Ultimate North: Lapland

Ultimate North: Lapland

Cedric Angeles
Cedric Angeles
It is home to Alvar Aalto buildings, Santa Claus kitsch, orange birch trees, hedonistic ski resorts, herds of wild reindeer, and a people who live simply (and well) amid the ice and snow. In other words, it is one of the oddest places on earth. Douglas Anthony Cooper journeys to Finnish Lapland.

I just want to get to Lapland before the art melts. This is why, although Montreal is enjoying its most grotesque winter in three decades, I am departing for the Arctic Circle. The Snow Show, which was staged last winter in Finnish Lapland, is by now old news in the art world: an inspired curator seduced a group of vaunted artists and architects to design works made of ice here, about 25 degrees north of the Whitney Museum.

Everyone went to the opening, but I decided to attend the closing. Or, if you will, the slow death. All of these extravagant works will revert to a shapeless, sloshing state as spring creeps up with her blowtorch. It may seem a morbid preoccupation, traveling to watch art die, but I'm interestedin seeing what these virtuosos do when they have no choice but to take into account the gradual ruination of their work.

The Snow Show is also, for me, a motivating excuse to finally confront the North. The mystical northern encounter is a Pan-Canadian obsession. In 1967, the great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould produced a radio feature called "The Idea of North," in which a contrapuntal braid of narrators tried to articulate the meaning of northernness. Gould found his own epiphany through an actual physical voyage: he recorded much of the material on the Muskeg Express, a train that climbs 1,000 miles into the upper reaches of Manitoba. The Idea of North. I have long considered it a Bad Idea. I associate the north with black flies, frostbite, and seasonal affective disorder. But I am traveling to Lapland to see whether I can conquer this antipathy, and replace it with something else—perhaps wonder.

I fly north from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, the unofficial capital of Finnish Lapland, and when I emerge from the airport, I am confused. Have I flown south by mistake?But no, here I am at the Arctic Circle, and it's 10 degrees warmer than it was in Montreal. I make an instant decision: I'm moving.

Unfortunately, for me, Rovaniemi is the official home of Santa, who is responsible for an avalanche of kitsch: Santa Claus Village, Santa Park, Santa Claus's Post Office (yes, that's where all those darling letters addressed MR. SANTA CLAUS, NORTH POLE, THE WORLD get delivered). Rovaniemi is also a typically Arctic city, that is to say, not exactly stunning. A river runs through it, but what it runs through are mostly squat brick buildings and mini-malls. The monotony is only occasionally punctuated by something mobile and notable—say, an elderly woman whose walker has little skis attached.

And yet Rovaniemi is an architectural draw, thanks to a small bouquet of masterpieces designed by the Finnish Modernist Alvar Aalto. Most of Lapland was razed by the Nazis between 1944 and 1945, after Finland's uneasy alliance with Germany turned sour, and Aalto contributed a handful of structures to the rebuilding of Rovaniemi. Most significant is a monumental cluster of buildings that was begun in the sixties; it includes the city hall, a library, and a major theater and concert hall. The theater, Lappia Hall, is outwardly the most striking: vast and white, with a roof contoured like mountains. For the library, Aalto designed truncated cones that pierce the ceiling and long light-catching scoops at the tops of walls: these combine to wring a glowing interior out of one of the most depressing skies I've witnessed. (Not every day here is grim, I should point out—Lapland offers me more than a few incandescent afternoons. Of course, I am visiting close to the spring equinox, when the days are almost as long as the nights, as they should be in a sane and just world.)

Having paid homage to Aalto, I proceed to the Snow Show. Its curator, Lance Fung, is known as an iconoclast, but getting some of the world's greatest artistic egos—each artist was paired with an architect—to collaborate on melting ephemera was a demonically inspired concept. Yoko Ono and Arata Isozaki built a claustrophobic labyrinth enclosed by 30-foot-tall walls of ice bricks; Tatsuo Miyajima and Tadao Ando created a translucent, curving ice tunnel. As I visit the pieces, the ones that impress me most are those that explicitly anticipate and celebrate their liquid doom. Kiki Smith, one of my favorite artists, and the architect Lebbeus Wood embedded sculptures beneath the surface of a frozen pond. They are still obscured by the melting ice, but I sense the coming revelation of vaguely anthropomorphic figures: the bodies of the drowned.

The piece I am most excited to see is Diller + Scofidio's, created with the artist John Roloff. For years I have written experimental narrative scripts for architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, but they never fly me out to view our finished work. And so I have contributed to dance theater in Belgium, a motel room in Santa Fe, giant lips in Switzerland...all sorts of intriguing things, none of which I have ever seen.

I know that neither Liz nor Ric made it to Finland to experience their work (which was, as architecture generally is, constructed by others). I am cheerful at the prospect of sauntering into their studio to remark: "Wonderful piece you guys did in Lapland. So much more powerful than it was on paper. Too bad you missed it."

Their sculpture is installed in Kemi, an industrial town to the south of Rovaniemi. The piece consists, I've been told, of huge ice cubes formed out of gallons of brand-name bottled water—each cube a different brand—set into the surface of a frozen lake like the squares of a chessboard. It takes 11/2 hours to drive to Kemi; at last, I pull up to the ticket kiosk, gleefully rubbing my hands. "So," I say to the woman at the window, "where exactly is the Diller + Scofidio piece?" "You missed it," she says sadly. "It collapsed."

After my failure to achieve a postmodern revenge (how does a pond "collapse"?), I head to the North, to see whether I can get some Idea of it.I think hard about what sort of activity is embedded in the history and mythology of this domain, and come up with a plan: I will go skiing.

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.

The sound track to a road trip is important, so I load up with CD's of yoik. Yoik is Sami chanting: it is minimal and repetitive, often simply one person singing a cappella in a cracking voice. Among my discs is a compilation of techno-yoik. It was only a matter of time, of course, before Finland produced people who had mastered yoik and listened to Moby. One band has cut a track called "Texas": techno-yoik with a rollicking cowboy rhythm. Listening to this song, here, in the blinding snow of the Arctic, I think I have finally discovered the true meaning of postmodernism.

What will I discover when I reach Inari?The Sami are represented in tourist brochures as an almost medieval people, but I suspect that they, and not just their music, have made a complex pact with global society.

Long known as Lapps—a name they don't like much—the Sami are the original settlers of Finland and much of Scandinavia. Unlike other Arctic peoples, such as the Inuit, the Sami are ethnically European, driven north over the centuries by various invading forces. Lapland is a region that precedes, and in some ways disdains, more recent political demarcation: parts of it are also in Sweden and Norway, and there is a small population of Sami in Russia.

The Sami have a tortured legal status, as indigenous people do in North America and, well, almost everywhere. The issue, as always, is land. Much of the land they inhabited for centuries was never legally owned, because the Sami were designated "nomadic," and so governments declared it public. This is a particular problem in Lapland, where reindeer herding is a cornerstone of the economy. (The animals are slaughtered for meat, their hides are tanned, and the antlers and bones are used to make both useful and decorative objects.) Reindeer have traditionally ignored the boundaries between Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Russia, and the Sami have followed their lead, but now countries are whittling away the herders' right to operate transnationally. At the same time, the region's trees are increasingly coveted by the paper industry, which threatens to make the land inhospitable to reindeer.

Inari is acknowledged as the epicenter of Sami culture in Finland. It is a nondescript town with a main street, a couple of hotels, and a clutch of tourist shops. It has a museum, however, called Siida, that unfolds the full intricacy of Sami life. I happen to be a museum junkie. Give me a good museum, and I'll generally prefer it to the reality it purports to represent. Siida is a very good museum. After a couple of wide-eyed hours wandering through the exhibits, I recognize that there is a great deal more happening in Inari than the town offers up to the casual observer.

Siida has made me determined to get out into the wild with the reindeer. One in five Sami still herds, and the museum goes into great detail regarding the complexities of the practice: an ear of each reindeer is notched, for instance, to indicate ownership, and these notches form a language; if you know how to read a reindeer's ear, you can trace the ancestry of its owner.

I'm told that a number of Sami families operate reindeer farms for tourists, but I am not interested in the packaged brand of authenticity. The museum, unfortunately, has a policy of not giving out the numbers of private farmers, and it takes a long time to convince the staff that I am not just another ethno-rubbernecker. At last an employee relents and introduces me to her boyfriend, Petri, who is an actual herder. (He calls himself a "reindeer guy.") Petri agrees to take me out for the day.

He is a friendly, laid-back man in his early thirties, with the kind of blue eyes you rarely see this side of Paul Newman. I climb onto the back of his snowmobile, and we speed across a white lake into the forest. Petri has attached a homemade wooden sled loaded with hay to the back of his vehicle. Lapland's reindeer are semi-domesticated—they live in the wild, but they depend upon herders for food as their supply grows scarce in winter. When we reach the place where his reindeer currently hang out, Petri climbs off the snowmobile and begins to call the herd. His shout, which is not quite a yodel and is extremely loud, sounds like "yes!" And, yes, they come wandering in, from every direction. A lot of them.

Reindeer are much smaller than I expected. Their long, thick fur comes in many colors, from mottled gray to brown to pure white, and they carry themselves with the dignity (and wariness) of wild beasts. As his herd ignores us in favor of the hay, Petri cuts twigs and small pieces of wood to build a fire in a hole cleared of snow. He uses a knife with a carved handle of reindeer horn. He is dressed in ordinary cold-weather gear, except for a wide belt decorated in the Sami fashion, and boots of reindeer pelt with pointed elflike toes.

Traditional Sami outfits, called gakti, are generally dyed one of the brighter colors found in nature—often blue—and decorated with even brighter beadwork and embroidery. Cap styles differ greatly, depending upon the village, and the embroidery is an ancestral code. You do not often find Sami wearing full gakti except at formal ceremonies, and great controversy surrounds the abuse of traditional clothing in the tourist trade; the Sami are sick of seeing watered-down versions wrapped around burger girls.

"I don't know about you," Petri says, "but I am hungry." He pulls out a slab of smoked reindeer meat, which is frozen solid. Petri cuts off a chunk of meat, which he spears on a long stick and tells me to hold in the fire. The point is not to cook the meat; it's already smoked. You just want to heat it until it unfreezes. Water drips from it as it warms.

Petri gives me the knife to cut off a piece when it is done. The verdict?This stuff is fantastic. I've tried reindeer in various restaurants here (Ru-dolph is on just about every menu in Lapland), but Petri's smoked meat occupies a whole different stratum. It's not easy to pin down the taste, but imagine wild pastrami.

Petri pulls a tiny, blackened kettle out of his pack: "Now I'll make us some coffee." Finlanders pride themselves on consuming more coffee than any other people in the world. Which is funny, when you consider how sober and laconic they tend to be. You'd expect them to be racing around, with shaking hands and crazy ideas. "Why do the Finns drink so much coffee?" I ask.

"Because it's good."

He pours the coffee into traditional Sami cups. These are fashioned from birch burls, and have a gourd-like shape with a bottom that prevents them from tipping when placed on the uneven ground.

"I like it here," Petri says. And I become exquisitely aware that I'm parked beside a fire on a handmade sled in the Lappish wilderness, drinking coffee in the clear winter air with a Sami herder and his personal herd of gorgeous reindeer. I like it here, too.

Ski season (cross-country and downhill) in Lapland lasts from October to May; most travelers should consider visiting in spring, when temperatures stay between 25 and 30 degrees and darkness has receded. In the summer months, when daylight lasts nearly 24 hours and the temperatures hover in the low sixties, Lapland is known for good hiking and salmon fishing. Finnair (www.finnair.com) operates regular flights to Rovaniemi, Ivalo, and Kemi from Helsinki.


Quality Hotel Santa Claus
Rovaniemi will never be known for its hotels, but the new Santa Claus is surprisingly decent.
29 KORKALONKATU; 358-16/321-321; www.hotelsantaclaus.fi

Hotel K5 Levi
The best option in Levi; it also has an excellent restaurant.
2 KATKANRANNANTIE; 358-16/639-1100; www.k5levi.fi

Hotel Riekonlinna
When visiting Inari, stay an hour away in Saariselka. This hotel is comfortable and has a good Lappish restaurant.
13 SAARISELANTIE; 358-16/679-4455; www.riekkoparvi.fi


A wonderful museum of all things Arctic. Don't miss the listening room devoted to yoik.
4 POHJOISRANTA, ROVANIEMI; 358-16/322-3260; www.arktikum.fi

A nature center and museum of Sami culture. Staff can refer you to reindeer farms.
INARINTIE, INARI; 358-16/665-212; www.siida.fi

With 48 slopes and 26 lifts, it's the largest (and liveliest) downhill skiing area in Finland.
358-16/641-246; www.levi.fi

A ski resort with 137 miles of cross-country skiing and a few downhill slopes.
358-16/668-676; www.saariselka.fi

Santa Claus Village
Five miles north of Rovaniemi, a village dedicated to finding out who's naughty or nice.
21 ROVAKATU; 358-16/346-270; www.santaclaus.fi

The Snow Show (www.thesnowshow.net) will next be staged in 2006 in Turin, Italy.

Explore More

More from T+L