By reindeer sleigh, dogsled, snowmobile, snowshoes, and icebreaker ship, David Lee Drotar makes his way across the white landscape of Arctic Finland.
On a frigid winter day, during a raging blizzard, I jumped into the sea.
It was the same body of water where a rosy–cheeked Boris Yeltsin once took a dip to demonstrate his vigor to the outside world amid speculations of failing health. Today, in a hole cut into the frozen Baltic Sea across from the neighboring shores of Russia, I lay on my back and paddled. Snow swirled around me. Chunks of ice the size of frozen turkeys floated by.
Getting here had been an interesting journey…
The Real Santa Claus
"Real Santa lives in FEEN–land," our sturdy Finnish leader, Ritva, assured my friends and me as we flew from Helsinki at the southern tip Finland, to the Lapland region above the Arctic Circle. Like the other Finns I was to meet, her features and speech did not seem at all Scandinavian, but more reminiscent of my own Eastern European ancestry. I thought of my animated Polish aunts who chattered away in the Cold War era of the 60's about bomb shelters and imminent Russian invasions.
Yet now I wondered if radiation released from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster might linger in the reindeer herds that grazed in its fallout path. The Laplanders depended on the animals for every part of their existence––reindeer meat and milk for food, hides for clothing and shelter. Even the bones and antlers were skillfully carved into useful items such as belts or gun powder holders.
Increasingly, the tourists who came in winter played more of a role in the economics of the frozen tundra. As I glided through sunny meadows on a one–person sleigh pulled by a single reindeer, I realized that the waste–not want–not lifestyle even pervaded Finnish folklore. Santa Claus wouldn't fuss with eight finicky personalities when one dependable employee could easily get the job done.
The real Santa, however, was caught in a curious time warp between aboriginal cultures and a new–millennium reality check that involved marketing reindeer meat and products to the rest of Finland and the world. It appeared that snowmobiles and four–wheel–drive vehicles were faster and more efficient in transporting members of the 57 reindeer keeper associations across a "Lapland kilometer."
Over the Hills by Dogsled
As easily as Finnish vodka flowed on a biting Arctic night, I moved from reindeer sleighing to dog sledding. At Harrinivan Lomakyha, a hundred and fifty eager huskies warmed the day with puppy–like greetings of yelps, jumps, and cuddly nuzzles.
Looking the part of the pack leader, Kopi, the burly, bearded owner of the 23–year–old business, answered my questions about the operation.
"The dogs we choose for team," he explained, "depend on individuals. Some personalities work better together than others." How true, I thought. Could international politics be too far removed from this principle?
I lowered myself into the sled and the driver released his foot from the grab bar that dug into the crusty snow. Immediately the sled moved under the power of the tugging canine team. The dogs worked in harmony as we silently glided over gentle hills and around curves. To my left, I saw the land drop gently to a frozen river––the border with the former "Kingdom of Sweden" to which Finland had belonged for six centuries before coming under the rule of czarist Russia. Soon the dogs returned to their home base where Kopi stood in mukluks and beaver hat, talking on his Finnish–made, state–of–the–art Nokia cell phone.
A Glistening Stage of Snow
After a relaxing sauna and a night under a down comforter, I spent the next day exploring the snowy landscape under my own power. The barren tunturi that rose from the rolling tundra were not majestic like the Rockies or awe–inspiring like the Alps. Instead their comforting pinkish glow during the two–hour Arctic sunrise was like a hug that assures a toddler of love before he tests his way in the real world.
My arduous snowshoe hike to the 1,000–foot summit of Keskinenlaki Tunturi continued to offer mixed signals of danger and comfort. Throughout a rapidly changing meteorological gamut of fog, snow and brilliant sunshine, I plodded over the cake–like surface, occasionally sinking waist deep into the snow. I lunched in a sheltered glade under towering spruces, and hiked along open ridges where I braced myself against the wind. At the summit, I gazed at the glistening white stage lying before me. This theater encompassed the whole world and the actors were the global community.
That night I was hypnotically drawn from the warmth of my hotel room to the frigid outdoors once again. Propped against a snow drift, I stared up at the sky. A comet streaked across the horizon as shooting stars hurled themselves like random Star Wars missiles. Superimposed over the heavens, a display of Northern Lights danced like a shimmering curtain pulled across the earth. I wondered what kind of drama I would find when the curtain opened.
Grandmothers Who Don't Bake Cookies
Weatherproofed with layers of sweaters, socks and face masks under our one–piece wind suits, my friends and I climbed onto our snowmobiles and revved the engines. Leaving the city of Kemi behind us, we buzzed over the frozen Gulf of Bothnia on the Baltic Sea in search of the icebreaker Sampo. Squeezing the throttle while my partner, Florence, held onto my waist, I recalled the story she had told me earlier that day. Her four–year–old granddaughter had taken her to school as a show–and–tell item.
"This is my grandmother," the little girl said. "She doesn't bake cookies."
"Oh." One of her classmates stared in amazement. "What does she do?"
"I don't know, but she's not home very much."
The sunny skies that had lured us onto the ice suddenly turned dark and stormy. Wind–driven snow obscured my vision as I tried to follow our guide through the milky mass. Icy pellets struck my helmet with pinging sounds.
After an hour of riding into the opaque void, we parked our snowmobiles and hiked several hundred more feet toward a shadowy formation. Frozen in space and time, a pale yellow ship loomed in front of us as mysterious and impenetrable as the Kremlin during the pre–glasnost decades.
But a different image presented itself inside the vessel. We tramped through warm, inviting rooms that had been restored with wood paneling and brass in the style of the original ship. Built in 1960 and operated as a working icebreaker until 1987 when its width was no longer adequate to open shipping lanes for modern boats, the Sampo had been purchased by the city of Kemi. Tourists like my friends and I could experience part of Finland's navigation history first–hand.
Once we were on board, the ship's diesel engines rumbled and we slowly rocked up and down, while inching forward. An icebreaker does not actually plow through the ice, I learned. But rather the ship rides up onto the surface and then crushes the ice with its massive weight.
I stepped outside to get a closer look at this process. While I stood on the deck, I heard the eerie sound of ice smashing combined with the fierce rush of wind. Yet everything seemed to be occurring in slow motion in a strange, lifeless vacuum because the frozen sea did not have any waves. A bizarre Mars–like pattern of cracks shot through the ice just before it split apart into ragged fragments that piled up against each other.
The Sampo moved back and forth, clearing an area the size of a Little League baseball diamond. The ship's crew lowered a metal gangway onto the still–frozen perimeter of the makeshift pool.
"Swimming is ready!" Ritva called with delight. "We are first." Those who wished to go into the water should come immediately.
A Polar Bear Pool Party
After getting dressed in a foam survival suit whose snug–fitting hood left only my eyes, nose and mouth exposed, I walked down the gangway and sat on the edge of the ice. I dangled my legs in the water and a crew member eased me backside in. I immediately drifted away from the "shore" but found that I could steer my movements by paddling with my left arm, right arm, or both. As I bobbed in the pool, I watched my friends slide into the water one after another like slippery seals from rocks.
I paddled back and forth. A fresh layer of snow was collecting on the ice. The wind blew, but I was not cold. Other people speaking different languages were now joining the Arctic pool party. Suddenly I started laughing at the absurdity of this scene as the area became crowded and I bumped into the friendly strangers. I picked up handfuls of ice and tossed the jumbo–sized ice cubes away from me to see them splash and clink in a giant international cocktail.
I couldn't stop laughing, and now Ritva had to coax her once–reluctant swimmers out of the water before the black Arctic nightfall descended. We dressed, ate a salmon dinner on board, and chuckled some more about our strange actions as the ship made its way back to our snowmobile drop–off.
Soon it was time to leave the warmth and safety of the icebreaker, and we suited up in layers, boots and helmets once again. As my friends and I walked into the darkness toward the snow–covered vehicles faintly lit from the ship's ghostly green spotlight, I glanced backward. Silhouetted against the frozen seascape, we looked like a group of aliens who had just landed. We had come a long way, but knew little about our mission in a new world.
I wasn't worried. We had a good team in place…and we came in peace.
David Lee Drotar's travel stories appear in Mountain Living, The Globe & Mail, New York Post, The Buffalo News and numerous other publications. He is the author of seven books including Steep Passages: A World–wide Eco–Adventurer Unlocks Nature's Spiritual Truths (www.brookviewpress.com).
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