The first time I … crossed the Arctic Circle in extremely cold weather!

When you have 10 layers – no kidding – of clothing on, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to know that manoeuvring in a tight washroom is extremely difficult.

In 2017, my husband and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary with a trip to Norway, Finland and Sweden to see the aurora borealis.

Although I had lived through sub-zero weather and snow before as a student in Canada (up to -4°C), experiencing an extreme -25°C was a first for me. How was I going to survive the next 10 days?

My husband, dressed comfortably in just three layers comprising thermal wear, sweater and jacket, laughed as I lamented my plight. I almost begrudged him his “natural insulation” as he is rather heavyset. I had on two sets of winter thermal wear, T-shirt, sweaters, cardigan, plaid shirt and winter jacket, besides my woollen hat, scarves, two sets of gloves, two pairs of thick woollen socks, two pairs of thick leggings, and waterproof boots. All that clothing must have made me at least 10kg heavier, but I still froze my buns off outside!

But with hopes of seeing the northern lights and other arctic adventures in mind, the cold became bearable. Thankfully, facing the freezing weather every day was not all bad.

It was also the first time we “visited Santa Claus”. At the Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, Finland, we saw St Nick, had his cookies and milk and took a picture with him.

There is also a post office at the village where you can send postcards or Christmas cards bearing the postmark “Santa Claus”.

This is also where we had the opportunity to cross the Arctic Circle at latitude 66°33’45.9” north of the Equator. This circle marks the southernmost latitude where the sun remains above or below the horizon for 24 hours, making it bright as daytime even at midnight. This phenomenon is why there is a “midnight sun” (during summer) and “polar night” (during winter).

It was also our first time on a reindeer sleigh ride which we did at the Reindeer Farm in Rovaniemi. We were all bundled up, and were even given special thermal suits to wear, but it was still freezing. It was so cold that my phone camera froze.

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It was worth braving the freezing temperatures for the northern lights.

We also got to feed the domesticated reindeer at the farm. Our guide was “Santarina”, who looked a lot like Little Red Riding Hood in her outfit. She served us hot berry juice and cinnamon cookies after our reindeer ride.

Did you know that reindeer seasonally shed their antlers which are collected and made into decorative items such as lamps?

In Norway, we visited the Snow Hotel in Kirkenes. Fronted by fjords and backed by the mountains and forest, it was amazing walking through the huge building made completely of snow and ice. It housed several chambers decorated in various themes ranging from Norwegian and Sami (the local indigenous tribe) folklore to modern fairytales and movies, all carved from ice.

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Braving the cold outside a log cabin in Kakslauttanen, Finland. Photo: Alex Moi

All the furnishings are made of ice, even the beds. There is no central heating or fireplace, but guests are equipped with warm thermal sleeping bags and some tips on how to stay warm against the interior temperature of -4°C. I was relieved that we were just visiting.

We then spent a night in a glass igloo-cum-log cabin in Kakslauttanen, Finland, where there was a fireplace. We tried out the smoke sauna but I skipped running outside during intervals to dip in the icy cold pool, or the milder version, rolling in the snow … which my brave husband did and survived!

The highlight of the trip was, of course, witnessing the aurora borealis. It was a magical experience, but I was disappointed that I did not have a DSLR camera – I only had my smartphone at the time – to take good photos of it.

Other firsts for us during this trip included trying out winter sports such as night-time nordic walking, snowboarding, snowmobiling, arctic swimming (thankfully with a thermal suit) off an icebreaker ship, and driving a husky-pulled sleigh. When staying active outdoors, it seemed less cold. And as my body acclimatised to the extreme cold, I started wearing fewer layers.

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The only way to swim in the freezing Artic Sea, was in thermal suits. Photo: Samantha Wai