Opposite, clock wise from
top left: A snowmobile
excursion reveals the
vastness of the frozen
Baltic Sea; the Sampo
icebreaker; Santa greets
visitors year-round in his
office; Arctic Glass Igloos
in Rovaniemi; survival
suit ice swimming in the
frozen Baltic Sea.
inky waters, the suits so buoyant we instantly float on our
backs. I serenely bob among jagged blocks of ice and it is
extraordinary, like being a penguin, adrift in unending
pure-white frozen seas.
And then, the icing on the cake — so to speak. Around
sunset, before hopping back on our snowmobiles, we catch
Finland’s blue moment, a bedazzling phenomenon that
envelops the glacial landscape in ethereal shades of blue.
Snow flurries swirl in the morning as we ride a train
two hours to Lapland’s capital, Rovaniemi, burned to the
ground by German troops during World War II and rebuilt
in the shape of a reindeer head with antlers.
Again, we zoom off on snowmobiles, this time to find a real
reindeer on a farm on the mystical Arctic Circle, where
an indigenous Sami shaman named Janne leads us into
a Lappish tepee. The elfin reindeer-herder wears a traditional embroidered red hat with four drooping blue points
symbolizing directions of the wind.
“Are you bad? Ah, on the Arctic Circle I can take away
bad spirits,” he hoots, shaking a bell-ringing rabbit-foot
amulet. “Hay-lay! Hay-lay!” To kill any negative juju, he
takes soot from the flaming fire pit and presses two black
fingerprints on my forehead.
“We believe, in Lapland, if you come back on earth, you
will come back as a reindeer.”
No thank you. I’ve seen a lot of reindeer burgers and
reindeer-topped pizza on menus here.
Soon I get a quickie reindeer-driving lesson and we’re
off, me grasping the reins, Marilyn praying, with antlered
Esko gliding our wooden sleigh through a gorgeous pine
forest doused in virgin snow. As many as 240,000 reindeer live in Lapland — they are all semi-domesticated and
owned by people — and Janne says it takes years to train
one to pull a sleigh. Esko, a freethinker, stops to gnaw on
tree trunks, periodically veers off trail and at the very end,
goes rogue. In an apparent bolt for freedom, he darts to the
side with us in tow, bangs our sleigh into the sleigh ahead
and then sails us over that sleigh. I channel Santa, uttering
Santa shrieks. Wanna-be Rudolph is quickly cornered.
Santa Every Day
In Santa’s official hometown, Rovaniemi, it only makes
sense to sit down with the guy for a bit. I join the chatty
white-bearded headliner where he meets admirers 365
days a year, next to a world map and wrapped presents in
his log cabin “office” in touristed Santa Claus Village. (A
Finnish radio broadcaster in 1927 first revealed that Santa
lived in Lapland; since his home is a guarded secret, he
opened his office here in 1985.)
“To see a little sparkle in the eyes of an 86-year-old
Snowflakes on the Roof
with dementia, that’s what’s important,” Father Christmas
tenderly says. He mentions that many Western children
want “a new iPhone or earphone or nose phone, whatever.”
“It’s a very emotional place,” says head elf Katja
Tervonen. “Adults write the saddest letters pouring out all
their feelings about losing a job or about illness.”
On display are various gifts sent to Mr. Claus (night
goggles, barber set) and hundreds of pacifiers mailed by
youngsters for baby reindeer. “Children also send carrots
for the reindeer but they’re not so fresh by the time they
get here from Indonesia,” Katja confides.
My last night, near Rovaniemi in the powdered-sugar
wilderness, I check into a balmy spacious glass igloo with
a motorized bed I can position to see the famed aurora
borealis (Northern Lights), said to be visible in Lapland up
to 200 days a year. The igloos are on the same property as
another splendid ice lodge, the Arctic SnowHotel, boasting
the only “snow sauna” of its kind in the world.
This is why, wrapped in a towel, alone, inside a closet-size,
snow-walled, snow-ceilinged ice chamber, I ooze puddles
of sweat. The point is to ladle water onto hot rocks to engulf
yourself in intense thick steam — I can’t see a thing — until
an attendant pounds on the door to get you out after 15 minutes because the sauna is melting and needs to refreeze.
Jelly-legged, toxin-purged and back in the glass igloo, I
entrancingly watch steady snowflakes dissolve on the see-through heated roof. Without clear skies, the “aurora alarm”
in the room will not sound to wake me for a light show. But
it doesn’t matter. Lapland has been a winter fairy tale. The
next morning, as I wait to board a Finnair jet in Rovaniemi, I
half-expect Donner and Blitzen to fly me back to California.
And that might actually be a possibility: a sign overhead
reads “Santa’s Official Home Airport.” m
As many as 240,000 reindeer live in Lapland and Janne
says it takes years to train one to pull a sleigh.