IoS/Bradt travel-writing competition: Cold discomfort in Finnish Lapland

In her award-winning story, Cal Flyn describes the harsh realities of breaking in fjord horses above the Arctic Circle

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The Independent Travel

The waiting room of an accident and emergency department is as good a place as any to do a spot of sightseeing.

Here in Ivalo hospital, in the far north of Finland, the staff, patients and interior décor provide a great insight into the minutiae of Arctic life. Men in heavy furs nurse arms in improvised splints. Sami women dangle infants in tiny balaclavas over their knees, as snow melts and puddles around their feet.

On the wall a colourful display of fishing flies is revealed, on closer inspection, to be a collection of foreign objects removed from patients. "Broken fishhook, pulled from eye," translates Satu. "Rusted nail found deep in flesh."

It's a lively place to hang out, but you really need a good reason to get past the doorman.

Myself, I am bent and perhaps broken. I have been trampled by a horse; stiff in the neck, sore in the back and bruised in the buttock.

It's as good a reason as any. Strong, blond Finns – with shoulders wide as Atlas's – nod almost approvingly as I hobble through their midst, supported on both sides and dressed in dirty salopettes. I have joined the club.

Finally. I've been in Lapland for four months now, working for my keep at a place where they mush with huskies and sled with the native fjord horses. It's a tough life on the edge of the world, in conditions so cold that the tears will freeze to your cheeks as they fall.

I've been finding it hard to keep up with the sheer machismo of it all. Guns? I can't fire them. Axes? Can't chop a thing. I don't ski, I don't hunt, I don't fish.

But horses: horses I can do. I thought it would be my way in, my one useful skill. I'd train willful Wilma, the stroppy fjord filly, to pull the sleigh, and that would be my in into Lappish society.

And so it has proven, although not quite in the way I was hoping. When you train a horse, they call it "breaking in". In this case, Wilma was breaking me.

It happened so quickly, I didn't feel pain until I found myself lying limp in the deep snow. One second we were calmly backing her between the traces, buckling the harness, stepping her forwards; the next was a tangle of limbs and yelling and the rushing and crushing of hooves.

Wilma panicked, I was told during the long and painful drive to the nearest hospital.

She bolted forwards, trying to shake off the sled, but as it was tied on tightly it kept up a close pursuit. I pulled at her bridle but only managed to swing her around to face me, before she knocked me to the ground and galloped over my body, pulling the sleigh across me for good measure.

Fjord horses may be short in stature, but they are strong. And heavy – half a tonne, at least.

When Wilma had finally torn off the sleigh and stopped – just short of the frozen lake, thank god, thank god, thank god – my friends ran back to check on me.

"I'm fine," I said, trying to sound casual. I was not fine. But I could roll over, very slowly. And, with a great deal of help, I could stand. I'd left a cartoonish imprint of my body in the drift, arms flung high, a snow angel in distress. But where my waist should be, deep tracks from the hooves and the sled.

"You were lucky to fall in the deep snow," said Erki, my Finnish boss, as I limped away. "The ice on the drive, here. It is hard as concrete. It is only inches away. Your insides, they would be very crushed."

After a three-hour wait at the hospital, the doctor agrees. There is blood in my urine, he says: my kidneys are bruised. But it could be worse. On the balance of horror, as Erki would put it, I have come out very well.

I return to the waiting room to await my prescription. Two men are pulling on heavy layers, ski masks and camouflage-print snowmobile jackets. They nod at me, almost in recognition.

The winner

Cal Flyn was named as the winner of the 2013 Independent on Sunday/Bradt Travel-Writing Competition at an awards ceremony on Monday at Stanfords travel bookshop in Covent Garden, London.

Cal is a freelance writer and reporter from the Highlands of Scotland. She spent last winter in Finnish Lapland, 300 kilometres into the Arctic Circle, training huskies and learning to mush. As part of her work she regularly encountered the local Sami people who continue to make their livelihoods from reindeer herding. She received the top prize for her story "In Deep Snow" (printed above). Cal's story was selected by a panel of judges from The Independent on Sunday and Bradt Travel Guides, and the prize was presented by Hilary Bradt and Simon Calder, travel correspondent at The Independent. Her prize was a week-long trip for two to Istria, provided by the Croatian National Tourist Office and the Istria Tourist Board (

The winner of the unpublished category was Lauren Hatch, a copywriter who lives in Brighton. Her piece "The Chase", about pursuing a bag thief through the streets of Hue, in Vietnam, won her a place on any Travellers' Tales writing weekend over the next 12 months.

Bradt Writing Workshop

For those interested in learning about the art and craft of travel writing, there are still a few places left on Bradt's annual travel-writing workshop, taking place on 22 September. The panel of experts includes Jonathan Lorie, director of Travellers' Tales, and The Independent and The Independent on Sunday's travel editor Ben Ross, who will be offering tips on how to get your pieces published (see