Magnetic North Travel’s philosophy cries freedom

Winter igloo village Photo: Magnetic North

“Wil-der-nessssss!” is the protagonists’ chosen cry of freedom as they lash through snow covered forests pulled by teams of huskies in Roddy Doyle’s superb children’s book called, aptly, Wilderness. Set in Finland on a family expedition it reveals a land of wild landscapes, ice covered lakes, remote forests, snow, snow and more snow.  As well as offering the usual Doylian jaw aching comedy juxtaposed with heart aching tragedy, this book captures the sheer exoticism of these remote places.  I am not a huge skiing fan, but this sort of winter wilderness is just what I seek in a winter holiday. So too is one new tour operator, Magnetic North Travel, founded by green travel writer and entrepreneur Laura Greenman (and no, her name is not made up).

I like companies that are based on a philosophy, and Magnetic North Travel was set up after Laura travelled extensively in Scandinavia, and discovered the Norwegian philosophy of Friluftsliv. Although this sounds more like something you might buy in Ikea, it actually translates as Free Air Living. And, unlike the Swedish indoor retail therapy, this philosophy is based on the idea that spending time outdoors, in nature, can really help us recuperate as individuals. This sounds like common sense, and it is, which begs the question-why is it more common for people to head to the plastic wilderness of Alpine ski resorts, cruise on massive liners around the fragile Fjords, or cram into Santa’s myriad grottos in Lapland?

Friluftsliv is about learning from traditions and discovering nature by using these traditions. Magnetic North Travel’s Autumn Bounty trip, for example, combines the traditional Northern Lights experience in Sweden with a day of foraging for wild berries, making and baking bread in traditional wood burning ovens, felt making, going on early morning wildlife safaris and sleeping in wilderness huts. All in the hands of an expert local guide.

Searching for the wilderness within Photo: Terje Rakke, Nordic Life

When the snow kicks in, you can head to Tromso in the North of Norway, not only to catch the Northern Lights, but stay in an ice hotel, go husky dog sledding, snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing. The joys of Magnetic North Travel is that it is small and sustainable, and they know their guides so well, that they can prepare a bespoke trip for you. Other options include saunas in the snowy wilderness, dips in an icy river, see the Northern Lights on horseback, in the snow of course,  ice fishing and wild ice skating. Or check out their Winter Solstice trip to Tromso in Norway, including all the aforementioned experiences being accompanied, as with all their trips, by guides for whom these activities have been at the core of life for generations. There is no set itinerary simply because, as Greenman states, ‘ we would like our guests to help set the pace from the start and to put the emphasis on being in nature rather than following timetables’.

You will find nothing but local food at one of Magnetic North Travel’s greatest finds – a hotel in the trees, located on a farmstead in a forest in the Unesco World Heritage site of Geirangerfjord.  Here, you can overdose on friluftsliv in a glass room suspended in the trees, allowing you to enjoy nature’s finest, day and night. Explore local environs on cross country skis, snowshoes, river rafts, or go climbing along dramatic ravines, salmon fishing and grouse hunting depending on the season.

A room in the woods Photo: Knut Snilling

And for those of you who would love to discover the Fjords, but couldn’t quite face those giant cruise ships, Magnetic North Travel has the ultimate in ecochic in the snow. An Arctic spa boat trip through the Fjords, where you can take in the views of the Lyngen Alps from the comfort of the onboard sauna. The boat sleeps up to twelve, so this trip can only be arranged for groups, but beats a corporate trip to a three star in the Trois Vallees, for sure. Here, you have an onboard chef serving local food, you can moor easily to have a day of skiing, with your personal guide taking you to the peaks and guiding you back to shore where you can freshen up in the deckside saltwater pool. You can also try a bit of Arctic fishing, a King Crab safari, reindeer sledding and whale watching on this trip. Friluftsliv is not just common sense cool, it is also one Scandinavian concept that is about as far from flatpack as you can possibly get.

An edited version of  this article was first published in The Irish Times

 

 

On a slippery slope

Ski touring with Wilderness Scotland
Ski touring with Wilderness Scotland

A long slippery slope should be a good thing for skiers. The environmental one, however, looks more like a rocky road to disaster than a fun day out on the piste. In the

Alps, as in many other mountain areas, the glaciers are disappearing at an uncomfortably rapid speed, snowfalls decreasing, and many resorts closing due to rising snowlines. Skiers are going higher and higher in search of perfect powder, with the United Nations predicting that Alpine snowlines could rise by 300 metres in the next fifty years.

 

Sadly, most people who don their skis in search of ‘pristine’ wilderness, are totally unaware that they play a huge part in the destruction of their beloved winter wonderland. Resort development has been virtually unstoppable over the last thirty years, with piste after piste being cut into untouched ground.  With lack of snowfall, thousands of snow cannons have been introduced to create it artificially, ejecting water droplets into the night sky (220,000 gallons of water to cover an acre), which then freeze and fall to the ground as snow. About half of this water comes from manmade reservoirs, the rest from rivers and local drinking supplies. With eighty million tourists visiting the Alps every year, compared with a resident population of around sixteen million, that’s a lot of adrenaline junkies’ habits to feed.

 

One international conservation group, Mountain Wilderness, describes skiing as ‘the cancer of the Alps’. The energy-eating water cannons, heli-skiing, or off-piste skiing are top sore points. Not to mention the vast amounts of CO2 from endless flights descending over this chocolate box scenery.

 

Keen skiers can do many things to reduce their personal impact. I struggled to find any Irish ski websites with ethical guidelines, but The Ski Club of Great Britain’s Respect the Mountain campaign offers many useful tips. From taking the train instead of the plane to not leaving litter on the slopes.  A dropped cigarette butt may look like it’s disappearing,  but it will be there when the snows melt, and still there five years later, which is how long it takes it to disintegrate. Water bottles take about 1000 years longer. It has a guide to eco-friendly resorts, including those with bio-diesel piste bashers, solar panels, use of biodegradable detergents, and eco-friendly water waste systems. (www.skiclub.co.uk). Ski journalist, Patrick Thorne, who has visited over 200 resorts,  also makes a passionate plea to protect mountain landscapes in his website www.saveoursnow.com.

 

Many companies are now offering low-impact winter holidays. For a Christmas trip to Lapland with a difference, try Aurora Retreat. They create an itinerary to suit your family, including cross-country skiing using traditional wooden skis, igloo-building (and sleeping), indigenous Sami activities such as felt making, and dog-sledging (www.auroraretreat.se).

 

Among the big operators, Neilson has one of the best responsible tourism policies. They use only locally-owned properties, and do not offer ‘all inclusive’ holidays, encouraging you to bring cash into the small rural communities. Responsible travel company Explore offers many low-impact ski holidays from Slovakia to Siberia (www.explore.co.uk), or for a winter-walking break in the snowy Scottish Cairngorms, learning how to manage ice axes and crampons, see Wilderness Scotland.

 

Anyone who has experienced that sensation of seeing the Alps for the first time, and almost weeping with the pure beauty of it all, must know that we have to do everything we can to preserve these mountain landscapes. By supporting some of the organisations above, you will add to the much-needed statistics which prove to governments and those who can help stop the destruction on a grand scale, that skiers really do care.

(This article was first published in The Irish Times, 4 October 2008)