Winter wonderland

Winter wonderland

Last Updated: Fri, May 04, 2012 20:42 hrs

Neeta Lal goes fishing in the Arctic and finds out that the rewards - including going to Santa Claus’s office - for braving the extreme conditions are in abundance.

Is this a mirage? Or a surreal dream? Perhaps a bit of both, I muse, as my snowmobile skims over a snowscape so milky it seems straight out of The Chronicles of Narnia.

We’re in Lapland, the wild north of Finland, 200 km above the Arctic Circle.

And except for an occasional lone skier — plodding valiantly through this sugar-coated terrain sprouting endless pine forests and the breathtakingly beautiful and treeless rounded fells poking out between them — there’s nary a soul in sight.

Nor should you expect a crowd in this quaint land of crisp, clean Arctic air where the midnight sun heralds continuous daylight in summer while the inordinately long, polar nights offer a chance to view the stunning aurora borealis (October-March).

Lapland’s icy amphitheater offers wonderful travel with the snow confetti making everything appear magical. Ergo, on an incandescent March morning, I find myself pillion riding on the snowmobile being navigated by my affable host, Jari Virtanen.

Jari, whose resemblance to Brad Pitt is rather uncanny, assures me to “Just hold on tight and we’ll be there in a jiffy.” “There” is a reference to the frozen lake where we’re headed for Arctic fishing, a popular sport in this part of the world. Fortunately, the game eschews all complexity. Upon reaching the lake, Pasi, our Nordic tour guide, simply pulls out his user-friendly drill machine and pierces a hole in the snow. The rupture causes muddy water to whoosh out, creating a capacious cavity for my fishy explorations.

A foldable chair is promptly placed next to the hole. And I’m in business. A fishing rod — with maggots as bait — is my vehicle to hook up any of the tasty fish that populates this “winter wonderland” — rainbow trout, perch, salmon… Rod in hand, I contemplate this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Perhaps, the only beings who’d enjoy these Arctic conditions are the polar bears? Clearly not as a few more people angling a few yards from us come within my line of sight.

But what is it really like to be out and about in -6°C weather? Well, your skin shrivels up like dry parchment despite layers of cream. The nails are chipped and lips chapped. The eyes tear with each gust of bone-chilling wind, while the nose is runny and the head hurts from the cold. My fingers — wrapped around the fishing rod as they are — are frozen despite thick gloves. Oh, and — did I mention? — a couple of thermal vests, thick pullover, woollen cap, two pairs of socks and gigantic boots as well.

* * *

Despite not landing any fish, it is a relief to be bundled into a warm cottage lit up by phosphorescent pinewood. The lunch — salmon-potato soup, rye bread and steaming hot berry soup — seems like a gourmet affair. I soak in the snowflakes falling in slow-mo through the cottage window as a couple of reindeers sniff the ground outside.

I get up close and personal with the quadrupeds the next morning at a reindeer farm. The Lapland reindeer is one hardy animal, I’m told by the farm’s keeper, enduring extreme temperatures primarily due to its hooves. During summer, the footpads become spongy providing extra traction, while in winter, they shrink and tighten. The sharp rim of the hoof can cut into ice and crusted snow to keep the animal from slipping. The hooves also help the animals dig through thick layers of snow and reach their favorite food — a type of lichen known as “reindeer moss”. Later, I enjoy a short but adrenaline-spiking reindeer sledge ride with the animal launching snow missiles (snow caught in its hooves) onto my face while racing over fresh snow!

In Lapland, where reindeer herding is a cornerstone of the economy, the animals are slaughtered for meat, their hides tanned and antlers/bones recycled to make various objects. Low-fat reindeer meat is considered a delicacy. Ask me. I worked my way through a raft of meals with this flavour-charged meat as the star of the table.

“History” seekers will, however, be disappointed. There are no musty museums serving up mummified exhibits in glass cases nor any “heritage sites”. This is because at the end of World War II, retreating German troops decimated practically everything in the region to punish their Finnish allies for liaising with Russia. By the time they were done, 100,000 people had fled from the land, 675 bridges had been blown up, all major roads mined and the capital Rovaniemi left with only 13 houses standing!

However, a thrilling experience is meeting the local Sami people. It is fascinating to learn just how well these hardy and indigenous natives cope with months of frosty darkness, subsisting on reindeer herding and eking out a living by plying handcrafted wares to visitors. The Samis, traditionally represented as a medieval people, have adapted rather well to modernity. We meet a Sami couple, both artists who crafted mind-boggling wares from reindeers parts. Their workshop showcases everything from reindeer antler chandeliers (which they also retail at malls) to jewellery to shoes and other bric a brac. The lady welcomes us into her cozy home and feeds us berry pudding concocted from fruit she’d plucked herself from the wilderness. An intense reindeer stew is washed down with berry juice drunk from traditional Sami cups (kuksa). The kuksa — ubiquitous in all souvenir shops — is crafted from birch burls, and its gourd-shaped bottom prevents it from tipping when placed on uneven ground.

* * *

Rovaniemi is an unspectacular Arctic city spliced by the Kemijoki river. Even so, it is an architectural draw thanks to a clutch of masterpieces designed by the Finnish Modernist Alvar Aalto. Because of its unspoilt nature and the numerous recreational opportunities it offers, tourism is a vital industry here.

Raovaniemi is also a fun place for families. You can meet Santa Claus here and cross the magical Arctic Circle every day at the Santa Claus Village. Friends and relatives can be sent greetings from Santa Claus Main Post Office with the unique Arctic Circle postmark. I enter Santa’s cavernous “office” bustling with red-uniformed “elves” running all kinds of errands. Santa greets me with an impish smile, an avuncular figure who tells me how much he loves visiting Delhi and Mumbai.

Saunas are like culture crucibles in Finland. Small wonder there are more saunas than people here. Apparently, the sauna is a profoundly Finnish institution, entrenched in the national psyche. It has a communitarian dimension to it as well with Finnish families getting together for a sauna and a meal over weekends.

Glass igloos are a popular, albeit expensive, accommodation in Lapland. We visit one igloo cluster in Levi which is fully roofed over with heated glass so that the Northern Lights can be seen through. Equipped with a kitchenette, bathrooms, opulent bedrooms and, hold your breath — motorised rotating beds — they enable guests to follow the sky at all times!

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based journalist and columnist

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