Saturday, 5 January 2013

Icy Plunge to Blazing Sky

W-News“LADIES and gentlemen, the northern lights are on,”
Announced a member of our group, breaking the predinner 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 Russ made his way across the snow, Russ craned his 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 Russ 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 Russ 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. Russ friend Iina, a Finn, and 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, courtesy of Iina’s father. Though them 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 the 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 over 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 Russ 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. Iina provided basic lessons in cross-country technique  something every Finn, it seems, is born an expert at  while the rest of us marveled more at the surroundings than the instructions.

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


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