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Santa celebration or cultural pollution?

Waiting in the deserted main street of the village of Penkridge for the 4am National Express coach to Manchester airport in mid-December, I shivered in a temperature of -4 degrees Celsius, although well wrapped up in duvet jacket and fur-lined boots with warm hat, scarf and gloves.  Who would blame me for feeling apprehensive about the -30 degrees reported the previous week from Enontekio, my destination in the far north of Lapland?

Four hours later, I was part of the queue waiting to board the 8.30am chartered flight to Enontekio.  My fears subsided as the excitement of those around me, setting out in search of the real Santa well north of the Arctic Circle, spread to me.  I was on my way to help with the logistics and activities of Transun’s newly established one-day trips to this wilderness area.

As the Boeing 737 touched down at the tiny Lapp airport, the transformation of the surrounding landscape since my previous visit early in September, when the land was resplendent in autumn colours and the silent beauty of the wilderness was sheer Paradise, made me stare in amazement

Pic: Luce Choules,

The lakes and rivers where I had canoed and kayaked were now frozen solid and indistinguishable from the rest of the landscape, covered in the uniform whiteness of snow.  The runway was an ice-rink and the passengers, including me, walked gingerly from the plane to the hangar-like building.  For about six weeks in the year Enontekio becomes a busy international airport, although its buildings are no larger than a detached house along the road I live on.  The area’s sparse population swells accordingly.

Outside the buildings a fleet of buses were lined up, waiting to take the incoming tourists to various activity centres.  A young lady, wearing a red fleece jacket identifying her as a Transun employee, approached me, ‘You are to go on coach 8 with Ulrika, the bus guide from Sweden,’ she said.

The coach took us along an icy road through the forest to Leppajarvi, a small village half an hour’s journey from the airport, converted for the season into an activity centre complete with Santa in his secret cabin.  Had we carried on along this road we would have ended up at the North Pole!  However, the bus drew up outside the local primary school where the trippers changed into their thermal suits and snow boots before being dropped in the centre of the village to be given instructions for the afternoon.  The highlight would be the special ride in a sledge, driven by a snow-mobile (not reindeer) to Santa’s hideout in the forest.  The reindeer sleigh rides were separate.  The local people had embraced the project with enthusiasm and welcomed the influx of tourists and foreign helpers.  Even the village church, built in the shape of a large tepee, was handed over for the season as a place to go to for warm drinks while thawing out round a huge log fire.

This village is where my work lay.  Underfoot that day was packed ice, dangerous for walking on without extreme caution.  What about those temperatures of -30 degrees and the deep snow from the previous week?  It was zero, warmer than England, and a light drizzle of rain was falling.  My daughter, Anna, who, with her Finnish husband, had organised all the operational areas and staff, found me and gave me her warm waterproof jacket as my own down jacket would soon have become wet through.  There was much with which to familiarise myself, beginning with the souvenir shop where the children’s Santa passports and Arctic crossing certificates were issued.  The owner apologised for the unexpected weather.  ‘No more than twice in a season do we have rain,’ she explained.  ‘This weather is most unseasonal.  It must be Global Warming.’

That set me thinking.  There had been nothing abnormal about the weather in September.  Despite early morning seasonal frosts, we had enjoyed long treks across the berry-carpeted ridges and through the forests in crisp autumn sunshine.  That same ground was now covered in knee-deep snow in the pristine areas and by ice in the well trodden activity centres.  Why was it raining and why had the temperature risen to zero?  Apparently, it does go to zero quite frequently in the winter but it normally swings up and down more than this year.

That wasn’t my only cause for concern.  With the opening up of the area to tourists, other changes were taking place.

Pic: Luce Choules,

Snowmobiles zoomed loudly over the wilderness landscape, through the forests and across the pristine lakes.  And what about all those planes from 12 British airports that were flying in, bringing 7000+ Santa-seekers?  How much in CO2 emissions were they responsible for?  Question after question demanded an answer.

Yes.  I travelled there to spend six days helping with the programme in Leppajarvi and visiting the other centres.  Each day my bus would pass hundreds of reindeer grazing semi-wild near the roadside and the children would keen their eyes in case Rudolf was out there taking a rest from his duties (teaching flying to the baby reindeer).  We were told that there were more reindeer (about 250,000) than people in the municipality of Enontekio, but that if you asked the herdsmen how many they owned, they wouldn’t tell you, since it would be like asking someone how much money they had in their bank account.  I wondered how different the way of life might be in a few years’ time.  Judging by my September visit, I believe that there is little danger of all-year-round mass tourism, but I guess that Christmas tourists, most of them Brits, will arrive in increasing numbers.  Bookings for December 2008 are well up on last year’s.

Each day I joined in all of the activities, including the skidoo, husky and reindeer rides, and I enjoyed seeing the faces of the children light up as they played with the elves or entered Santa’s hut.  Their innocent belief that the guide on the bus had spotted a real elf in the forest as she stopped the bus, chased the elf and then fell flat on her face in the deep snow – in part designed as an introduction to why children should be brushed down by the adults, if covered in snow – touched me deeply. When she arrived back on the bus, breathlessly asking the children had they seen how the elf had tripped her up, I, too, almost believed.  An initial sceptic about the concept of the trips, I was converted.  The pleasure the grandparents derived from the day almost matched that of the children!

But I still wondered about how we measure progress and prosperity against all the minus points of a materialistic society, including the spoiling of our natural world.  I asked my daughter, a strong environmentalist from youth, how she reconciled herself to it and she pointed out that actually snowmobiles are now an integral part of this landscape – the largest wilderness area in Western Lapland – and that most of the people still living here were reindeer herders and that the Sami herding culture was entirely dependent on snowmobiles in order to continue their traditional way of life.  The mass market tourism simply gave the young people an easier life alternative or life supplement, without which many would migrate to the cities, as elsewhere in the world.

She also pointed out that without the December products she and her husband would not be able to afford to run their core products including long back-country journeys by sled dog or ski, ski mountaineering, winter skills courses, and Arctic training and survival courses, since there would not be enough supporting infrastructure to do so.  Without such products few would be able to be inspired by the unique beauty of the Arctic landscape.

On my final morning I joined one of the groups staying for a number of days.  We set out on a long skidoo ride over frozen fells and lakes and I couldn’t keep my eyes off the sky.  In winter the Arctic sun never rises above the horizon but that day the sky was an artist’s dream – sunrise and sunset all in one.  The sky to our left was lit up over a vast area.  From a central point just above the horizon it was a bright flaming orange; the colours spread upwards and outwards on either side, from an ever duskier orange to deep and then paler yellow with peach and apricot giving way to a dusky light-grey, all lasting at least two hours.  By mid-afternoon, when we were snowshoeing in the forest high above the town of Hetta, a full moon was shining brightly through the tall pine trees. Finally, while we were boarding the last bus that night, the Northern Lights danced across the sky.  Will all this natural beauty be spoiled by commercialisation in the future?  I hope not.  But I also know that I, at least, want to go back.

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