Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Ivalo is an interesting small town by the shores of Lake Inari (Inarijärvi) in Finish Lapland, a bit less than 1450 miles south of the North Pole. A few miles south of Ivalo, is a very popular year-round resort named Saariselkä Resort and Spa and I’ve been lucky to spend time in both destinations; both in winter – during the season known as the “blue moments” when the winter sun does not rise above the horizon for about 45 days – and summer, when the “midnight sun” does not set and illuminates the firmament day and night, for 70 days during the year.
A few years back I had become interested in the Sámi tribes/clans and their culture. These groups of mostly nomadic peoples still live above the Arctic Circle in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia’s Kola Peninsula, Asia and North America. They have been given different names by the local inhabitants amongst which they reside; Inuit, Eskimos, Saami or Sámi, Laplanders, Lapps (this last name has acquired a pejorative connotation in Finland), but they all belong to the same ethnic group with roots in Mongolia and Eastern Siberia. There are parts of very large families, mostly intermarrying with members of different clans from this ethnic group and very rarely with outsiders; though I met a Lappish/Finnish couple that spoke fluent English and became my guides during my Lapland visits. The European Laplanders have their own language (there are about ten variations) but need to be at least bilingual; they also speak Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish or Russian and mostly live in close-knit villages with only a few living in cities. Some of the elders I met complained that the “young people” preferred living in cities and working in factories than following the traditional nomadic existence. Many traditionalists still herd reindeer and go up the mountains in the short summer and return to their lakeside villages during the winter. When traveling, they mostly use tents very similar to Amerindian tepees, as they and the reindeer move from the tundra to the highland conifer forests; the tents are called Lavvu or Lavvo. The same shape, but made out of wood-slats makes a Kota, a permanent structure. It is a circular wood building with a fire-pit in the center that usually burns highly aromatic birch logs. A Kota can be used either as a dinning space where meals are cooked on the fire or as a Sauna.
Ivalo features the northernmost airport in Finland but it can also be reached by car or coach from Helsinki or Rovaniemi.
There are a number of hostelries in the area, starting with the Saariselkä Resort and Spa with its “tropical” swimming pool under a glass dome where you can go swimming any day of the year whether the outside weather is -40° C or a “balmy” +30° C. There are additional hotels, from 3 to 4 star-properties that surround Saariselkä and have privileges using the pool. The restaurants in these hotels all have good local chefs that use seasonal ingredients sourced from the area farms and fisheries. The only imports I saw were coffee, tea, wines and spirits.
In the area, there are also a number of log-houses that are available for rental on a weekly basis, summer or winter. Most of them are in the birch forest on the shores of Lake Inari or Lake Näkkälä (Näkkäläjärvi) or in the town of Kittila a few miles south of Ivalo and come with wood-burning saunas – a passion of the Finnish people. When I rented the house by Lake Inari for 2 weeks in 2 different seasons, I had the great luck of friends recommending Kirstin, a local woman, a retired home economics teacher, to come in and cook for us. As a retired teacher she knew everyone and everything in the area – fishermen, farmers, bakers and their wives – so we had excellent meals for the time we were there. Her ex-students brought to our kitchen for her to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from their gardens, freshly caught salmon and white-fish from the lake and nearby river, smoked and fresh reindeer meat; everything we needed to have a daily feast. She also went out to the forest surrounding the log cabin and came back with wild mushrooms, fresh blueberries and blackberries and, a couple times, even wild strawberries that were the sweetest and most aromatic strawberries I’ve ever had. She baked her own bread and cookies. And, by the way, nothing went to waste… if a dish was not finished one day, it would appear in a new, delicious form the next one. Any leftover scraps were stored in a compost bucket to fertilize her home garden and vegetable patch! The locavores in us celebrated with every meal.
Not to be missed: During the winter, when Lake Inari freezes down to 10 or 12 feet of ice, a dogsled or snowmobile ride to Ukonkivi Island, in the middle of the lake, is a must. The island is holly ground for the local Sami people and is an interesting cultural site.
Also, at night, far away from the city lights, the frozen lake is the perfect location to observe the Aurora Borealis.
Another must is a visit to one of the numerous Sami shops in Inari, many carry tourist only items but a few offer, if you know what to look for, authentic Sami handicrafts such as handmade shaman drums, clan clothing etc.
For intrepid winter travelers, cold weather clothing is a definite requirement. The best I believe are snowmobile suites, heavy duty ski gloves, balaclavas, sun glasses and authentic UGG boots. We found the last item indispensable as regular leather shoes, boots or sneakers get destroyed by the intense cold and the same thing happened with a pair of imitation UGGs from China. The UGG boots are to be worn without socks and that allows the feet to breathe and avoid accumulating humidity that might freeze and create foot problems.
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