Swimming Among the Ice Floes
Try to remember the last time you dug windshield wipers out from under thick ice, or hacked hard frost from the sides of an old freezer, or even chipped apart a stubborn ice block for cocktails. Now imagine riding an Arctic icebreaker, designed to ram and bash its way through a sea-wide sheet of frozen brine. To call the experience pleasant would be a stretch, but the sheer power of the operation, the infernal crunch and splash of ice disintegrating, and the bitter cold on your face does get your heart pumping. And that’s before you’ve dunked into the brutally frigid water below.
My Arctic adventure began in Kemi, a small Finnish town in the Lapland region on the Arctic Circle. In the middle of Kemi’s deep-water harbor, the Bay of Bothnia, an icebreaker called the Sampo lay frozen in place. We rode snowmobiles over the ice to reach it. Once aboard, we stood by the rail and watched as the boat’s massive engines revved and the Sampo slowly started churning through its frozen berth, cutting a path just wide enough to take us farther into the bay.
While the boat gouged its way through the ice, we toured the interior, checked out the massive engines that allow similar ships to keep Finnish trade moving during the winter, and learned how the Sampo works and how it came into the world. Built in 1920, it was used for nearly 30 years to keep shipping lanes free of ice in the northern Bay of Bothnia, at the northern reach of the Baltic Sea. Today, it conveys tourists from the middle of December through the end of April. A full-day adventure on the Sampo includes snowmobiling, the icebreaker cruise, and a reindeer sleigh ride. (You can walk away with a reindeer driver’s license after a bit of training.)
A nourishing Finnish lunch in the warm onboard restaurant prepared us for the sensory overload to come. By now the ship had plowed through enough ice that we could swim among the smashed up chunks. The crew positioned steps down to the ice, and the most adventurous among us, dressed in vibrant orange waterproof thermal suits, lowered into the 0° F (–32°C) water. At first we tried not to splash, but we soon gave up and got to experience the profound coldness on our faces. As we floated on our backs, laughing and splashing each other’s suits, other passengers strolled around ship. A few took turns riding a reindeer sled.
When it was time to go, we clambered back onboard in ungainly motions before taking off the suits. As the ship surged upward then back down to the sound of cracking ice, almost everyone was glued to windows or standing on the deck watching the Northern Lights color the skyline. Finally, we hopped back on the snowmobiles to head back to land.
Kemi affords year-round adventure—skiing, snowmobiling, dog sledding, and reindeer safari in winter, or fishing, river rafting, kayaking, trekking, and boating in summer. But for sheer rush factor, nothing beats a dip in the brackish Arctic deep. —LF
Visit Finland (www.visitfinland.com).
When to Go: Mid-Dec to late Apr.
Kemi, a 1-hr. flight from Helsinki.
$$ SnowHotel, SnowCastle Kemi, Kauppakatu 16 ( 016/259-502; www.snowcastle.net/en/snowhotel).