Lapland in Winter

by Johnny Lucas

High Times in the High Arctic

In mid-winter there is no direct sunshine north of the Arctic Circle. In fact, this is how the Arctic Circle is defined: it is the line of latitude at which there is at least one day a year without direct sunlight. The further north you go, the more light you get in summer, and the less you get in winter. The full implications of a December visit North of this line didn't dawn on me, forgive the pun, until I had spent a few days in Ivalo, 280 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle in Finland.

Not that it's always dark there in the winter, it's not, but during the month or so around Christmastide in which the sun does not rise, "daylight" means a sort of twilight that sneaks up on the day very tentatively about 9:00AM. And later, as you finish lunch, you watch sunset colours in the sky.

It takes more than a little dimming of the light to slow down the Finns. Winter sports have been played here for many centuries and Finland's present prosperity allows the inhabitants of Helsinki, located far to the south of the Arctic Circle, - practically the banana belt - to come up north to ski, play golf in the snow with orange golf balls, snowmobile, dog sled and even to go on safari in reindeer sleighs.

But to drive reindeer, you need your reindeer driver's licence. Mr. Into Paadar of Inari is a reindeer herdsman and is authorized to grant such a licence. He will make you take a circuit of his frozen pond in your own one-man sleigh behind one of his reindeer. If you come back without out tipping the sleigh, you get your licence (good for five years).

The sleigh is the size and shape of a small dug-out canoe. Its pointed bottom allows it to cut a path in the snow, but increases the challenge of staying upright while bouncing through the woods. It does take some skill to achieve this, and luckily for me I had a skilful reindeer.

Reindeer herds roam throughout Lapland in the north of Sweden, Norway and Finland. They are considered semi-domestic animals as all are owned, they are marked by their owners with a codified system of ear markings.

Depending on the season, there are from 200,000 to 400,000 reindeer in Finland, but very few of them can pull a sleigh. From his herd, the reindeer herdsman will select just a few of the healthiest and strongest animals to be trained as pullers. Most trained reindeer are males which become geldings and so pay a high price for the grooming and improved diet that goes with their careers.

A fully-trained reindeer also receives a green ear-tag which identifies his higher value for insurance purposes in case he's killed on the road by a vehicle, as many reindeer are.

As well as reindeer, dogs are a traditional beast of burden in Finnish Lapland, and they are much more enthusiastic about their duties.

The most exuberant welcome I have ever received anywhere was given by 20 huskies when I arrived at their home to sample a dog sled ride. Mention the word "walk" to your average dog and you've got instant action. Say "pull" to a group of sled dogs and you've got a leaping, howling, wagging mass of fur to sort into harnesses.

Once the sled pulls away, even the dogs not chosen to pull fall silent; the sled slips out under the stars of the sparkling night.

Reindeer sleighs and dog sleds are still part of the scene in Lapland, but as everywhere, the fastest and most practical form of transport involves internal combustion. On snow this means snowmobiles.

They have caught on in a big way in Finland. It's telling that although many Finnish firms have investments in Canada, the only Canadian company to have significant investments in Finland is Bombardier, the snowmobile company.

Winter golf has not caught on in the same way. But if you're a desperate golfer, it's rumoured that this is Santa Claus' favourite sport and that he's often looking for partners.

Skiing, of course, is the most popular activity anywhere there's winter. The hills are well groomed and the snow cover in dependable but comparisons of the hills of Finland to the mountains of the Alps or the Rockies are not fair. 170 metres vertical at Saariselka and 221 metres at Luosto are typical. The greatest vertical lift is 463 metres at Ylläs.

The cross-country skiing is superlative. The countryside of Lapland seems to have been made for it. Latitudes which in Canada are well above the tree line are warmed in Finland by the Gulf Stream so many types of forest thrive in Finland's deep north. Trails through the woods are well marked, groomed and in some places such as the resort village of Saariselka, are lit at night. The ski season in Lapland extends well into May.

And Santa Claus lives there all year. Just north of Rovaniemi, exactly on the Arctic Circle, is Santa Claus Village. UNICEF has officially designated Finland as the home of Santa Claus, this responsibility is taken very seriously. Every visitor to Lapland stops at Santa's Village to pay respects to the man with the red suit and white beard.

The origins of the Santa Claus legend are claimed by several traditions, but it follows very closely the story of the Finnish Joulupukki who roams with the reindeer herds and lives somewhere - exact location a genuine mystery - in the Korvatunturi Fell which diplomatically straddles the Russian-Finnish border. When Santa wants to meet the public, which is most of the time for this gregarious old man, he leaves his secret home and receives visitors at his headquarters on the Arctic Circle.

If you can't come in person, you can write to him at Santa Claus' Post Office, Arctic Circle, SF 96930, Rovaniemi, Finland. And yes, of course he answers all letters.

Finnish Lapland is the sort of place you can go to make the best of winter. It is exactly the sort of place you'd expect to run into Santa Claus at a reindeer auction or shlussing along a cross-country ski trail.

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Page maintained by Johnny Lucas, © J.P.Lucas. Created: June 24, 1996 Updated: January 19, 1997