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Jet Skiing to the Island of Horses

Usually, if someone mentions horseback riding, it brings to mind rolling hills in the country and river crossings at the base of epic mountains; it makes me think of being out on my own in the country. One thing I can categorically say I did not think of, prior to my trip to Rovaniemi this summer, was jet skiing.

Me on a Jet Ski

Cruising down the Kemijoki River in Rovaniemi on a jet ski. Thanks to Marko Junttila for the fantastic photo.

However, that’s exactly what Access Lapland offers — a jet ski and horseback riding trip. And why not? The horses live on an island in the middle of the Ounasjoki River just north of Rovaniemi, so the easiest way to access them is by water; add to that the fact that jet skiing is one of the best ways to get your adrenaline pumping on the water and you’ve got an intriguing day trip.

I have to admit that I wasn’t sure what to expect when I showed up to the office that Access Lapland shares with Arctic Safaris on Koskikatu in the centre of Rovaniemi. In particular, I had no idea how I should dress for both a jet ski and horseback ride.

Calm Water on the Kemijoki

Perfectly calm water on the Kemijoki.

Luckily, Access Lapland has all of that under control, since they are one of the few companies in Rovaniemi that specialises in summer activities. In a region that has snow on the ground for six months of the year, it’s not surprising that people tend to focus on snowmobiling and other wintry activities, but it was great to see a company that was excited about getting out on the water after it has melted.

As soon as us three jet skiers suited up into multi-purpose clothing — water-resistant sailing pants and a waterproof jacket, with a number of layers underneath for warmth — and had been given a run-down on what we’d be doing, we were off, skimming across the quiet Kemijoki River.

Horsing Around on a Jetski

“Horsing around” on a jetski. Thanks to Marko Junttila for the fantastic photo.

The water was perfectly calm, the water that wakeboarders live for. Everything on the riverbanks had a twin in its reflection. It seemed a shame to be bursting into such a quiet scene, leaving a churning wake behind me, but at the same time, it was so much fun. The wind whipped through my hair and the speedometer crept upwards as we turned at the confluence of the Kemijoki and Ounasjoki, headed for the island of horses.

The day before, I had cruised through the islands of the Ounasjoki in a traditional longboat. Like many things in Finnish Lapland, it had been about going slow, relaxing, and taking in the Finnish nature. I had thoroughly enjoyed that trip — and the visit to a traditional artisan workshop at Atelier Kangasniemi that followed — but it felt a world away as we skidded across the shallows and dodged the occasional low branch.

Jet Skiing Through a Channel

Into a shallow channel between the islands of the Ounasjoki and the shore.

In what seemed like no time at all, we arrived at our destination, where a herd of tall, golden-brown Finnhorses and their carer, Minna, greeted us.

While it may seem odd that there is an island full of seemingly wild horses in the middle of a city, it’s not what it seems. These horses, while allowed to roam free on the island during the summer months, are owned by a local family that kindly took them on after their owner passed away in December 2014. Luckily, the new owners were still happy for Access Lapland to take care of the horses in the summertime so they could continue their horseback riding programs.


Sälli, the Finnhorse that Minna rode.

I was surprised to find out that Minna was not actually one of the horses’ owners; instead, she was an adventurer who had previously crossed Europe with her two rescue dogs in a VW bus and was now living in a tent on the island for the entire summer.

While I didn’t envy the idea of living outside in what would be one of the worst summers Lapland had experienced in a long time, I was envious of how well she had managed to disconnect herself from the rat race while still being in the biggest city in Lapland. She treated the horses like her babies and I could see how much she loved them from the moment I set foot on the island.

Horse Reflections

Perfect reflections in the Ounasjoki as we went horseback riding across the island. Thanks to Marko Junttila for the fantastic photo.

Unlike Minna, who climbed onto the back of her horse in one fluid movement, I felt ungainly and awkward as I tried to get myself into the saddle. Even once I was there, I felt out of my element. I’ve never done enough horseback riding to feel completely comfortable on a horse, and this horse, Purje, had no bit — something I had always had on previous rides. Even though she seemed to be calm and easygoing — a trait shared by most Finnhorses — I wasn’t entirely sure that I would manage to stay seated.

My fears turned out to be unfounded. I managed to stay put and slowly gained confidence as we walked across the flat grasslands of the island. Then, the horses in front of me made a sudden right turn and strode straight into the Ounasjoki River, which was still swollen with meltwater from the winter’s above-average snowfall.

Horseback Riding Across the River

Horseback riding or swimming? Thanks to Marko Junttila for the fantastic photo.

Without hesitation, Purje followed right behind them, and soon my stirrups were dragging in the water. Our small herd — all of the horses without riders had followed along with us — was crossing a small channel to the next island over, but I think the depth of the water surprised them.

As the water crept up my legs and lapped at my knees, Purje began to struggle. When she seemed to lose grip on the muddy ground and decided to swim instead, I contemplated jumping off and swimming too; however, I decided I was being ridiculous when I looked around and realised no one else was fazed by the idea of going swimming on horseback. Eventually, Purje’s flailing legs found solid ground and we climbed onto the banks of the other island unscathed.

Rolling in the Mud

Of course, the first thing you must do after a long walk is completely coat yourself in mud.

Our return crossing wasn’t nearly as daunting, especially since Minna gave me a few tips on how to control a horse while it’s swimming (and seemingly completely unconcerned by any of my commands). By the time we returned to the camp, I might have even been game for another go-round…if there hadn’t been a campfire with sausages and warm tea waiting for us, that is.

Tea Time

In Finland, a hot fire and a cup of tea are never very far away.

As we sat around the campfire, chatting away and watching as one of the jet ski guides played catch with Minna’s dogs, it felt much more like I was at a gathering of friends rather than on a tour in a foreign country. We chatted about work, wakeboarding, and Rebel the philosopher dog.

I started to regret having to move on from Rovaniemi in a day’s time; if I’d had more time, I would have happily booked a morning of wakeboarding with Access Lapland. While it wouldn’t have been quite as cool as their “Arctic wakeboarding” — a trip they do when the rivers are just starting to freeze, and as you wakeboard across the thin ice, it cracks in your wake — it would have been fun to go for a ride in such a completely different setting to the Brisbane River where I usually ride!

The Arctic Circle

Standing on the Arctic Circle on the island of horses.

After a quick walk to the Arctic Circle — which crosses the northern end of the island and is marked in Finnish as Napapiiri — we were off again. This time around, we were in no rush, and I was given as much time as I wanted to do a few tricks in my jet ski. I wasn’t exactly pulling off flips or anything, but it was fun trying to do 360º turns and other acrobatics that my previous jet ski tours had explicitly forbidden.

Overall, my trip to the island of horses was an incredibly memorable day. It took two seemingly disparate activities and joined them into one tour that, rather than feeling disjointed, flowed together perfectly. Plus, it would have been hard not to enjoy the trip, given how excited everyone else around me was both about the summer opportunities in Rovaniemi and about the horses in particular. So, if you’re looking for a unique way to enjoy summer and explore more of the Rovaniemi region, I would look no further than Access Lapland.


Sälli having a well-deserved snack after fording the river twice.

I went to the island of horses as a guest of Visit Rovaniemi, but all opinions stated in this piece are my own. Access Lapland offers the “Island of Horses” tour from 1 June – 15 September. It costs €110EUR/adult and €60/child (ages 8-14). While in Rovaniemi, I stayed at Ounasvaaran Lakituvat — rural cottages in the heart of Rovaniemi. You can read about my winter experience in these cottages in my previous post, ‘A Taste of the Wilderness in the Middle of Rovaniemi.’

Thank you to Finnair and Europcar Suomi for their sponsorship on this trip. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to explore nearly as much of Finnish Lapland as I did.

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