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The Arctic Cold

68° 56’ 59.568'' N 26° 37' 33.1824'' E

 Daniel Koh


 

This is an adventure to a natural world beyond the flow of time. A wild delight runs through my veins as I relish and bask in the wealth of nature. One’s restless human spirit is soothed through the wondrous sights of the great outdoors and the affinity shared between individuals with identical interests.

On a polar night, I landed at Ivalo Airport. Upon exiting the plane, my first breath had a cloud of frozen moisture that blew back onto my face in the cold, wintry night. Trickles of snow landed on my head as I lodged my footprints on to the snow-covered tarmac. Seated alone in the bus, excitement danced within my cells as I travelled to my final destination, a husky farm located on the southern edge of Finland’s Muotkatunturi wilderness.

It felt like desolation in Lapland. With about two people per square kilometre, people seemed to be in an enclosed realm. I have heard stories about the Finns being reserved and straightforward. But I am fine with that, as I too appreciate quietness. My concern was if I would be able to understand the culture on a deeper level given the perceived perception of the Finns.

Whilst waiting at the farm, suddenly the huskies around me started to bark and howl melodiously. As I turned my head, I noticed in the distance something that seemed like a grandeur arrival – a couple on a separate sled standing steadfastly gliding over the snow, together with their pack of huskies trotting with the snow spindrift rising behind them.

A firm handshake, followed by “Hey, can you get some water for the huskies and hold them in place?”

With a smile, “Yes, sure.” That was my first interaction with dog whisperer, Tinja Myllykangas. It was straight to work.

To the huskies, it seems that the word “rest” does not exist in their dictionary. They moan and howl in excitement to run again, they are happiest when working in the cold. Only a handful of huskies drank, the rest preferred to munch on snow. In a couple of minutes, they were off into the alluring Arctic wilderness. They showed no signs of fatigue, pure happiness to run all over again.

As they disappeared into the white horizon, wilderness guide trainee, Erika, helped me settle down into the wooden cabin where Tinja grew up as a kid. As I closed the first front door of the cabin, I was immediately deprived of sight, it was pitch dark! As the second door opened, it got a tad brighter, “uh huh”, I said expressively. It was still relatively dim. Only after we have lit the cabin with candles, the surroundings become much more visible. The cabin was filled with a woodsy pastoral fragrance, with furniture, appliances and decor that told tales. It felt nostalgic and special. With a smile, I thought, this is my home for the next three months.

It was late when Tinja and Alex were done with the routine chores. Under the star speckled sky, we all had sausages skewered on to branches over a campfire and we talked – at that point, it was more about me and less about them. It was not long before the description for the Finns seemed to be true. It was painfully challenging to have a deeper conversation with them; it felt as if there was an invisible barrier between us. Given it was the first proper connection, I took it with a grain of salt.

As I was about to make my way back to the cabin, Alex told me that the Northern Lights were dancing against the starry sky. When I looked up, I was awestruck. The green and yellow rays moving in perfect unison felt like a performance orchestrated by the gods. I marvelled at Mother Nature’s unique performance and felt akin to a mere speck in the galaxy. It was magical.

Back at the cabin, Erika mended the wood-stove and I helped chop a small heap of firewood to help last the night. The bone-chilling cold was something I was not used to, especially after transiting from a tropical climate in Singapore to the Arctic cold in less than a day. With layer upon layer of garments including a down jacket, I tucked myself into my sleeping bag that was oddly cold, and thought to myself, this marks the start of my three-month experience with Tinja, Alex and their animals. With excitement running through my veins, I curled myself in the sleeping bag, hoping to contain as much heat as possible. As the clock ticked, I slowly transited from the racing thoughts running through my mind to the dreams found only in my curious and inquisitive mind. 

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On the southern edge of Finland’s Muotkatunturi wilderness, dog whisperer Tinja Myllykangas and professional musher Alex Schwarz live in perfect solitude by the river’s edge.

Their family includes 6 horses (2 Icelandic Horses and 3 Norwegian Fjord Horses and 1 Yakutian Horse), and 85 huskies of different breeds (Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Huskies, Greenland Dogs and, Wolf Dogs). During my three weeks stay with them, there were 7 new-born puppies added to the family.  About a quarter of these dogs were either rescued or given to Alex and Tinja, after various problems with their previous owners. They give the dogs a second chance at being treated fairly and a second shot at a happy family.

Tinja, 33, grew up on the southern edge of the Muotkatunturi wilderness with her family since she was 8. The Myllykangas family lives without any electricity or running water. They rely on a wood stove for heating and cooking, and candles as a source of light. Their unique Laplanders’ lifestyle requires making a hole on the surface of the frozen river every winter, where temperatures can plunge to below -40 degrees Celsius at times, to collect water for the day’s use.

Even from a young age, Tinja learnt to be independent and unyielding in the face of rain, shine, or snow. As a child, she would often have to walk to the nearest town, 20 kilometre away, to get groceries from the market, when her mother was away. If she was lucky, she would be able to hitch a ride from passing vehicles, but on most days, the journey was done on foot. On winter days with heavy snowfall during winter, she would have to clear the snow on the 1 kilometre long road leading from the main road to her home, armed with nothing but a shovel. Tinja recalls, fondly, how these chores benefitted her physically, such that she was even stronger than most boys in her school. In her free time, Tinja would look after the animals that she reared, or visit her neighbours’ dogs. Her mother gave her the autonomy to have any animals or pets, as long as she could take responsibility for their care. This taught her many important survival skills, that lent her in good stead for the future.

Much later, when Tinja was in her teens, she moved to the city of Jyväskylä to study Biology. She spent 6 years struggling to adapt to life in the city before, feeling distressed, she answered the call of the wild and returned to the one place she could truly be at home — the Northern Lapland. Even till today, the solitude of the wilderness, its tranquil, almost dream-like state brings peace to Tinja and is a place where she would go in search for answers. Tinja later enrolled into The Nature and Wilderness Guide School. Having grown up surrounded by/in the wilderness, she faced little difficulties with the school curriculum. In fact, the teachers were so impressed with her survival knowledge and skills that they exempted her from most of their lessons.

In the spring of 2014, Tinja met Alex Schwarz at a dog sledding race in Norway, and the couple hit it off from then.

Alex grew up in Austria, but moved to Finland with his family to run a small private hotel near the Paljakka Nature Reserve. Alex was an originally professional cross country skier, but decided to switch to dog sledding when he was 19. At that time, a friend in Austria wanted to give away some huskies, so Alex and his family took them in and transformed them into a dog sledding team. Alex’s love for the sled grew with each passing day, till eventually, he put a stop to his professional skiing career and focused solely on dog sledding. However, his love for races did not desert him, and he started participating in dog sledding races. To Alex, the result of the race is irrelevant. Rather, the full experience of enjoying new landscapes, testing his skills, character and, understanding and caring for his dogs, is where the true thrill and excitement lies.

Alex used to live in a small town at the edge of the forest. But deep down, he had always wanted to experience living in the woods, and never imagined that one day he would meet a woman like Tinja. After hitting it off with Tinja in Norway, he, along with a few of his racing dogs, moved to Northern Lapland to join Tinja by the summer that year. Realising the dreams that he had, Alex adjusted to the minimalist life very easily, and finds more satisfaction in this lifestyle.

Both Tinja and Alex benefited from living together. Prior to meeting Alex, Tinja led a busy and hectic lifestyle with her animals. Alex introduced the idea of a slower paced life, focusing instead on the balance between work and life. This brought Tinja a more tranquil and peaceful state of mind. On the other hand, Alex gained a better understanding of the dogs and learned to live in the moment and enjoy the wonders of life in the wilderness.

The couple loved their dogs deeply, and gave unbelievable levels of attention and care to their dogs. Tinja summed up the relationship between the couple and their animals aptly, when she joked, “I even share my thoughts and feelings to the huskies instead of him (Alex)”. The chemistry forged between them and the dogs is infinite.

Their livelihood depends through a dedicated dog sledding business that Tinja has been managing for the past 11 years. They divided the workload between them such that Tinja looks after the Siberian Huskies, Greenland Dogs and Wolf dogs, while Alex cares for the Alaskan Huskies. Unlike other commercial sledding businesses in central Lapland, the couple offers a more demanding and authentic safari experience. Visitors have to meander and traverse through the untouched wilderness of Northern Lapland, mushing through deep snow, and having lunch over a campfire in the woods. Their business is well supported by the closely knitted local community. The food for the dogs are supported by the local fisherman and reindeer herder, who were touched by the rescue efforts that the farm provides to mistreated animals.

To some, Mother Nature is the best artist in the universe and the earth is her canvass. While the living conditions in Northern Lapland may be too extreme and isolated to others, to this special couple, this lifestyle of experiencing new moments and to embrace what they have right then and there, makes them feel alive. This life allows them to fully embrace Mother Nature’s masterpiece, and brings utmost happiness and inner peace to them.

 
 

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Every morning, I would walk in solitude onto the frozen river to draw buckets of water to prepare the meals for the huskies. The deep silence I never knew existed was only interrupted by my footsteps planted into the snow and the clanging of the metal water buckets. The way the ice crackled with every knock onto the ice sheet and the sound of the water rushing into the metal buckets accompanied by the creaks and groans of the frozen surface marked the start of each new day. I remember Tinja mentioning, “... by having to go to the river and scoop a bucket of water, you feel connected with nature, you know it is real and you treasure every drop of it.” With a pause, she carried on, “I am not sure if the water the people get from the tap is ‘real’ anymore.”

Life is stuck between twilight and darkness. From time to time, I would pause partly because of the frigid temperature, but also to enjoy the vast chasm of ethereal beauty, the glowing rays of polar night light above the horizon. It appeared as though Mother Nature had opened her bosom and whispered, “Come and peer into me.” In the background, you hear intermittent howls of the dogs echoed into the abyss.

On the first week of my stay, the temperature hovered between -17°C to -23°C. On the same week, the temperature plummeted down to -37°C for two days. On one of those two days, while on a dog sled ride, I deemed there was no need for a balaclava. It was a bad decision and I paid for my naivety with mild frostbite on my nose.

According to Tinja and Alex, it has been an unusually warm winter. After the first week, the temperature became relatively warm but was still well below freezing point, and only a handful of days where it went below -15°C.

In the battle against the cold, even with layers of technical gear over me, it was still sporadically freezing at times. And even though I worked my hands and toes to keep the blood circulating, my extremities still became numb and I felt the stinging cold all round. I would regularly return back into the cabin and stand with my hands over the warm wood stove.

Dog sledding is a chosen lifestyle by the individual and it is not as dazzling as the media seems to portray. It is indeed beautiful in all accounts when you are out in the wilderness driving the sled with the huskies. Behind the scenes, activities remain unseen and unheard of by the public. Taking care of huskies and horses proves no easy feat, especially with the Arctic cold. But there is great satisfaction being with the animals; their jovial spirits lift you up emotionally and spiritually. It is not for everyone but it is definitely for those who love the outdoors and animals, and maybe a simpler life. 

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Completing the work tasked was not an issue at all, but what got me was something unexpected. My intention of taking the initiative to help, or a simple action thought to be in goodwill turned out otherwise, I was being reprimanded, sometimes in a demeaning way, and it felt gut wrenching. But I cannot deny the fact that there were times when there was a misunderstanding that caused the unnecessary reprimanding.

Through the lessons learnt, it was important for me to know and to learn that a simple action may derail a lifelong effort to train or teach an animal, especially so, when close to a quarter of the huskies were adopted. With them being as protective as a mother is of her child, it was only natural for one to be protective. From then on, I respected and I learnt how to approach this unique environment differently, but it was probably a little too late...

On a cold wintry evening, I was invited to have dinner with them. As the conversation progressed, my intuition sensed that my days were numbered. Based on the questions asked, indirectly, I knew they wanted me to leave the farm. But I was puzzled by one particular statement: “Actually, we do not need any help at the farm.” In that moment, I thought to myself, why even accept my request to help for three months then? It is a complex situation that till today, it still confuses me. The initial plan to live this unique lifestyle for three months turned out to be only for three weeks. It was a ticking time bomb until the day I was asked to leave. With this hunch, I was crestfallen, but this taught me to live and make every moment count.

To experience that, and having heard that the Finns are recognised as reserved and straightforward, I consider their behaviour as a trait of the Finns’ personality (this is not a stereotype or a criticism). However, with every passing day, I slowly got to know them better. Through my own analysis, I could finally understand the reasoning behind their personality and behaviour, which I respected. 


 
 

Portraits of Siperia Lapponica Farm


 
 

The next day, with the harness in one hand, the huskies’ tails wagged and they sprang about, the farm buzzed to life and in an orchestrated sequence and, the barks and howls of the dogs sang in perfect symphony. Adrenaline and joy ran through their veins as if they are high on dopamine.

I slipped the harness through the head, followed by the legs. The huskies were eager and excited to run; they have such great vigour in them, and with the pull of a single husky, the surge was not what I had expected. While it may appear desynchronised to an outsider, the barks and howls of the dogs are the right response to the activities that the couple sets them out to do. The only thing between them and the wilderness is a rope and a stump.

As Alex and Tinja trailed off respectively, with a single pull of the rope, the sled was released from the holding point. With me, I had six huskies, a mixture of adolescents and adult huskies pulling.

The excitement and endless barking and howling of the huskies immediately transited into the soothing sounds of the huskies panting, trotting, and the sled skating above the snow with intermittent soft breeze of the wind. In that moment, my mind felt composed and at peace. Nevertheless, after a couple of hundred metres, I was required to deal with a completely different situation...

As I meandered through the undulant ground of the Arctic forest, the sled glided and bumped beneath me. In fear of losing control of sled, with strong focus, I gripped the handlebars tightly and actively transferred my weight across the sled in a bid to stay balanced. Through it, I felt every fibre of my being vibrating. It was a tense, yet energising moment.

As suddenly as the forest began, so does the trees ended as we left the forest. Out from the forest, the sled traversed across numerous frozen lakes and barren lands covered in ice and snow. With each turn of the compass, frissons of excitement ran through me and I was increasingly impressed by the alluring beauty of the Arctic wilderness.

Slowly, the distance between me, Tinja and Alex soon began to grow. In an attempt to chase, time after time, I shouted “mennä” (go), hoping to spur some motivation into the huskies to keep up. To ease the load, I ran together with the huskies. With every push into the snow, I noticed a little slack on the ropes, and I reckoned it was just enough to give the huskies a little breather. Together with the physical exertion, I began to feel warm all over again. Unfortunately for me, it was not the kind of warmth I could enjoy amidst the frigid temperature. It felt stuffy under the layers of gear.

In the distance, I noticed Tinja and Alex had taken a slightly different route. The voice in my head wondered, how can I command the huskies to veer left? With the Finnish word for the command lost in my semi-panicked state, it took me countless times of shouting “left”, but I don’t think the huskies understood. Eventually, I put the brakes on, the huskies turned around and in that instant, I pointed to the desired direction. While modulating the brakes, and constantly pointing and shouting left, slowly I somehow managed to get the lead dog, Inari, to turn left. “Hyva,” (good) I grinned and shouted. I was so delighted and proud of this small achievement

Life is absolutely beautiful and painfully complex. To travel by sled, it allowed me to ponder the meaning of life. It left me with a bond to nature and set the tone for me to think about who I truly am and what I can be. It allowed me to reconnect with myself, to feel at ease with myself through the thoughts gathered in my mind. It was a spiritually liberating experience, one that I thought I would never experience on this dog sledging ride.

Time passes quickly in these wintry lands. With peach-pink wisps of clouds like a cloak, a lustrous orb of blazing flames hovered on for a brief moment, then sank in steady motion beneath the horizon. On the sled, a sense of serenity flew by and made my heart stop for a second. I was mesmerised in all entirety. Later, the sky was filled with brilliant hues of crimson with hints of the bluish grey of the forthcoming night sky. Before I could register the darkness, sequinned silver stars appeared and winked at me.

As if greeting us upon returning, the remaining dogs at the farm begin to bark and howl as we approached the farm. Once at the farm, love and recognition is given to every dog that participated in the ride. One by one, the dogs are released from the lines and slowly trot back to their home, only to cuddle with their friends on a small haystack or in beautifully built kennels. 

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Pockets of free time are spent making sure the cabin is warm and making a warm meal or beverage. There are limited distractions. Yes, there is your phone, but also the challenge of conserving its battery as there is limited access to electrical sources. The only source I had were the portable batteries. What I found the most intriguing and relaxing way to spend the free time was to sit facing the open wood stove and gaze at it. The firewood crackles in the corner akin to natural music, the flames licked at the wooden logs and the smell of burned logs filled the air. With this perfect silence, a sense of perfect tranquillity encapsulated me.

Duties around the farm continued routinely, and time passed on quickly. On the third week of living between twilight and darkness, I sensed that something was different, and with every breath, it became more prominent. With an ice-crusted beard, I was suddenly confronted by a warm sensation splashing across my face from the beaming rays of the sun. I immediately stood facing into the sun with eyes closed and basked in the glorious warmth. For me, it felt invigorating. I believe, for nature, it was a reawakening from the long and cold polar nights.

Until one day, on a ride with Alex, he broke the news I anticipated – I had to leave. In a nutshell, he mentioned that Tinja was feeling stressful with my presence. The next morning, as I was saying my thank you and goodbyes, I recall fragments of it. She told me if she needed to interact with people, she would not be here. She liked nature and being on her own with the animals. With that said, I respectfully left the farm on good terms.

As I recount the experience of my three week stay with them, as to Tinja and Alex, I rediscovered what it means to live in the moment, to feel alive and to embrace the freedom of being emancipated from the unorthodox values and lifestyle of an individual living in a metropolis city, even if it was only for a few weeks.

In these harsh conditions, I learned to be where I am and be comfortable with the things around me. It was enlightening to face a new approach to life.  I also learned the true meaning of living a life based on essentialism; it is mentally and spiritually beautiful. From these experiences, I learnt to be grateful for the moments in time.

With my departure in the days ahead, I was blessed to meet people with great personality and heart in Finland, and many friendships were forged along the way. Although I had to cut my trip short, I still managed to have an adventure of a lifetime with a Finnish photographer and her friends in Karigasniemi. It felt it was a plot crafted by the hands of the Gods. It was a blessing in disguise. I am grateful for the experiences that the destination has brought me. Life is a rollercoaster, and I attribute that to the beauty of life.

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