Lapland, Finland

I have decided to go on another trip to conclude 2013. Destination: Lapland. Finnish Lapland to be exact. A week that will be all about by snow, reindeer, huskies, relaxation and a guaranteed white Christmas. And hopefully I get to see the Northern Lights.

Lapland is the area in the north of Finland, Sweden, Norway (and a little bit of of Russia), roughly between the Arctic Circle (66 degrees northern latitude) and the North Cape (71 degrees northern latitude). The original inhabitants of this area are the Sami, a nomadic people who kept reindeer as their main source of income, but they now make up only 7% of the population. Lapland covers approximately 300,000 square kilometers and only 900,000 people live in that vast area (for comparison: about 450 people live per square kilometer in the Netherlands). I will be staying in the village of Kittilä, about 150 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle.

The disadvantage of charter flights is that they often depart at impossible times. My flight to Kittilä leaves on Sunday morning, December 22 at 5:20 a.m., so I’m at the airport at 3:00 a.m.. The flight only takes two and a half hours. Usually I don’t sleep on a plane, but this time I doze off and don’t open my eyes again until the pilot has started the descent. Kittilä airport is small and has one runway. From the plane you immediately step outside, in the middle of a completely snow-covered landscape. It is 9 a.m. (one hour later than in the Netherlands) and it is still dark. Because it’s Polar Night, it won’t get light(er) until 10 a.m. (more on that in a moment).

Jussi from the tour company is already waiting for me in the arrival hall. It is only a five minute drive from the airport to the hotel. Only 3,500 people live in the village of Kittilä, while 6,500 people live in the region of the same name (on no less than 8,000 square kilometres, which is less than one person per square kilometre). Kittilä consists of one main road and a number of side streets. The hotel where I will be staying for the next week looks okay; it has a bar, a restaurant and wifi so that’s all good.

This week we will stay in the hotel with two groups: one group of nine people led by Jussi and a group of seven people led by the Fleming Geert. I’m in the second group. Because the others arrive on later flights, I have time to take a look around the hotel. I walk along the main road of Kittilä (Valtatie) and I try out my camera along the way. A snow-covered landscape and low light means I have to adjust my camera’s settings, especially white balance and light sensitivity.

Above the Arctic Circle in the weeks around the shortest day (December 21), the sun does not rise above the horizon. This is called Polar Night. The opposite happens in summer: during Midnight Sun the sun does not set for the entire 24 hours. During the Polar Night it is not as dark (black) as in the middle of the night, it does get light during the day, but only a bit, like a kind of twilight because, the sun remains below the horizon. The days are short: it is only light between ten in the morning and three in the afternoon. It is now almost noon and it has become quite light. It is cloudy and there is no sun, but there is enough light to have decent visibility. A bit like a very cloudy day in the Netherlands. And the light that is there is reflected by the snow.

At noon we receive an explanation in the lobby of the hotel about the activities we can participate in this week. Next, we’re going to try on our gear. We get a wind and waterproof overall, warm gloves and boots and extra thick socks. After this I am ready for some food and I go to the lunch buffet. After lunch I sit down in the lobby to read. When I look outside at 3 p.m., it is already dark…

Cross-country skiing

While Norwegian Lapland has a temperate climate due to the influence of the sea, the weather in Finnish Lapland is more extreme: in summer it is sunny and warm, in winter temperatures can be below minus thirty degrees. The landscape also varies: Norwegian and Swedish Lapland are mountainous, Finnish Lapland is flatter, with forests, plains and lakes. It is a vast landscape with only a village here and there. These villages are generally not very notable. At the end of the Second World War, the Germans burned down all the villages here and the Finns rebuilt them with little imagination.

Our first activity this week is cross-country skiing. After breakfast, Geert gives us our cross-country boots and skis. It’s my first time on skis, but you quickly get used to dealing with those awkwardly long things. Although I have to admit that after twenty meters I am on my ass in the snow for the first time. And that will happen a few more times… If you look around you or are just a little too overconfident, you will fall over. And getting up is quite difficult with those long things under your feet. It makes for a lot of fun along the way.

Cross-country skiing itself, on the other hand, is not that difficult, anyone can do it. It is strenuous, at least if you want to speed up a bit. A track has been made in the snow that runs through the snowy surroundings of Kittilä. Everyone keeps to his or her own pace and if you are alone for a while, it is dead quiet. It is about five degrees below zero, a pleasant temperature to be outside (I don’t know if cross-country skiing is fun at -20…) and there is no wind. And the cross-country skiing itself will warm you up.

We ski for about two hours and are back at the hotel at 1 p.m.. I quickly take a hot shower and then have lunch. Just like yesterday another excellent buffet. After this morning’s strenuous workout, I relax with a book in the lobby for the rest of the afternoon. After dinner I go for a beer in the hotel bar. It is half past eleven when I go to my room. I think tomorrow I will have muscle soreness from cross-country skiing…

Reindeer and radioactivity

Lapland has long been a disputed territory for its raw materials and access to northern ports. In the Middle Ages, Norway-Denmark and Sweden-Finland battled for control over the area inhabited by the Sami. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Finland (until then part of Sweden) was annexed by Russia, only to become independent a century later, in 1917. The changing balance of power and the accompanying changes in national borders limited the Sami in their freedom to travel with the reindeer. Subsequently, Lapland had a hard time during the Second World War; Finland fought alongside Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union.

But perhaps an even bigger disaster for Lapland was the explosion of the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl in April 1986. A large part of the radioactivity that was released ended up in northern Scandinavia. The soil became radioactive, contaminating reindeer meat and making the meat impossible to eat for a long time. Large numbers of reindeer were killed as a precaution. This was a disaster for the Sami: their income depended on the reindeer. To this day, the reindeer in Lapland are still given pills to counteract the radioactivity in their blood.

Speaking of reindeer… On day three of my stay in Kittilä we visit a reindeer farm. So after breakfast I put on my overalls and put on my boots. At 10 a.m. we leave for the reindeer farm in Torassieppi, twenty kilometers north of Kittilä. Here we make a trip of five kilometers in a reindeer-drawn sleigh. The surroundings are beautiful, but the sleigh ride itself is not very exciting. Afterwards we get an explanation about reindeer and the use of their skin for making clothes, shoes and hats.

Today we have lunch in a so-called ‘ice restaurant’, a restaurant built entirely of snow and ice. Inside, the walls feature beautifully lit sculptures of carved animals, plants and even a Santa Claus. What a job it must be to make the sculptures; every spring the ice cream restaurant melts and at the beginning of winter it is rebuilt again. It is nice to have a look around, there is even a chapel made of ice and there are also some rooms where you can spend the night. We eat at tables – made from ice, of course. When we drive back to Kittilä, it starts to get dark again. So it must be almost 3 p.m.. The rest of the afternoon and evening I spend reading and eating and this time I go to bed on time.

Christmas on a snowmobile

It’s a distinctive way to spend Christmas: on a snowmobile in the forests of northern Finland. After I put on my overalls again and get a helmet fitted, Geert explains how to operate a snowmobile. It is a kind of motorcycle, but instead of two wheels, a snowmobile has two skis in front and a caterpillar in the back. You operate the skis with the steering wheel and you can accelerate with a lever on the steering wheel. It’s actually quite simple, but you still need a valid driver’s license to drive a snowmobile.

With four snowmobiles in a row we leave for a fifty kilometer trip in the snowy Lapland. It’s great fun! Sometimes we drive twenty, maybe thirty kilometers per hour, maximum we go fifty, but when you are bumping over snow, that is already quite fast. The places where snowmobiles are allowed are indicated by signs. We stop a few times along the way for a short break. After 25 kilometers we are halfway. We stop at a wooden hut (a ‘kota’ in Finnish), where we eat a sandwich and Geert stokes a wood fire to cook soup.

After lunch we go back. It is already after three and it is getting dark quickly. Unlike the past few days, when there was no wind, today it is quite windy. I’m well packed, so it doesn’t bother me. At 4 p.m. we are back at the hotel. I’m going to take a shower and then report in for dinner. After dinner I go back to the hotel bar, where we play pool, participate in a small pub quiz and drink the necessary pints of the excellent Koff beer. There are also some Kittilä residents present, one of whom is taking part in the karaoke. Kittilä is in the middle of nowhere and the hotel bar is the only bar in the village. It’s a nice evening, but at midnight I call it a night.

On the road with huskies

After breakfast and three cups of coffee, I slowly wake up. That is necessary, because today a husky tour is scheduled. We do this at a fifteen minute drive south of Kittilä. When we arrive the dogs are already ready to go. They immediately start barking and howling when they see us, they know they are going on an outing. Everyone gets their own sled, which is pulled by four huskies. You are supposed to stand with your feet on the sliders on the left and right and hold on tight. The brake is in the middle and you really need that brake: the huskies only want one thing and that is to run, so if you want to slow down or remain standing still, you have to push the brake well into the snow. As soon as you release the brake, the dogs take off. Other than that, it’s actually very simple. No navigating needed, the dogs follow each other on their own.

Due to the wind and the temperature just above freezing, most of the snow has disappeared from the trees, but the area still looks beautiful. Every now and then the dogs take a bend so enthusiastically that I have to make adjustments to avoid crashing into the trees… Halfway through we have lunch again in a kota (a somewhat larger and more luxurious one than yesterday) and after lunch we continue. It is absolutely a very nice experience! Huskies are beautiful dogs. Some are very light, others dark brown, but I like the gray with their bright blue eyes best. At the end of the trip, the owner of the husky farm shows two more husky babies, barely two weeks old. Most of us fall in love spontaneously.

At 4 p.m. we are back at the hotel. After dinner we dive back into the bar to play a game of pool. It’s another very pleasant evening and the rest of the bar is filled with Kittilä residents (including the lady who is behind the hotel counter during the day and who is quite tipsy tonight). I don’t leave the bar until it closes at 2 a.m.…

Two more relaxing days

Friday and Saturday are days off. Time to relax for a while. Friday morning I take it easy. At 11 a.m. I walk outside, after last night I can use some fresh air. I walk south along the Valtatie, to where Kittilä ends and the road to Sodankyläanti starts. Straight ahead it is another 150 kilometers to Rovaniemi, the next town. I walk back, walk a bit behind the houses, where the cross-country skiing route also runs, and I’m back at the hotel just after noon. Furthermore, I sit down to read for a while before we have dinner with the two groups for the last time. Tonight we are served all kinds of Finnish specialties: cold starters (salmon, herring in mustard dressing and two other types of fish), cold-smoked and hot-smoked reindeer meat and the main course also consists of reindeer.

I also spend my last day in Lapland relaxing a bit. After breakfast I walk outside again, this time in a northerly direction. It snowed last night, so there is again a fresh layer of white snow on the trees. I walk past the ‘kapelli’ (church), snap some pictures of the wintry landscape along the way, and then walk along the other side of the Valtatie to Lake Haudanperä. There the wife of the local pastor has just finished her daily dip in the icy hole of the lake. It will probably be healthy, but don’t ask me to jump naked into the icy water…

Back at the hotel I have lunch and the rest of the afternoon I relax and read. Almost everyone is going home today. I’m leaving Kittilä tomorrow. Unfortunately, the northern lights did not show up, but I can still look back on a very nice week in Finnish Lapland.