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In Lapland, North of the Arctic circle in Finland, it takes only a few minutes to forget the frenzy of daily life and to plunge into a peaceful, stillness and pristine nature. Kilpisjärvi (Gilbbesjávri in Sámi language) has a population of about 100 and is located near the border with Sweden and Norway. This small village lies in the northernmost part of the district of Enontekiö, and the Arctic Ocean is only about 30 miles away as the crow flies! In this remote area, the vast wilderness displays beautiful landscapes and the beauty of the infinite tundra rejuvenates any weary mind. If you are looking for a quiet and authentic corner and a total change of scenery, Kilpisjärvi is the place to go !

The town of Kilpisjärvi and its tourist sign indicating the distances… Olso 1032 miles, Helsinki 745 miles.

 

Driving a snowmobile in Lapland, Finland

When winter takes hold in Kilpisjärvi and the surrounding mountains are snow-covered, the region does not simply go into hibernation. On the contrary, the snow facilitates transportation that is often difficult and unrewarding the rest of the year… Adventure lovers, it is time to ride your snowmobile and explore the countryside and take a big breath of fresh and pure air. Wrapped in warm and comfortable outfits, we depart for the point where Finland, Sweden and Norway meet, a very popular spot located just outside the village. The monument is about 2 miles northwest of Lake Kilpisjärvi. Before leaving, the guide explains, of course, the basics of driving a snowmobile and the necessary safety instructions… Nothing complicated since there is just a throttle to operate and brakes to use when necessary… it is important to use the engine brake and only hit the brake pedal when strictly necessary (gulp!). The guide starts the snowmobiles one by one for our tour, their headlights light up… and we head off into the unknown. At the beginning, the guide goes slowly, “Chi va piano va sano e va lontano ?” to make sure we follow and handle our snowmobile as well uphill as downhill… Then in a change of pace, the snowmobile picks up speed and its skis dig up small clumps of the thick ice that covers the lake. We begin to feel the machine’s power.

Helmet on his head, the guide starts the snowmobiles one by one for our tour, their headlights light up... and we head off into the unknown.

Magical colorless landscapes roll forward in front of us, and we pass a sumptuous succession of lakes and birch forests. Between birch trees we see traces of a bird… A Lagopus, our guide tells us, with white winter plumage to blend into the snowy background, like Arctic hares and foxes. Whether in the snow, in the sun or the arctic cold, the time spent enjoying the vastness of winter is wonderfully rewarding. Alone in this beautiful natural wilderness of immaculate whiteness, your eyes take you several miles away, and the only noise comes from your own breath, the gentle wind playing with the pine trees, and the crackle of snow under your shoes !

« Snow soothes everything, it looks like it carries silence or, rather than in the space that separates two flakes, between flakes, there is silence ».
(Jón Kalman Stefánsson, The Sorrow of Angels)

The locals say, “The best thing here is nature”, and it is open to everyone. One of the particularities of Finnish law is the concept of “Everyman’s right”: everyone is entitled to walk in the forest, camp, fish, hunt, gather mushrooms, wild berries and flowers – as long as they are not protected species – and breathe the fresh air !

The stunning panoramic view of a huge frozen lake in Lapland. Alone in this beautiful natural wilderness of immaculate whiteness, your eyes take you several miles away.

 

Malla Strict Nature Reserce and the three-country cairn

The threecountry cairn marks the international borders between the three nordic countries, Sweden, Norway and Finland. It is called “Treriksröset” in Swedish, “Treriksrøysa” in Norwegian, “Kolmen valtakunnan rajapyykki” in Finnish and “Golmma riikka urna” in Sámi. It lies, almost inaccessible, in the middle of the water about 33 feet from the shore (there is still a wooden pontoon to approach it during the summer period). During the winter it is painted yellow… the lake Goldajärvi is completely frozen and covered with a thick layer of snow!… it is the perfect opportunity to tour Scandinavia in 2 minutes… The current monument, a conical frustum made of concrete, was inaugurated in July 1926 and replaced an old “cairn” erected in 1897 by Norway and Russia, which then administered the Grand Duchy of Finland. Sweden has not participated because of a disagreement over the exact border with Norway and did not contribute the stones until 1901…

The three-country cairn marks the international borders between the three nordic countries

At this spot we are in the Malla Strict Nature Reserve, a protected area since 1916 and declared a Strict Nature Reserve in 1938. It covers an area of 12 square miles and is crossed by theNordkalottruta” in Norwegian, “Kalottireitti” in Finnish, and “Nordkalottleden” in Swedish. This Arctic trail is a marked hiking trail crossing the 3 Scandinavian countries and running 44 miles in Finland, 236 miles in Norway and 217 miles in Sweden. The 497 mile trail begins at Kautokeino in northern Norway and ends further south at Sulitjelma in Norway or, on the alternative trail, in Kvikkjokk in Sweden. Along its way, it follows the well-known hiking trail Padjelantaleden in northern Sweden, and the last section of the “Nordkalottleden” leads through a deep wilderness area between Kilpisjärvi and Kautokeino. The trail (especially in the highlands of Lapland) is dotted with rudimentary cabins called “autiotupa“, where any hiker can stay for free, cook a hot meal, simply warm up in front of a good fire and be guarded by a small mythical being from a parallel world. While sipping a delicious hot berry juice in my “kuska” (a traditional cup usually made from birch wood) I can see through the window the incessant ballet of sparrows around the bird feeder and the oddly shaped ice that hangs from the roof… the sun casts a magnificent glow in shades of red along the horizon, and lost in the this endless snow-cover I feel alone in the world, in communion with nature.

« The narrow path winds up the hill,
It curves into the trees;
Behind me fjord and valley fill
With moon-hazed reveries ».
(Henrik Ibsen, On The Heights, poem)

After just a few days here I would surely become a follower of “Friluftsliv” (pronounced free-loofts-liv) or the art of reconnecting with nature. This strange word first appeared in 1859 in a poem by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It means “free-air-life” in Norwegian. The word contains three keywords: “Fri” (freedom), “Luft” (air) and “Liv” (life). It is a philosophy of life where the only quest is to explore and appreciate nature and to forget the cacophony of  « Modern Times ».

The evening light illuminates the birch trees standing in the middle of this snowy landscape as well as the colorful houses.

 

The Saana fell, a sacred mountain to the Sámi people

The Saana fell overlooking the village of Kilpisjärvi is sacred to the Sámi people. Sacrificial fires are lit on its summit in honor of the supreme god “Ukko” (god of heaven), the divinity of the sky, thunder, and lighting in Finnish mythology. According to legend the two adjacent mountains, Malla and Saana fells, were once two giants who were turned into ice on their wedding day by an unwelcome sight. Saana fell is also one of the highest spots in Finland, 3,376 feet above sea level at its peak and 1,824 above the adjacent Lake Kilpisjãrvi. If you feel like it, you accept the challenge of hiking to the top where you have a sweeping view !

The Saana fell is easily recognizable because of its special shape. It stands in a snow-covered tundra landscape.

The Saana fell  is also a good place to watch the sunset and the stunning show of the polar night, the Aurora Borealis. When the Lapland is covered with a veil of darkness and the wind has chased the clouds away to reveal a black sky dotted with thousand of stars, the Northern Lights suddenly illuminate the sky with an incredible glow… Aurora can only be seen on clear nights so the weather must be cooperative. The Sámi explain the Northern Lights by saying that they are caused by a Firefox running across the mountains so quickly that his tail sweeps up the snow causing sparks to fly into the night sky. Thus an Aurora Borealis was born by magic. The Finnish word for Northern Lights is revontulet meaning “Fire-Fox”. Also, according to the Sámi people, the lights were created from the spume ejected by whales. The image of the fox roaming at night is my favorite.

« With such a cold weather like this, we should see the Northern Lights tonight ?
– The cold weather has nothing to do with Northern Lights, said Klemet.
To see northern lights, you need clear sky. However, in winter, when the sky is clear it means a cold weather.
– Where do these northern lights come from ? – Oh, I don’t really know. Something to do with the sun. In our culture, we used to say that northern lights were the eyes of death. That’s why
you should never point a finger at them. »
 (Olivier Truc, French author – Forty Days Without Shadow)

Many talk about Lapland and Lapps, but it is better not to use the term “Lapp”, which is regarded as pejorative. The word “Lapp” means “a patch of cloth for mending”. It is a bit like “Eskimo” for the Inuit people, which literally means “eater of raw meat”… It is better to use the term “sámi” taken from the name for their ancestral lands, “Sápmi”. The Sámi have been living in Kilpisjärvi since prehistoric times and it is still one of the most famous bastions of their culture. The United Nations has recognized the Sámi as an indigenous people under the international conventions of indigenous peoples, and actions are being taken to protect their culture.

The reindeer represents a mystical being and the winter. It is recognizable by its beautiful antlers and its brown fur coat.

 

The culture of Sámi reindeer herding in Finnish Lapland

Their traditional lifestyle still relies on reindeer husbandry, fishing, hunting, small-scale farming and handicrafts, but it is common today to associate them with tourism and any other service activity. Even though modernity has spread to this remote corner of the world, In Kilpisjärvi traditions like reindeer herding are still very much alive in local life. Moreover, the Sámi language has about 400 words to describe “reindeer”… and some 10,000 terms to describe the different shades of white depending on the type of snow (Olaf must be happy) !

« – What was he afraid of?” continued Nina.
– He was afraid of being lost. He was afraid of getting lost. He was afraid of screwing up.
– You mean as a breeder?
–  As a breeder, as a man. A farmer who doesn’t know how to take care of his reindeer is not a man. »

(Olivier Truc, French author – Forty Days Without Shadow)

Historically, all parts of the reindeer are used: bones to antlers (each part of the antler has a specific use), tendons and skin. The stomach, for example, is stuffed and then suspended in a hut for smoking. Different parts of the reindeer are pan-fried… Bon appétit ! There is also a reindeer police force called “Reinpolitiet”, whose jurisdiction covers phenomenal distances since it takes sometimes between two and three days to reach a “crime scene”… To learn more about this special police unit and also about the Sámi culture, I highly recommend the thriller entitled “Forty Days Without Shadow” by Olivier Truc. In this fascinating novel an artifact is stolen, and detectives Klemet Nango and Nina Nansen, both officers of the Reindeer Police, are called to investigate. When they rush to tell Mattis that his herd may wander among his neighbor’s herds, they are far from suspecting that Mattis is about to die…
Like all deer, the reindeer has antlers that it loses during the year. Reindeer, however, are the only deer species in which females have antlers too.

 

Ice fishing in Sámi culture

Fishing is one of the traditional activities of the Sámi people. In winter, when lakes are frozen, they practice ice fishing. At first glance, this winter hobby seems unusual… First, the fisherman must travel a long distance through vast white expanses into the middle of a frozen lake, the middle of nowhere, and then try his luck and hope to catch some fish. First, he must choose, in this breathtakingly peaceful place, a suitable spot and break the thick layer of ice with a core drill.Now, the icebreaker game is over … or rather the ice is broken. Then, we have to prepare the hole: with a ladle, we have to free the hole of barely 8 inches in diameter from the ice particles…

« My fish is not fresh ? »
(Ordralfabétix, the fresh fish merchant of the village – Asterix)

Then he baits his line and drops it through the hole in… and sits comfortably on a reindeer skin, waiting patiently for something to happen… the wait can last seemingly endless hours. But this wait can be a kind of meditative or contemplative retreat. The surrounding infinite white paradise and the total silence (except on windy days) clears the mind unexpectedly and effortlessly. In this state of mind, catching a fish is not the ultimate purpose! It is probably the true essence of ice-fishing.

These wood fishing cabins look like they have jumped off a postcard. These are equipped with all the necessary equipment to light a fire.

Finally, there are fishing cabins that look like they have jumped off a postcard (imagine the cabin at the bottom of a garden in winter). These are equipped with all the necessary equipment to light a fire, prepare hot drinks and enjoy the results of your fishing expedition (or not). After this experience, you will be a changed man… or woman. I leave you with the traditional song joik (Say “yoik”) of the Sámi people of the nordic countries and the Kola peninsula of Russia. The sound is comparable to the traditional chanting of some Native American cultures and shares some shamanic traditions of Siberia which mimic the sounds of nature. During Christianization the song was condemned as sinful by the authorities because Joik songs were considered a pagan and barbaric practice… That is why the interpretation Jag är fri (I’m free) by Swedish singer Jon Henrik Fjällgren is doubly interesting !

 

Find more about Lapland

 

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