This is a special article from the founders of Magnetic North Travel. This Summer Andy and Laura took their family on an adventure from Helsinki to Lapland to explore its unique landscape.
Words and photography by Andy and Laura Greenman | @magenticnorthtravel
Natural ecosystems are not restricted by national boundaries. Neither are the practices and techniques people have developed to survive and thrive in nature. This became apparent on a recent trip to Finnish Lakeland.
During a three-week road trip from Helsinki to the Arctic circle, we met Mikko Karttunen owner founder of Karu Survival based in the Karelia area of Eastern Finland. Mikko is a former arctic survival instructor and know passes his knowledge on to school children and tourists via his bushcraft and open cooking experiences.
Mikko’s knowledge connects to centuries-old practices people have developed to hunt, stay warm and cook across the northern arboreal forests that stretch across Finland. We spent several days with Mikko learning about how to use natural materials to survive in the woods. These included the use of dried fungi, which produce high burning temperatures along with birch and juniper bark which can be rolled up and used to catch sparks made bow saws. A few hours with Mikko helped build confidence that if it came to it, you really could start a fire using little more than a knife.
While the idea of surviving with just a knife is possible, Mikko also revealed himself to be a connoisseur of fine outdoor equipment. As we were packing up I noticed Mikko had the same Millican rucksack that has accompanied us on various multiple Magnetic North expeditions to Greenland, Svalbard, Iceland, the Faroes Island and all over the Nordic Mainland.
We later used the firestick to start an open fire to cook our lunch on. No petroleum fluids or firestarters, just some birch shavings and the Firestick and bingo hot coals ready for locally caught trout, Finish beef, peppers, pan made bread and some onions roasted in their skins.
Since co-founding Magnetic North travel some nine years ago I've been fortunate enough to travel to some incredible places. From watching the aurora borealis on Lake Inari in northern Finland to an overnight husky dog safari in Svalbard, kayaking across fjords in the Lofoten Islands to summiting peaks in the Sunnmore Alps, Millican bags have been a reliable adventure companion. They’ve also been there during quieter moments sat around fires, in saunas, hot tubs or just sitting on jetties soaking up the still and quiet Nordic atmosphere. There is something about the feel and quality of the products along with the Maverick spirit that has fitted well with the journey of starting a travel business and for moving with and in nature, often slowly, purposefully and always respectfully.
As the trip to Finnish Lakeland came to a close, we packed our bags and headed north towards the Arctic. During our visit, we had connected to a shared fabric of relationships grounded in a mutual love for natural ecosystems and the tools, equipment and techniques that enable us to enjoy and respect nature.
Travelling with children adds an element of unpredictability to travel. At Magnetic North we experience this regularly while travelling in Nordic destinations, such as our recent road trip from Finnish Lakeland to Lapland.
After leaving Lakeland we made our way through the seemingly endless forest. Birch, spruce and pine trees lined the road often spanning vast distances. Cabins, farmsteads, crossroads and the occasional reindeer came in and out of view. Rain fell, then the sun came out as the road gently undulated, stretching for miles without another car in sight. This area is one of the least populated in Europe and created space and time for us to breathe as we travelled north-west on route to the Arctic circle.
On the road, we took multiple stops to enjoy nature and meet Finnish tourism suppliers. They showed us their some of their favourite spots and the trees, lichens, mosses and beaches that make up their world.
At Iso-Syote, a ski resort, we stopped to enjoy the late-night sun. Even though it is close to autumn, the days are longer this far north and it was still light and warm at 9.30 pm. The children decided to do some tree climbing and build an improvised sandpit, as many of the hills in the region are made of sandstone. As we sat all around we could the hear a low drone made by scores of bees made the most of the flowering heathers.
The next day we took a short hike along one of the many walks in Finland that use a wooden boardwalk. These are accessible for wheelchair users and pushchairs, meaning everyone can enjoy a meander through the forest. Walking with young children requires Zen-like patience, but the rewards are that they often notice things you might otherwise miss, or overlook. We spent time watching a colony of ants going about their business, poking around a firepit trying to work out who made the fire, where they were going and what they ate. We watched dragonflies, tasted berries and stopped to take in the soundscape of bird song. Deep in the northern arboreal forest, there is very little sound pollution and our hearing is less distracted. Walking at this pace with children becomes an invitation to slow down, observe and focus attention on the minutiae of the ecologies that connect our bodies to the environment and other species we share it with.
Roadtrips with children also mean having adept equipment. Whereas my trusty Millican shoulder bag used to contain essential reading materials, microphones and audio recorders (former sound artist) it had to share other duties. It was rapidly altered into an improvised changing bag complete with nappies, wipes, rice cakes, sipping cup and nappy sacks.
After three weeks we crossed the Arctic Circle at Rovaniemi, our last stop and the epicentre of Santa tourism. The city is growing and buzzy, but still small and there are plenty of opportunities to escape into the surrounding wilderness. Guilty admission we did visit Santa Claus and I was surprised by how the purpose-built village contained a display with life-size Russian folklore models. They were dressed in cloaks with mildly terrifying animal horn face masks. Looking like a cross between something from a Scandinavian horror film, KLF video and the Wicker Man, the display told the story of the Northern European roots of the pre-Disney and pagan Christmas/Yuletide festival. These connected to the winter solstice celebrations, signifying the turn towards longer days. In the far north, this takes on a whole new significance given the sun drops below the horizon, shrouding the land in darkness for roughly two months. You can see why dressing up, feasting and drinking the stores dry was necessary.
After leaving Santa Claus village our road trip came to an end as we travelled up one last dirt track towards the Arctic Wilderness Lodge, just north of the city. The lodge sits at the start of miles of prime hiking trails and in the distance, we spotted a suspension bridge leading into the forest. It called to us with the promise of more outdoor adventures. Sadly it was time to depart. Rather than the finality of saying goodbye, we left with a Welcome again, a nordic expression which always seems more life-affirming and likely to inspire future adventures.