Finland: Shaken and stirred

Tam Leach confronts her fear of speed on a Bond-style snowmobile ride in Finland
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The Independent Travel

Forget Father Christmas and cute little reindeer: my Finnish experience was more like a chase scene from a Bond movie. Racing across frozen wastes in pursuit of Russians on snowmobiles, gunning it at 50mph above the Arctic Circle. It wasn't meant to be that way. I've never considered myself a speedster; I don't even own a car. Secretly, I'm a coward. When I do drive I keep to the speed limit, part of me still doubting my ability to control a fast-moving vehicle. On anything with a brake - mountain bike, bumper car, toboggan - I kill my speed as often as I think I can get away with it, the fear of going too fast outweighing the desire not to look like a complete wimp.

Our outing in Levi was supposed to be a sedate ice-fishing trip. "There is a short snowmobile ride to get to the lake, is that OK?" said the lady at the tourist office.

"Great" said Nat, a photographer, brightly.

"Um, sure," said I, the bubble of fear already rising. I would surely be exposed for the milksop that only I really knew I was.

"And everybody else in the group is together, but they say that it is fine if you join them. They are Russians."

Seventeen Russians, to be precise, and one Croatian interpreter. Hardwood floor salesman, brought across the border on a company jolly by their Finnish supplier. They peered at us curiously when we showed up at the Lapland Safaris office, intimidatingly bulky in the massive snowsuits that the adventure company provides.

Stepping into our outfits was like putting on an oversized baby outfit: a stiflingly warm one. Next came woollen socks, heavy-duty mittens, boots, scarves and balaclava. Last, a helmet. We waddled over to the snowmobile corral sweating, berating ourselves for wearing too many clothes. By the end of the day, we'd wish we had more.

Our snowmobiles seemed menacingly large. "Now, I know it's boring, but safety first," said Markus, the tall Finn leading the trek. "Too right," I thought, all ears, as everybody else shifted their feet, impatiently.

After instructions, we were allotted our steeds. Nat's camera bag is roughly half her size, and it was going to take all her efforts to stop the contents from smashing. Which left me in the driver's seat. At least, I thought, I had control of the brakes.

Around us the Russians squared up for pole position. Without exception, the few women in their number were relegated to the back seat. Great. Now I had our gender to represent, as well. Look, I wanted to say. I'm quite small, quite scared, and quite likely to mess this up, so if you could just anticipate that from the off, I'd appreciate it. But at that moment, our guides started the engines.

"Stay in line," yelled Markus over the roar of giant bumblebees, echoed back along the line in Russian by the Croat. "Make sure you leave enough stopping distance between you and the snowmobile in front."

Wait - he was going to let us go? Already? Didn't we have to do a driving test or something first? Couldn't we? Please?

No time. The machine roared underneath us, eating up the forest floor. Up over a rise, down a path through the trees, around a corner. We were probably topping, oh, 10mph, but my toes were curling in my boots, desperately holding on. Up ahead, one of the guides waved for us to slow down for a crossing. And then, to my surprise, I found that the sled slowed as responsively as it had roared to life. One of my little toes uncurled.

Out onto broad white plains, glimmering under the ethereal midwinter sun. "We can speed up, but stay on the right!" shouted Markus as the machine bumped and swayed along the groomed tracks. Tailing along at the back, I started to pull out to the left occasionally to avoid the worst of the ruts, thinking of the camera. Soon, I found myself pulling out more often, just because I could. As the minutes passed and neither of us were flung dramatically from the vehicle, I started to hang back just a little more, testing, oh so gently, how I felt when we accelerated to catch up to the rest of the group.

It felt pretty amazing. Almost good enough to opt for the fast team when Markus split us into two groups, although the bubble of fear inside disagreed. "We'll just... you know... the camera," I muttered, self-doubt holding out for the less demanding option. As the burliest of the hardwood floor salesmen roared off over the horizon, my emerging inner Jeremy Clarkson howled in disappointment. By the time we stopped for ice-fishing (unsuccessful) and venison stew, Nat and I were hanging back enough to hit 30mph on the straights.

Lapland Safaris is one of the largest adventure providers in Finland (not a huge field, it must be said). The company prides itself on adapting trips to "the needs of different customer groups." Excluding the namby English tagalongs, our customer group had obviously been evaluated as Russian and iron-willed. According to the brochure, the ice-fishing excursion could have included as little as 20km on snowmobiles, yet we seemed to have covered most of the 886km of trails around Levi before lunch. "No," said Markus, happily, "today we do just around 60km".

The pace didn't slow after the break. We shuddered up the steep trails around Levi ski resort, taking a moment to gaze out across the fells. Going back downhill was trickier, the machines fishtailing over icy patches; everyone, to my relief, using their brakes. Twilight was rapidly falling, and the falling subzero temperatures were penetrating our multiple layers.

After that, the flat trails seemed easy. The Russians gunned it through the dwindling light towards central heating, saunas and Schnapps. One last time, me and Nat hung back. "Ready?" "Ready." With 007-like determination, I gripped the accelerator and watched the speedometer rise as the Arctic winds whipped and dark forests sped past. Thirty, 40... and 50, freezing but elated. From neophytes to Top Gear in one bitterly cold afternoon: I may just break the speed limit yet.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

In December, charter flights operate from Gatwick and Manchester direct to Kittila - a 15-minute bus ride from Levi. During the rest of the year you will need to change at Helsinki. Finnair (0870 241 4411; www.finnair.co.uk) has connections to Kittila via Helsinki from Heathrow and Manchester, for around £286 return.

STAYING THERE

Apartment Hotel Moonlight (00 358 16 644 460; www.levi.fi/moonlight). All apartments have kitchens and private saunas; doubles from €85 (£60) per night.

SNOWMOBILING

In addition to trips around Levi, Lapland Safaris (00 358 16 654 222; www.laplandsafaris.com) also runs day programmes and overnight snowmobiling safaris in Rovaniemi, Saariselkä and Yllas. From €89 (£63).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Finnish Tourist Board (020-7365 2512; www.visit finland.com)

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