Miriam Balance

A Journey to Equilibrium

Miriam Balance

The Joy of Missing Out or Whatever Happened to Lapland

Just a little warning:

You’re about to read an uncool story! It’s not the kind of story that deserves inspirational Instagram hashtags or that tells you to get out of your comfort zone more. It’s a lush winter story about owning your comfort zone and priorities; about creating the life you truly want even if that means being uncool or missing out on a big adventure.

For the fun bit: It’s also about living with a LOT of huskies, dog sledding in Lapland, ice hole bathing, naked snow angels, about a very Finnish road trip and about handstanding in snow so deep I buried my face in it when my hands touched the ground.

…said handstand.

On January 4th, I flew out to Finland with the best intentions of working at a Lapish husky farm until the end of April. My motivation to do so? Internal restlessness, a desire to prove myself, to work hard and maybe as a result feel somewhat less lost, I guess; a curiosity for the new, for an intense winter, a good challenge and a lot of dogs.

Some of the dogs waiting for clients at the start line

When I arrived at a seemingly small place between 10 and 11 at night, I was immediately issued a selection of ragged winter clothes: a salopette, work gloves, heavy duty mittens, snow boots, a big slightly worn and torn jacket. And after no more than five minutes, I was called back outside to witness my first northern lights! The slow blurry green streaks against the dark, cloudy backdrop were not at all what I had expected but there they were, unfamiliar shadows in the night sky, a promise of something more…

No snap of the nightskies, but the sunrises aren’t too shabby up north either!
After I saw this bus depart into the sunrise, I spent another hour and fifteen minutes simply standing (and later on jumping and dancing) outside in some -20°C… Side note: singing keeps you warm. So do star jumps and excessive swearing.

And something more the next day was! It started at around half five in the morning and went surprisingly well for the first twelve hours, considering the fact that I hadn’t slept more than 5 hours each the two nights before. Between feeding huskies, collecting their poop, trying to remember their around 180 names as well as the hundreds of different daily tasks, the time went by quick, until around 7pm I simply crashed and burned. The exhaustion and sleep deprivation were catching up fast and before I realised, I was dragging behind the volunteer assigned to train me, stumbling through the snow with my little shovel, unable to take in any more information or do much more than keep myself from keeling over.

This is one of very few pictures I got to take at the husky farm on a rare day off – homemade igloo and one of the sleighs before a safari.

When I arrived back at the guide house that night, I was in tears with exhaustion, urging the others to please ask me any questions after I had slept. I’m hardly a socialite at the best of times, and don’t handle people well when I’m tired. Thankfully, my mood improved significantly after I took some 20 to 30 minutes to myself to catch up on some handstands – suddenly, despite my fatigue, I was able to pike press! While it may sound strange to exhaust myself further at this moment, taking the time to keep up with my training was such a huge priority and the fear of my circus skill level decreasing throughout my stay felt much more unsettling to me than my body being a little overworked or tired. And after almost six hours of quality sleep, I felt surprisingly well rested and ready to take on the next day.

Arctic-ready with a big smile and all of the layers. Packing light-weight for arctic trips is near-impossible…

The morning went by quickly, sick dogs were walked around the house, I soaked my gloves and hands with a meaty soup during the morning feeding time and my fingers froze almost instantaneously. Then I collected I-don’t-know-how-many-kilos of dog poop before it was time to build the teams for a dog sled safari with the day’s clients.

When it gets too cold, sometimes the dogs get to wear coats as well. On the chilly days, they can get frostbite on their nipples or testicles!

To my great pleasure and surprise, I was asked to join the safari and sit in the guide sleigh for the 12km loop. While struggling a little to keep warm – I later learned that we’d had -25°C that day – I couldn’t believe the vivid colours of the sky, the joy and strength of the running dogs or the insane concept of traversing a lake that had frozen over so solidly that racing across its surface with some 10 or 12 dog teams and a snow mobile posed no risk at all. When our slightly overloaded four-dog team got tired, I was asked to board the snow mobile – an incredibly powerful cross between an amphibic vehicle and a fat winter motorbike. Even riding pillion felt thrilling and I was immensely grateful for my experienced driver. Despite her doubling as a handy wind shield, a cold, hard sensation around my nose and mouth alerted me to the fact that the rim of my Buff had frozen solid in less than a minute!

Somewhat further south of Lapland, the landscapes are still stunningly beautiful.

As there were not many safaris planned for the day, we had some leisure time in which Anna, the farm owner, taught the non-Finns how to cross-country ski – a tiring but pretty fun pass-time. I stopped counting how many times I landed on my butt before long…

I thoroughly loved my second day on the farm even though it was hardly shorter than my first and was quite bummed out when I was told that I would be transferred to a smaller farm some 150km away to settle in and learn the basics. The evening (or rather late night) programme distracted me from my concerns: Ice hole bathing was on the schedule! In spite of my hopes, it turned out to be exactly what you’d imagine it to be. Some time after ten, we drove to a small cabin nearby. A ramp behind the house, the handrail adorned with colourful lights, the whole set-up clearly designed for a courageous run-up, led to a hole in the thick ice of a small lake. A metal ladder much like those you’d find at a public swimming pool had been fixed to the side of the hole…

Sorry, no pictures of naked ice bathing – instead, here are some more magical Finish forests for you!

The sauna in the house pre-heated, we got ready, stripped down to our undies and went outside in groups between three and five of us at a time. The evening was warmer than the day and we were close to -5°C – unusually warm for the region and the season. The first girl went in, slowly, tentatively, and I could feel the cold creeping up my own body as I watched her growing discomfort, her breath quickening. And then, mere seconds after she had submerged herself fully, she was already running back up the ramp, towards the warm comfort of the sauna inside. While another one stood, still deliberating, unsure, I knew it was now or never for me. I climbed down the ladder into the ice-cold water, making my body move faster than my brain could protest. Before I could feel my lungs cramping up with the cold, I had already dunked my head under water and was running back to the house as fast as the ice underfoot would allow. Before long, after a beer in the sauna, stories shared and limbs thawed, the first girl to jump in turned her head and asked: Should we go again?

It was past one in the morning when we finally got into our bunk beds that night.

With the sun only rising above the horizon in the late mornings, we started working in the dark. The dogs were almost always excited to run.

Getting up at 5.30 after another night of next to no sleep came with its own set of challenges. I was grumpy, exhausted, my head was pounding and I was still upset about being transferred. Despite everyone telling me that the other farm would allow me to get enough sleep, that it would be easier to learn all the dogs’ names, that I would get to settle in faster, I couldn’t help but feel downgraded.

So the dogs’ fur doesn’t thin and they stay used to the conditions they are made for, they stay outside year round (unless they fall sick) – here a view of the dog cages in Yllas. Usually, they share their cage with one or sometimes two other dogs, according to their personalities. If not separated like this, there is a high probability that they would engage in fights to determine a hierarchy.

I was happy to find a small group of volunteers, plenty of safaris, only 65 dogs, and an amazing opportunity to practice my French with an overwhelming majority of the clients. Nonetheless, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this experience, this adventure, wasn’t what I craved. I felt like I was squandering my energy, my reserves, emotionally and physically, without the prospect of any long-term benefits (don’t get me wrong, that’s not to say I wouldn’t learn and grow here). The work was varied enough, the cold bearable, the dogs friendly… and maybe, at another time, a few years ago, when I had more to prove and had spent less time on the road, I would have stayed my time.

Maybe volunteering is a little like renting: You’re out there, paying someone else’s mortgage with your time, your work, your money, your resources and while it may be a nice place, a cool experience, you know it’s not your house at the end of the day.

Waiting at a bus stop in the middle of a rather chilly nowhere – if you look closely, you can already see the arctic mascara starting to build up!

While I’m still a nomad, my yearning for a base camp has been getting out of hand, my desire to find a more permanent community is driving me away from moving every other month and my love for circus and handstands asks for more of my time than a tired, stolen hour every other day. So when the opportunity arose, I decided to call it quits after little more than a week.

The important part is to forge your own path, follow your own heart. Somewhere along the way, handstands have become essential to my journey.

Needless to say that my decision wasn’t very popular with the lead guides but they handled it professionally, providing feedback and wishing me the best. Despite my impressions of the atmosphere in the team being a little tense, I was positively surprised with how they handled my departure. I had a very calm, honest conversation with one of the lead guides, took my part of the guilt – I needn’t have committed to an internship of that length when I had doubts and worries of my own to take care of – and took her feedback to heart: Quitting whenever it gets hard, that’s no way to go through life, it won’t lead you anywhere. I couldn’t agree more! So while I may sometimes impulsively decide on leaving one adventure and choosing another, my long-term path doesn’t change much. Here are some of the things I’m committed to: My body, mind and soul. Handstands and circus. Personal growth. Inspiring and helping others. Building instead of finding home. And making (sometimes uncomfortable) decisions in favour of those things doesn’t mean quitting whenever it gets hard. Often, making an active choice rather than staying in a less than optimal situation means quite the opposite.

Incredible wall-piece en route to Helsinki

And that’s how I ended up on a crazy road trip from Lapland to Helsinki with a new found friend on her own mission…

We started in Yllas at an outpost of the husky farm, continued onward to Kemi and I arrived in Helsinki Tuesday evening just in time for a night of quality airport sleep before flying to France in the morning. Time for the next adventure: seeing all four seasons in one place!

Christmas is over, and so is my unexpectedly short Lapland adventure. My journey and the handstands, however, continue and I couldn’t resist the urge to take a snap on the long way home, despite the tricky lighting in this tunnel.

So far, France is pretty awesome and today, I may already be signing a teaching contract with the local circus school!

Keeping you posted…

Traveler to basecamp – the never before seen sunrise-from-the-airplane snap!




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