My bright beam catches the snow-shrouded candlestick fir trees lining our route and the deep tracks in which I am cycling furiously. When the path starts going up, my thumb hits a button on the handlebar and I feel the electric motor on the mountain bike kick in, taking the strain out of the hill. We are just a few miles from the Finnish resort of Salla in Lapland where I am staying – but it feels like a million miles from anywhere.
The weather in Lapland is predictable. Winter will be cold and dark. When I was in Salla at the start of December, the sun rose at about 10.30am and set less than four hours later. Most days the mercury was below -12C.
When conditions are that unsurprising, you can plan for them. I am wearing my military grade Armadillo merino wool thermal socks, leggings, T-shirt and balaclava. And on top of that I have snow trousers, two more tops, a thick ski jacket and two pairs of gloves.
Not once on our two-hour ride through the -15C temperatures did I feel uncomfortably cold. Nor did I fear losing control of the bike. The ‘fat-boy’ tyres are specially designed to grip in snow and ice, and they did their job perfectly, as did the Tunturi bike’s disc brakes.
At the top of one hill we took a well-needed break and enjoyed the view of the floodlit ski slopes and forests. Salla is a tiny resort in the Arctic Circle nearly 500 miles north of the Finnish capital Helsinki, with ski runs that are mainly suited to beginners and intermediates, plus a few more challenging slopes, including one for speed skiing.
I am staying at Salla Holiday Club where there are self-catering wooden cabins and apartments. My two-bed apartment has a fully-fitted kitchen, balcony with barbecue, and its own sauna, which I didn’t know I needed until I had it.
The resort has a couple of restaurants with various forms of reindeer, moose and fish on the menus, a shop, a frozen lake, lots of trees and not much else. Nearby is Salla Wilderness Park, where I enjoy a relaxing reindeer sleigh ride. Our guide, Salla-born Timo, takes us through the woods at a gentle pace.
As the sun rises, bathing the spruce and fir trees in a beautiful red light, my reindeer, Martin, trots along. Timo tells us how to control our reindeer using noises similar to the creatures’ own alarm calls and waving our arms.
But in truth, there is little one can do to make a reindeer do anything it doesn’t want to do. When Martin spots some grass poking through the snow he stops and no amount of hissing and flapping can distract him. But there is no rush and the scenery is beautiful so I do not worry.
A short stop at a blazing fire pit warms our bodies, and another to feed the reindeer calves warms our hearts. After a filling lunch of fish soup, I take on the challenge of snowmobiling at Arctic Circle Safaris.
Safely togged up in warm overalls, thick mittens and helmet, I clamber on board the two-seater, hit the starter button, turn on the headlight and gently press on the accelerator lever with the thumb of my right hand. The caterpillar track underneath jerks forward and I’m off. The route is icy and bumpy.
Being relaxed and trusting the machine is key to snowmobiling, I found. At first I fought with the steering as the two skis at the front bounced over the tracks. My worry was that I would either career off the trail into the deep snow or topple over sideways going round a corner. But my fears were unfounded.
The trick to steering is to gently guidethe handlebars, and the slopes arenever too steep to throw you from the machine. Once I relaxed, the two hours flew by. Never going faster than 18mph, we motored up and down the hills. Halfway through we stopped at a cabin where we grabbed a hot chocolate and cinnamon bun in front of a log fire surrounded by candles and lanterns.
The final half hour took place in the pitch black with my high beam cutting an unbelievably atmospheric path through the dark and lighting up the trees. If it had not been so cloudy we may have been able to see the Northern Lights.
Snowmobiling is incredibly noisy, which is out of place in Salla. The next day we took a hike into the silence of the Sallatunturi Fell. The area is part of a newly designated national park. The 39square mile Salla National Park is a key part of the area’s booming eco-tourism industry.
There are hundreds of miles of hiking, biking and cross-country skiing routes crossing the ridges, ravines, ancient forests and marshes. It is so remote and unspoiled the air is said to be the purest in the world (it is so clean that scientists have to check their machines are working). We walked in the silence through the picture-postcard snow-covered trees, with the only sign of non-human life a bright white willow grouse.
There is plenty of wildlife in the area – but at this time of year, most of it was either operating below the snow or had heard us clomping around and fled. At the top of the fell, the wind was blowing hard, and snow and ice whipped off the ground and really stung my face.
It must have been a “feel like” -24C up there and I was thankful for the thermals as I tightened up my hood. There is a wooden sentry post-style outlook for visitors to look over the border into Russia.
Sadly, there was too much cloud to see further than a few dozen yards. After a tentative walk back down, I discovered the deep joy of having a personal sauna in my apartment. As I sat sweating at 83C, the cold melted away and my muscles relaxed.
Not a care in the world. I may as well have been a million miles from civilisation. Oh, I was… This was Salla, the memorable middle of nowhere.