It was my sixth visit to Northern Lapland. Having spent a week there during the busy Christmas period, I was on standby for a seat on one of Transun’s final winter activity holidays.
On Sunday, the 18th March, my husband and my old school friend and I set out by taxi for Gatwick where we boarded a Jet2.com flight to Kiruna, in Northern Sweden. Our fellow-travellers were mainly, like ourselves, retired folk, rather than the young families with children going to see Santa in his homeland in December.
From Kiruna a coach took us to Karesuando in Finland where the rest of the group were booked in for a week in the Davvi Lodge Hotel. We had another hour’s journey to Hetta Huskies, my daughter’s husky farm outside the village of Hetta, in the province of Enontekio, some 300km north of the Arctic Circle.
Whilst there, I decided to ignore the fact that I was approaching my 84th birthday. When we joined clients on husky safaris, for instance, I always took my turn at driving the teams of dogs across the snow-covered, frozen land. There is always the danger of the sledge turning over and the passenger being thrown out, but driving the team is, for me, a lot more comfortable than sitting in the sledge. With your feet on the ski runners and your hands gripping the bar, you can let the dogs gather speed while always being ready to brake, gently or suddenly. You feel as free as the wind that whips up the snow and blows it in your face.
One day, my high-school friend and I thought it great fun when we were asked to act as traffic controllers along the route of a big dog race. Our brief was to watch for the teams where their route crossed the road and to stand and stop any traffic approaching. We had taken stools with us so that we could sit and rest during interludes between races. We felt important in our official fluorescent jackets! We had a period of panic, however, when the snowmobile driver who had left us at our remote post failed to turn up to take us back to the centre. Much later, we saw a van approaching in the distance and it was my daughter who had already picked all the other guides up, ready to return to Hetta. More drama followed when the van got stuck in deep snow!
Another day, we joined in the activities Hetta Huskies had set up for a Finnish TV documentary. We chatted with the crew of five whilst the guides prepared their husky teams and then set out for a distant kota (circular wooden cabin) in the woods. I was pulled in a sleigh behind the snowmobile and, en route, spotted an elk disappearing into the trees. Once there, there was soon a huge log fire blazing away in the centre of the kota and we stood around, warming ourselves and enjoying hot coffee and cakes. One of the guides and I were interviewed outside in the snow about how we felt about Lapland, the northern lights and the Arctic scenery. My daughter had suggested that we spend a night in the kota, sleeping on reindeer hides, but I seemed to be the only one in my group who fancied that. I always welcome new experiences and had even spent the night of my 81st birthday in an igloo on the farm.
Two other opportunities on offer, which we decided to save for a future occasion, were ice-fishing and heading north out of the forested taiga landscape and onto the exposed tundra plateaus of the high Arctic to experience the breath-taking beauty of the vast unspoilt wilderness. The group chose, instead, to visit the Chinese Ice Village in Levi, a more touristy part of Lapland to the south. There I pretended I was a small child again and joined those who were climbing the steps of ice to whoosh down the long slides.
The group we had travelled with were returning to Gatwick on the 25th but we were offered seats to Bristol on the 1st April, and we accepted the extra week in the wilds with enthusiasm. Enontekio is a paradise for those who love nature and the great outdoors. I am always filled with wonder at the natural beauty of the landscape and the peace and silence that are so elusive in our daily life.
Sami culture is very much alive in and around Hetta. That weekend we got to take part in the annual Sami festival, Hetan Marianpaivat (Mary’s day), for the first time. This colourful festival is a little like the Sami version of the Highland games. Herders compete to show their expertise with essential herding skills like lassooing. At the same time, others don non-traditional lycra and race the reindeer in timed solo classes and in ‘reindeer cross’ (where four leave the gate together, towing their herder on his choice of skis and the fastest of those to reach the finish line, wins).
Prince Albert of Monaco had been invited to attend the final race and we saw his plane fly in to the tiny local airstrip. I was surprised to see myself on National Finnish television that evening. Unknown to me, a television cameraman had taken a shot of me taking a photograph of the prince as he arrived by car at the venue. He later flew on to Kautokeino, the centre of Sami culture and history where the annual Easter reindeer festival was about to start. We have been there and visited Juhls Silver Gallery and the Sami museum and outside, a traditional Sami settlement, complete with an early home, temporary dwellings and outbuildings such as the kitchen, sauna, and huts for storing fish, potatoes and lichen (used as reindeer fodder).
All of the festivities reminded me of a bitterly cold night in December when we had driven into the hills to watch a round-up of thousands of reindeer by that area’s herders. In the gatherings, the reindeer are driven into specially constructed corrals which become consecutively smaller. Once all of the reindeer are in the last perimeter fence, small groups are separated out, at a time, and herded into the final tiny corral. There, the herders stand in the centre watching for a while until they can each spot their own ear markings from the group racing around them. Each animal’s fate is then sealed. Those that are for slaughter are grabbed by the horns and put into one area while those destined to live are given a vaccination by the vet and sent back to the hills. Being in the centre of tens of large horned animals running first one way and then the other is both scary and exhilarating. It can take several strong herdsmen to move one of them to the chosen chute. At one point, my daughter had to help someone struggling with their deer and when they moved off towards a chute, I was left in the centre of the circling animals, alone. My anxiety spiked when one started to race straight towards me and I ran for my life and grabbed onto the back of a herdsman for protection. The man turned around to see who was clinging on to him and then we had our photo taken together! I had loved the experience but Marianpaivat seemed a safer way of connecting with the ancient Sami culture.
A separate part of the festival focused on singing and folklore. Hence, we spent one evening at a concert of traditional singing (‘joiku’) held in the Skierri, Fell Lapland’s Nature and Culture Centre. We returned the following day to spend more time wandering through the rooms of displays and exhibitions about Sami culture and the nature and history of Northern Lapland. One of the exhibitions was entitled ‘From the Arctic to the Antarctic’ and was about my son-in-law’s unsupported ski expedition to the South Pole in 2008.
Two mornings, we were wakened early to witness the start of marathon ski races setting off from the centre of the village. One was heading 90km north to the border town of Kautokeino and one, 80km south to a different ski centre through the beautiful Pallas-Yllastunturi National Park. Two of the guides took advantage of the newly groomed trails and set off in pursuit but at a more leisurely pace, sleeping in a mountain hut, en route. It was great to see all of the young people taking full advantage of the nature and facilities around them.
Perhaps the most enduring memories for me, however, are of the times spent with my little grandson, nearly two. Sitting on the snowmobiles with him and pretending to ride them reminded me of the wonder and imagination involved in sampling new experiences through the eyes of a small child. Already he shows a real love of the outdoors and a natural aptitude for moving on skis. It certainly is a magical environment for a child to grow up in. Each day, he and I would walk down through the woods to spend time with the huskies. Sometimes we each took a ski chair to help us along. Sometimes, I pulled him along on a toboggan and other times he moved along on his own little skis. He would decide which it was to be. It was a magical happy time for me.
As we stood outside my daughter’s home on April Fool’s Day, waiting for the coach to take us back to Kiruna, tears once again welled up in my eyes at the thoughts of leaving that beautiful unspoilt part of our world. It’s a place I would never tire of visiting.