Winter at the Top of the World
At this time of year as the winter days lengthen, my thoughts invariably drift north … way north. A few years ago, we spent an early March vacation 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle enjoying the winter splendor of Finnish Lapland. If this sounds like an out-of-the-way destination, it is. Normally a diligent pre-trip researcher, I had uncharacteristically booked this trip last minute with little investigation. It just sounded cool. Imagine my surprise and concern when I was unable to find our precise destination on any of the maps I later checked! This was obviously going to be an adventure.
Lapland is one of Europe’s last wilderness areas and is sparsely populated. We flew into Kittila airport in darkness, barely able to distinguish a few flickering runway lights as we neared the ground. An hour-long drive took us to our hotel in the small town of Yllas where we eagerly set out the next day to explore the surrounding area. A vast expanse of tundra, fells, meadows, lakes and rivers greeted us. Falling snow gave way to periods of sunshine, which flashed on snow-covered low pine trees. We saw reindeer tracks, but little sign of bird or animal life. It felt like the land and its occupants were sleeping. It would be difficult to find a more peaceful place.
Cross-country skiing is the traditional favorite sport in Lapland although in this land where snow cover lasts for 8 months of the year, many winter activities are practiced. Locals and visitors alike enjoy dog sledding, reindeer safaris, intermediate-level downhill skiing and the well-loved kicksleds, a type of scooter on runners. Snowshoeing is gaining popularity in Lapland, and several local companies in Yllas now offer guided snowshoe hikes – perhaps a good way to get your bearings as there are no marked snowshoe trails at this point. But, with a reliable map and appropriate advance inquiries, you can generally snowshoe where you like.
The evenings in Yllas provided us significant opportunity for amusement. After a day on the trails, we dove into the buffet dinners at our hotel, developing a fondness for the tart local lingonberries and, in Jack’s case, for reindeer meat. Dinner was typically followed by a session in the sauna – after all, we were in Finland. But, the best part of the evening was still to come … we were determined to witness the famed northern lights, aurora borealis. The first several nights were too cloudy, but finally one clear evening we were told that they would probably appear. In the cold temperatures, we agreed to take turns on half-hourly watches, starting at 7:00 pm. Finally at 9:30, Jack spotted some slight swirls of white light overhead. From then until the cold finally drove us inside, we were mesmerized by the show. It looked like a greenish white sheet of light that kept moving around the sky with shafts of light shooting out of it. Absolutely spectacular.
Endless wide-open spaces, the beauty of the aurora borealis, a remote exotic feel and an abundance of snow all conspire to make Lapland a perfect winter destination. So, pack your snowshoes and a healthy sense of adventure for this unforgettable winter experience in the far north.
Lapland is time consuming to travel to from North America. However, if you are based in the U.K. or are willing to travel to England, the tour company Inghams http://www.inghams.co.uk/ organizes very good all-inclusive packages to Yllas and the nearby village of Levi (flying to Kittila from Gatwick, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester or Edinburgh). March is an ideal month to visit Lapland because temperatures are relatively mild and there are sufficient daylight hours for a full roster of winter activities. Information about snowshoeing in and around Yllas can be found at http://www.yllas.fi/?deptid=9059. A useful Web site for general background reading on Lapland is http://www.laplandfinland.com/?deptid=16024.