“The snowflakes flying into the windscreen look like shooting stars,” says Ella, sounding slightly dazed. We’re 185 miles north of the Arctic Circle, passing through the town of Inari, home to the Sámi Parliament of Finland. The wooden structure on the banks of the frozen River Juutuanjoki is the first sign of life we’ve seen since leaving Ivalo Airport an hour ago. “This is the big city,” deadpans our guide, Timo. “From here on, it’s wilderness, the land of the Sámi herdsman.” Ella, still gawping at snowflakes, mishears. “Salami herdsman? Mummy I’m hungry.”
Dinner is waiting at Hotel Korpikartano, a former Sámi boarding school on the shores of Lake Menesjarvi. A salmon and potato bake is served in the old school hall, which amuses Ella. As do the hotel’s dorm-like rooms. We may be in the wilderness — the setting for Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books — but it’s decidedly civilised. After a few hours’ hooning around the frozen lake on toboggans and kicksleds, clutching each other with squealing glee as the sky marbles a faint green from the Northern Lights, we come in to find Anna, Timo’s wife, has already fired up the sauna.
Next morning, we set out into what still feels like the middle of the night (sunrise isn’t until around 11am in midwinter). We’re off to meet those ‘salami’ herders. Petri Mattus (‘Patrick’), a local herdsman drives us through thick forest on a skidoo, with a trailer-sleigh, to find his herd. Sliding to a halt in a clearing, he scatters winter feed, as he repeatedly calls out “jertorrrrr”, which summons deer from nowhere.
Patrick starts a fire, boils tea with meltwater (“not the yellow stuff”) and drags the sled off its runners to make a platform for the deerskins we sit on fireside, now surrounded by hundreds of antlered beasts under a brightening sky. Given we’re in the frozen north to explore Santa’s realm, Ella seems surprisingly unfazed by the bloody realities of Patrick’s herder life. In fact, she’s enthralled by Patrick’s
Nordic cowboy panache (on his studded leather belt swings a bone-handled knife and lasso), particularly when he teaches her to sling the lasso over some antlers.
It’s soon dark again. The ideal time, apparently, to snowshoe and cross-country ski around the hotel’s lake. Ella’s a natural — at least at getting up quickly after repeatedly falling, and at avoiding the fishing hole cut through the 40cm-thick ice. This depth can support a skidoo (which we later pilot) but there are still ominous creaks and cracks. Ella is more perturbed, however, by a nearby igloo. “Bears! Armoured ones!” she yelps, recalling the beasts from Pullman’s Northern Lights.
Thanks to scant light pollution and a dry inland climate, aurora-spotting here, we’re told, is a cinch. “Timo has the switch,” jokes our ski guide, Sebastian, his face tinged a ghostly green-white by the natural phenomena crossing the sky in a wobbling arc. Ella, meanwhile, is more interested in a little red hut across the lake. “Do you think that’s Santa’s?” she asks. Sebastian doesn’t miss a beat. “No, that’s the old village post office. It’s not used any more, apart from at this time of year when the elves need it to process all Santa’s letters.”
Our action-packed time includes husky sledding with local ‘dog whisperer’ Tinja Myllykangas, who looks like a blonde Pippi Longstocking and has a similar do-it-yourself spirit, taking in unwanted huskies and lovingly rehabilitating them. Ella is left as wide-eyed by Tinja as she is by the dog team she gets to harness and help drive through a white-blanketed forest.
But it’s Santa, ultimately, who leaves her speechless. This low-key encounter doesn’t come with elf guides or jingle bell fanfares but is instead signalled by smoke rising up out of a cabin by the lake. “Come and meet one of my friends,” says Anna, taking Ella’s hand. Inside, a log fire has the hut as misty as a sauna, but through the smoke, Santa’s red and white attire is clearly visible. Ella is terrified. We leave without a word exchanged between them and I wonder if the Big Guy has lost his magic. But once Ella has regained her composure, the speculation starts. “I’m not sure if that was the Santa, mummy, but it was probably one of his main helpers. And besides, Santa lives miles away in the forest behind the elf post office.”
Published in the Summer 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller – Family