Not quite ready for Greenland or Iceland yet? Sweden’s and Finland’s north—the Lapland region offers some staggering experiences in combination with a day or two in the countries’ capitals. Just in case you’re not picking up your car in combination with a Jukkasjärvi-Kebnekajse adventure or happen to be related to a reindeer herder, here’s one chance for an experience off the beaten track, in Finland. This is definitely not the Yuacatan peninsula! For other ideas in the experience-rich Lapland region, turn to Incidental Intelligence, pages
The Deep Freeze in Lapland
As the world seems to be warming up, more people are craving a real winter experience and tourism in Lapland is booming. But don’t expect crowds – Finland still has enormous stretches of pristine snow.
Thirty minutes drive from Ivalo airport is the resort of Kakslauttanen, where you can try various winter activities and look out for the Northern Lights. On arrival guttering candles and a friendly husky sit outside the door of a huge log cabin, set in an idyllic snow-draped forest. Kakslauttanen is a truly remote spot – a few miles to the north is the ski resort of Saariselkä but eastwards there’s no other habitation for 120 miles, westwards none for 60 miles. Wolves roam the woods. When I arrive the temperature is a shocking -11 Farenheit, so cold you can’t even make snowballs; below 23F snow won’t stick together. In mid-January there are supposedly under two hours of daylight each day but when the sky is clear it brightens up a couple of hours before the sun edges over the horizon and stays light a couple of hours after the official sunset.
On my first evening, a tall figure with a grey beard and fox-fur hat strides into the restaurant and booms, ‘Who wants to go ice fishing?’ This is Jussi Eiramo, owner of the hotel. He spent his first summer here, 32 years ago, living in a tent while building a sauna, essential for both washing and warming with such harsh winters. He eventually built 32 log cabins scattered in 10 hectares of woodland, so guests have independence and privacy. On arrival you’ll be given a torch and a map and sent off to find your cabin or igloo. You are free to light a fire but have to fetch your own wood from a store-hut using a sled. This is typically Finnish – capability is assumed because even townies spend lots of time in the countryside. As well as the cabins and igloos there are also snow igloos, built to a different design every year, and a snow chapel if you want to have your wedding in thermal underwear.
For my first night I’m in a glass igloo, which is unique to Kakslauttanen. Jussi realised guests staying in the ice igloos were torn between staying (relatively) warm inside and watching for the Northern Lights outside. His high-tech solution was to construct igloos of heated glass. 85% of the heat keeps the igloo warm, the rest keeps the outside clear of snow. Turn off the lights, lie back, and you can gaze at the sky until you drift into sleep. The display is amazing – more stars than I’ve ever seen.
Sadly the Northern Lights didn’t come on the night I spent in the glass igloo but the next evening the sky is still clear so I joined a snow-mobile trip to a nearby hilltop. Again, nothing to see except stunningly clear stars. We drive on to a cabin for tea and sausages and are about to leave when someone spots a green flickering flame through the trees. The display builds up with great ribbons of glowing light wavering and curling across the sky. We race back to the hilltop and watch, exhilarated, until the bitter cold and late hour sends us home.
The following morning, the clear sky has sent the temperature reeling down to -22 Farenheit, despite which I join a husky sledding excursion. Provided with two-person sleds, one person sits while the other stands on the back and operates the foot brake, the only form of control you have over 6 dogs. The huskies follow the path set by a snow-mobile in front and as each team is released from their ropes they speed off into the woods. It seems daunting but in practice I have nothing to do other than hold on tight and stop my team overtaking the sled in front. When I step on the brake, the dogs turn and glare at me with sinister ice-blue eyes. When we stop they spring into the air, jumping and pulling at their harnesses with sheer impatience. They roll in snow drifts at the side of the track and take bites of snow to quench their thirst.
The Lappish landscape we’re speeding through is exquisitely beautiful. On the horizon a pink glow shows where the sun is rising. Perfectly smooth snow stretches in all directions and weighs down drooping pine branches. Birch trees look like they’ve been dipped in sugar, each twig coated in sparkling ice. We stop for lunch round a fire in a tepee, eating salmon and potato soup and rieska, a barley-based flatbread. I’m surprised to learn we’ve already covered six miles. We take a different route back and when I hear the dogs barking at our return I’m sorry to be stopping, it had proven to be so much more fun than I expected.
Back at Kakslauttanen I heat up the sauna in my log cabin and spend an hour alternately working up a sweat and cooling off under the shower. My fingers visibly plump up as my circulation was restored. Then it’s time to settle into a rocking chair in front of the fire with a cup of tea and a book. With no TV, news or email to distract you it’s possible to totally relax. Meals are taken in the restaurant, with a set menu (modified for dietary requirements if necessary) included in the price of the room, or a longer a la carte menu for people who want more choice. The breakfasts are also a great feast with delicious dark rye bread, herring in different marinades and great slabs of cured salmon to fuel you up for the day ahead. The guests are a mixture of families, couples and younger explorers, mainly from Scandinavia, Britain and Germany, plus a few Japanese and Australians.
The next day dawns cloudy so the temperature rises to 14 Farenheit, noticeably kinder to toes and noses. I’m off to meet Pentti Nikodemus and his wife Riitta Lahvonen, who herd reindeer and live in a tiny village 20k from Kakslauttanen. With no running water and only a wood stove to heat their house, they lead a tough life. Pentti even made his own reindeer-skin boots. He is of Sami ethnicity and is wearing the Sami national colors of red, blue and yellow. This traditional outfit was his grandfather’s, then his father kept it for special occasions and now Pentti uses it for the heritage industry.
A queue of obedient reindeer were harnessed to wooden sleighs. It takes at least 2 years to train them for this work but, as Riitta jokes, it’s that or they end up on a dinner plate. You sit on reindeer skins and are tucked under blankets before setting off at a genteel pace. Passing red-painted farmhouses with white-framed windows, then barns and fields scattered in forest clearings, gives a sense of how people still live in rural Lapland. Gentle snow starts to fall so it’s a relief to be welcomed back with a warming fire in the tepee in their front yard. Riitta shows us how to cook pancakes in long-handled pans and she brews tea and coffee for us in sooty black kettles.
Other activities available at Kakslauttanen include ice-fishing on Lake Inari, visited the Sami museum in Ivalo, cross-country and downhill skiing, snow-mobile excursions, and sledding, which is particularly popular with younger children. Sleeping under the stars, seeing the Northern Lights and whooshing through the snow on a husky sled were sublime experiences. Returning afterwards to a hot sauna, roaring fire and rocking chair in a log cabin makes Kakslauttanen the perfect base from which to experience the wilderness.
For more info, see www.kakslauttanen.fi
Text and photography: Anna Watson
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