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I was on my back, staring into a black sky, the moon ringed by a halo and a faint dusting of stars. I shifted slightly and clenched both of my hands, squeezing ice-cold water from my neoprene gloves. My toes felt numb and strangely foreign.
Back home, if someone had double-dog dared me to jump into a nonheated pool at the height of winter, I would’ve laughed in their face. (And I live in Southern California.)
Yet there I was on a bitterly cold January evening: partially submerged in 3-degree Fahrenheit water and floating downstream on the Kitkajoki River in Kuusamo, Finland.
Earlier, my guide with local tour operator Rukapalvelu had stomped through a layer of ice that capped Kitkajoki, thus creating a pathway into the water. With a wry chuckle, he recalled when the water was minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit during another Arctic river floating experience. I felt a rush of gratitude for our more fortunate weather and my marshmallow-like outfit, comprising a dry suit atop a thick winter suit, with several additional layers underneath.
Of course, Finnish people are no strangers to such weather — especially the some 15,200 residents of Kuusamo, a northern municipality about 37 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
Instead, they embrace their long winters and have dreamed up a miscellany of activities that bring Finland’s most unique attributes to the fore. And while the country is seeing an incline in U.S. visitors, Kuusamo has remained a delicious secret compared to the likes of better-known cities such as Helsinki, Turku, Porvoo and Rovaniemi, which periodically receive deluges of tourists. On a Sunday morning at Ruka, one of the largest ski resorts in Finland with a ski season that runs from October until May, there were hardly any other folks around (and, as a result, fewer crash-inducing obstacles on the trails). I flew down the thick-powder slopes faster, more gracefully and with greater aplomb than ever before.
Accommodations at the family-owned ski resort range from homespun ski-in/ski-out resorts — such as the aptly named Ski-Inn Hotel RukaVillage, where I rested my weary body for two nights — to the five-star, up-high Ruka Peak boutique property that offers a view of Russian territory on a clear day.
I cast wonder-struck eyes on Russia from another viewpoint: Kuntivaara, a 1,578-foot-high hill (Finland technically has no mountains) that provides a scenic, sweeping vista of Finland’s neighbor and former ruler. To get there, I steered a snowmobile with local operator Ruka Adventures, plowing through scenes resembling a larger-than-life Whoville (home of the Grinch) thanks to huge, snow-sculpture-like trees that staggered under heavy snow.
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During another adventure, this time at Kujala Reindeer Farm, my ride consisted of a sled and a regal crew of reindeer. In its fifth generation of family ownership since 1860, the farm is currently helmed by reindeer herders Juha Kujala and Jenni Marttila.
I took my reindeer sled ride in near-complete darkness and silence — save for a sliver of moonlight and the melodic resonance of hooves against snow — and then hand-fed dozens of curious caribou in the property’s corral.
But the ethereal appeal of Kuusamo extends beyond its lingering winter. The region — with its pine- and spruce-tree forests, many fells (high barren fields), three major rivers and more than 150 lakes — has a lot to give during other, albeit shorter, seasons, too. Spring and summer bring blueberries ripe for picking and the wild bears that love the juicy snacks; clients can book day tours with local operators to safely watch and photograph the animals from purpose-built huts. Further opportunities for stepping outside comfort zones include whitewater rafting, mountain biking, hiking, canoeing and more.
Only a day after I gingerly traded in my own comfort zone for the frosty depths of Kitkajoki River, I ventured even farther from any remaining cowardice. First, I basked in the surprising warmth of local operator Rukan Salonki’s ice sauna (featuring 24-inch-thick walls of ice), letting the steam melt my fear away. Then, I lowered my body into the mostly frozen nearby lake for a true Arctic dip — without hesitation and, this time, wearing only a bikini.
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The DetailsRuka-Kuusamo Tourist Association www.ruka.fi