Guide to getting active in the wilds of Finland

Published on: Sunday, July 17, 2011
Guide to getting active in the wilds of Finland - Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) in Lapland, Finland


Finland's long, light evenings and miles of wild forests make it ideal for get-away-from-it-all weekends, says Rachael Jolley.

“Take the plunge,” should be hung over the border posts to Finland, a country that is definitely in touch with its outdoorsy side. Plunging into cold water was a big part of an ultra-active weekend in the Kuhmo region, nestled up against the Russian border half way up the banana curve of Finland. There was midnight canoeing, chilly post-sauna lake dips, and whitewater rapid surfing (without a boat), all in the wild outdoors.

The Finns are happy going au naturel in and around their saunas and when dipping in their icy, but stunning lakes. Although Finland is not well known as an active weekend destination, this forest-fringed country is packed with other outdoorsy options that are definitely going to be a talking point when you get back.

A long weekend communing with nature in the Finnish Kainuu region, began by skimming in low over yards of treetops and a stunning lake to land in a tiny Kajaani airport, before driving off through large, but empty roads.

First off, there are shed loads of outside activity options, from bear watching deep in the forest to husky trekking (you walk attached to a husky harness), to canoeing at midnight and even more adventurously, surfing the rapids in just a survival suit.
For those who want an adrenaline burst, a visit to one of the country’s 1.8m saunas really hits the spot. If, like me, you are one of those people that think going to a sauna is boring, as you sit in a hot box and sweat for what seems like hours, then you’ll pleased to find out a Finnish sauna is something special.

Going to the sauna is a bit like a Zen philosophy for the Finns, who often head for this little hot house as many as five times a week, according to our guide and local husky sled operator Suvi. Preparations for our traditional smoke sauna start early, at 9am when the fires are started. Then it is watched and tended by an expert until the smoke disperses and the sauna is ready. For our smoke sauna initiation, we set off through the forest at 4pm, along paths strewn with pine needles. Our mixed group of Germans, Italians, Brits and a Finn find the sauna is nestled in a small wooden cabin with a little porch, perched on the edge of an enormous lake.

In deference to our British sense of propriety, we decide on a women-only steam, and even then there was a bit of wrestling with the idea of getting naked in front of others. The Italians seem to feel the same as the Brits. For those looking for privacy and not in touch with their naked side, the curtainless 8ft-wide window on to the porch where the blokes are looking to put their feet up with a beer did not reassure. But steadily we start to sweat away our fears, and get a bit more comfortable. We still strap on our swimsuits to race down a rackety wooden pier and jump in the chilly, beer brown depths of the lake. Once this is done, a great sense of achievement settles on us city folks, and we start really appreciate the sauna’s appeal.

While we might know Finland best for its winter activities of snowmobiling and snow shoeing, they are certainly no slouches in summer either, perhaps galvanised by the light of the midnight sun they get at this time of year, when the sun just doesn’t go down at all in June, and only for short periods in July and August.

Therefore, when we set off for a midnight canoe safari the forest-fringed lake is lit by sunlight, somewhat bizarrely. We just can’t get over the fact that it is in fact the middle of the night. And despite the fact that we have spent all day travelling, none of us appear to be tired.

The large open canoes take two people each, and with a little instruction from canoe leader Urpo, we push off, heading for the nearest island. Once we get to grips with paddling, the soft whoosh of the canoes streaming through the calm water of Lake Lammasjärvi, was the only sound for miles.

This region, in the Finnish Lakeland, has a real get-away-from-reality feel, with tiny towns which you can breeze through seeing just a single person strolling the streets, and long stretches of nothing but Nordic countryside.

Many Finns do have a lakeside cabin, in fact there are 475,000 nationwide, but there’s no one to be seen as our gang of four canoes draw into a tiny beach, and head a few yards into the forest to build our campfire.

Urpo whips up a fire from a nearby woodpile, and using his pocket knife, sharpens sticks to toast sausages on, while entertaining us with stories. Finns have a national right to roam, and we certainly appreciate access to their green and pleasant land. After toasted sausages, tasty cinnamon buns are produced and a black metal pot of coffee simmered over the fire embers, this adventure ends with a restful paddle home in the continuous, slightly hazy, midnight sun. While midsummer in late June has continuous light, July and August have long hours of daylight too, so you can make the most of the wildlife and activities during your weekend. Funnily enough it seems to mean you need less sleep too.

In the next days we learn about the traditional Karelian philosophy of Kalevala, a book translated into 61 languages, how to spot a wolverine in the forest, and a spot of history about the stormy Russian/Finnish relationship.

And not to be stay-in-bed slouches, in an adrenaline boosting morning, we train up to shoot the Pajakkakoski rapids in red rescue suits, and without a boat. First off we learn how to negotiate being in the water in the buoyant suits. Basically it’s like being a spaceman — you can only turn in slow motion. The idea of being able to shoot a rapid like this seems unlikely. Only when you are on your back can you move around (using your arms in a butterfly stroke as a motor). After a training session, we head off to the foam-crested rapids. First time down we go as a group, with our guide gently correcting our direction away from the big waves. Second time down, rather more scarily, we go it alone. Heading off, feet first, to body surf my way down, my suit (not me) is drawn to the biggest waves, and I end up over shooting the rescue team. It’s a skin tingling moment. Physically demanding but refreshing, we are definitely putting ourselves slap bang in the middle of the natural environment.

Finland, it strikes me, has all the big open spaces and natural wilderness of North America, but without the jetlag, and certainly provides me with some great campfire stories of my own.

What to take? Eye mask (for help grabbing a nap)
What to bring home? A jar of cloudberry jam
What to eat? Juustoleipä (local toasted cheese), pulla (delicious cardamom buns) and karjalanpiirakka (pasties)
What to try? A peat sauna
Where to try traditional Finnish delicacies? The nearby Kalevala Spirit centre has delicious local dishes and is open every day in summer,

Need to know:
Fly: Finnair flies to Kajaani via Helsinki. Flights from £229.
Stay: Hotel Kalevala on the edge of Lake Lake Lammasjärvi has rooms from €85 including breakfast.
Useful regional information: Wild Taiga and Finnish Tourist Office.