Skiing, saunas and magical light in Lapland
A snowy sojourn above the Arctic Circle introduces a world of magical sky, friendly (and tasty) reindeer, skis, saunas and camaraderie.
The New York Times
If you go
All aboard the Aurora Borealis Express
To get to Akaslompolo, fly into Kittila Airport and then catch a 50-minute connecting bus. Or take an overnight train from Helsinki, which can be booked online, and catch a 30-minute connecting bus from the train station in Kolari.
What to do
Everybody in town seems to get around on cross-country skis, which can be rented from one of a couple of shops near the town center for less than 100 euros a week.
Nearby tour agencies, such as Scandinavian Adventures (Sivulantie 16, Akaslompolo; scandinavianadventures.fi), can arrange visits with reindeer farms, husky or reindeer sledding or other activities.
There are plenty of cabins, many with built-in saunas, to rent by the week. The best way to find one for yourself is to book through Destination Lapland (destinationlapland.com), which manages scores of cabins of various sizes that can sleep four to 16 people. A week in a typical two-bedroom log cabin, with sauna, and beds for six adults, runs around 900 to 1,200 euros.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the northern lights are on,” announced a member of our group, breaking the pre-dinner weariness.
It had been another long day of cross-country skiing, but his message spurred us to action. In a flash, the cabin was filled with the sound of crinkling jackets and snow pants; a few minutes later, Arctic air was blasting across our faces.
As I made my way across the snow, I craned my head skyward. Streaks of green plasma arced beyond silhouettes of slender pines. The effect was something like the swirls of phosphorescent plankton magnified a billion times. When I wandered back to our cabin hours later — after bumping into a pair of aurora borealis-hunting Finns in the woods who offered swigs of coffee liquor — I nearly stumbled into a reindeer.
Such is the magic of Finnish Lapland, a 38,000-square-mile region of dense pine forests, lakes and bald mountains.
There were seven of us on this weeklong trip last February in the small town of Akaslompolo, about 95 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
My friend Iina, a Finn, and our de facto guide, had sold us on the idea of renting a log cabin, with tales of dancing skies, burning saunas and the likelihood that “you’ll become infected with Lapland madness, which makes you return again and again.”
The madness began on our way there, with a 13-hour, 600-mile overnight train ride on the Aurora Borealis Express — starting in Helsinki and skirting the Swedish border past the Gulf of Bothnia — to Kolari, the northernmost passenger train station in Finland.
Early excavations suggest that this part of Lapland was inhabited as long as 11,300 years ago by the native ancestors of the Sami indigenous people, who still herd reindeer and eke out a living in the northernmost parts of Finland. Today, Yllas (pronounced OO-lahs) is a winter paradise for cross-country skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts, with more than 200 miles of ski tracks, dozens of wilderness huts (some with saunas) and uninterrupted stretches of fells, frozen wetlands and dense spruce and birch forests.
The Lapland light
The first thing I noticed about Lapland was the light, in pastels of greens, blues, pinks and purples. The sun, which never ventures far above the skyline in the spring or fall and doesn’t even breach the horizon for a brief period in the dead of winter, casts long morning and afternoon light all day.
Our wood-framed two-level cabin was one of about two dozen on a small dead-end street leading into the forest. Like many, it was part of a timeshare whose owners made it available for rent.
On our first afternoon in Akaslompolo, we strapped on narrow skis and took the short path from our cabin, through the trees, to the closest ski track. It wasn’t yet 4 p.m., but the blue and yellow of midday had given way to purples. Iina provided basic lessons in cross-country technique — something every Finn, it seems, is born an expert at — while the rest of us marveled more at the surroundings than the instructions.
The distracting beauty of the place was a recreational hazard. I kept expecting Santa, or a yeti, to emerge from the snow-blanketed forest. Perhaps it was my lack of focus during our short training session, or my continually drifting gaze to the blue-black sky overhead as it transitioned through layers of green to a blood-red horizon, but after a two-mile climb up a lighted ski track, I aimed back down the hill and bit it. Hard. The cartwheeling fall became my first, painful, souvenir from Lapland.
The consolation was our cabin’s sauna: After stripping off our ski gear — and then our clothes, in line with custom — the women, then the men, took their turn in the small, wood-paneled sauna. With two benches, a small window onto the woods and a stove on which to pour water for steam — the sauna was a tonic for sore muscles.
Night life in Yllas was countrified and slow — one might even say Arctic. There isn’t much of a town, really, just a supermarket, cabins and a few shops on a couple of otherwise empty streets. The bars, small, dark and very neighborhood sports-pub-style, were, like everything else, accessible on skis.
One night, we had dinner at Humina, a rustic place where we could sample a true Lapland specialty: reindeer. Chipped, and sauteed in butter, the rich, gamy meat was served in a crater of mashed potatoes, with lingonberry preserve.
On what may have been the coldest night of our visit, all seven of us trekked through the dark to the edge of Akas Lake, a flat white expanse — the ice was covered by snow. There, a bundled-up man greeted us at the steps of a small shack that puffed smoke into the moonlit air.
The whole point of the exercise that came next was to laze in a 212-degree sauna until nearly overheated, then scuttle outside down a slippery gangway, descend a set of icy steps and plunge through a hole cut in the yard-thick ice into nearly freezing water.
We entered the hut, which had one changing room with a wood fireplace, and a larger sauna room. Then we set about roasting ourselves, ice-hole bathing, roasting and snow-angel-making in a cycle of extreme temperature change that Finns, and some controlled studies, say is good for the health.
The next night, whole swaths of the sky danced with brilliant greens, purples and reds. Finnish legend says that the lights are formed by a giant arctic fox running so quickly its tail sends plumes of snow from the fells, glittering across the night sky.
By the end of the trip, the group showed symptoms of a successful adventure: sniffles, minor injuries, exhaustion. Ahead, we knew, was a long journey home.
But just as the front door of the cabin was locked, a reindeer came sauntering over. It watched us, and we watched it. Its googly eyes were insectlike, and its furry feet had sharp hoofs for breaking through the snowpack.
When I held out my hand, the reindeer nuzzled it.
A final dose of Lapland magic.