Arctic Circle Adventure Part 4
This is the fourth day of our Arctic Circle Adventure. You should probably start at the beginning and read part 1.
December 20, 2022 Tuesday
I opened my eyes and stared up through the clear ceiling of the igloo and the sky was full of stars. It of course was still dark, it was early yet. I paused and stared up at the very full sky and spotted a satellite in orbit. I remember seeing them when I was on a camping trip in the Australian desert when I was doing my study abroad in college. Every night one satellite streaked the sky at some time around 10:20 PM, just before we all closed our eyes. Now satellites are more common than they were in 1994 when I was in Australia. The internet access at Kakslauttenen was done with Starlink, the satellite based internet that we use on Rising Tide over the summer. There are so many Starlink satellites in orbit, never mind the ones for GPS and satellite radio and TV, that it’s so much easier to spot satellites when staring up at a clear starry sky at night.
I waited for the satellite to pass my field of vision and woke up to shower and get ready. Pee in the cubby on the left, shower in the cubby on the right. I like my shower HOT. Like I turn the water all the way to hot and turn it back just a smidge. I cool it down when I rinse my face, and then crank it back up again when I wash my body. The water there never quite got hot enough. It was just a smidge too cool to the point where I took showers like I do on Rising Tide in the summer to conserve water. Run the water, wet my face and hair, then turn it off to wash my face. Turn it on again to rinse my face, then off while I shampoo my hair. Then on to rinse my hair, then off to wash my body, then on to rinse and I am done. I use a leave in conditioner for extra water savings. (Shout out to Paul Mitchell’s The Conditioner, yo!) I just didn’t want to stand under a stream of water that wasn’t hot enough.
My morning routine takes longer than Todd’s. I was dressed and ready to go, so I stood outside our igloo so I wouldn’t overheat while waiting for him to finish up inside. That’s the thing about the trip like this. So many people asked us how we coped with the cold. Honestly it wasn’t so bad, the days were mostly in the teens in Fahrenheit. This particular day we’d see single digits. But it never felt too cold for me if I was dressed for it. I had merino wool long johns on, jeans, and then ski pants over that. I had a warm down coat from North Face. But the thing is you can’t hang out indoors after you’ve dressed to be out in a cold environment because then you’ll overheat under all those layers and sweat. Once you sweat it’s game over. Once your closest layer gets damp from your sweat then you’ll never feel warm again.
The sky was beginning to get a bit lighter as we walked to breakfast. This would be our first of a marathon of activities on our last full day at Kakslauttanen and Todd’s birthday. We would go for a snowmobile ride.
I haven’t been on a snowmobile since I was 12. My brother Walter had gotten a used one from somewhere, and it took all sorts of machinations to get the dang thing to start. I distinctly remember opening the choke and he’d spray something from an aerosol can into it. Then he’d pull the cord to start it while I had to time closing the choke while the motor sputtered to life. The thing was that we had to keep it running, if it stalled we’d have to go through the cumbersome process all over again. But it was a complete blast riding around in the fields across the street from our house in East Windsor with him on snowy Sunday afternoons in the late 80s.
These snowmobiles were a lot more modern with their push button start. I will say that riding the snowmobile wasn’t the highlight of the trip for me. The thing about riding a snowmobile is that the faster you go the easier it is to steer. But for me I had the fear of going faster meant hitting a tree faster. So I stayed on the slow side and muscled the front tracks left and right when I wanted to steer. The ride was still enjoyable with the scenery—though we didn’t get to see any wildlife because snowmobiles are too loud for reindeer to want to come hang out. So, I basically rode painfully slow, but that’s OK, I got to savor the scenery rather than it just whipping by me.
Our next activity was a smoke sauna and ice swim after lunch. The smoke sauna is different than the modern saunas you may have seen. For one, the heat comes from a woodburning fire rather than an electric heating element. Saunas are a big deal in Finland. While the population of Finland is around 5 million people, there are approximately 2 million saunas in the country. The smoke sauna is very traditional. When we got there we saw that it was in a dark room and the wood interior was blackened. The special woodstove was in the corner, and there was a small set of stairs that led up to a platform where the heat accumulated and that is where we’d sit to enjoy the sauna. It wasn’t terribly smoky, thankfully, the traditional smoke sauna has a special chimney system that allows most of the smoke to get out while the heat stays in. Still, the railings, stairs, walls and floors were definitely blackened after years of use. The white towels we draped over the railing were definitely streaked with black when we picked them up again.
We sat in there for about 15 minutes or so, I left my watch with my clothes. The ritual of sauna is contrasted with extreme cold. The sauna building was on the shore of a small pond that was frozen over. About 30 feet from the edge there was a spotlight illuminating a hatch that was cut into the ice. Before getting undressed we walked out to check it out. The hatch had a ladder leading into the water from the ice surface, and there was a circulator in the water to keep it from freezing.
After resting in the sauna we put on the thick socks that were provided to us, I totally would have stolen these socks in my younger years. Then we walked down the path to the hatch in the ice. I peeled off my socks and set my towel on the edge of the hatch, then stepped onto the ladder.
The first rung brought the freezing water over my ankles. Then the second one, covered in lumpy ice that was hard to stand on, brought the water to my shins. I squealed in response to the cold, probably uttered a holy shit. I moved down to the next rung and the next until I looked up at Todd and said “Here I go!” I let go of the ladder and pushed myself back until I submerged myself to my shoulders. I felt the air leave my lungs as the beyond frigid water rushed over my skin. I lost the ability to speak for the moment as I gasped and tried not to hyperventilate.
I’ve done the polar plunge at the beach in Newport several times. I always say that feels like getting stabbed by a million tiny knives. I don’t know if it’s the difference between salt water and fresh water, but I didn’t get that sensation at all. Yes, it was incredibly cold, but it was oddly soothing as well. I climbed out and my whole body shivered as I scrambled to put the socks back on and wrap the towel around me. I watched Todd make his descent after saying “Well, because you did it now I have to do it.” I watched him have the same reaction—the air leaving his lungs in a gasp and the scramble back up the ladder. We hightailed it back into the smoke sauna.
“I didn’t believe them when they told me, but my joints do feel looser,” Todd observed as he bent over to stretch. I felt the same way. I bent this way and that while we laughed at having been in the water in the winter inside the Arctic Circle.
We caught the shuttle back to our side of Kakslauttenen and headed to dinner. Our next adventure, and the last for our stay, would be a dog sled ride. We went with the guide to get fitted out for riding the sleds. One of the cool things that Kakslauttenen does is they will loan out insulated coveralls and boots. I wore the coveralls over my coat that morning when we went snowmobiling and was very comfortable. The boots didn’t feel like they offered much more insulation than my Sorrells, so I decided not to wear them for dog sledding.
The guide taught us how to drive the dog sled. There are 2 rails on the back where the driver stands on the rails and holds on to the back of the sled. In between the rails is the brake, which is a metal bar with teeth on the bottom of it. We were instructed to slow the sled down before a turn and then lean into the turn. When going uphill the driver would jump off the rails and run behind the sled to help push it up the hill, then downhill we would have to slow down by a lot so that the sled wouldn’t slide into the dogs.
Then we were taken over to where the crew was setting up the dogs. Each sled had 7 dogs, and all the dogs were yelping and yarping at each other, excitedly nipping at each other and getting tangled. The pair of dogs in the back are called the wheel dogs, they are the strongest dogs and take on the bulk of the weight. Then the next set are the mid dogs, they help the wheel dogs take the weight. The first pair of dogs are called the swing dogs, and their job is to steer. The single dog out front is the lead dog, and that pooch is the smartest of the bunch and sets the pace and makes decisions. The dogs were rigged up in their leads and harnesses, and the whole lot was tied to a post. Once the post was untied and the command to run was given, those dogs stopped talking trash to each other and were all business.
It was like they’d been shot out of a gun. They took off barreling onto the trail into the forest. I was sitting in the sled, skimming the ground and feeling every bump while Todd drove on the back. Todd was fitted out with a headlamp so that we could see ahead of us. After about a minute the lead dog started doing their job and set the pace and the rest of the dogs chilled out a bit. We were still going pretty fast, mind you, probably around 15-20 miles per hour. Which as you know in a car does not feel fast, but when your ass is on the ground in a dog sled it feels sonic.
Todd was getting the hang of driving the sled, though he did say it was way more athletic than he thought it would be. He navigated us around turns and even jumped off to push the sled, “I didn’t think I would get back on,” he laughed. It happens that fast.
“Well, that’s a good point,” I replied. “What’s our plan if you fall off? I won’t be able to reach the brake from sitting here on the sled.” He laughed and said that his plan was to not fall off.
There were two other sleds in our group, with two people on each one. The guide rode along side us on a snowmobile to make sure we were doing well. We stopped to take a break about halfway through the ride, at which point I would take over driving the sled. I asked the guide “So, that’s the one thing you didn’t mention in our lesson. What happens when the driver falls off?”
“Well, because the driver is wearing a headlamp I will see the headlamp fall down. So then I’ll know that I have to go stop the dogs,” he replied and laughed about forgetting to tell us that crucial bit of information. I moved to my new spot behind the sled and Todd sat down in front. But here’s the oops… he forgot to give me the headlamp. So if I fell we’d be screwed. Big time. I curled my fingers tighter around the handle in front of me.
The dogs were given the command to pull and we lurched forward, and of course I let out a little squeal as I felt us get dragged by seven very focused dogs. We approached our first turn and I moved my right foot off the rail and onto the brake bar and slowed them down a bit, this way once we hit the turn the sled wouldn’t go flying off the trail. We had seen a few abandoned sleds on the sides of the trails as we rode and I wondered what happened there. We got to a slight uphill.
“Beej, you need to jump off and run behind the sled. Push the sled,” Todd said. I managed to jump off and run exactly three steps before jumping back onto the rails. Keep in mind that the rails are slightly more than hip width apart, so my legs were almost in a A frame position. So jumping back to that position from running was a bit awkward. Then we got to the downhill, which scared me a bit. I was afraid of the sled riding out of control and running into the dogs, or worse passing the dogs and getting them all tangled. I stomped both feet onto the brake bar to slow us down as much as we could with the dogs still carrying the momentum. I jumped back to my A frame position on the rails and we continued to fly through the forest in the dark.
We ended up switching again so that Todd drove us in. I sat back down in the sled, exhilarated from what I’d just done. I drove a dog sled. I am an Iditarod champion!
When we arrived back to the dog pens the guides tied our sleds back up and it was at this point we were allowed to roll around with our dogs. I scratched each one and told them what a great job they did. We learned about their different jobs and how the dogs live. Because these dogs are huskies they have very thick fur that keeps them very well insulated. They don’t like to sleep inside where there’s heat because it is way too hot for them. The yard had rows of dog houses with their names on them. When we finished rolling around with our dogs we had one last treat for the night.
Kakslauttenen raises their own dogs for their dog sleds. Which means…. PUPPIES! BABY DOGS!!! They had 21 puppies at the time and they are in pens separated by their age. We were allowed to go in with the 4 month old puppies, right between the 3 month old and 5 month old pens. The guide let us in, because they want the puppies to socialize with people, and we got to play with 9 future sled dogs. They rehome the ones that don’t end up being suitable for pulling a sled as well.
One in particular kept coming up to smoosh his puffy little face against me. I immediately lifted him up and said “You. You are going to be a lead dog some day, Mr. Smarty.” He wagged his tail at me in response. Todd was sitting on the ground leaning against a fence post when all the dogs piled on top of him. So we took turns letting all the puppies pile on us. This is literally what it looked like, a blur of puppies whirling around us.
Dog sledding was definitely THE highlight of our stay in Kakslauttanen. We would be leaving the next day to start heading west toward home. We did the last walk to our igloo. I loved that walk. It was fun to walk beside each other and reflect on whatever amazing thing we got to do that day. I would tip my head back and take a deep breath of the cold air and thank the universe for how lucky I am to have had the chance to go on this trip.
When we got back to the igloo we checked into all of our flights: Ivalo to Helsinki, Helsinki to Stockholm, Stockholm to Keflavik Iceland, then an overnight stay in Keflavik, and then the morning after that Keflavik to Boston. We even scored upgrades on the longer flights to Keflavik and Boston. All was well when we went to sleep, after organizing our suitcases for one last time.
Or so we thought. Check out Arctic Circle Adventure Part 5 here.
BJ Knapp is the author of Beside the Music, available for purchase here. Please sign up for the Backstage with BJ Knapp mailing list to get updates on events, signings, dog pictures and so much more.
added on 02.08.23