I tried Finland’s art of inner strength with an off-season trip to Lapland

I stared at the hole in the ice. There was charcoal-black water beneath. The only thing motivating me to step forward into it was getting out of the biting -10°C wind. With a deep breath, I plunged in.

It burned. I let out a squeal. Then the burning turned into an electrifying feeling. I was full of energy and whipped around to admire the vast expanse of frozen lake that stretched to toy-sized pine trees and snow-capped mountains on the opposite shore.

So, what brought me – in my bikini – to a frozen lake just 37 miles from the Arctic Circle in the Ruka-Kuusamo region of Finnish Lapland?

Ruka-Kuusamo Finland Credit Harri Tarvainen Image via Rob Morris <rm@pc.agency
Taking dips in freezing lakes is a typical activity and can help to build resilience (Photo: Harri Tarvainen)

It was the volcano of tears that erupted after I dropped a bowl of porridge. I needed a break. A reset. For some reason, my ability to cope with setbacks – whether minor, major or oat-related – seemed to be the lowest it had been in a long time. Research suggests it is not just me.

One in five workers needed to take time off in the previous 12 months due to poor mental health caused by pressure or stress, according to a poll of UK adults by YouGov for the charity Mental Health UK. I decided that developing more resilience could help me.

Sinking into a wormhole of self-help websites, I stumbled across a Finnish concept called “sisu”. There is no direct translation, but it seemed to be akin to a strength of will and perseverance that Finns use in the face of adversity.

I made the decision to travel to Finland in search of sisu – and where better to start than Lapland, where, in winter, average temperatures are around -12°C and you’re lucky to get four hours of daylight?

The high season tails off in May – a five-night stay at the Rukan Salonki chalets (near Ruka village) is 50 per cent less next month compared with December – but many sisu-building experiences are still on offer.

Satu Palosaari the reindeer herder Ruka-Kuusamo Finland Image via writer Marianna Hunt
Satu Palosaari is a sixth-generation reindeer herder (Photo: Marianna Hunt)

On day one, I headed to Palosaari Reindeer and Fishing Farm to speak to Satu Palosaari, the sixth generation of her family to herd reindeer there.

While we ate creamy reindeer soup by the fire in her hut, Satu talked me through the responsibilities of a reindeer herder. They ranged from collecting enough berries and moss to feed her herd in winter to staying up all night during calving season to tag the new baby reindeer.

“Sisu is that feeling when somebody says ‘you can’t do that’ – so you’re determined you can. In the dark winters, when you’re so tired, that’s when you need it,” she said.

Satu believes it’s the hard landscape and weather that make Finnish people, especially Laplanders, so tough. It’s that same landscape that she loves.

A two-hour visit (€42/£36 for an adult) to the farm includes the chance to feed the reindeer and take them on a five-minute sleigh ride. After a brief driving lesson (“Basically if they don’t want to go, there’s nothing you can do”), I was handed the reins and zoomed off with my steed, Little Plaque, for a magical ride through the snowy pines.

Ruka-Kuusamo Finland Image via writer Marianna Hunt
A five-minute ride, pulled by a reindeer, is on offer at Palosaari Reindeer and Fishing Farm (Photo: Marianna Hunt)

I refuelled my reindeer with moss. Velvety noses bumped my hands as great tits and Siberian jays twittered in the background.

Over goodbyes, I told Satu I was heading to Pyhäpiilo Sauna for a steam, then a jump in the frozen lake (a traditional Finnish pastime). She laughed: “You’ll need your sisu.”

I did. Having used it all up with the ice-hole jumping, I lounged about in the jacuzzi, admiring the surprisingly bright springtime sunshine hitting the heaps of snow.

“April and May are a great time to visit [Ruka-Kuusamo]. You can still do all the winter activities – plus the weather is much better,” said Niina Lavikainen, who works at Pyhäpiilo.

I had been amazed how few people there were around. Except in restaurants and shops, I hardly saw other visitors. Because April and May are off-season, there are plenty of last-minute deals on accommodation – with companies often throwing in free activities for good measure.

The next few days were packed with sisu-inducing pursuits – from battling my squeamishness and spearing live worms onto hooks while ice fishing to cross-country skiing 4km to one of the highest points in Ruka-Kuusamo for 360-degree views.

Ruka-Kuusamo Finland Credit Salla Karhumaa Image via Rob Morris <rm@pc.agency
Cross-country skiing is another test of endurance, when snow allows (Photo: Salla Karhumaa)

What did not require much sisu was the food and accommodation. I gorged myself on tender-pink moose steaks in cognac-pepper sauce (€44/£37.50) at Riipisen Wild Game Restaurant and arrived at our chalet accommodation in Rukan Salonki to a feast of local smoked cheeses and zingy blueberry juice.

The chalet had an open fire and walls made of fat cylinders of whole log. Even better, Rukan Salonki was on the ski-bus route to Ruka village, where there are shops and restaurants (travel is free with a ski pass).

With every activity, the worries and stresses of work and home life slipped away. I realised the resilience found by facing the elements and your fears also gave a great sense of contentment (perhaps this is why Finns are consistently named the happiest people on Earth).

“You find comfort in your sisu,” Tanja Pohjola, who runs activity programmes for tourists at her husband’s family estate, told me.

“During Covid-19, it would have been easy to give up. But we negotiated with the banks, with everyone. We innovated and pivoted to domestic tourism.”

She had a kind, wise face – not the face of someone who cries over spilt porridge.

As I left, I thought about how I might recapture those glimpses of resilience and peace I had felt in Finland, from spending more time outdoors (no matter the elements) to replacing screen-time with physical exertion.

Of course, sisu is not the only concept unique to the Finnish language. The Finns also have kyykkyviini (“squat wine”, the cheapest wine in the shop, which is placed on the lowest shelves, so you need to squat to reach it) and kalsarikännit (“underpant drunkness” – getting drunk in your underwear with no intention of going out).

We all have our own ways of facing adversity. But I will save trying out those two for another time.

Travel essentials

Getting there
Fly to Kuusamo, via Helsinki, from London Heathrow with Finnair. Returns from £254, finnair.com

Staying there
Rates at Rukan Salonki for the Rukan Salonki 14 Villa, which sleeps 12, start from €1,304 (£1,113) for two nights between May and October, rukansalonki.fi/en

Rooms at Ski-Inn Hotel Ruka Valley start from €99 per night for two people, ruka.fi/fi

Further information