This article was originally published in Issue 115 of Singletrack Magazine. Words & Photography by Hannah.
Hannah takes a wintery fat bike trip to the Arctic Circle to discover dangerous downhills, Russian border stations, saunas and moose stew.
Before it came to mean an afternoon’s bike ride with a modicum of danger, or something totally excellent (dude), an ‘epic’ used to mean a long poetic composition. Finland has its own national epic – the Kalevala – 50 poems compiled in the 19th century by Elias Lönnrot, drawn from traditional stories and songs made up and handed down through generations of Finns as they passed the time during the long dark nights of winter. Its publication helped galvanise the Finns’ sense of national identity, and this rise in nationalism led eventually to independence from Russia in 1917. One hundred years later, in the centenary year of independence, I find myself on a flying visit to one far-flung corner of this nation, tagging along with some travel agents and tour guides who are here to experience this possible new destination.
At the mention of the Kalevala, and the fact that I, a non-Finn, should know anything about it, the Finns around the dinner table stir from their apparent usual state of relaxation and become animated and excited. The rest of the time everything is slow, steady, and level – apart from the driving, which is done at high speed on roads of ice. Riding along on our fat bikes, the aim is to ride fast enough to generate heat, but slow enough so as not to sweat. Sweating is bad – when it cools, you cool too. Wrapped in multiple merino layers with an outside temperature of -5°C, the cold doesn’t seem too bad. On the morning I leave, the temperature has dropped to -20°C, and an attempt at gloveless camera operation has me retreating swiftly to indoor warmth.
Start easy and then lose yourself.
We start our fat bike experience by pedalling along a road covered in snow and ice before turning off along a waymarked trail. We’re riding a fleet of new fat bikes built by Finnish company SUP Cycles. Tyre pressures are established by a squeeze in well-gloved hands before thrusting them back into the provided bar mitts.
Snowmobiles have used the trail before us, and the snow is generally compacted enough to ride. It’s almost flat – with only slight changes in elevation along the way, barely enough to register on a contour map. Surrounded by conifers, we pedal. A slip and a wrestle, pedal again. You can’t completely switch off – it might be flat, but you need to pick your line, work out which bits have grip, which are firm, which are soft and will swallow your wheel like an axle-deep puddle back home. Pedal and pedal, barely touching the brakes. It’s not hard, and it’s not effortless. Mountain biking lite, or perhaps an exercise in mindfulness and just being.
Six kilometres done and we’re given some free time to explore before lunch. The travel agents in our group who are not regular cyclists retreat for a rest, but three of us who fancy ourselves as experienced pedallers head out in search of more exertion.
We follow another waymarked trail from Martinselkonen Wilds Centre, through trees, past more trees, through other trees, behind more trees. There are a lot of trees. And a lot of flat. Which is just as well, as getting up even the shortest of inclines can be quite a challenge – particularly if you catch a soft patch. We venture so far, then decide we need to think about getting back for lunch. But I hate out-and-backs. And I fancy that one of the snowmobile trails I’ve seen branching off the main path will join up with the road and make a loop. Plus, those cheekier trails look a little closer to the singletrack I’m used to riding. One of our three heads back the way we came. Jaroslav, a Czech pirate with long grey hair, an earring and many bracelets, comes with me – which is good, because he has a map on his phone.
Within a few hundred metres of setting off down this unofficial track I have toppled off the edge of the trail and am up to my left thigh in snow. It takes quite a feat of gymnastics to scramble off and back up onto the trail. The snow here is softer, much softer than on the proper trail, and small conifers poke up through the snow, knocking me off balance again and again. I begin to think we should turn back. But there’s a clearing ahead – surely the road is there?
We emerge to find that the trail ends not at the road, but at a cluster of small wooden shacks. I have read enough Scandi noir for these to appear not as quaint little summer houses, but as sinister murder huts where surely the walls are lined with human skins. Jaroslav consults the map.
We are beside a lake, and a river, which we need to cross. A faint snowmobile trail leads in approximately the right direction, so I follow it. It is only as I spot the large hole cut in the ice for fishing that I realise I am riding on the lake… This goes against everything I have ever been told and I swallow down a little whimper of panic as Jaroslav assures me that I am lighter than a snowmobile. I regret that extra bowl of porridge and berries at breakfast and pedal on, convinced I can hear the crack of ice underneath my wheels.
Reaching the other side of the lake, I am so grateful not to be cold and drowned under the ice that I don’t care that I am now having to push, carry and heave my bike through the woods, knee deep in snow, on a trail that has no chance of being ridden. I am dripping with sweat, and more than just a little bit worried. Torn between fear of actually dying and fear of being late and having to admit to stupidity as search parties are sent out to find us, I push on behind Jaroslav, who is checking his map with enough regularity that I think maybe he is a little bit worried too. Which is worrying in itself, since he’s an experienced mountain bike tour guide.
Stumbling out to another clearing, I spot power lines ahead, and I know the road is just there. Trying not to cry with relief, I climb back onto the bike and meekly pedal along the road back to where we are staying. Any doubts I had about the merits of paying for a guide are gone. This is not a place to choose your own adventure.
Bordering on perfect.
Our main expedition of the trip is a day out riding to a wilderness hut. This is the Finnish version of a bothy, which is maintained and stocked with wood and cooking implements by the parks service. In the summer it acts as a sensible way of confining campfires to a controlled spot. In the winter it probably also acts as a useful means of stopping people caught out in the middle of nowhere from dying. As well as an essential loo and log store, there is an outdoor fire pit with benches. Our guiding team has brought reindeer skins, loaded up onto a snowmobile along with lunch supplies and emergency blankets, so that we can sit on the icy benches in comfort and cook our sausages.
I am torn between the joyous novelty of sitting outside in snow while being warmed by the fire, and the dark cosiness of the wilderness hut itself. Candles lit inside, the table is laid for lunch, and the gently flickering flame draws me in.
Cured meats, cheese, rye bread and pickles are laid out inside for us, and as I sit and remove my glasses, steaming up in the warmth of the hut, I am offered creamy vegetable soup with minced moose meat.
Our timetable means the return leg must be made that afternoon, however, we all agree that an overnight stay here would be magical. Sitting out by the fire, under the stars, so far from any source of light pollution, would be spectacular. If the Northern Lights were to make an appearance, it would be hard to imagine anywhere more perfect.
On the edge of the (Western) world.
The hut is right out in the Martinselkonen Nature Protection Area. It’s a nature reserve that our guides have special permission to operate trips in. It’s not just the wildlife that is sensitive: the Russian border is here, and border guards monitor the area. There’s a 3km no man’s land area before you reach the border proper, marked mostly by yellow paint on poles and trees plus occasional signs. We’re assured that venturing into this area will result in the appearance of border guards, dogs, and possibly helicopters. For the sake of tourist memorabilia, I risk ducking behind a sign, but as I don’t fancy my chances with the Russian justice system, I don’t risk anything cheekier. Besides, I’ve already learnt that it’s a good idea to stick to the trails.
The path we’ve followed out to the hut has been prepared specially by the team at Martinselkonen. Pulling a couple of paving slabs on a sled behind the snowmobile, Markku, the father of this family operation, and a former border guard himself, has helped flatten and compact the snow.
“There’s a downhill up ahead,” says our guide, Janni. “Please, please, get off and walk it. It is dangerous. If you really feel confident and you want to try it, go slowly. It takes two hours for a helicopter to get here if you need one.”
The trail leads us across vast frozen lakes and through trees dusted with snow. We’re told that there’s only about half as much snow as in some years, but there are still trees that have bent under their white burden, forming arches across our route. There’s a special word for the sound they make when they crack: tykky. In this world of silence, it seems worthwhile naming the few noises there are.
Janni, the son of the outfit, has lived or worked here for much of his life. He lived in the Martinselkonen house when it was still an active border guard station, and his father Markku was still a border guard. When modern technology meant that border guards no longer needed to walk or ski up to 100km patrolling the gaps between stations, the buildings were put up for sale. Markku must have liked it there as he and his wife Oili bought the buildings, and set up as a tourist destination with a thriving bear-watching business. In summer they feed the bears, and over the years the bears have learned that it is a safe place to be, sit quietly in a hide, and a bear sighting is all but guaranteed.
In winter the bears are hibernating, so fat biking in the snow is a new venture for the Martinselkonen team as they seek to extend their season. We see tracks from other creatures too: lynx, wolverine, snow hares, and reindeer. Lots of reindeer. They’re farmed, and eaten, and turned into trinkets, and their skins used for insulation against the cold for bums on benches, or in sleighs for tourists. There are also moose. We don’t see any tracks, but we do eat plenty of it. It’s lean, and tastes somewhat like beef. It’s served with the ubiquitous berries. Berries are everywhere – apparently even once the bears have had their share, there are enough berries in Finland for every Finn to have a freezer full of berries, a cupboard full of berry juice, and jars and jars of various berry-based preserves. We eat berries with porridge for breakfast, drink berry juice with lunch, have berry compotes with meat and various cream and berry combinations for dessert.
Of moose, dogs and fish.
The moose are hunted, along with the bears, wolverine, and almost anything else that moves. It’s not an elite pastime here – it seems almost everyone hunts, and what’s caught is eaten. Ice fishing is also popular – as I saw when I passed the scary hole. We don’t sample any locally caught fish; however, we do enjoy a spectacular fishy treat. Markku pins sides of salmon to boards which are placed around a large fire bowl. Regular brushing with salt water keeps them moist, and the resulting smokey, tender fish is a delight to eat with salads and bread. To make the experience even more special, we eat it gathered in the barbeque hut where another roaring fire keeps us warm while snow lies all around outside.
Fire and snow.
It’s just as well Finland is one of the world’s leading producers of wood, as they must burn an awful lot of it. Everywhere we go there is a stove or a fire – or a sauna.
We’ve already played in the snow, on fat bikes and snow shoes, walking and riding through forests and over frozen lakes. But the sauna is to be the final piece of the Finnish fire and ice experience. Pleasantly tired from our day out on the bikes, we shuffle slightly shyly in (the only other woman on the trip is a mysterious sauna-no-show). Soon we are hot. Dizzily hot. One person makes a run for it, out into the snow. Then another. Then I can take the heat no longer. I run naked out into the snow and lie down. It is tinglingly and shockingly cold everywhere, except my feet, which ache and throb in pain. I dive back inside, into the shower – which is strangely more uncomfortably cold than the snow, and back into the heat of the sauna.
It was in the saunas and wilderness huts of the past that the poetry of the Kalevala was first created. Songs of creation and magic, invented as ways to pass the time and explain the lands around them. Us visitors sing no songs as we sit gathered, naked, in the sauna, but we leave with our heads full of stories, our own modern day Finnish mini-epics.
Hannah stayed at Martinselkonen Wilds Centre. They offer accommodation, airport transfers, and a variety of activities in both summer and winter.
If you’re experienced in arctic survival, the Ruthless Raja might be of interest. It’s a 50km fatbike race along the border.
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.
Hannah’s flights and accommodation were provided by Visit Finland, Martinselkonen and Wild Taigi.