joy that morning.