One of 3,318 islands on Lake Inari
Coffee brewing on the fire
a boat by Lemmenjoki River
blueberries and cloudberries
a cabin in Urho Kekkonnen National Park.
Father Christmas doesn’t set much store by tradition in the town of Saariselkä. It’s August, and his smiling face, hacked out of wood, welcomes people into the town’s supermarket. Two paces inside and there he is again, wielding an axe and lantern, cheeks ruddy and beard fulsome above a red velvet suit. In his defence, we are above the Arctic Circle and he is said to live in the nearby forest – why wouldn’t he use his downtime to pop to the shops for a bottle of blueberry shampoo and a string of elk sausages?
That he is a permanent fixture on the main street of Saariselkä points to the Finnish town’s principal appeal: winter, in all its frosty, twinkling glory. Tourists, hundreds of thousands each year, come to ski through the snow, gaze at the northern lights, and to shuffle up to Santa in a fire-warmed cabin. What they don’t do much is come in summer. If you subscribe to the belief that hell is other people, you’ll find heaven here, out of season.
Cycling on electric fat bikes through Urho Kekkonen National Park.
The Inari region of Lapland is the largest municipality in Finland. It’s home to 7,000 people in an area of 6,693 sq miles
Guide Vappu Brännare
moss and lichen
It’s nudging 8°C when I meet Vappu Brännare at the entrance to Urho Kekkonen National Park, a forested wilderness that stretches all the way to Russia. She is the only guide currently at Lapland Safaris, her colleagues having dispersed across the country for the summer. ‘This is the reality of August in the Arctic,’ she says as I pull on gloves and a scarf. ‘We had six days of hot weather earlier in the year and everyone is still talking about it! Heatwaves are nice for us but they’re bad for nature.’
The nature of northern Finland is what keeps Vappu here. She arrived from Helsinki in 2015 to work for six months, and never went back. ‘That happens a lot,’ she says as we climb onto mountain bikes. ‘People come for the winter and never leave. If you’re a nature person, this part of the world is perfect.’ It doesn’t take long to see the appeal. We zip through a forest of old-growth pines, the ground mobbed with bracken, black crowberry and Alpine azalea. From within the trees come the calls of bramblings. We climb to an exposed plateau, our tyres bouncing over the rocky ground, and the trees disappear altogether. The forest below, squashed by low cloud, extends to infinity in all directions. The murk, with raindrops plopping from our cycle helmets into our faces, does nothing to diminish the wonder of a sight entirely unspoiled by humans.
We are not the first to be captivated by the landscape, as I discover when we return to the forest - even if its earliest visitors were more interested in what lay beneath the ground than on top of it. Up a narrow track lies a scattering of wooden huts, constructed by the gold miners who arrived 50 years ago. I shine a torch down a shaft they shovelled out by hand, and the beam is swallowed by the darkness before it can reach the bottom. Luck was not on the miners’ side: at best, they left empty-handed; at worst, ill and bankrupt. ‘Really, you can say the miners were the first tourists here,’ says Vappu. ‘A lot of them were running away from something, and Lapland is a good place to run to – it is very far away from everywhere else.’ Modern tourism, which took hold here in the 1960s when the region featured in a couple of Finnish movies, shares the same impulse: for a lot of people, being very far away from everywhere else is all the attraction needed.
Some of the miners’ cabins in the park have been turned into wilderness huts, free for all to use. We park our bikes by one, a sturdy log cabin with smoke drifting from the chimney. It’s dark inside, with wood crackling in the stove. Three young men sit at wooden benches, their wet coats hanging from the ceiling. ‘This is very Finnish,’ says Vappu, pouring hot lingonberry juice into wooden cups. ‘You come into a hut, the fire is lit, clothes are drying, there are other people, and we all pretend we are sociable.’
A kuksa cup with hot lingonberry juice.
Ravadas Falls in Lemmenjoki National Park
The time soon comes to return to a land of tarmac and electricity. As we step outside, a Siberian jay watches from a pine tree. I put a piece of lingonberry bar in my palm and he flits closer. He finally swoops in, briefly resting his feet on my fingers, takes the food and retreats . ‘The Siberian jay is our lucky bird,’ says Vappu as we pedal off. ‘We have a belief that if someone meets a Siberian jay, they will have luck for the rest of their trip. So now you will be very lucky.’
That luck is not much in evidence in the woodland around Lake Menesjarvi. On the drive here from Saariselkä, I saw more reindeer in the forest than I did vehicles on the road. There are signs of them here too: wispy bits of white fur caught on trees. I’m creeping about the forest with Martii Kiviniemi from Hotel Korpikartano right on the lake. Our eyes are trained on the ground seeking lingonberries, blueberries, crowberries and cloudberries, but the pickings are slim. ‘It’s been a strange summer,’ he says. ‘There were two nights in June when it was snowing, and the blueberry and cloudberry are afraid of the cold.’
The biggest gold nugget found in Finnish Lapland weighed 393g. Around 20kg of gold is found in Lemmenjoki each year
Reindeer sausage with mushrooms
a wooden house known as a ‘kota’
The descent from Sierikniva fell.
Reindeer are a common sight in the forest
hunting for berries
a midnight swim
the name of Oula Jomppanen’s boat means ‘reindeer calf’
We find a few blueberries hidden in banks of green, and drop them into our baskets. To find cloudberries, we leave the wood and enter a swamp, to the excitement of the local mosquito population. We bounce across the spongy earth, skirting pools of stagnant water to scour clumps of Labrador tea and cotton grass. Martii spots the first cloudberry from a good 20 paces, and we soon see the tiny orange globes everywhere. ‘Every Finn does this,’ says Martii as we stoop to pluck them. ‘You go into the forest, when you are small, with your parents and look for berries. And if you find a good spot, you don’t tell anyone - it is your secret.’ We eat the cloudberries with pancakes cooked on the fire at a hut back at the lake, to top-off a meal of reindeer sausages cooked in the flames and slathered in forest mushrooms. It’s disorientating to leave the hut at 11pm and find the skies still bright. It’s just above 0°C but the chance for a swim before bed is too tempting. I jump into the lake; my skin starts to hurt instantly, my bones a few moments later. I flail about for seven seconds then flounder out again.
Oula Jomppanen’s boat on the Lemmenjoki River
There are around 300,000 reindeer in northern Finland and each belongs to a herding family. Marks on their ears identify their owners
Oula Jomppanen would likely be unimpressed by my efforts. He has the air of one eternally bemused by the antics of outsiders and newcomers. He’s Sami, and his family has long herded reindeer in the region. He, like many others, has branched out. One branch is taking wilderness-seekers and gold-diggers up the Lemmenjoki River, dropping them at remote cabins and collecting them next day, the following week or at the end of summer.
He’s taking me upstream on a boat called
Miessi III – named for the Sami word for ‘reindeer calf’. We putter along on dark waters, the banks of the river crowded with pine. Our first stop is at a lonesome farmstead, its jumble of wooden houses and barns built in 1800 by one of Oula’s ancestors. ‘They were one of the biggest reindeer herding families in the area,’ he says, ‘My cousin was still living here til 2000. He was the last.’ The farm is now home to a curious flock of sheep, which edge up to us for head scratches before taking fright at a small rabbit and bolting over the hill. Tourists pay to stay on the farm, spending their days taking care of the sheep and escaping other humans for a while; the nearest settlement is a boat ride away and has a population of 30, most of them Oula’s cousins.
We head on, and the river shallows.
Miessi III bumps its bottom. ‘The gold rush here started in 1947,’ says Oula, navigating a rocky stretch. ‘People arrived with an empty backpack, a bit of food and a lot of hope. If they found gold, it was a life sentence – they stayed looking for more and more.’ I peer down into the river, seeking a small glint of metal. ‘Gold-diggers still come for summer,’ he says. ‘But it’s more a lifestyle thing. No-one’s here to get rich.’
A curl of smoke drifting above the treetops marks our aiming point – a hut surrounded by wildflowers. It’s a veritable crush of humanity outside: two hikers with rucksacks big enough to hold a grown man pack to go; a young man warms his hands at the firepit; and a couple of anorak-clad hikers skulk in the trees beyond. It’d be possible to stay for weeks in the wilderness of Lemmenjoki, and many do – tramping from hut to hut, catching fish for tea and falling asleep by the stove – but my own ambitions are smaller. It’s an hour or so from the cabin to the top of Sierikniva fell, the last stretch along a natural granite path across a boggy plateau, its rocks wobbling beneath my boots. From the top, I see how easy it would be to disappear here. In the valley below, the river, dotted with islets, threads through the endless forest, a patch of green in its midst marking the site of the old farmstead. Sheets of rain hammer the distant hills and lakes. As the rain reaches my own hill, I hasten back down the path, back to the river and the hut, where Oula waits with coffee brewed on the fire.
Lake Inari is entirely inside the Arctic Circle and has over 400 square miles of surface area
The colours repeated across Sami dress and design carry special significance. Red symbolises fire, yellow the sun, green is nature and blue is water
Lake Inari had been just about visible from Sierikniva, but there was no gauging its size. Up close, it seems a vast inland sea. Fishermen fly in seaplanes to its furthest reaches, and it would take more than ten years to spend a night on each of its islands. It is also the first place many locals go when summer comes; camping on the islands, chugging about on boats, casting lines in the hope of snagging a fish or two.
Anne Karhu-Angeli, though, has no need for Lake Inari. She has her own lake at the bottom of the garden, a few miles west. She greets me in a woollen jumper and wellies at her family’s reindeer farm, a blue wooden house with fishing rods on the porch and shaggy dogs trotting merrily about. The farm is conspicuously empty of reindeer. ‘For seven months they are in the swamp and the forest. They only come here in winter for food,’ says Anne. ‘It’s like torture for a reindeer to be fenced. It is the same for me – the forest is my office.’
The family is so at home in the forest that when hikers go missing in the area, the police ask for their help in tracking them down. ‘Two tourists got lost last year, and we found them,’ says Anne, leading me inside for home-made cloudberry cake and smoked reindeer. Theirs is one of 52 reindeer cooperatives in the area, part of a Sami community whose ancestors were partially nomadic, moving their lavvu tents from lakes and good fishing in the summer to forests and good hunting in the winter. Anne points to a photo of her husband Janne as a boy, standing by a wooden cottage. ‘It was his grandparents’ first home,’ she says. ‘Before that, they had a lavvu and a turf house.’
The houses may have changed, but Sami culture remains constant, and Anne welcomes visitors to the farm to share in it. Every object I pick up in the house has been made locally: a pair of shoes by Janne’s mother; a wooden bowl by Janne; jewellery by Anne; a knife by a friend. ‘Everyone in the community is good at something and we help each other out,’ says Anne. ‘That’s how life works here. It’s like a circle.’ It seems the circle is only really completed beyond the front door. Anne stares wistfully out of the window. ‘I could be outside all day and night,’ she says. ‘It’s like a fever.’
I think I may have been infected too. I sit for a while and dream of the wilderness – of the berries that have yet to be picked, the rivers that have yet to be navigated, and the paths that have yet to be walked.
AMANDA CANNING travelled with support from Visit Finland and Visit Inari. She is a big fan of the wilderness brew ‘coffee cheese’ (coffee, with cheese in it).