The sun beat down, casting sparkles across the lake. The helmeted rider wore a tank top and togs, revved his snowmobile to a high-pitched whine, then scooted down a grassy slope and skimmed across the waters to the far bank, egged on by cheers from his pals. The second rider wasn’t so lucky, only making it partway before he began to sink. Cursing, followed by laughter.
As Obelix may have said if he’d ever visited Lapland, ‘These Finns are crazy!’
We were a few kilometres outside Inari, a village of a few hundred people that’s more than 300 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. Santa’s backyard. It was a couple of days before Christmas, and we’d been snowmobiling across lakes and rivers ourselves – though they’re snow-covered and frozen solid at this time of year. No danger of sinking into these waters.
We’d broken our wintry excursion by spilling into a rustic cabin after an exhilarating ‘sled’ ride from the tiny outpost of Inari, unzipping thermal suits and pulling off balaclavas and two pairs of gloves, then skewering sausages to cook in the fire of a potbelly stove for lunch. Our local guides Antti and Matti entertained us with a few stories and showed us the videos on Matti’s iPhone of what some of their fellow sled-heads liked to do in the summer months.
Snowmobiles as jet skis; an adrenalin-charged venture that’s sink or skim.
Exiting the warmth of the cabin back into the wintry vista of northern Lapland, it was hard to imagine the landscapes before us in summer. Matti’s video showed blue skies, verdant foliage, and people frolicking in warm waters under a baking sun. The online video looked like it was filmed around midday on summer’s day, but it could have easily been midnight.
‘During summer it’s bright all day and all night,’ said Antti, referencing the famed ‘midnight sun’ that’s a feature of the far, far north. For around two months each year this area is bathed in non-stop daylight. The sun never sets. But that didn’t mean the opposite was true in winter, or that our Christmas in Lapland occurred in total darkness.
For while the sun never rose above the horizon during our four days in Inari, there was daylight for a short period from late morning to early afternoon. It was rather like a drawn-out sunrise or sunset; pale skies with splashes of peach and orange shifting from east to west on the southern horizon, bookended by hours upon hours of pitch black. Fortunately, our snowmobiles had headlights; they were in full use even before 3 pm. Some of our fellow travellers had been drawn by the darkness anyway; in search of the famed Northern Lights.
Before light ebbed into darkness that day, however, we spied several herds of reindeer as we zoomed across the frozen lake on our snowmobiles. Santa’s helpers appeared to be roaming wild across the tundra, but Antti and Matti stopped to point out markings. Patterns of cuts in their ears, a dash of paint on a hide. For centuries the local Sámi people have herded reindeer; a custom that continues to this day even as tourism grows and traditional lifestyles wane.
It’s a beautiful yet harsh environment.
During our time out on the ice, my body is warm under the thermal outerwear and layers of clothing, but icicles form on my eyelashes and my gloved hands form stiff claws around the snowmobile grips. Afterwards, a strip of my face looks like it’s sunburnt; mild frostbite.
We learned more about the indigenous inhabitants of the region after arriving in Inari the afternoon before. We’d flown into Helsinki, then took a domestic flight to Finnish Lapland’s most northern airport at Ivalo, then a bus even further north to Inari.
After checking into the Tradition Hotel Kultahovi on the banks of the local river that fed into one of the nation’s largest lakes, we visited Siida. Inari may be a small town, but it has an impressive, modern and interactive museum showcasing Lapland nature and Sámi culture.
The importance of sleds to local life was highlighted at Siida, among many other fascinating exhibits about geography, wildlife, and culture. From the days of traditional wood, leather, and hide contraptions to modern snowmobiles, the Sámi – the only officially recognised indigenous peoples in the entire European Union – have always been sledders. While our group thoroughly enjoyed our snowmobiling excursions – a real thrill – for me personally there was something even more special about the other types of sledding we experienced.
On Christmas Eve we visited a husky farm, meeting Arctic sled dogs then venturing out through snow-covered forest trails and across a frozen river. The energy and enthusiasm of the huskies was infectious. As they’re harnessed up, their excitement is palpable – leaping about, their barking near-deafening. ‘The dogs love to run, love to pull sleds,’ says our guide.
As soon as we’re underway, serenity descends.
The crunch of our sled as it’s hauled over the snow and the happy panting of the huskies are the only sounds. So much power, but no roar of a machine. It’s delightful, wondrous. I can’t get the grin off my face, even if the huskies are prone to doing their own thing now and then.
After a night split between Christmas dinner and Lapland cocktails of local whisky and cloudberry liqueur, snowshoeing out on the tundra in the hope of spying the Northern Lights, and sleep, we awake on Christmas morning and later head to a local reindeer farm.
The owners, dressed in traditional costume, teach us a little about reindeer husbandry, an industry and lifestyle that remains vital to Sámi culture and the local economy.
We fumble our way through lasso lessons and feed some reindeer. Before we head into the kota (a traditional hut) to hear Sámi drumming, stories and songs, and be warmed by the fire and berry juice, there’s one more sledding experience. We huddle into small sleighs harnessed up to reindeer, tied one to another like a string of decorations. I think about how Rovaniemi (the capital of Finnish Lapland and ‘official hometown of Santa Claus’) lies hours to the south, yet I could imagine few things more festive than this. A voice calls out, and our reindeer begin to move. Snow crunches beneath.
Sleigh bells ring, are you listening? At the reindeer farm, the snow is glistening…
Words and Images Craig Sisterson