When I was asked to lead a trek for Barnardo’s in my role as an Ambassador, I had no idea of the exciting world of travel which would unfurl.
The choice of fund-raising adventures was a little overwhelming - from a trek in the Sinai desert sleeping under the stars with Bedouin guides, to following in the footsteps of escaping PoWs in the second World War on Le Chemin de la Liberte tackling steep, gnarly passes in remote areas of the Pyrenees.
More familiar challenges were on offer like The Great Wall of China or hiking high in the Andes Mountains in Machu Picchu, the breath-taking 15th century Incan citadel in Peru.
But the remote and peaceful beauty of the Arctic wilderness in Northern Finland caught my imagination. Just a few miles from the Russian border, and with temperatures often as low as minus 20, I decided to put an eight-man team through their paces physically in Hossa and go in search of the elusive Northern Lights. Friend and astronomer Mark Thompson joined me. So armed with our own personal star gazer, an abundance of protein bars, a plethora of thermals and a lot of enthusiasm, we set off on our journey.
Barnardo’s helped 248,000 families and young people last year. The thought of raising awareness of the incredible work they do for disadvantaged children and young people, as well as funds, was all we needed to spur us on.
Where we stayed
Home for our four-night stay was affectionately referred to as ‘the hut’. It was more of a basic lodge with real fires and small wooden bunk beds. Simple, clean and welcoming after a long day out in the snow and biting winds of the Suomussalmi municipality.
What to see and do
There’s so much to do in Finland, our days flew by. We began with cross-country skiing across a frozen lake. I’m comfortable on downhill skis, but cross-country was a whole new experience in sub zero temperatures and snow up to your knees. Suffice it to say our group was quickly strewn across the landscape.
We learnt the 5,000 year old ancient art of snow shoeing through deep powder in alpine forests. The silence was broken only occasionally by the howling of excitable huskies racing through the trees. Walking is one thing, but walking through snow a metre deep is quite another. Tiring is an understatement!
On return to base, we worked together to build traditional quinzees - igloos to me and you. It was backbreaking yet satisfying, but a skill I suspect I’ll never need back at home in Shepherd’s Bush.
On our last day we were taught to drive husky sleds, and travelled miles through forests and across acres of frozen lakes and swampland. Mark drew the short straw and had me as his partner. He looked distinctly nervous with me at the helm. The dogs were friendly, responsive and raring to go, all they needed were skilled drivers. Even without those, they knew exactly where to go.
The Northern Lights gave us a subtle glimpse of their majesty as we landed at Kuusamo airport but that was our lot. Each night we wrapped up and doggedly followed Mark in the pitch black as he ventured out in sub zero temperatures in search of this beautiful natural phenomenon. The Lights are visible when charged particles from the Sun cause gas in our atmosphere to glow but heavy cloud meant they eluded us. We were just as satisfied though with great views of the night sky and expert live commentary.
What we ate
Our food was simple and tasty. Hearty soups with Finnish rye bread, lashings of meaty stews like my Nan used to make and boiled or mashed potatoes with everything.