Earlier this year I was lucky enough to be taken to Finland to get a taste of the ‘Fat Biking In The Bear Country’ trip. Two flights and a transfer along ice covered roads took me to the very edge of Finland, to Martinselkonen – a former border guard station for where in the summer you can go bear watching. In winter, while the bears are sleeping, they’re now offering fat biking trips into the neighbouring nature reserve. It’s a world of silence, trees, frozen lakes, and more silence. Far away from anywhere, it’s not a place to seek out an adrenaline rush, and everything is done with the degree of caution that comes with being a very long helicopter ride from anywhere. The full story is in Issue 115, but to mark 100 years of Finnish independence, here’s a selection of images and stories that didn’t make it into the magazine.
I’m no professional photographer. Chipps had given me a crash course in handling the settings on the camera, but in freezing conditions when you’ve tried to race ahead to capture some riders and asking them to ‘just ride that again’ isn’t an option, the pressure is on. Add to that the fact that everything is white and the camera can’t tell the difference between the ground and the sky, and I was worried I wouldn’t come back with the shots needed for the feature. So I took a lot of pictures.
I have a bit of a thing for textures, and plants. When I do take pictures it’s as likely to be of a spiky plant or a gnarly bark as it is my children or something bike related. The beards of moss that hung from the trees ticked all my boxes.
Some of the trails were marked. These were fairly compacted, being pressed down by skidoos and skiers, as well as bikes. Stepping off the trails would land you knee of thigh deep in snow. I spent a fair amount of time wading around in the snow, trying to get pictures of people as they rode by. I also discovered that it was a good idea to stick to these marked trails, unless you had a guide.
There are many lakes, and beside them are little summer houses. However, I encountered these quite weatherbeaten ones at a point where I’d left the marked trail, without a guide, and was genuinely beginning to fear for my life. I gave them a wide berth, convinced that a wild axe murderer would be inside one, ready to add another human skin to his wall insulation.
The riding wasn’t especially technical – a decent level of fitness will certainly come in handy though – and no specific bike gear is essential. A decent pair of walking boots with a couple of socks, tights or leggings with waterproof trousers, and two or three layers under a windproof outer will do the trick. You will want both a hat and a neck wrap – don’t think you can get away with one or the other – and decent gloves (with a liner glove if possible) will be needed. The pogies for your hands were absolutely essential, but came provided with the bikes.
Lake. Forest. Trees. Lake. Forest. Trees. There are only so many ways you can take different pictures of bikes in the snow, so I tried to get creative. Plus, I told you I liked texture. This is a nice stick.
Over there is Russia. As the fact we were staying in a former Border Guard station would suggest, we were right near the Russian border. There’s a 3km no man’s land area (that you’re not allowed in) before you reach the actual border. Details on exactly how they know you’re there were not forthcoming, however venturing into this zone will apparently result in soldiers, dogs, and helicopters. I didn’t test that out.
After pedalling through the frozen forest and over frozen lakes, we arrived at the Wilderness Hut for lunch. Inside it was very dark, and very warm (thanks to the roaring wood burning stove in the corner) and consequently rather steamy as we all thawed out. It also smelt of delicious moose meat soup, and the table was laid with bread, meat, cheese and pickles. After a hearty feed, the bunk beds looked very tempting. To get the chance to stay overnight in this hut, cosy inside, and with a clear night outside to sit by the fire and watch the stars would be out of this world magical. Given half a chance, I’d go back for that.
In the gloom of the hut, in all the warmth, my cameras steamed up. I was desperately trying to get them to clear, because sitting across the table from Markku, a former border guard, I was faced with the perfect light from the window just cutting through the gloom enough to highlight the crags and creases on his face, along with the sheen from having been stood over steaming pans of soup and coffee. He was an almost silent character, and not keen to pose for the camera, so I just had to shoot the shot and hope for the best. The result is a bit soft – especially around the mouth – and of course there’s a kitchen roll in the background spoiling things too. But still, I think you get a feel for the character of his face – it’s surely one that tells a story of a life spent outdoors, in the wilderness.
Yay! A horizontal line! This great sweeping arch of snow was a nice contrast to the vertical lines of all the trees, and even better, the trail went right under it.
The ‘Winter War’ between Finland and Russia was fought in this area. It’s hard to imagine just how tough it must have been to fight a war in such brutally cold conditions. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Finns fought on the fire of high morale, and held off the Russians for much longer than the Red Army expected. For any history fans, there are a number of memorials and also a museum dedicated to the history of the battle.
As well as fat biking, there are a number of different activities on offer. Snow shoeing in the dark proved to be a surprisingly exhilarating experience. We weren’t lucky enough to get clear skies, but even so, walking out through woods and across frozen lakes in the dark brought a different perspective to experiencing the silence of the area.
As well as snow and ice, there is a lot of fire. Entering a room with a great roaring fire pit in the middle is a real treat, and the Finns put the fires to practical use. Not just using them to warm the body and soul, they also cook on them. I don’t even really like fish, but the salmon cooked round the fire pit was a real treat. The gloom inside the huts made photography tricky, but I was really pleased with how this shot came out – it almost looks like a sepia filter. But it’s not.
On the final day, the skies cleared and I dashed out to try and grab some shots in the dawn light. This meant setting the camera up on a tripod (gloves off), dashing off to the bike (gloves back on), riding past in time to catch the timer, and then checking if I’d managed to get the shot I wanted (gloves off again to press the buttons). I only managed this procedure a few times before agonising cold pains in my hands had me returning to the house to try and warm up. The temperature had dropped to -20°C as the skies cleared. Brr. It was time to leave this wilderness and head to the airport.
- I stayed at the Martinselkonen Wilds Centre. They offer accommodation, airport transfers, and a variety of activities in both summer and winter.
- Martinselkonen is part of a group of local, mostly small, family-run businesses operating under the Wild Taiga brand.
- More information on all areas of Finland can be found here.
The costs of this trip were covered by Visit Finland, Martinselkonen, and Wild Taiga.