Last Friday I awoke thinking, "What am I doing? Why am I going to spend the night in a Finnish hunting cottage that has no electricity, no heat other than a fireplace, and no running water?" I had serious second thoughts about joining Sirpa Karkkainen and her class of student teachers on this excursion away from Joensuu. But Sirpa, with her charm and her lovely sense of humor, told me about it and giggled as she spoke about what the experience would be to us - I couldn't turn her down! She talked about experiencing the winter as the animals do and learning how to appreciate how difficult it is to survive the long winter months. This experience should help teachers understand the value of immersion into the an environment and how to use this as a tool to engage thinking and learning. She talked about sleeping on the floor in a cottage whose only heat was from the fire we would take turns stoking throughout the night, and about the dead animals that hung on the walls and stared down at us at night as we slept.
At noon on Friday, the 16 or so of us met in the parking lot outside the Educa building at the University of Eastern Finland and packed up the vans to go. I had my belongings in two separate bags, but most of the Finns came with sophisticated backpacks and equipment, along with cross-country skis, boots, a sled, and food and equipment for cooking. I brought lots of warm clothes, some sticks (ski poles with large baskets) and a pad to sleep on (thanks, Tuula), and some sandwiches for the afternoon. Sirpa was bringing us food, sleeping bags, and some skis and snowshoes. We piled in the vans and off we went.
Sign for the Hunting Cottage
It was a beautiful day and not too cold - about 5C, and it took less than an hour to arrive at the hunting cottage. We were all pleasantly surprised to see that the cottage was much nicer than any of us had anticipated! There was the main cottage on the left, a woodshed, a wooden house for a fire and singing and cooking sausages, a sauna building, and a first-class outhouse.
Heikki, the expert biologist who met us at the cottage had kindly arrived the day before, and realizing the cottage temperature was -10C, began the fire almost 24 hours before we arrived. By the time we got there, it was 12C, a warm 50 degrees F or so. Very comfortable.
There was a lot of bustle and activity inside the cottage with us organizing our equipment and then everyone was gone - this is not uncommon when you don't know the language! They had shared some information in Finnish but of course I didn't understand it - but now everyone was outside getting on their skis and snowshoes and preparing for a three-hour nature experience with Heikki. I found my snowshoes, got them attached, and off we went. I didn't know we were supposed to bring snacks and drink, but I was on my way with the group.
We found some adult moose tracks, and some young moose tracks - both a few days old based upon the freshness of the tracks in the snow. There were tracks of shrews and martens, mice, and then... a hole about the size of a softball where a grouse flew - dove - into the snow to make a safe home for the night, and then markings were it had flown out the next morning.
We also saw some moose "beds" where the moose had clearly bedded down for some rest, and some plant tops that had been eaten as the moose browsed their way through the young forest.
Our dinner was pasta made from hot water from a packed mix, a welcome treat after time in the forest, and two small sandwiches. We stoked the fire but there was a problem, the cottage was filling up with smoke and it wouldn't be safe to sleep in such a smokey environment - we may never wake up if we fell asleep in that room.
Some of the students went down to start the fire for the sauna - it would take a few hours to get the room warm enough for the sauna, and other students shoveled snow into plastic bins to use for washing. The women would go first and then the men, and if you know anything about Finnish sauna culture, it is typical to go naked. For Americans this is a shock, I know, but to the Finns it is no big deal. They were more concerned that there were a few sticks and needles in the melted snow water!
A Finnish Sauna
While we waited for the sauna we sat around one of the tables (family-style) and looked at cards showing the wildlife and their footprints from the local area. It was all in Finnish and it gave us a good chance to talk and discuss and laugh together as friends. Some were riddles and some made you compare and contrast different imprints in the snow. I was quite impressed with the group of young people who would soon become Finnish teachers.
We reluctantly let the fire in the cottage burn out, bundled up, and hoped for a night that didn't get too cold. The animals on the walls didn't look too scary and we all settled in for a night's sleep. Some of the young men decided to sleep in the house shaped like a tall yert - wooden with a big hole at the top to let out the smoke. Unfortunately, the hole in the top also let out all the heat. The men were very, very cold when we saw them in the morning and it seemed to take them hours to warm up completely.
We each came to the cottage with an idea about a project we wanted to think about - these were mostly primary school student teachers so they worked on projects that could use with their students - for example, "How do animals move in the snow?" Or, "What plants are living under the snow?" Or, "How does sound differ when you stand in the forest or out in a clearing?" My question was, "How does the stress of the cold affect human behavior?"
I interviewed student teachers, others took videos of themselves pretending to be animals moving through the snow (on feet, on hands and feet, or crawling - they were hysterical to watch), others took the shovel and dug deep into the snow to see what was living beneath the snow (these student teachers seemed to get the coldest), and we all took many, many pictures. Sirpa was, as always, calm and pleasant and so pleased to have everyone have this experience.
There were several aspects of this trip that made it wonderful - we learned about nature and how to engage our students in the winter environment and we because closer as global teachers. There was also a student teacher in the group from Spain, and she was interesting to talk with, as well.