“The first time you do this you will be scared and the second time you will enjoy it,” says our team leader as he imitates the river’s meander with his hand. We’re about to float down the rapids of Pajakkakoski River in Kuhmo, eastern Finland, without a boat and in the middle of winter with temperatures in and out of the water nearing -30?C. Scared? Petrified would be a better, more literal term.
Thankfully we’re well-prepared. The bright orange survival suit, thermals and life jacket might make us walk like astronauts on the moon but at least they’re going to keep us warm. A balaclava, helmet and hood complete the ensemble. I’m cocooned within layers of insulation that only make my racing heart beat louder.
The final instruction from our guide is to position ourselves in the middle of the rapids away from the icy banks. He’s barely finished his sentence before the current sweeps me downstream.
For 500 metres I’m at the mercy of a fast-flowing beast. I’m bobbing up and down over the rapids using my arms as oars to remain feet-first and clear of possible obstacles.
The river spits wickedly cold water onto my frozen cheeks and steam from the channel clouds my vision. The water foams menacingly and for a few frantic minutes it propels, pushes and jostles my body as it carries me downriver. I feel like a fighter in the wrong weight category as, with tired limbs, I try to hold my position and prevent myself from spinning.
As I reach the first bend in the river, the water calms and the Pajakkakoski starts to run smoothly. For the first time I can appreciate the unusual perspective that floating on my back gives me: the snowy tops of pine trees pass by on both sides and the dome of a local Orthodox Church catches the light from the distant sunset.
“Swim to the right, swim to the right!” another member of the team barks from the bank. “You swim to the right,” I want to shout back as I battle against the tide, trying to edge out of the current. When I finally get to the bank, there’s another obstacle in my way: getting out. Adopting seal-like movements and rocking back and forth on my stomach I finally find ice thick enough to hold my weight so I can haul myself up onto terra firma.
The temperatures are so low that the excess water dripping from the survival suit freezes onto me like miniature stalactites. I look like a band member of Lordi, the extravagant latex monsters that became Finland’s Eurovision-winning export. At the moment, though, I really don’t care. I’m too busy looking back up river wondering whether I should do it all over again.
Not cold enough yet?
Mush with the huskies
Standing on the thin runners of the sleigh with four Greenland huskies jolting and pulling at their harnesses is one of life’s more memorable experiences and should be at the top of everybody’s wish list. The dogs at the Ultima Taiga husky farm are distant relatives of the huskies that helped the explorer Amundsen reach the South Pole in 1911, adding an extra-special twist to a special activity.
Climb on a snow mobile
Another exhilarating way to travel across the ‘thousand lakes’ area of eastern Finland is on a 70km snow mobile safari. The machines are fast, flexible and easy to use. Slalom between the ancient forest pines and open up the throttle as you cross the white expanses of the frozen lakes in the Kajaani region.
Fish through the ice
Every fisherman thinks he knows which part of the lake is the most lucrative for catching pike and white fish. Once the location is chosen a tepee is erected, a hole in the ice is drilled and the nets stretched up to 90 metres below the lake’s surface. At the end of the tow, each net is dragged onto the ice to reveal the day’s catch. Alternatively, you can use a makeshift rod, line and bait in an attempt to catch your own dinner.
The skis are much thinner than the downhill variety so it might take a while to find your rhythm and balance. Once you have the basic skills, cross-country skiing is an efficient and pleasant way to enjoy the wilderness and a good way to blend in with the lycra-clad locals.
Make like James Bond
Taking a high-powered car onto a frozen lake where a makeshift track has been cleared is a great way to increase adrenaline levels. The sensation of drifting round a corner sideways with the steering wheel on full-lock while the engine is screaming is every petrol head’s dream. A roll cage, driving helmet and professional co-driver ensure a safe circuit.