A few summers ago, I was offered the opportunity of a lifetime: a roundtrip holiday junket to the Finnish Arctic region in hopes that I’d write about the region’s beauty, sustainability and why it should be a top travel destination for millennials who are increasingly seeking meaning and purpose when they travel. But as a woman in midlife, a decidedly non-millennial, I found meaning, purpose and a little bit of a super-hero skill in the deep-freeze.I was offered two, week-long options. The first was to take the trip during the summer solstice in August, featuring hiking, biking and outdoor trekking. The second was a visit during the darkest and coldest time of the Finnish winter, January. Given that I’d be traveling solo and am middle-aged, I initially leaned towards the safe and more “typical” sounding summer holiday. But, after reflection, I thought, “Hell, Susan, why not go the challenging route? Get out of your comfort zone and be a badass for once.”
So winter darkness was the selection I made, and my trip would include skiing, show shoeing, ice fishing, dog sledding and freezing cold temperatures all the way down to negative 35 degrees. Before departing, I stocked up on multiple, necessary undergarments, spending what seemed like an entire day at REI and Patagonia. — socks, smart-wool leggings, tops, sweaters, snow pants, hats, multiple gloves, balaclava and more. Thankfully, a friend who had recently visited Antarctica lent me her exceptionally warm down-jacket.
The Arctic region was everything I imagined: serene, quiet, desolate and, of course, covered in white. Pine trees were completely blanketed by thick layers of snow and often bent sideways from the sheer weight of ice and snow. After noon, the mere two hours of light dissipated, and brilliant stars twinkled across the black sky. It was during one of those evenings I witnessed what so many trek here to see – the Northern Lights, or the Aurora Borealis, a natural phenomenon that occurs only in winter. Massive green, purple and white plumes of light danced in the distance, inviting me to float up and join in. Viewing such a spectacular, unusual display of light and color was worth the deep freezing temperatures. I was mesmerized and felt blessed. Standing on the riverbank in the Arctic capital of Rovaniemi, I couldn’t help but want to pinch myself to prove that this was more than a dream.
The beauty made the bitter cold manageable — and thankfully, I managed not to freeze. Here is that “super-hero” skill that saved me: I experienced my first menopausal hot flashes ever that afternoon. I can honestly say the hormone-generated heat did the trick. About every 20 minutes, a rush of intensive warmth would radiate from my back to my head and face and then down my back again. Phew! Frostbite, averted. Plus, we caught about 20 fish that afternoon. This middle-aged (and now menopausal) woman could be a badass fisherwoman!
My second unique trip highlight was the evening I experienced the traditional Finnish Sauna. This was held at Rukan Salonki, arranged by Saunatour. Sauna is a regular Finnish ritual, and it’s the only Finnish word that is included in the English language. My hosts began with a history lesson, explaining that sauna is such a fundamental part of Finnish life that for centuries, birth took place in saunas since they were the cleanest parts of the home. The next two hours involved moving from a traditional smoke sauna (made from sustainable wood from local forests) to a steam sauna in an ice hut and back to the smoke sauna before finishing with a jump into the frozen lake. Typically, this is done naked, but my hosts explained I could wear a bathing suit if I felt self-conscious. Evidently many Americans do and wear suits. Me, being a newly-crowned badass, decided to go au naturel. When in Finland…
I went into water that was only accessible via a large hole cut in the ice. Keep in mind you have been literally baking your body in a very hot sauna and covered in sweat, so the thought of an instant cool-down sounds divine. Alternating between unbelievably numbing and exhilarating, it was like nothing I had ever experienced. One of the most fabulous effects was all of a sudden I didn’t need a bra. As I lowered my body into the icy water, by breasts rose up (almost to say to my brain, “Hell no, we’re not going down in with you!”). The goal of the plunge is restore your body temperature and flush out toxins that have been emptied from your body.
My ex was an explorer and often told me how I could never last on any expedition as I was a bit too “precious.” Little did he know…
At a time in my life when people assume women slow down, my trip to Finland gave me a boost of confidence. I’ve actually already started to plan a return visit if only to continue to test my fortitude for adventure; I’ve placed the South Pole on the top of my bucket list.