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Kristina and Mike told us about a great area in the far, snowy (but not the farthest, snowiest) north of Finland called Saariselka and the hotel where they used to work outside of Finland’s second largest national park- Urho Kekkonen National Park, or Urho Kekkonen kansallispuisto if you will. A snowy paradise with cabins and saunas and cross country skiing and snowshoeing sounded right up our Finnish alley. Kristina emailed her old boss to see if there were cabins available, and not only got us a cabin for two nights, but even managed a special deal for us. I’m telling you, these Finns are some lovely people.
We looked into rental cars, but three days would’ve cost us over €200 plus gas, and a round trip bus ticket from Rovaniemi would’ve been around €80 each. As we were looking into transportation Kristina and Mike both suggested hitchhiking as Finns are happy to give rides, especially in winter. Well you know how we Warckens love to spend less in order to travel more, so with Mike’s help we made a sign and they dropped us off at the Arctic Circle to thumb it up north.
Greg always puts me out front when we’re hitchhiking so I can sweet talk men into rides, only revealing I have a husband with me at the last minute. Usually this works like a charm, but after fifty cars passed me by I needed a warm up. Greg took over and within 25 cars he had us a ride in a Mercedes Benz, all the way to our cabin in Kiilopaa.
Our new friend Tero is a Finnish fishing guide, author, and photographer, and was on his way home with a pit stop in Ivalo to see his girlfriend. Greg sat up front and chit-chatted while I took no less than three naps on the six hour journey north. When I was awake Tero had lots of fun information and jokes for us. He told us there are forty Finnish words for snow, translated “volume” and “pickup truck” for us- äänen voimakkuus and tavaravaunu, explained that reindeer and polar bears have hollow hair for insulation, and informed us that speeding tickets in Finland are based on annual income, so depending on how much you make, a speeding ticket could cost you up to €200,000. Isn’t that awesome?!
There were still plenty of little red wooden houses as we got further and further north and Greg asked Tero what all those people did for a living. He hesitated to answer, then asked if we minded if it was a little bit dirty. Of course not, we’re the Warckens- bring us your dirty, your inappropriate, your politically incorrect- we’ll laugh at all of it. Tero explained that in summer Finnish people spend their time fishing and f*cking, and in winter it was too cold to fish. Bada bing! We never did find out how people up there make money.
Tero needed to make a quick stop at Pyha, undoubtedly Finland’s loveliest ski resort, to drop off some copies of the new book he had just released. It was over sixty kilometers there and back from the main road but he figured if he dropped us off on the highway we’d still be waiting there when he got back, so he just took us with him. Once we arrived he gave us an extra set of keys to his car in case we needed anything, then went in to deliver his books. We didn’t take the Mercedes for a joyride, but sat in the lobby and people-watched. There was a man skiing in a long leather duster, and several women telemarking in traditional dresses- awesome!
We had the pleasure of meeting some of his Tero’s friends, including Jussi Aho, who had originally opened the resort 50 years ago, and Mato Valtonen, one of Finland’s biggest rock stars and a member of the band Leningrad Cowboys. What a way to spend a day, riding along with a stranger. The trip to Kiilopaa quickly became one of my favorite travel days of all time. Once we were back on the road Greg asked Tero if he and his girlfriend had any plans for the night. I quickly piped in “It’s too cold for fishing!” Tero nodded slowly and said “That’s right….” He asked us if we knew who Bill Clinton called immediately after good sex: “Hillary. ‘Get the sauna ready, I’m coming home!’” He spent a lot of time driving with no hands and every time he told a joke he would look back at me, laughing. He was very fun.
We treated Tero to dinner at “the only pizza place he ever goes to in Finland” at Pizza-Paikka in Sodankylä, then I settled in for my third nap as the sky cleared and the sun went down. It was dark by the time we arrived at Suomen Latu Kiilopaa, and Tero was kind enough to wait for us while we checked in in case our cabin was a bit of a walk. What a guy! He drove us right to the door and told us he would drive onto the porch to get us a little closer if he thought he could get away with it. We gave him our info and invited him to come stay with us in Montana, borrow one of our cars, take our firstborn, whatever he wanted. We couldn’t have asked for a kinder, funnier ride.
Naturally after three naps I was exhausted so I immediately passed out again for three hours. Then we turned the sauna on and walked up to the main building to take a look around. For the north of Finland, and a national park, prices here are very reasonable. We bought a liter of milk for €2, and a breakfast buffet only costs €11. Not that we’ll be needing that- K and M took us by a grocery store on our way to hitchhiking and we stocked up on the travel essentials- meat, cheeses, crackers, bread, yogurt, muesli, and chocolate bars.
There’s free wifi and a desktop for guest use in the main building so I updated my status quick about hoping for Northern Lights, and literally 30 seconds after I posted it we walked outside and Greg declared “They’re out right now!” I’m telling you, there is NOTHING ON EARTH like the Aurora Borealis. I’ve never seen them from the lower 48, but I’ve been so fortunate as to see them from Alaska and northern Canada on several occasions, and they are amazing every single time. Stunning, magical, otherworldly. Naturally I stood and wept openly. Then we ran back to the cabin to grab cameras and extra layers and headed away from the artificial lights to bask in the Northern Lights splendor. They only lasted about an hour, but that hour in the snow with my husband was one of the best of my life. If you ever get the opportunity to go to the far north in spring, autumn, or winter, TAKE IT. If you’re disappointed you might need to check for a pulse.
For your viewing pleasure (not our video):