Reindeer country

Stephen Wood glides across Lapland on skis

The first Friday of this month was a national holiday in Finland. This came both as a surprise to me - I had no idea I was arriving on the state's 79th birthday - and something of a relief: giving everyone on the plane a little bottle of sparkling wine in honour of a journalist from The Independent had seemed a bit excessive, until I gathered the pilot had in fact said "Independence Day". But my relief was tempered with anxiety. If it was a bank holiday weekend, wouldn't the winter sports area of Yllas be very crowded?

The anxiety began to dissipate on the bus from the airport at Kittila, in Lapland, the northernmost province of Finland. There was only one other passenger aboard and the road through the forest was so deserted that I idly started counting the vehicles that we passed coming the other way. Very idly. The bank holiday rush obviously hadn't pushed Lapland's population density much above its normal 2.1 people per square kilometre.

Lapland is deserted. In an area bigger than England and Wales put together it has a population about the size of Southampton's. True, there is a bit of a blip in December; that is when the British holidaymakers - an extraordinary 15,000 were expected this year - turn up to celebrate Christmas. The local resident, Santa Claus, is the big attraction, closely followed by the elves and, in the words of one British tour operator, "non-stop huskies, non-stop reindeer". Me, I was Scrooge on skis. Christmas could wait - I was going to spend the weekend cross-country skiing (for the first time) and trying the downhill slopes of Yllas Fell.

Cross-country skiing is big in Lapland, for two reasons. First, the area is a bit short of mountains for downhill: Yllas is the highest ski area in Finland, but the top of the fell is at only 718m. Second, there is snow on the ground from November to May, so jogging is out of the question. As is apparent from the grim concentration on the faces of skiers on the tracks around Akaslompolo - the main resort town for Yllas - Finns regard cross-country primarily as a form of jogging. It is beautiful to watch, especially the traditional and misleadingly named "diagonal" style, in which the skis glide serenely forwards in parallel.

It has almost nothing in common with downhill skiing: there's little excitement or challenge; familiar rituals such as queuing for ski-lifts have no part in it; and it is very easy to learn. I can vouch for the last because I am a largely self-taught cross-country skier. I was supposed to have a lesson on my first day, but a mix-up with bookings meant that I missed my slot. Instead the equipment-hire shop gave me some boots (exquisitely light and comfortable, with a lip at the front to click into the tiny, hinge-effect ski binding), a pair of skis (also very light), two long poles (for forward propulsion rather than balance) and a short run-down on technique. Then off I went, with the encouraging advice that although I would find it difficult on the pavement, it would get easier on the tracks.

I think they meant "in the tracks". The extensive network of municipal cross-country tracks around Akaslompolo is prepared by piste-bashing machines, which flatten down a central reservation and cut two grooves, like railway lines, down either side. There's an "up" line and a "down" line (in Finland you ski on the right); the central reservation is for climbing inclines and, for macho types who use the "skating" style, a brutal but more effective method which involves pushing off a diagonal back ski in a kind of herringbone pattern.

Even on the tracks, there is a problem for beginners: still moving with an ungainly shuffle, you travel a lot more slowly than the experts, who glide. I felt like Thomas the Tank Engine on a TGV line. What was the correct cross-country etiquette? Was I supposed to make a hand-signal and pull over so that the group behind - I could hear them getting closer - might overtake? I chose to be rude and they struggled past on the central reservation.

Quite soon, though, I got into the grooves. When you think about it, cross-country is a nightmare of arm and leg co-ordination; when you stop thinking about it, it becomes completely natural. Your body slips into a laid-back, loping rhythm, which becomes utterly hypnotic. Push (on the back ski) and glide (on the front); push (forcing the middle of the back ski down on to the snow) and glide (unweighting the other so that only the slip-waxed front and back touch the snow); push (using the pole) and glide (moving the pole forward as the gliding ski slows, and becomes the back ski).

There would, I knew, be a song whose rhythm would complement the machine- like movement; and in the end I found it. My advice, if you are thinking of going cross-country skiing, is to listen to Bob Marley's Buffalo Soldier a few times before the trip. I can offer no advice, however, on how to stop or turn on cross-country skis. All the man in the hire shop would say was that they were both difficult. That was true, but not helpful. I had to improvise; if you sit down, I found, you will eventually stop. Then you can decide which direction to take.

Boldly I decided to try some cross-town skiing, and directed my skis down Akaslompolo's rather sparse main street to the pizza joint. After lunch, at dusk, I headed back. It was already half-past two in the afternoon.

What does the name Finland conjure up to you? Trees, snow, and probably gloom. Finland is not noted for its vivacity and animation. The Norwegians - not themselves usually regarded as a load of laughs - apparently enjoy a genre of Finnish "jokes", based on the notion that Finns are depressing, uncommunicative, and heavy drinkers. In one of them a couple are reunited after a long separation and go for a sauna together, taking some vodka with them. After a couple of hours' silent drinking, she asks him how he's been. He replies, after another couple of hours: "Did we come here to babble, or to drink?"

Gloom is undeniable - at least in Lapland in December. The sun never rises: as one Finn said to me, "It goes somewhere else." Daybreak comes at about 10.30am, and dusk follows four hours later. Even in the midday twilight, everything seems to be in black-and-white, under a heavy grey sky.

This does have a lowering effect on one's mood: I took some Sibelius with me, to set an authentically Finnish atmosphere, but it seemed absurdly jolly for Lapland. The lack of light also squeezes the day down in a most confusing way. Right after lunch it feels like time for tea and crumpets - and then there are five hours of darkness to kill before suppertime. The few "daylight" hours provoke a clock-watching anxiety, even though most of the skiing facilities are floodlit. I did get in half a cross- country skiing lesson on day two, but I had to leave early to catch the last bus to Yllas Fell - which departed at 11am.

That was a mistake. Although Akaslompolo is well inside the Arctic Circle, the weather there was wimpishly warm, never falling below -3C during the day. Up on Yllas Fell, the temperature was no lower, but a howling wind effectively took it down, so I was told, to -15C. In thick mist, and with the wind whipping snow off the fell, the visibility was so poor that I could hardly see my skis on the nursery-slope drag lift. On the T-bar up towards the summit it was cold enough to give me an instant headache - nature's way of telling you to get back to the restaurant. That ride, plus the 1,100m descent, cannot have taken more than about 10 minutes. But by the time I got back down, the eyebrow that had not been covered by my woolly hat was solid with ice. Between February and May, when the sun rises, Yllas Fell is apparently a delightful place to ski; but I cannot recommend it on a freezing, misty day in December.

I thought I ought to ski the Mettanperkelheenrinne, because I have never been down a run with such a long name. Happily, it was closed, so I was able to get back to the cosy cross-country tracks at Akaslompolo before nightfall. Push and glide, push and glide: beautiful.

I had avoided Santa Claus, although his Akaslompolo residence was pointed out to me; I saw no elves, and no huskies. But on that last late afternoon, I did see some non-stop reindeer. I wish they had stopped, but they didn't. A group of them came slowly and timidly out of the forest behind me, crossed the ski track, and carried on to the frozen lake. To be honest, they looked too much like lumpy cattle for the moment to seem special - and anyway, until another cross-country skier came down a side track, I had no idea how special it was.

She had been to Lapland many times, she said, and this was only the second time she had seen wild reindeer. So I was lucky to see,them? "You are very lucky," she said. "And so am I."

I went down to the edge of the lake to see if I could spot them again. But I couldn't see anything except shades of grey. The huge, flat sky perfectly matched the colour of the lake, with the strip of land on the other side just a slightly darker tone, one step down the Dulux colour chart. Then something peculiar happened. Perhaps it was the reindeer that caused it, or the affecting emotion of the woman to whom I had spoken; perhaps I had simply given in to the powerful, dark rhythm of the Arctic Circle. But suddenly the landscape and climate were no longer grim, just utterly and movingly awesome. Whatever, it wasn't the wind whipping off the lake that brought tears to my eyes.

Lapland: ski basics

Stephen Wood stayed at the Akas Hotel in Akaslompolo, where a two/three person log cabin (with sauna) costs from 2,640 Finnish marks per week (about pounds 350). He flew by Finnair, London-Helsinki-Kittila - round-trip from pounds 325. The hire of cross-country skiing equipment costs FIM70 (a little over pounds 9) per day; a downhill ski-pass at Yllas Fell costs FIM90 (pounds 12), boots and skis FIM100 (pounds 13). No major tour operators offer ski packages to Yllas, although they are expected to do so next season. Tailor-made packages are available from Norvista (0171-409 7334): for example, an eight-day holiday in Yllas, low season (5 January-14 February) costs from pounds 648, flight and half-board included (two sharing). Further information: Finnish Tourist Board (0171-839 4048)

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