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Lapping Lapland while on a cycle tour of Finland

Lapping Lapland while on a cycle tour of Finland


LAPLAND, FINLAND — Floating houses, northern lights dancing across the sky, shamanic wisdom dispensed by the fire and endless trails crossing multi-coloured fjells: A bike tour through the resplendent fall landscape of Lapland almost verges on sensory overload in more ways than one.

 Ruska is the Finnish word to describe the spectacular natural fall phenomenon that transforms the countryside into an explosion of colour. This seasonal spectacle usually lasts about two weeks. Golden birch leaves hang from white, gnarled branches, a beautiful contrast to the flaming red carpet of blueberry bushes on the forest floor. The low-lying, late afternoon sun bathes the surroundings in a soft, warm light, further deepening the blue of the lakes.
This second summer is an unparalleled natural event in Lapland, and we were lucky enough to be there for one of these weeks.


Above: A floating sauna is just one of the marvels our cyclists encountered in Lapland.

However, we didn't realize our good fortune until we landed far north of the Arctic Circle, in Kittilä. As soon as we left the airport, we couldn't help but be overwhelmed by the blaze of colours around us. Fränzi and I, our mountain bikes carefully stowed away with our luggage, are on route to our accommodation along with photographer Martin Bissig, who wants to capture this incredible season on film. On both sides of the road, we see nothing but the rich colours of fall forests. Hardly surprising, as forest covers 70 per cent of the country.
Here and there we catch glimpses of little settlements and their typical red wooden houses. “The colour originally came from the red oxide sludge left from the mine tailings. These little settlements usually consist of a few homes, a guest house, a bakery, barns and outbuildings. The reason they're so spread out is so they don't all go up in flames if there’s a fire. After all, we have enough space,” explains Juha, our driver. His family has been living in the Levi area for over 500 years. Today, he and his wife, Heidi, operate a renowned travel agency, Polar Star Travel. We're thrilled at being able to travel around with people whose local roots run deep.


Above: Getting to meet the locals and sampling their hospitality was all part of the fun in Lapland.

Our log house accommodation couldn't be more authentic. It’s the perfect movie backdrop. The natural building materials exude coziness in every single room. It belongs to a family of hunters, as evidenced by the many pelts and antlers adorning the walls. In addition to a few bedrooms and a living area and adjoining kitchen flooded in natural light, there is, of course, the requisite sauna. Saunas have a long history in Finland and are an essential component of Finnish life. “A house isn't complete without a sauna,” Juha explains, laughing.
Our supper marks the start of a culinary week extraordinaire. Vegetables, herbs and potatoes are grown right outside the door. Low levels of air pollution and the long daylight hours of summer allow plants to flourish. In turn, these healthy plants feed the animals, mostly reindeer, a staple food in Lapland. The meat is particularly tender, with a taste unlike anything we've ever had. Reindeer is served in any form imaginable: reindeer filet, reindeer stew, reindeer burgers and cutlets, and even reindeer-stuffed elk. The creativity in the kitchen knows no bounds.

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Above: Riding trails and having fun was all part  of the tour.

“The program for the next few days sounds so exciting,” Fränzi happily declares. With much anticipation, we slip under the checkered blankets in our cozy beds in the log house.
We don’t have much time the next day to get warmed up. The narrow trail winds its way through dense forest and after just a few minutes, it climbs steeply. We actually have to get off and push, and later, shoulder our bikes. “Who would have thought that we’d have to carry our bikes in this flat countryside,” I observe. We're biking along one of the many fjells in the area. Coming from the Alps, we’d call these elevations hills. The treeless plateaus open out onto a magnificent view over endless swaths of land. Fjells come in all shapes and sizes and are the perfect destination for mountain bikers and hikers, as there are usually narrow, delightful paths that lead right to the top. Once we're in the saddle again, we head back out towards the tree line. The colourful vegetation is smaller, the view extends further.  And then there’s all those lakes!
Fränzi is thrilled. We don't stay at the highest point for very long, as a storm is brewing in the distance. Thanks to the amazing view, we can already spot it on the horizon. We turn our bikes around and are happy to make our first descent in Lapland. The ground is really grippy, with the trail turning left, then right, here a root for jumping, there a technical challenge on steep steps — the trail is perfect, even if we still don’t feel completely warmed up. We can't help but grin when we come upon a rustic log cabin at the foot of the fjell.


Above: At the end of each day our riders always found time for another sauna session.

Gratefully, we sink into the pelt-covered lounge chairs in front of the log cabin, its overly decorated exterior almost kitschy. Elk antlers, ancient skis, lanterns, strawflower bouquets — once again, we can’t help but think that we’ve been dropped into the middle of a movie set. But we get used to it because this is how they do things in northern Finland. Finland is also known for its coffee consumption, ranking first in the world, and our steaming hot coffee is served in a wooden kuksa. These cups, made with birchwood, are the traditional drinking vessel of the Sami, Lapland’s original inhabitants, and are still very much in use wherever we go.
The other thing they've carefully considered is how well damp, cold weather goes with saunas, as we find out on our visit to one of the many sauna parks. The sky is just starting to open up again when we reach the sauna huts located on the shores of a deep, blue lake. We sit on the generous wooden benches, sweating, enjoying the view through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The golden birch leaves are reflected on the choppy lake. “I couldn't imagine a better way to end a day of biking,” I say, interrupting our silent reverie and pouring more water on the hot rocks.
Also on the program is a visit to the Levi Bike Park. The map shows 16 different routes or partial routes. It’s got everything, from easy blue trails to the World Cup Black trail. There are also two enduro routes that go around the park’s perimeter. The next day, the gondola takes us the 310 vertical metres to the top. The summit station is high above the tree line and offers an impressive panoramic view of the surrounding landscape. The trail conditions vary. We’re surprised by the diverse terrain in the park. From rough nature trails following shaped flow lines to challenging stretches featuring big jumps and wooden structures, the trails guarantee that bikers will have a great time, regardless of their skill level. We spend several hours having fun on the trails until our forearms are burning.
Our evening is no less exciting than the trails in the Bike Park. For dinner, we go to see the local Shaman. The word “Shaman” is posted on a small, six-sided little house, so we know we’ve found the right place. These cabins, called kota, were originally meant to shelter hunters and foresters. They have a fire pit in the middle and now they're often used as a grill cabin of sorts. We have to duck down to get through the doorway, and the door falls shut behind us. We've barely sat down when a terrifying apparition steps into the room. After a ritual that includes the Shaman painting our faces with charcoal and poking a stick into the fire until sparks wildly fly up to the ceiling, the pelt-clad Shaman shows himself to be an incredible storyteller and cook. He fills the evening with exciting stories from Lapland’s mythology, all the while feeding us fish he has caught and vegetables from his garden. We learn a lot about his family, and that he comes from a long line of natural healers. “Even now, many Finns live in tune with nature and feel the magic it embodies,” he tells us. Enchanted by his tales, it was quite late when we finally left the kota. On walking out into the darkness, we experience our very own magic moment. The night sky is lit up with a display of shimmering lights. Shades of green and purple Northern Lights dance between the stars and are reflected on the lake.
We don't fill our coffee cups until much later the next morning. The sense of urgency we’d brought with us has all but disappeared. We savour every moment, give ourselves time to take little breaks, and enjoy nature.
At Levi Husky Park, we finally fall head over heels. The trusting animals, with their dense fur and light-blue eyes are all it takes to turn us into total Lapland fans. On a tour through the park, we feed foxes, play with huskies, and even kiss a reindeer.
Our route back, naturally, takes us past a sauna. But not just any sauna. This one is floating. This construction is definitely unique to this part of the world. A house is built onto a wooden platform that is kept afloat with large pontoons. A white fence surrounds the platform. Four outboard motors propel the behemoth through the water. Inside, beside a large common area, there is a huge sauna with a wood stove. When we get there, smoke is already rising from the chimney. We step onto the boat via a gate. The house slowly moves away from shore.
“OK, let’s hit the sauna, and then we’ll dive into the lake,” Fränzi bursts with enthusiasm. Three sauna rounds later, each followed by a jump in the lake, and we head back.
The bike tour on the following day takes us to Rouvivaara, an expansive plateau 560m above sea level and overgrown with moss. In our eyes, this doesn't really seem like a big hill. But still, the wind blows in fierce gusts across the treeless plateau, and with the incredible panoramic view, the hill seems much higher. The trail is rocky in parts, making it tough to move forward, but otherwise, it's a very well-balanced mountain bike outing and is imbued with that Lapland experience.
Logs have been laid down side-by-side wherever the ground is soft and boggy, forming a rough boardwalk of sorts. We meet a few hikers. But we're the only ones on bikes. The descents wind their way down from the plateau into the dense forest, where we see tree trunks deformed into abstract sculptures by the wind and the weather. Our tour starts and stops at a lake called Hietajärvi. On our return, Heidi and Juha welcome us into a half-open hut with a beautiful view of the water. A fire is already burning in a pit in the middle, and a whole salmon is being grilled on a board carefully placed by the fire’s edge. Potatoes are roasting in the hot coals. The delicious aroma wafts behind the hut, where we’re busy stowing away our bikes.
Another day on our bikes is awaiting us in the region around Ylläs. There’s a well-described, exciting network of biking trails here. Various rental shops, bike shops and restaurants round out the offer. Only marked bike trails can be used in Palla-Ylläs National Park. Maps and information can be found in the tourist office. The routes are well signed and lead through gnarled, magical forests or up to the area’s fjells so that on some of the routes, a few hundred vertical metres add up quickly. We almost feel a bit exotic with our regular mountain bikes, as most people are riding fat bikes. These make sense, especially in the winter and on soft ground. Early in the afternoon, we find ourselves overcome by hunger. We find a restaurant, where we closely study a map showing the many different tour options. Unfortunately, there’s not enough time for us to do the nearly 100-km ride to Levi. “Sounds exciting, though. I guess we’ll just have to come back,” grins Fränzi, biting into her reindeer burger.
 “What is it with the sixth season that I heard about?” I ask Juha on our last evening together.
“The Sami, Europe’s only Indigenous Peoples, split the year into eight seasons. So in addition to winter, there’s also early winter and late winter. The same applies to summer,” Juha explains. “And ruska, fall, is the sixth season in the Sami calendar.”
We agree that these beautiful weeks fully deserve their own season, because biking along lonely paths through a light-filled, resplendently colourful forest on days like this truly is a magical experience.


Getting there:
Flights from Europe fly to Helsinki and from there to Kittilä or Rovaniemi

Finnish is a very difficult language to learn. However, you can get by quite nicely with English.

Northern lights: The best time to see them is between September and March, on clear, cloudless nights. There are also apps forecasting Northern Lights.  For the romantic at heart, we recommend staying in a glass pyramid, giving you an unobstructed view of the northern lights: https://elvesvillage.fi/en/  (the Northern Lights alarm is, of course, included, in case you fall asleep). The lovingly designed Elves Village is also worth a visit. And while you're there, don't forget to visit Santa’s office.







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