Floating houses, northern lights dancing across the sky, shamanic wisdom dispensed by the fire and endless trails crossing multi-coloured fjells: A bike tour through the resplendent fall landscape of Lapland almost verges on sensory overload.
Lapland might be better known for reindeers and the home of a certain Santa Claus, but if you love to ride through stunning scenery, then Finland’s northernmost region has a lot to offer mountain bikers. Gerhard Czerner shares his adventure through an autumn landscape rich with history and heritage.
Need to know:
- Location: Northern Finland
- Bike park: Levi Bike Park
- Trails: Natural, manmade and bike park
- Tourist board: Visit Lapland
- Events: If you want to spot the Northern Lights, the best time to visit is between September and March
Lapland’s sixth season with Gerhard Czerner
Ruska is the Finnish word to describe the spectacular natural fall phenomenon that transforms the countryside into an explosion of colour. This seasonal spectacle usually lasts about two weeks. Golden birch leaves hang from white, gnarled branches, a beautiful contrast to the flaming red carpet of blueberry bushes on the forest floor. The low-lying, late afternoon sun bathes the surroundings in a soft, warm light, further deepening the blue of the lakes.
This second summer is an unparalleled natural event in Lapland, and we were lucky enough to be there for one of these weeks. As soon as we left the airport, we couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the blaze of colours around us.
Fränzi and I, our mountain bikes carefully stowed away with our luggage, were en route to our accommodations along with photographer Martin Bissig, who wanted to capture this incredible season on film. On both sides of the road, we saw nothing but the rich colours of fall forests.
Here and there we caught glimpses of little settlements and their typical red wooden houses. “The colour originally came from the red oxide sludge left from the mine tailings. These little settlements usually consist of a few homes, a guest house, a bakery, barns and outbuildings”, explained Juha, our driver. “The reason they’re so spread out is so they don’t all go up in flames if there’s a fire. After all, we have enough space”.
His family has been living in the Levi area for over 500 years. Today, he and his wife, Heidi, operate a renowned travel agency, Polar Star Travel.
Our log house accommodations couldn’t have been more authentic. It was the perfect movie backdrop. The natural building materials exuded cosiness in every single room. It belongs to a family of hunters, as evidenced by the many pelts and antlers adorning the walls. In addition to a few bedrooms and a living area and adjoining kitchen flooded in natural light, there is, of course, the requisite sauna.
Saunas have a long history in Finland and are an essential component of Finnish life. “A house isn’t complete without a sauna,” Juha explained, laughing. “There are over three million in Finland!”
Afterwards we met his wife, Heidi, in the pihvipirtti, which means steakhouse. The old floorboards creaked as we stepped into the room. Floors, ceilings, walls, chairs. All made of wood. The counter, on which was spread a huge buffet, is made of natural rock. The ambiance was sublime.
Landscape, riding, and sublime food
Our supper marked the start of a culinary week extraordinaire. Vegetables, herbs and potatoes are grown right outside the door. Low levels of air pollution and the long daylight hours of summer allow plants to flourish. In turn, these healthy plants feed the animals, mostly reindeer, a staple food in Lapland. The meat is particularly tender, with a taste unlike anything we’ve ever had. Reindeer is served in any form imaginable: reindeer fillet, reindeer stew, reindeer burgers and cutlets, and even reindeer-stuffed elk. The creativity in the kitchen knows no bounds.
We didn’t have much time the next day to get warmed up. The narrow trail wound its way through dense forest, and after just a few minutes, it climbed steeply. We actually had to get off and push, and later, shoulder our bikes. “Who would have thought that we’d have to carry our bikes in this flat countryside,” I said, laughing.
We were biking along one of the many fjells in the area. Coming from the Alps, we’d call these hills. The treeless plateaus open out onto a magnificent view over endless swaths of land. Fjells come in all shapes and sizes and are the perfect destination for mountain bikers and hikers, as there are usually narrow, delightful paths that lead right to the top. Once we were in the saddle again, we headed back out towards the tree line. The colourful vegetation was smaller, the view extended further. “You can just look and look, for hours on end. And all those lakes!” Fränzi is thrilled.
We didn’t stay at the highest point for very long, as a storm was brewing in the distance. Thanks to the amazing view, we could already spot it on the horizon. We turned our bikes around and were happy to make our first descent in Lapland. The ground was really grippy, with the trail turning left, then right, here a root for jumping, there a technical challenge on steep steps – the trail was perfect, even if we still didn’t feel completely warmed up. We couldn’t help but grin when we came upon a rustic log cabin at the foot of the fjell.
The word “Shaman” was posted on a small, six-sided little house, so we knew we’d found the right place
Gratefully, we sank into the pelt-covered lounge chairs in front of the log cabin, its overly decorated exterior almost kitschy. Elk antlers, ancient skis, lanterns, strawflower bouquets – once again, we couldn’t help but think that we’d been dropped into the middle of a movie set.
Finland is also known for its coffee consumption, ranking first in the world, and our steaming hot coffee was served in a wooden kuksa. These cups, made with birchwood, are the traditional drinking vessel of the Sami, Lapland’s original inhabitants, and are still very much in use wherever we go. It’s as though the Finns have carefully thought out every aspect of life, because the architecture perfectly complements the dishes.
Saunas and bike park
The other thing they’ve carefully considered is how well damp, cold weather goes with saunas, as we find out on our visit to one of the many sauna parks. The sky was just starting to open up again when we reached the sauna huts located on the shores of a deep, blue lake. We sat on the generous wooden benches, sweating, enjoying the view through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The golden birch leaves were reflected on the choppy lake. “I couldn’t imagine a better way to end a day of biking,” I say, interrupting our silent reverie and pouring more water on the hot rocks.
Next on the program was a visit to the Levi Bike Park. The map shows 16 different routes or partial routes. It’s got everything, from easy blue trails to the World Cup Black trail. There are also two enduro routes that go around the park’s perimeter. The next day, the gondola takes us 310 vertical metres to the top. The summit station is high above the tree line and offers an impressive panoramic view of the surrounding landscape.
We were surprised by the diverse terrain in the park. From rough nature trails following shaped flow lines to challenging stretches featuring big jumps and wooden structures, the trails guarantee that bikers will have a great time, regardless of their skill level. We spent several hours having fun on the trails until our forearms were burning.
On the exciting red trail, aptly named “Santa’s Cabin,” we actually did come across a real movie set, a windswept cabin right beside the trail. This is where little Nikolas from the world-famous movie, Christmas Story, grew up. He would later become Santa Claus.
Dinner with the Shaman
Our evening was no less exciting than the trails in the Bike Park. For dinner, we went to see the local Shaman. The word “Shaman” was posted on a small, six-sided little house, so we knew we’d found the right place. These cabins, called kota, were originally meant to shelter hunters and foresters. They have a fire pit in the middle and now they’re often used as a grill cabin of sorts.
We had to duck down to get through the doorway, and the door fell shut behind us. We’d barely sat down when a terrifying apparition stepped into the room. After a ritual that includes the Shaman painting our faces with charcoal and poking a stick into the fire until sparks wildly fly up to the ceiling, the pelt-clad Shaman showed himself to be an incredible storyteller and cook. He filled the evening with exciting stories from Lapland’s mythology, all the while feeding us fish he had caught and vegetables from his garden.
We learn a lot about his family, and that he comes from a long line of natural healers. “Even now, many Finns live in tune with nature and feel the magic it embodies,” he told us.
On walking out into the darkness, we experienced our very own magic moment. The night sky was lit up with a display of shimmering lights. Shades of green and purple northern lights danced between the stars and were reflected in the lake. None of us had ever seen the northern lights. Of course, we’d hoped to see some, but we didn’t really believe we would.
It was truly a unique show.
Top of the World Happiness Report
Finland and its inhabitants exude a calm and serenity that was hard to ignore. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why it’s ranked at the top of the 2021 “World Happiness Report” for the fourth time in a row. We were happy, too. Happy about the many experiences over such a short time, and about the little trails that we took around noon to get to a husky farm.
Centuries-old fisher huts with densely overgrown roofs blended seamlessly into the landscape. The sense of urgency we’d brought with us had all but disappeared. We savoured every moment, giving ourselves time to take little breaks, and enjoy nature.
At Levi Husky Park, we finally fell head over heels. The trusting animals, with their dense fur and light-blue eyes were all it took to turn us into total Lapland fans. On a tour through the park, we fed foxes, played with huskies, and even kissed a reindeer. We’d already met lots of reindeer over the past few days, and we even saw a few of the rare snow-white animals. But we had yet to get this close to one.
We discovered many interesting things about this member of the deer family. “They can swim for many kilometres. They don’t drown because of their coat, which traps pockets of air, keeping them insulated and afloat,” explained our young tour guide. “Reindeer can change their eye colour. In the summer, when it’s light all day and all night in the high north, their eyes are golden, and in the darkness of winter, they turn dark blue,” she explained.
Our route back, naturally, took us past a sauna. But not just any sauna. This one was floating. The house is built onto a wooden platform that is kept afloat with large pontoons. Four outboard motors propelled the behemoth through the water. Inside, beside a large common area, there was a huge sauna with a woodstove. When we got there, smoke was already rising from the chimney. Three sauna rounds later, each followed by a jump in the lake, and we headed back. “This is so amazing,” Martin comments, with delight.
“What is it with the sixth season that I heard about?”
The bike tour on the following day took us to Rouvivaara, an expansive plateau 560m above sea level, and overgrown with moss. In our eyes, this doesn’t really seem like a big hill. But still, the wind blew in fierce gusts across the treeless plateau, and with the incredible panoramic view, the hill seemed much higher.
The trail was rocky in parts, making it tough to move forward, but otherwise it was a very well-balanced mountain bike outing and is imbued with that Lapland experience. Logs had been laid down side-by-side wherever the ground was soft and boggy, forming a rough boardwalk of sorts. We met a few hikers, but we were the only ones on bikes. The descents wind their way down from the plateau into the dense forest, where we saw tree trunks deformed into abstract sculptures by the wind and the weather.
Our tour started and finished at a lake called Hietajärvi. On our return, Heidi and Juha welcomed us into a half-open hut with a beautiful view of the water. A fire was already burning in a pit in the middle, and a whole salmon was being grilled on a board carefully placed by the fire’s edge. Potatoes were roasting in the hot coals. The delicious aroma wafted behind the hut, where we were busy stowing away our bikes.
“There’s always firewood here, and it’s open for use by everyone,” Heidi explained. “Many people come here, even entire families with kids. It’s a relaxed place for people to come together.” As the daylight faded, more and more stars appeared. It was with a hint of melancholy that we packed our things and made our way back late in the evening.
The sixth season
Another day on our bikes was awaiting us in the region around Ylläs. There’s a well-described, exciting network of biking trails here. Various rental shops, bike shops and restaurants round out the offering.
Only marked bike trails can be used in Palla-Ylläs National Park, while maps and information can be found in the tourist office. The routes are well signed and lead through gnarled, magical forests or up to the area’s fjells so that on some of the routes, a few hundred vertical metres add up quickly. We almost felt a bit exotic with our regular mountain bikes, as most people were riding fat bikes. These make sense, especially in the winter and on soft ground.
“What is it with the sixth season that I heard about?” I asked Juha on our last evening together. “The Sami, Europe’s only Indigenous Peoples, split the year into eight seasons. So in addition to winter, there’s also early winter and late winter. The same applies to summer,” Juha explained. “And ruska, fall, is the sixth season in the Sami calendar.” We agreed that these beautiful weeks fully deserve their own season, because biking along lonely paths through a light-filled, resplendently colourful forest on days like this truly is a magical experience.
Essential travel information
Want to recreate this magical Lapland adventure for yourself? Here’s all the essential information you need to know.
How to get to Lapland
Lapland is the most northerly region of Finland. By air, Helsinki-Vantaa airport near the capital city of Helsinki has the largest range of international connections. From there, it’s possible to take an internal flight to one of Lapland’s six airports. There are also direct flights to and from Lapland at certain times of the year. The Visit Lapland travel page has plenty of useful guidance.
There are plenty of sea connections to Germany, Poland, Sweden and Latvia, and from there drive, travel by rail or take a flight to Lapland.
Where to stay in Lapland
Polar Star Travel, who organised this trip, operate tours, specific trips and accommodation across Lapland. The Visit Lapland tourist board also have an extensive list of accommodation providers, from hotels to rustic cabins and even igloos.
Where to eat and drink in Lapland
There are restaurants and cafes all over Lapland, so finding delicious food won’t be an issue.
If you fancy stopping for coffee and a seat on those fur-lined chairs mentioned above, then check out Peurakaltio Cafe and B&B. If you would like to experience the magic of storytelling and a meal with the shaman, visit Lapland Shaman.