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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In the Shadow of the North Pole

Mush!" I bellowed at the team of seven huskies that pulled our sled across the frozen, snow-covered plains of Finnish Lapland. The air was a frigid minus 30 degrees Celsius, but we were warm in our special thermal suits and face masks.

At mid-afternoon, we stopped for a lunch of berry juice and reindeer stew, and later were treated to a spectacular sunset that painted the sky pink and blue and reflected off the icicles hanging from every tree.

Such are the winter delights of Lapland in the Arctic Circle, a region that stretches across the tops of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of northern Russia.

Bounded by the Norwegian Sea to the west and the Arctic Ocean to the north and east, Lapland boasts a dramatic landscape of mountains, fjord, and marshy tundra. It's also a dream come true for winter sports enthusiasts, offering not only cross-country and downhill skiing, but also more exotic activities like dogsledding, snowboarding, snowmobiling, ice fishing, and even riding in an icebreaker ship.

Be forewarned: Lapland is not for the faint of heart, or easily chilled. Temperatures can drop to an inhuman minus 40 C in the winter months, making it impossible to spend long amounts of time outdoors. But for those with a spirit of adventure, and a desire to see one of the most beautiful, untouched areas of the world, Lapland is the place.

The Arctic Circle may seem like an inaccessible location even for winter-hardened residents of Moscow, but Lapland is a mere two-hour flight from Helsinki. We took a plane to Ivalo, a tiny town in Finnish Lapland.

Our "hotel" was a cluster of spartan log cabins, linked by footpaths to a central lodge. But each cabin was quaint and, perhaps most importantly, well heated. To everyone's relief, our cabin came equipped with a stone fireplace and a shed full of freshly chopped wood.

It turns out that Lapland is a popular vacation spot for Germans and other European adventure-seekers. The region also attracts a steady stream of Japanese tourists, who believe that seeing the Northern Lights brings a person good luck for life.

The Northern Lights do live up to their reputation as one of the natural wonders of the world. We were lucky enough to see them in their full glory; giant swaths of green and blue, twisting and curling in the clear night sky. The lights are caused by Arctic winds colliding with the North Pole's magnetic field, and they're visible after a sharp change in temperature. But even when the lights aren't on display, the sky is filled with stars so bright you can make out the constellations without any trouble at all.

Because of its proximity to the North Pole, Lapland has only a few hours of sunlight per day, punctuated by dramatic sunrises and sunsets. But that doesn't mean it's pitch black the rest of the time. The snow reflects light upward, keeping the sky an overcast grey for most of the afternoon. When it gets too dark to play outdoors, most visitors head to the steam room.

Our hotel offered several hours of free sauna each day. The sauna, being Finnish, didn't come equipped with a cold plunge pool, but people wandered naked outside in the snow to cool off.

Our hotel had easy access to the Saariselka ski complex, which has six ski lifts and 10 downhill slopes ranging from beginner to advanced. We tried our hand at snowboarding, which was exhilarating but exhausting. For the uninitiated, snowboarding differs from skiing in that your feet are locked in place, and in principle, you coast down the mountain as if skateboarding or surfing. I emphasize "in principle."

After a long day on the slopes, I licked my wounds at the ski lodge over a warm cup of glogg, hot Scandinavian wine spiced with ginger and cardamom.

There are cross-country trails everywhere in Lapland, and most resorts offer ski equipment for a day of trekking across the snowy tundra. In addition, outdoor companies can arrange a half day of dogsledding, snowmobiling, or ice fishing on one of the frozen lakes. All the companies provide thermal suits, boots and gloves for extra protection against the bitter winds and subzero temperatures.

On the day we arranged to go dogsledding, our guide showed up in a husky-skin coat and spent a few minutes teaching basic commands in Finnish before we set off across the snowy plains. The dogs were arranged in teams of seven. They howled and strained at their leads before we started, but soon settled into a calm, even pace, weaving expertly through the clumps of pine trees that dot the landscape. In the course of the day, we passed over several icy peaks that gave a breathtaking view of the surrounding landscape.

Most of the huskies were veterans of the Alaskan Iditarod and European dog races, and some of them even had wolf blood. For the most part, the dogs were obedient. But when one of them escaped from his harness, our normally relaxed guide ran over, pinned the transgressor on the ground, and savagely bit his ear, demonstrating to the pack (and to us) his status as the "alpha male."

On each outdoor day trip, the group stops for a meal cooked over an open fire: usually some kind of reindeer meat or smoked salmon, bread, warm berry juice, and coffee or tea. The cold winter air does wonders for the appetite, and all of us were usually hungry by mid-morning.

On one of the lunch stops, a local artisan entertained us by carving an elaborate bird ornament out of a piece of wood. We were invited to buy one but the sales pitch wasn't pushy.

Winter sports are obviously popular in Lapland, but there are less strenuous options as well. Shopping is available in the larger towns like Ivalo and Saariselka, and the stores offer a wide assortment of local crafts. In Saariselka, the main square is filled with life-size snow castles for climbing and exploring.

There's also a microbrewery and a sauna complex complete with swimming pool, steam room, and solarium, where sun-starved people can soak up artificial ultra-violet rays for 15 minutes at a time.

While driving through Lapland, it's not unusual to see reindeer grazing near the side of the road. The animals were surprisingly small and docile, and took little notice of passing cars.

Reindeer herding is still one of the mainstays of the native Sami people of Lapland. Most reindeer are now domesticated, but nomadic Sami still follow wild reindeer across the frozen tundra. The herders live in tents made of reindeer skins stretched over poles, and they use the reindeer for almost all their domestic needs: milk, cheese, meat, blankets, moccasins, leggings and harnesses.

Getting There

FinnAir offers packages to Finnish Lapland which include round-trip airfare from Helsinki; transport to and from airport, hotel accommodation, daily breakfast and dinner, and sauna. Our six-day package cost about $1,000. Ski equipment and taxis to the town and ski resort are not included. Half-day "safaris" like dogsledding and snowmobiling run an extra $200 per person. In Moscow call Area Tours, 290-6683, for reservations or more information. A round-trip train ticket to Helsinki from Moscow costs about $160 in a four-person compartment and about $240 in a two-person compartment. Trains leave from Leningradsky Station. A round-trip plane ticket on either Aeroflot or FinnAir starts at around $580.


We stayed at the Hotel Kakklauttanen near Ivalo, Finland (tel. 358-697-87-100 and fax 358-697-87-168.) The hotel is run by Jassi Eiramo, who looks suspiciously like Santa Claus and is very helpful. Small and larger cabins are available, depending on the size of your group. Jassi can arrange transportation within Lapland, either taxis or the hotel van. For those who prefer to rent a car, there is a Hertz office in Ivalo, tel. 358-697-661-006 or fax 358-697-662-613.

When To Go

Lapland is known chiefly for its winter sports. But many people there told us the summer is a great time to visit, if you can put up with the bird-sized mosquitoes. There are several nature reserves and national parks in Finnish Lapland for hiking, trekking and bird-watching. Outdoor companies can also take people out for gold- panning expeditions. One of our guides told us that the Kola Peninsula, which makes up the Russian part of Lapland, is beautiful and home to some of the best salmon fishing in the world.m