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Ultimate North: Lapland

Skis were invented in Lapland, more than 4,500 years ago, and you can ski here into late spring. I drive several hours northwest, to the resort town of Levi. My route passes through the greatest expanse of wild country in Europe, and it feels like it—a stark, lonely land of frozen lakes and coniferous fells. The high snowbanks on either side of the road remind you that Nature has only grudgingly granted you passage and could easily change Her mind.

As I head farther north, pine trees give way to dwarf birches. They are rarely white, but rather reddish or orange, and flash brightly when the sun breaks through the clouds. Most of the time, though, Lapland's colors court the monochrome. And when a full-on snowstorm arrives—which on this day it does—then dull white conquers all.

Technically, you are supposed to slow down when driving in these conditions. I, however, come from a long line of execrable drivers. I find negotiating oncoming traffic (which I can barely see) interesting. It is during one of these fascinating moments that I misjudge the edge of the road (which I cannot see). My front wheel catches in the snow on the shoulder, and I fishtail out and around, luckily missing the car I have been trying to miss. A complete circle is what I make, before my car tips over.

I never imagined that my trip to the Arctic would be anything like Robert F. Scott's Antarctic antics, but death levels all things. A hero and a writer look pretty much the same when cryogenically preserved in their vehicles.

Except that I do not die. The car turns back onto its wheels, and a couple of Finns tow me to the road. Neither I nor the car is damaged. Seems that crashing into a Finnish snowbank is about as concussive as rolling up in a duvet.

Levi turns out to be a wild and crazy place, with a stylish hotel, the K5, and blondes dancing on outdoor tabletops to Finnish pop. The idea of skiing in the Arctic is, of course, magnificently exotic. If you're going to worship snow, you might as well go to the source. I'm not the only one who feels this way: Europeans come here from all over the Continent, despite the fact that they have a wide choice of alps and Levi is little more than a hypertrophied hill.

The thrill is more than conceptual. The snow feels cleaner up here, and the sun that much brighter. And although the runs may not be the longest in the world, that hardly seems to matter when you almost never have to wait in line for a lift. Cheerful ski snobs from France tell me on the gondola that they come here every year; it is, in fact, their favorite ski resort.

For all the adrenaline of the open slope, I find greater cultural depth in the sauna. It is a commonplace that there are more saunas than Finns in Finland, and, indeed, the sauna is a profoundly Finnish institution, intricately bound up in the national psyche. While roasting at Levi's "spa," I am brought up to speed on sauna lore by a Finn who seems to enjoy tweaking foreigners. I think this is hot?Hell, in Finland they have sauna competitions where this would merely be the starting temperature. I ask him whether it's true that women used to give birth in the sauna. Yes, it's true. But that was some time ago. I tell him I've heard that a group of Americans is reviving the tradition. He tells me that Americans are out of their minds.

Feeling a bit shallow in the hermetic pleasure dome of Levi, I leave in the hope of redeeming myself through a more legitimate encounter with Arctic authenticity. I drive to Inari to investigate the Sami, Lapland's indigenous people.

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