Swim the Arctic Circle: the plan that didn’t go to plan travelling in Finland 🇫🇮 and Sweden 🇸🇪

Yes that’s right, this was the plan that didn’t go to plan… but it’s a happy ending thanks to three groups of strangers. This was a trip for restoring faith in humanity.

My destination was Juoksenki in Finland – where the 3km Swim the Arctic Circle event start line was. The finish was in Juoksengi on the other side of the water in Sweden. Yes the place names are very similar.

The event would not just see me swimming across the border but also finishing the swim before I had started it in the midnight sun… No, I didn’t have a time machine, but I would cross the time zone between the two countries. I would just need to finish the race within 1 hour to accomplish this.

The journey

My journey started from the UK from London Gatwick airport flying with Norwegian Air International to Helsinki airport. I then took a train from the airport to the city centre and enjoyed what Helsinki had to offer for a few hours.

I then took a night train from Helsinki Helsingfors railway station to Kemi railway station in the north. This was operated by Finland’s national railway company, VR, departed the station at 23:13 and arrived at Kemi on time at 09:20 the following day. The train was made up of comfortable, modern double deck sleeper carriages and sported a shower at the end of the carriage exclusively for sleeping car passengers as well as an alarm by your bed to wake you up.

Sun setting over Helsinki railway station and the VR night train to the north

Upon arrival I walked around Kemi, a very quiet town but nicely set on the Baltic sea. I then caught a bus to the airport and awaited the arrival of my friend Louise who flew into Kemi Airport shortly after my arrival.

The plan was to take out a hire car that Louise had booked months in advance before the trip and drive up to Juoksengi. However, our problems started when we found that to take out the car hire we needed a credit card with the driver’s name on. Louise was driving us – I don’t drive but have a credit card! This still wasn’t enough for any car hire company – except for Sixt who could put me down as an additional driver for an extra fee but then we found they didn’t have any cars available. We had considered all sorts, could we get Louise a credit card or could we get a train somewhere else to get a car?

We were able to catch a bus to Haparanda which was on the Sweden:Finland border but there was no public transport available to travel further north than here. We still had 95 km to travel to Juoksengi!

One step at a time. We were on the move from Kemi!

So we put together a board for hitching a lift.

Louise holding our sign ready for hitch-hiking

But this didn’t get us far, we had no success on the roadside.

Having a break from hitch-hiking

In hindsight we should have realised that most people wouldn’t have known where Juoksengi was and that would explain some of the strange looks.

Anyway we were able to use the Swim the Arctic Circle Facebook group (for participants of the swim) for our cry out for help. As a result one top bloke called Sven promised to come down and collect us from IKEA in Haparanda – our first legend who then gave us a tour of the area and showed us some viewpoints.

We were on our way but found we were actually pushing it for time. We arrived at the Svanstein Lodge where we had booked to stay so we could check-in and drop our bags. Sven dropped us off and we had said our goodbyes.

We walked to the reception area and it was closed. We were wondering what to do and found a group from the Henley Swim Club who had also come from England.  We explained our problem to them and they had told us that our lodge had been given to another group of people at the last minute by the owner. Much to our horror we called the owner and she agreed that we could knock on the lodge door after the swim and the other couple would “probably let us in” and use another bedroom – this was the bit that was supposed to go right…

We had no choice at this point but to carry on, the swim was in a couple of hours and we were still miles from the start line. The group from Henley Swim Club kindly allowed us to leave most of our stuff in their lodge and they drove us in their coach to the start line (our second legends). What a relief, the swim was happening for us.

While we were travelling I was thinking about what to do on the way back the next day since Sven wasn’t able to help us further. I had tried to call some taxi companies but had got stuck – some didn’t speak English and others said Juoksengi was too far away for them to travel to pick us up. The Henley Swim Club had a Finnish guide with them, our third legend. The guide spoke on the phone and arranged a taxi for us to Övertorneå where we had worked out there was a bus south to Haparanda.

So after Flight > Night train > Bus > Bus > Sven’s lift > Henley Swim Club’s impromptu pick up we made it to the start line.

The Swim

The swim itself was incredible – what a beautiful location. As a result of a dry summer the water levels were low however. This meant that in places, while swimming, there would be rocks in the way. One rock mid swim meant I had to climb onto it and jump back in the water!

After the tiring journey I had somehow managed to complete 3km in less than 1 hour meaning I had made it before midnight. I had started the swim on 15th July and finished it on the 14th July. What an incredible journey to the start line and it felt great to celebrate the swim result with the hot tub and Finnish sauna at the end while our arrangements were in place to get back home.

The Henley Swim Club team drove us back to the lodge. We managed to get into the lodge, but no bedding had been provided at all. This didn’t stop us being exhausted and putting our heads down for the night.

The journey home

Our taxi arrived after four hours sleep to take us to Övertorneå. We then waited for the bus to Haparanda. I had decided to go home a different way via Sweden so I was travelling solo back.

I boarded another bus to Luleå and then took the SJ-operated night train from Luleå station to Stockholm Central station staying in a 6-berth couchette. The train was very old and had no air conditioning so it was a warm night. Interestingly the locals I shared the room with kept opening the curtains that I had closed so I had to sleep with a t-shirt over my head. Is it normal for Swedes to sleep with the curtains open in the land of the midnight sun?

The following day I awoke to a full day in the beautiful island city of Stockholm (thanks to the great time efficiency of night trains).

Stockholm Central railway station
Changing of the Guards Stockholm

Then it was time to fly back to the UK courtesy of Norwegian Air Shuttle from Stockholm Arlanda airport. What a weekend.

Norwegian Air Shuttle from Stockholm Arlanda to Manchester
FIP Rail Staff Travel FacilitiesPublic Fares 
(purchase online at VR and SJ)
Helsinki to Kemi with VR sleeper trainSeat
Lulea to Stockholm with SJ sleeper trainNot availableSeat
*each way based on a return. Fares updated April 2020

This article was first published in November 2018 and updated in December 2019.