You can still get your fix of motorcycle-style thrills through the worst of the winter, especially if you’re prepared to leave tarmac and two wheels behind
It's 8.30 in the morning, it's 20° below zero and I'm 100 miles inside the Arctic circle, hurtling across a frozen lake, desperately trying to hang on to a bucking, weaving, bouncing 600cc snowmobile. And I've just discovered that I really, really don't know what I'm doing. The whole thing's shaking and rattling fit to burst, I can't see through the rooster tail of snow from the rider in front and I daren't slow down too much in case I get rammed by the one behind.
I can't steer out to one side or the other because on one side there's a bank of snow and on the other a line of wooden trail markers – and beyond those markers are ominous looking bits of melted snow that probably mean the surface is thin enough to turn my snowmobile into a submarine and me into an ice cube. I'm travelling in a more or less straight line, but the front skis are jumping from rut to rut, wrenching the bars from side to side, shaking me up so much my too-large helmet is pushing my balaclava down over my eyes. I take a hand off the bars to push the balaclava out of the way, hit a big rut which snaps the bars to full lock and I'm convinced the whole thing's about to tip over and land on top of me. What the hell am I doing?
I'm 10 minutes into a 200-mile safari across Lapland, northern Finland. It's going to take me to within spitting distance of the most northerly place in mainland Europe, and I'm starting to think I've bitten off a lot more than I can chew. Tell you what though, it's a hell of a way to wake up.
It's also a hell of way to make sure that when we stop a few minutes later, we're all sufficiently shaken to listen properly to our guides when they lay down the law about trail etiquette, safety and the finer points of snowmobile control. That sorted, we're off the well-used lake path and onto twisty forest trails. The further we get from base the less traffic has packed and rutted the surface and the easier it gets to throw the Lynx into bends and hold a line on the straights.
Within half an hour I'm feeling comfortable, within an hour I'm happily hitting the limiter on the straight bits and throwing it around in the bends. It's the jumps that take a bit of getting used to. Jumps? Oh yes. After the first couple of brief stops the two groups had formed and re-formed, leaving half who were happy to toddle along looking at the scenery, and half who wanted to go for it. I'm in the latter group with half a dozen Swiss guys, most of whom have done this before, and far from trying to hold us back, our guide Marianne (Belgian, came to Finland on holiday, loved it and never went back) is setting a cracking pace on her lighter, faster two-stroke.
By the time we stop for lunch I've decided my best bet is to ride it like a motocrosser, the only problem being I've always been rubbish at that.... These snowmobiles are tough old things, though, and mine puts up with the harsh landings and rough handling without complaint.
Lunch is cooked over an open fire in the middle of the woods. Marianne and Yoni (our local guide) dish up Lappy Burgers: a pork burger, with a thin, lightly seared reindeer steak and a slice of pungent local cheese, wrapped up in a flat bread roll, and washed down with strong coffee boiled up in a blacked kettle. Outstanding.
I'm surprised that it's not colder – I was expecting a frostbitten face and agony from frozen toes and fingers but it feels pleasantly warm in the sunshine (a week earlier we'd have been in the middle of a blizzard, apparently). This really is like a pleasant spring day. Then I try and take a swig of water from the bottle in my backpack. It's solid ice. There's a thermometer tied to a tree and it's showing a little under minus 10, the warmest it'll get outside for the three days I'm there – at nights it's down around minus 30. Camera and phone batteries die, your breath freezes as you exhale and although the bright sun reflecting off the pristine snow means you'll get sunburned, you can't use sunscreen as it'll freeze solid on your face.
I'm warm because I've been working hard and I'm properly kitted out but make no mistake, this is proper, killing cold. In the depths of winter it regularly gets below minus 40 degrees here. Despite this, there's plenty of evidence of animal life – reindeer and hare tracks in the snow, birds in the trees.
More trails, more frozen lakes, and as the sun dips low in the late afternoon we cross the first road we've seen all day (although it's covered in hard-packed snow) and pull into what turns out to be a café, bar, restaurant, campsite, farm supplies shop (reindeer castration pliers a top seller, apparently), supermarket (reindeer meat a speciality), petrol station and snowmobile accessory shop. It's also, happily, our motel for the next couple of nights – staying in log cabins, seven to a cabin, in bunk beds, so it's not for the shy, especially as everyone would be piling into the communal sauna later on too. Everyone in Finland takes a sauna every night, so it'd be rude not to, but I draw the line at jumping through a hole hacked into the ice of the frozen lake.
We're at Galdotieva, close to the Norwegian border and a popular stopping point for those on their way to or from Nordkapp. That evening we see a couple of Dutch guys in an Audi – all snow chains and extra spotlights – on their way back south. Nothing unusual, except it's a cabriolet, and they've been all the way there and back with the roof down.
Next day is more of the same, on a 60-mile loop up along the border. The forests here give way to open hills and vast expanses of snow-covered plain. Just when I was thinking nothing could live up here, a reindeer wandered into view. They live through the cold months by eating lichen, apparently. No wonder they look a bit miserable. Thrashing back to Galdotieva before the light fails, my flamboyant riding style finally turns round and bites me – a thumping landing over a crest results in a resounding crack from somewhere in the undercarriage (the snowmobile's not mine, fortunately). It's a broken anti-roll bar link. From now on the poor thing really, really doesn't want to turn right, and will flip over if I try to turn at speed.
OK, so slow down and enjoy the scenery on the last day, back to base at Harriniva. Back into the forests and lakes again, and this time we're let off the leash properly – a frozen lake the size of a couple of football fields, covered in perfect snow, and we've got carte blanche to go and make a right bloody mess of it. And we do. It's a mixed group: five Swiss railway workers who get together for a trip once every five years, a father and son doing a bit of bonding, a semi-retired husband and wife from Paris, a retired soldier from a famous French Alpine regiment and two of his cronies, a lone Frenchwoman celebrating having survived a crap year, and me. Fourteen adults, the youngest in his 30s, the oldest in his early seventies, and all behaving like kids let out on the dodgems for the first time.
It's chaos – excellent. Astonishingly no one smashes into anyone else, and by the time our guides call us to heel and point us back to the trail, we're all knackered, beaming, and just about ready for beer.
High on the adrenalin, I forget about the broken suspension and take a right hander too fast. The Lynx starts to tip – it's going to flip right over if I don't do something. Full left lock and it drops back on its tracks, but now we're heading for a tree with a lot of very low branches that I won't be able to duck under. Nothing to do but jump for it, landing perfectly cushioned in deep, powdery snow and laughing my head off. The Lynx tangles itself up gently in the tree and emerges unscathed – if only crashing could always be so much fun. I've lost confidence in my ability to get round corners now though, but fortunately there are no more - I've crashed 400 metres from the hotel...
It's been an almost perfect trip – great weather, great company, incredible scenery and enough high-speed excitement to keep me smiling for weeks. Then it goes from almost perfect, to absolutely perfect. On our last night the sky clears, the temperature drops even further, and the Aurora Borealis comes out to play. Not the full on fast-moving light show you apparently sometimes get, but a huge hanging curtain of eerily green light that has us scrambling for cameras in case it disappears as quickly as it arrived. It doesn't, and it's only when it finally fades and dies half an hour later that I realise I've been outside in the snow in just jeans and a sweatshirt. It's minus 32 degrees.
I was far more often too hot than too cold on this trip. That was thanks to some serious winter kit. The main suit, made by Scott, was basically the same as a proper winter motorcycling textile suit, just a bit more baggy. The real difference was these serious boots and gloves. The mittens are thickly padded leather with sheepskin lining, and with an inner pair of felted mittens. I added silk inner liners as well, but only so I didn't lose fingers when I took the mittens off to take photos. The boots, made by Canadian company Kamik, have a similar felted removable inner, and if I thought for a minute I could actually change gear and use the rear brake with a pair of these, I'd buy some for winter biking - they are fantastically toasty.
Well, it's not a bike, obviously. It's a Lynx Adventure LX600 snowmobile, yours for a measly 110,900 Norwegain Kronor (about £10,600). With a 600cc fuel injected four-stroke Rotax engine and automatic transmission shoving along about 350kg of machine, luggage and heavily-swaddled rider, it's not the fastest thing out there, topping out at around 80mph. In fact it's the equivalent of something like a CB500 Honda - reliable, well-proven, easy(ish) to handle and robust enough to put up with cack-handed treatment from novice riders.
But also like a CB500, it can be serious fun in the right circumstances. And let me tell you, 80mph is quite fast enough... You might think mastering one of these would be easy for anyone who rides a bike. You'd be wrong. It's not like riding a bike, it's like riding a quad, so instead of counter-steering as you would to tip a bike into a turn, you have to actually point the bars in the direction you want to go, something you never do on a bike once you're over walking pace.
It's not uncommon for motorcyclists to get on a snowmobile and go straight on at the first corner. And the next...
HOW TO GET THERE
Kev traveled with Artisan Travel (01670 785 085). The four-night Harrriniva Powder Pro Snowmobile trip costs from £1,660 per person. The price includes flights (London), transfers, four nights’ full board in a safari house and wilderness cabin, three days snowmobile safari with own snowmobile, guides and instructors, and cold weather clothing.
Departures available in January, February and March. The flights were supported by the Regional Council of Finland.