Fishing lines: It's the ice one - that's Marrttii

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The Independent Online
Next time you find yourself stuck in Helsinki on a snowy Sunday, while away a few hours in the Natural History Museum on Pohjoinen Rautatiekatu. Not only is it an educative experience, it will also tell you a great deal about the Finns.

You might wonder why I was wasting time soaking up culture when I could have been fishing. But I had gone there to deliver some writing skills training (hard to believe, I know) and I had not expected to have so much time free. Nobody had warned me that Helsinki is closed on Sundays.

In desperate search of amusement, I discovered that the Natural History Museum was open. Sadly, there was little of interest to anyone but the most ardent ichthyologist, except perhaps that the country boasts more fish beginning with z (zope, zlege, zahrte, zander) than anywhere else I know. The displays were a disappointment too. The museum's taxidermist was certainly not an angler - it seemed like he hadonly just reached chapter three of Taxidermy for Fun and Profit. The exhibits were supposed to reflect Finland's finny life, though I never worked out why a sailfish, more commonly caught off Florida, was there.

Perhaps the accompanying caption would have explained all. Unfortunately, it was in Finnish, which is not the easiest language to understand, being related only to Venusian. It is a bit like typing on an old Underwood, where the letters get stuck, aa bitt liikke tthiis.

The birds and mammals were more interesting. At some stage, probably in Victorian times, there was a Finn who was an absolute whiz with the trap, gun and garotte. Macaws, snow leopards, red pandas, orang utans, birds of paradise, giraffes, tigers: he'd bagged the lot.

The real highlights were the moose specials. The moose clearly holds a special place in Finnish hearts. So go along and marvel at a mirror surrounded by moose jaws, a table with moose legs, even a diorama of a badly smashed up car, with a battered, bleeding moose draped across the bonnet and coming through the windscreen. It's a fine advert for Beware of Moose When You're Driving.

Well, after that lot I could have done with a spot of angling, especially as Finland is home to the vendace. In the UK, this herring-like fish only survives in Bassenthwaite and Derwent water, but it is common in Finland and one evening, I ate vendace fillets for supper. However, my fishing enthusiasm was curbed by memories of my last Finnish exploits with a rod.

I had wanted to go ice- fishing, and heard about a competition in Oulu, about 100 miles from the Arctic Circle. A Finnish friend booked me in and I duly turned up on the day, walking out across the ice to the organiser's caravan.

"Hello, I'm from England," I said. "Where is the rest of your team and your hut?" asked a bearded giant, called Marrttii or something, looking out the window. As he spoke, a car pulling a hut on wheels drove past and disembarked six woolly-hatted Finns. I suddenly had an awful feeling that I had not entered a cosy little five-hour competition, but something more gruelling.

Someone who spoke passable English was found. He explained that I had entered The Finnish 48-hour Marathon Team Ice Fishing Championships.

Well, I gave it a go. But moon boots and an extra jumper were no protection against the bitter night temperatures of 20 degrees below zero. It was made worse by visiting the huts strewn across the water, all of which had fires burning, beds set up and booze flowing.

At just before midnight, I gave up before I became a permanent feature of the landscape. I had another go in the final few hours, but the English team of me finished a miserable last.

The Finns were very hospitable, keeping me in drink and food for the two days. I even won a prize, a wooden spoon with the Oulu name on it. But I will be very wary of entering any ice-fishing contest again. I came very close to ending up as a salutary display in the Helsinki museum.