The magic of Lapland

  • Article by: RUSS JUSKALIAN , New York Times
  • Updated: January 12, 2013 - 10:49 AM

In the far reaches of Finland, cross-country skiing and other icy endeavors take place under the glow of northern lights.

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Vivid displays of northern lights -- among other wintry delights -- attract intrepid travelers to Lapland, a region of dense pine forests, lakes and bald mountains in Finland.

Photo: Russ Juskalian, New York Times

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"Ladies and gentlemen, the northern lights are on," announced a member of our group, breaking the pre-dinner weariness.

It had been another long day of cross-country skiing, but his message spurred us to action. In a flash, the cabin was filled with the sound of crinkling jackets and snow pants; a few minutes later, Arctic air was blasting across our faces.

As I made my way across the snow, I craned my head skyward. Streaks of green plasma arced beyond silhouettes of slender pines. The effect was something like the swirls of phosphorescent plankton magnified a billion times. When I wandered back to our cabin hours later -- after bumping into a pair of aurora borealis-hunting Finns in the woods who offered swigs of coffee liquor -- I nearly stumbled into a reindeer.

Such is the magic of Finnish Lapland, a 38,000-square-mile region of dense pine forests, lakes and bald mountains.

There were seven of us on this weeklong trip last February in the small town of Akaslompolo, about 95 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

My Finnish friend Iina, our de facto guide, had sold us on the idea of renting a log cabin, with tales of dancing skies, burning saunas and the likelihood that "you'll become infected with Lapland madness, which makes you return again and again."

The madness began on our way there, with a 13-hour, 600-mile overnight train ride on the Aurora Borealis Express -- starting in Helsinki and skirting the Swedish border past the Gulf of Bothnia -- to Kolari, the northernmost passenger train station in Finland. And it was aided by cases of cheap Estonian booze. Although we had three train compartments among us, we all squeezed into one for a few hours, drinking, joking about what we'd just gotten ourselves into and watching a blur of pure-white landscape slip by outside the windows.

From the Kolari station -- tepee-shaped like a traditional Lapland hut and surrounded only by trees and snow -- it would take less than an hour by bus to get to the twin villages of Akaslompolo and Yllasjarvi (combined population around 600), on Yllas, a smooth, treeless mountain known as an Arctic fell.

Early excavations suggest that this part of Lapland was inhabited as long as 11,300 years ago by native ancestors of the Sami indigenous people, who still herd reindeer and eke out a living in the northernmost parts of Finland. Today, Yllas (pronounced OO-lahs) is a winter paradise for cross-country skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts, with more than 200 miles of ski tracks, dozens of wilderness huts (some with saunas) and uninterrupted stretches of fells, frozen wetlands and dense spruce and birch forests. From herding reindeer to raising and racing huskies, many of the few people who live here work in tourist-related industries.

The first thing I noticed about Lapland was the light, in pastels of greens, blues, pinks and purples. The sun, which never ventures far above the skyline in the spring or fall and doesn't even breach the horizon for a brief period in the dead of winter, casts long morning and afternoon light all day.

Our wood-framed two-level cabin was one of about two dozen on a small dead-end street leading into the forest. Like many, it was part of a time-share whose owners made it available for rent.

On our first afternoon in Akaslompolo, we strapped on narrow skis and took the short path from our cabin, through the trees, to the closest ski track. It wasn't yet 4 p.m., but the blue and yellow of midday had given way to purples.

The distracting beauty of the place was a recreational hazard. I kept expecting Santa, or a yeti, to emerge from the snow-blanketed forest. Perhaps it was my continually drifting gaze to the blue-black sky overhead as it transitioned through layers of green to a blood-red horizon, but after a 2-mile climb up a lighted ski track, I aimed back down the hill and bit it. Hard. The cartwheeling fall became my first, painful, souvenir from Lapland.

The consolation was our cabin's sauna: After stripping off our ski gear -- and then our clothes, in line with custom -- the women, then the men, took their turn in the small, wood-paneled sauna.

Dog-sledding in alpine tundra

Lapland isn't only about skiing and sky watching. On one particularly cold morning -- the mercury outside the window registered 15 degrees -- four of us visited a husky racing center on the outskirts of town.

"If you step off the sled for a second, the dogs will take off and leave you. They want to run," said Mikka, our Swedish guide.

Otherwise, the instructions were simple: Stand on the sled's rear runners, and mind the brake.

Each pair was given a sled, a six-pack of Alaskan huskies (leaner but faster than their Siberian relatives) and a stoic nod of encouragement. A worker untied the rope anchoring my sled, and the dogs rocketed forward. The lead dogs, Igor and Ben -- predominately white, pale-blue eyed and thinner than I had imagined -- dropped their heads and pointed straight.

"Those are two of our smartest lead dogs," Mikka told me afterward. "We use them for racing."

We passed through frozen marshland, pristine with untracked snow, then a dense spruce forest, followed by a hardscrabble landscape, a cross between Arctic taiga and alpine tundra. All the while, a bright blue sky, yellow light and wispy clouds hung overhead.

The dogs were silent and stopped for nothing. When thirsty, they funneled snow into their mouths midstride. A few seconds of rest transformed the air into dense steam billowing from the dogs' mouths. Stopping longer resulted in an eruption of howls and barks and full-bore attempts to pull the sled.

Hot time in the cold town

Night life in Yllas was countrified and slow -- one might even say Arctic. There isn't much of a town, really, just a supermarket, cabins and a few shops on a couple of otherwise empty streets. The bars, small, dark and very neighborhood sports-pub-style, were, like everything else, accessible on skis.

One night, we had dinner at Humina, a rustic place where we could sample a true Lapland specialty: reindeer. Chipped and sauteed in butter, the rich, gamy meat was served in a crater of mashed potatoes, with lingonberry preserve. The general, post-meal consensus was that while Rudolph may have done fine guiding Santa's sleigh, he shined brightest on the plate.

On what may have been the coldest night of our visit, all seven of us trekked through the dark to the edge of Akas Lake, a flat white expanse -- the ice was covered by snow. There, a bundled-up man greeted us at the steps of a small shack that puffed smoke into the moonlit air.

The whole point of the exercise that came next was to laze in a 212-degree sauna until nearly overheated, then scuttle outside down a slippery gangway, descend a set of icy steps and plunge through a hole into nearly freezing water.

We entered the hut, then we set about roasting ourselves, ice-hole bathing, roasting and making snow-angels in a cycle of extreme temperature change that Finns, and some controlled studies, say is good for the health.

"This whole country is about being either too hot or too cold," said one of the men in our group later that night.

The next night, whole swaths of the sky danced with brilliant greens, purples and reds. Inside the curving, billowing, twisting streaks, the action was psychedelic. What was green one second flashed to red, translucent and miles long. A streak that ran from horizon to horizon might phase out, then reappear at another location, or bend into the shape of an oxbow and spring back.

Finnish legend says that the lights are formed by a giant arctic fox running so quickly its tail sends plumes of snow from the fells, glittering across the night sky. It's an unbelievable explanation for an unbelievable phenomenon that somehow smacks of truth.

On the day we departed, just as the front door of the cabin was locked, a reindeer came sauntering over. It watched us, and we watched it. Its googly eyes were insectlike, and its furry feet had sharp hoofs for breaking through the snowpack.

When I held out my hand, the reindeer nuzzled it.

A final dose of Lapland magic.

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