Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Santa Claus Express, Hooves and Paws

An overnight train to Lapland. Sounds romantic, you'd think. Cocktails before bed, lovely spacious cabin all done in wood and 1920s art deco, piano bar. Agatha Christie with the Northern Lights and silent snowy landscapes. We took the Santa Claus Express hoping for just that. 

Hah! One exhausted grumpy toddler, one over-excited willful toddler and a hungry, excited baby. Four tired adults trying to fathom the Finnish ticket system, trying to shift too much luggage and 3 very small cabins. Not really what we were hoping for. 

Thanks to the 'you have to be Finnish to understand the system' attitude, we ended up in the wrong carriage, in the wrong cabins with a very annoyed conductor because we had sat on the beds and they now could no longer sell them to someone else. Eventually he let us stay put, but it was too late for the Foo who was past tired and into the hyper-exhausted stage. His toys Tigger and Pooh bounced for at least four hours before they were finally put to bed.

I was too tired to even go see what the food car was like, but it was soon reported that this 'wasn't the Orient Express'. But after a restless night for all, we arrived in Rovaniemi at 8am, dumped our bags at the hotel and crashed out for a few hours to wait for the world to wake up. Nothing opens in Finland before 10am, it seems.

After perusing various brochures we decided that Santa Claus could wait another day as we found a tour that took in both a Husky Farm and a Reindeer Farm. Bundled up for the -7C weather off we went. Our guide Sanna picked us up, along with two deliriously happy Japanese girls and took us to the Husky Point Farm. Everyone was over-excited, including dozens of dogs. Foo giggled constantly, Mouse never stopped talking, Auntie and the Japanese girls took photos of everything.

Then we found out we were going to drive the sled dogs ourselves. The driver talked about leaning into curves, falling out, stepping on the brake while the dogs jumped and barked like Mexican jumping beans. It was a bit worrying, but Mousie Magoo and I hopped into the sledge with Baby Bumptious strapped to my chest in the sling, Isä took the reins or the handlebar or whatever. The driver stood next to him for the first curve and then jumped off. We were left in the dogs' paws.

It was a set path that they obviously knew well and ran over and over again, but they ran for the sheer joy of it, between the snow covered trees, low branches slapping our faces. These were Alaskan Huskies, rougher and tougher than the Siberian Huskies you see in the cities. Our little wooden sledge bounced along at a good speed so our 1km trip was over too soon.

The Japanese girls went next, but didn't drive. Then Auntie took me, Bumptious and the Foo. Foo didn't like it, the wind in his face, the speed, the barking dogs was a bit much, so he cuddled into me. But Auntie loved it and I got a bit of time to enjoy the trip between comforting Foo. Auntie loved it so much I think she had problems stopping and the driver had to jump out and help her.

We then got to visit with all the dogs still in the kennels. One that was tied up near a path was a bit too affectionate with Mousie and knocked him into the snow for a bit of rough play, then jumped up on Auntie for a cuddle. A hot drink and warm by the fire before moving on to the reindeer farm.

This was much busier, but we got to go and feed a group of males handfuls of 'reindeer sweeties' - lichen - in a separate enclosure with another guide in some Sami clothes, including the boots I have wanted for years. Turns out they're seal fur, not reindeer and only available in Norway. Knew I should have bought that pair 20 plus years ago. It's hard for tourists to tell now who's really Sami but we got lots of good information and a chance to butt heads with reindeer up close. This was my favourite bit, I have a soft spot for these big furry louts, their hairy noses, velvety antlers and big splayed feet.

We then split into pairs and drove little sledges pulled by one reindeer. I got to drive this time with Foo as I only had to hang onto him and one rope and did it sitting down. Foo was much better as it was a bit slower, less windy and I kept shouting 'reindeer bum' to keep him distracted. Our deer galloped a bit, but got stuck behind Auntie and Mormor who were with a reindeer in training.

Janne our reindeer guide in traditional Lappish clothing. 

Another kilometre track and the ride was over. I could have done it all day. We then got our reindeer driving licenses and it was time to go back to the hotel. It was early yet, but everyone was tired, so we finished off the day with a Chinese meal and then a sauna to ease our muscles stiff from driving. The boys bounced around in the hotel room for a while but everyone slept pretty good once they settled.

Day 2 to follow. 
Day 3 here

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