We had no snow in southern England this year. If there's one thing we feel deprived of here it's easy access to mountains and wilderness and extremes of weather. And really, for us to go two years without seeing snow would be like asking a bear to hibernate through the summer. Since we spent our February break on the beach, we decided we needed winter in April. And that's one of the beautiful things about living here: You can easily find yourself at the Arctic Circle after dozing off for a few hours on a plane.
We booked our trip to Lapland with a tour company for a change. After adding up the airfare alone for three seats to northern Finland, it was almost as much as the company was charging to fly us round trip from London, transport us two hours into the wilderness, put us up in a comfy room, provide two meals a day plus numerous snow activities - for an entire week. We didn't even have to bring winter gear. The place we stayed would supply us with multiple layers of fleece, outerwear, gloves, mittens and socks, hats, snow boots, thermoses, headlamps and knapsacks. Add to that the unlimited use of snow shoes, cross country skis, sleds, a hot tub and sauna and you start to think you should put someone else in charge of all you vacations.
The other reason we booked with a tour company was because they were running a Family Holiday. This means your activities are geared toward the kids and your companions are other families. I figured the kind of people who would book themselves on a holiday to the Arctic Circle in April would be people we'd want to hang out with. Up until then, poor Z was usually the only kid in the company of adults during our weekends. I was counting on this trip being mostly about him for a change. I was also hoping, just a little, that the adults would want to take turns keeping an eye on the kids so the others could do something at an adult pace.
With everything taken care of, we had only to get ourselves to the airport. On a Sunday it takes an hour and a half to get to Gatwick airport from St Albans. An hour and a half to enjoy the green, overwatered countryside; the sites of downtown London as the early light warms up her iconic buildings; the glittering glass construction of the developing south side of the Thames River. An hour and a half to blissfully amble toward the airport you think you're leaving from, only to puzzle for a moment upon entering the terminal that Finnair doesn't seem to be operating out of Gatwick that day.
A few nauseating minutes later we were all strapped into a black Mercedes taxi (close your eyes, Mom) flying at 85 mph up the M25 toward Heathrow where, my trip notes confirmed, we were due to depart in 90 minutes. The last time I experienced this stomach-dropping sense of panic tinged with hysteria (this is pretty funny, right Honey?) C and I had just bushwhacked for hours through the Patagonia wilderness and were still apparently no closer to our intended destination than when we started. That day we stopped and pitched up where we were. But today we weren't giving up. We had friends to make and kids to play with. We made it with time to spare.
We arrived at Basecamp Oulanka, just a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle, at midnight with a group 15 other bleary-eyed travelers. The reception and dining area were built of solid blond logs and finished everywhere in knotty pine. Twinkling tea lights graced the tables and window sills. A lazy fire licked the walls of a stone fireplace the size of a pizza oven. We were fed au gratin potatoes flavored with bits of elk then sent to bed in our wooden rooms with warm floors and views over the frozen lake.
But something was very wrong. There were no other kids. I told myself they must have come early and were already asleep. Or maybe they were coming late and would arrive the next day. I made up half a dozen scenarios as to the whereabouts of our holiday companions before falling asleep that night. The next morning the Basecamp people (not affiliated with the travel company) told me the two other families had dropped out over a month ago. I was so enraged I felt as though my buttons were popping and any moment I'd grow a unibrow and turn green. I went to lay down.
So there I was again, having arrived at one place when I should have been at another. I thought about catching the next plane home. I thought about hiring a lawyer and suing the travel company. None of my expectations of this Family Holiday were going to happen. I'd had so few expectations this year. I'd been happy to let life roll, take chances, set out without a plan (or the right airport information). Everything was new and fresh and unexpectedly delightful for the most part. Couldn't I, just this once, get what I was expecting - what I'd paid for?
I went outside thinking I would howl through our snow shoe tour and found C & Z attempting to have a snowball fight with the dry snow. They were laughing. Z threw himself into a snow bank and sighed "I love snow!" Apparently there wasn't a bone of disappointment in his body. I stood there clinging to my fury. I was irritated that my family wasn't going to join me in this anger stew. They actually looked as though they were having fun. Our impossibly cute Finnish guide Annika was waiting to take us on our private snow shoe tour. I closed my eyes and let my brain scream every bad word in every language and dialect I knew. I imagined packing the tour company into a big box of shit and nailing the lid shut. Then I did what I guessed any self-respecting, arctic-living Finn would do. I strapped on my snow shoes and got on with the day.