It’s -7 degrees Celsius in Stockholm and boy does it feels like it. The stylish Swedes I pass in the street are elegantly attired for the conditions – wind-shield technology, fur-lined, super-padded, insulation-station. Meanwhile, I flaunt an ill-fitting, old wool skirt over thermal undies with one coat layered over another. I feel silly and unprepared but keep telling myself that it makes no sense to splash out on special winter gear just for a 6-day trip, even if it is 30 degrees colder where I’m headed.
But before my Laplandish expedition commences, I have time to stroll through Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s Old Town that is, towards the January waterfront. The air is crystal clear, snow dusts the cobbled streets, and remnants of Christmas-past festoon the 18th Century houses. It is postcard-perfect.
After my solitary exploration, I join a huddle of international students—togged up to the nines—at the designated meeting point. Many animated voices speak a plethora of languages; I suddenly become acutely aware that I don’t know a single person there. Thankfully this niggling thought soon fades as I strike up conversation with the full-bearded German guy who sits next to me on the bus. I’m not the only lone traveller of course.
Our eager coach-load is northbound, motoring up through Sweden and across the Finnish border towards the country’s northernmost region, which is technically central Lapland. The temperature reading on the red LCD sensor drops steadily, correlating negatively with my growing apprehension about the extreme weather conditions ahead…
18 hours later, we tumble out of the coach, eyes blinking profusely at the sheer whiteness of our surroundings. The white canvas surrounding us reflects a bright, blue-tinged light. Day hasn’t broken yet at 9.30 am in Korvala, an isolated village in Lapland.
We file into a log tavern with a single lantern over the door and candles burning on either side of the entrance. A colossal flue with roaring flames in its mouth presides over the scrubbed wooden interior. Wolf-skin coats hang nonchalantly in an alcove, and, much to our delight, a Saami breakfast spread has been lovingly prepared for our arrival. We instinctively load up our plates with protein – hams, cheeses, pickled herrings, boiled eggs… Plain old cereal will not suffice in this calorie-crunching climate.
The tavern, which is to serve as our main base for the duration of the trip, was built in 1733 by the formerly nomadic ancestors of our host, Seppo Näsi, who runs the lodge along with his wife, Jaana, and their family. In fact, their teenage children will be the fourth generation to take the reins, should they accept the challenge. This long history of self-subsistence and passed-down wisdom confirmed my faith in our hosts’ expertise; I was counting on them to see me through the week safely and un-bitten by the ravenous cold.
Jaana, often seen in traditional dress complete with apron and headscarf, is a fountain of knowledge. In her warm welcome talk, she explained how to deal with the potentially dangerous Arctic conditions. If anyone is qualified to give advice on this, she is. 15 years ago, they recorded an exceptionally low air temperature of -54 degrees here in Korvala!
We weren’t to light fires in the log cabins where we slept, she explained, as this would draw the “0 degree point” inside the cabin, when it should be kept safely in the walls. All the same, we we were more than cosy in our accommodation, which Seppo had built solidly with his bare hands. Every night’s sleep in Cabin Number 10 felt as deep as hibernation. The silence and darkness of nighttime in Lapland equals oblivion.
Each cabin, dispersed amongst the evergreens, looked out over a vast expanse of frozen lake, a great void among the thick forest. From the middle of the lake, you could achieve an eerie echo as your cries reverberated off the wall of trees lining the water’s edge.
One night, we all laid supine on the lake to gaze in wonder at the Great Bear in the sky. The constellation is always visible this far North, hence the Greek root ‘arktikos’, literally translated as ‘of the bear’. Alas, the elusive cloak of the Northern Lights did not materialise before us this time.
With no Wi-Fi to speak of at Korvala, our Generation Y cohort suddenly found itself immersed in nature and the Present Moment. In our toasty, hired snow suits we plodded about in the white stuff like giant toddlers in rompers, gleefully making use of the Equipment Room which contained all manner of outdoor toys including snow shoes, cross-country skis, sleds, and ice-fishing gear.
For ice-fishing, you first have to use an auger – a metallic contraption like a giant corkscrew – to drill down through tens of centimetres of ice. Then you cast your tiddly fishing rod and wait. Unfortunately, that’s all I have to say about ice-fishing. I would elaborate more, but my patience for the “activity” (“passivity” would perhaps be more apt) waned after 20 uneventful minutes of freezing off my behind while staring expectantly into a dark hole.
Frankly, I would rather swim in the lake than spend hours fishing. I’m not even exaggerating; we actually did submerge ourselves in a “bathing hole” when the air temperature was below -35 degrees Celsius and the water rested at a tepid +1, and this was with nothing but socks on our feet!
Of course, we had spent a good while lounging in the sauna beforehand (I feel I should insert this contextual information if only to confirm my sanity). For plunging yourself in ice-cold water after you’ve cooked a bit can produce quite desirable effects—you find that the adrenaline rush as your body attempts to adjust to the temperature change elicits a new kind of high. We soon became addicted, repeating the act of galloping out to the water and scurrying back over and over, breaking into uncontrollable fits of laughter every time.
Believed to purify the mind, as well as cleanse the body, saunas represent an integral part of Finnish culture. In the past, they have been used for giving birth in a sterile environment, caring for the sick, and washing the dead. My fellow travellers and I certainly relished the reinvigorating powers of the sauna at Korvala after long days out in the cold. Not to mention it motivated us to actually strip off our thermal layers and maintain a basic standard of hygiene during our stay!
Student Lapland Winter Tour courtesy of Scanbalt Experience. See http://www.scanbaltexperience.com/