Enjoy a warm welcome to the inner circle
The Arctic: Scandinavians have visited the Arctic in summer for years. Could a new package tempt Brits to join them, asks Adrian Mourby
Sunday 23 January 2011
This far north, Finland and Sweden are squeezed impossibly close together either side of the Muonio River and the nearest airport is down the road in Norway.
I've been up here before; when days are as dark as night and the roads are lined with walls of snow, and every village you enter invites you to meet the local beardy man who is posing as Santa with a rather bored-looking reindeer for company.
But this year the Arctic Circle is offering us summer tourism. The Swedes and Finns have flocked to Karesuando in summer for ages, a time when the sun hardly sets. But it's something new for Brits.
Waking at 5am – and not really having slept – I look out across a low, tree-lined landscape that extends as far as the eye can see. Open the door and streams gurgle, leaves rustle, and birds call. The Arctic Circle in summer. It's so noisy compared with the blanket silence of midwinter.
The reindeer still look bored, however, when I visit Hannapuro farm. They are shedding the grey fur that covers their new antler growth. It hangs off in red strips as they munch on mushrooms in front of me. At first, it seems it's all the same winter treats – huskies, reindeer, moose – but without the snow and without the local beardy barman dressed as Santa. The big addition, of course, are bears, which sleep through the winter and are now out there somewhere in the pine forest.
"From 2 August, we will hunt bears for a month," says Per-Nils, who picks me up from the reindeer farm and gives me lunch in his kota (tepee). "Moose, too." Per-Nils is a small, rugged survivor, one of the Sami people who have always lived on this land. His home is just across the river in Sweden with his equally tiny partner Brit-Marie. "In August, 250,000 people in Sweden hunt moose," says Per-Nils. "We kill 100,000 in that month."
I ask if that means a lot of Swedes miss. "The moose are very good at hiding," says Brit-Marie from the open hearth. If you have seen the size of a full-grown moose this is saying something. They are huge lolloping creatures, rather like cows on stilts.
"If the Sami did not hunt reindeer and moose there would be too many and they would starve," says Per-Nils. Mind you, so would he. Per-Nils and Brit-Marie do not eat cow or pig. They eat reindeer all the year round, in every way they can. Today, we are consuming it in shreds cooked over a wood fire inside their canvas tent. There is smoke everywhere. If you get up too quickly, you nearly asphyxiate. We kneel on reindeer rugs and scoop up the meat with the pasta and vegetables that have come from the local freezer superstore.
I ask Per-Nils if it's true that the Sami people have a hundred words for snow. "This is true," he says rolling a cigarette. "But we have even more words for the wilderness. This was necessary because when you go home you must tell your family where you have left the reindeer and this information has to be very exact."
"But now we have the Guppus," chips in Britt-Marie. "Yes the Guppus," he nods. I'm about to ask what kind of creature this might be, when I realise we are talking about GPS here. These days the Sami people use satellite pin-pointing like the rest of us.
Meals like this make visiting the Arctic special. When we leave the kota, Brit-Marie shows me her drum, a reproduction of the kind that Sami medicine men used before the 19th-century missionaries came and exhorted them to burn all their pagan paraphernalia.
Goodness, I'm pleased to be standing again. I do not have Sami knees. I hold the drum, a circular wooden frame with stretched vellum on which runic markings have been made with a felt tip by the young woman who serves at the local garage. In this way, each drum is personalised for its purchaser.
Brit-Marie has so much that she wants to tell me. We speak about the seitas, Sami holy places that the Swedish missionaries targeted. "Above Ounas Jarvi [Lake Ounas] there was a seita in the form of a great boulder in the hill known as Jyppyra. The missionaries urged the people to roll that boulder down the hill and it went all the way into the lake and disappeared under the water. And, since that day, the fish in Ounas Jarvi have been very few."
When they are not killing moose, reindeer, fish and bear, the Sami are a very gentle people. They believe that everything has a spirit, and when you spend even just a few hours with them, it's easy to believe that this landscape truly is sentient, that the forest can hear you coming and welcomes you in. That the lake below welcomes you, too. Up here at the top of the world I am finding it easy to exhale and relax. No wonder the Swedes rush up here in summer.
My new sense of equilibrium is disturbed, however, by the sight of some elderly Scandinavians running naked, post-sauna, into the lake. Maybe it's time to return to Karesuando and see if Santa is behind the bar this afternoon.
How to get there
Transun (01865 265 200; transun .co.uk) does a summer wellness break in Karesuando from £779 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, transfers, three nights' full-board, Swedish massage, outdoor yoga classes, traditional smoke sauna and lake swimming. Four- and seven-night breaks are also available.
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