Friday, March 11, 2016

Snowmobiling in the White Hell

I'd forgotten just how much driving these things can take out of you in an afternoon, but they're still an awful lot of fun, writes Brian Byrne.

It might seem so in the movies, but there's nothing smooth about piloting a snowmobile across hills and through forests, in my case close to the Russian border with Finland. They bounce, they buck, they pull at you on the turns, they'll throw you like a bronco if you don't pay attention. My arms and shoulders will tell me all about it tomorrow. But they certainly get you to where the best views are in this part of inside the Arctic Circle.

That said, it'd be very easy to get lost here, and I was very glad to be following a guide who knew where he was going. A wrong turn, or lose him, and they wouldn't find me until the summer. Keeping up with him was tricky, but I had to, because my first place in the convoy was to make sure that those behind me got the various signals he made relayed to them. He came looking for me after the drive, told me I was 'one hell of a driver'. So apparently I'm not over the (snowy) hill yet …

It's not as cold just now as the first time I came to Lapland, maybe 15 years ago. It's around -6C rather than the -27C it was then. Still, you tog out in Arctic gear when you do a snowmobile expedition. Boots, thick socks, insulated coverall, balaclava and a crash helmet in case you come off against a tree or electricity pylon — which are all you see for most of the afternoon. Though we did stop to see some reindeer very much in the distance at one point.

This is the northernmost area of Finland, Ivalo airport is the most northerly commercial one in Europe. The ski resort nearby, Saariselka, is also the furthest north in the world, apparently. It has a normal permanent population of 200, but with 20,000 hotel beds filled at the height of the season. So, a lot of empty properties in the middle of summer, and a big cohort of seasonal workers at peak times to cater for the people using those hotels in the ski season.

Just to set why I'm here, I spent a long morning driving cars in snow, and on ice — including an ice lake — getting a feel for some new tyres by extreme tyres specialist Nokian. They invented the original winter tyre, and they've been testing their products, and their competitors' ones, on a special testing ground here for 30 years. They call the place the White Hell, and they slogan their products as 'Northproof'.

We don't have a need for their tyres in Ireland. But anywhere that gets serious winters are a big market for Nokians. So most of the guys here with me were from Eastern Europe.

My stories on the tyres will be in my automotive outlets. I'm only mentioning it here to show that there are some good reasons why the Diary might occasionally have to take second place in my day.