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Harnessin reindeer in Finnish Lapland - photos by Kent St. JohnHarnessin reindeer in Finnish Lapland - photos by Kent St. John

Among the Sámi: A Visit to Finnish Lapland

Kent E. St. John

By Kent E. St. John
Senior Travel Editor


After landing in Kemi, Finland, it was a short jeep and horse sleigh ride to Wanha Papila, a fantastic place of ten modern cottages anchored with an old vicarage over a hundred years old. It is located on the Bothnia Sea and surrounded by a pine forest.

In the restaurant, Ari the owner goes over our plans for discovering Finnish Lapland’s winter wonderland, his ice blue eyes sparkling.

Since I was experiencing jet fatigue, I caught only bits and pieces but 'snowmobile' and 'ice cutter' as well as 'reindeer' filtered through mind fog.

The chance to delve deeper into Finland has occurred to me since my first visit to Helsinki a few years ago. I wanted to go beyond that city’s sleek design scene and see what the land of lakes would offer. Plenty, I would learn after my journey through some wild spaces and new travel modes.

Traveling by snowmobile, dog sled, ice cutter and four wheel drive was a fantastic trip, challenging at times but oh so worth it. To experience nature among the Sámi People was a never-to-be-forgotten experience.  

Cold Start

The earthy smell of burning wood drifted over the frozen Bay of Bothnia and up to the door of my winterized cottage where I stood watching the glow of a sinking sun reflected off bluish snow. Crystals of ice form on the windows and the temps hover below zero, way below.

I felt the drop as I finished searching for the Northern Lights on snowshoes and was trying to learn the term for the event in Finnish: kallio saari.

The saunaThe sauna.

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Fortunately I could say sauna with no problem. Within an hour I was decked out in a long flannel shirt, naked underneath with a cold beer in my hand, skin itching and impervious to the cold.

The seven hours of burning wood had heated the hand-built smoke sauna to inferno temperatures and the cold night seemed to be a blessing.

After a rousing night feasting, drinking and cleansing I was heading back to my cottage when I noticed the sky dancing, green ribbons mixed with blue-hued tints. The aurora borealis seemed to welcome me to Finnish Lapland; rarely do I get such a greeting.

All too soon I awoke to the early sun rising; in front of my cottage was my rental snow mobile. Mount up time. The cold morning awaited. I first jumped into my cottage’s small private sauna; it was to become a routine.  

Buzzing Around      

Multiple horsepower sparked to life beneath me and I followed the snowmobile in front. Soon it was time to open the throttle as we headed out into the frozen bay.

The Icebreaker SampoThe Icebreaker Sampo.

Eventually we approached Kemi and the LumiLinna Ice Castle, built from tons of ice blocks. It is complete with rooms to stay in and restaurant bar and chapel. It takes months to build what is now a much visited place.

The 20-foot–high walls and six-foot thick walls are a work of art. However, after hearing that the rooms hover at around 25 degrees, I was glad that I had a ship to catch and we mounted up and headed farther out on the frozen bay.

Sampo, Breaking the Ice  

After a few miles of full throttle we suddenly stopped far from shore. The Icebreaker Sampo would plow through the thick ice and meet us here. It seemed barren, with nothing but white surrounding us, but soon the bow of the Sampo plowed through ice several feet thick and a gang plank was dropped.

The Sampo is one of the world’s only icebreaker tour boats. The 246-foot, triple-hull Sampo seemed so out of place when surrounded by the frozen sea.

We took a tour of the ship and its engine room, where nine diesel-powered pistons pushed us through thick ice, making a sound akin to thunder.

Swimming in the frozen Sea of BothniaSwimming in the frozen Sea of Bothnia.

Watching the ship pound through thick ice was fascinating, but the call to lunch was welcomed: reindeer (poro) sliced thin and served over mashed potatoes, the Sámi version of a Philly steak sandwich and oh so delicious.

After lunch I donned an orange survivor suit for a dip in the mini-iceberg-cluttered sea at the back of the ship. It amazed me to think that a few inches of suit would save me from freezing to death. Without the suit I would have perished within minutes of my plunge.

Like a seal without any skills I paddled my way past ice chunks thicker than two feet, warmer than an Eskimo in love.

Snow Trails and Sauna Party

There are literally thousands of snowmobile trails in Finland, and for the next sixty miles we skirted along the Finnish and Swedish border, sometimes far into the wilderness and on occasion through cities.

Dogsledding in LaplandDogsledding in Lapland.

After a long day in the saddle we ended up in Kukkolaforsen, Sweden, a cabin complex dedicated to the art of sauna. The sauna is a sacred symbol of the northland and is the center of hospitality. Kukkolaforsen certainly was hospitable.

Again the hand-built smoke sauna had been stoked hours before our arrival. The smoke is let out just before going in and the heat is incredible.

The soot-darkened walls are a testament to many such nights. The hot tub was heated by wood also, adding the sound of a rushing river nearby and it was easy to take after a long day.

Part of the sauna experience is trays of food piled with various cold cuts, salads and of course numerous cold beers. The food and beers are kept on hand and the in and out of the sauna takes a few hours if done right.

Snowmibles on a frozen seaSnowmibles on a frozen sea.

As if on cue, snow started falling and within a few minutes we all stood outside in the cold almost in a holy trance. When it is done right there is little better than banter, beer and good food with repeated passions with high heat.

Heading North

After our second sauna, evening sleep was deep and satisfying. No doubt the trek by snowmobile played a part. All too soon we hopped into the four wheel drive to head up to the Arctic Circle and the city of Rovaniemi, center of winter activity in southern Lapland.

Highly recommended is a stop at the Ranua Wildlife Park, if just for the polar bears alone. The city was destroyed by the Germans in 1944 and was rebuilt on plans laid by Alvar Aalto in the shape of reindeer antlers.

A polar bear in Ranua Wildlife ParkA polar bear in Ranua Wildlife Park.

Its position on the Kemijoki River and surrounding hills is memorable, and the Arktikum Museum a fascinating look at nature, Sámi culture and local history. Its architecture alone is a wonderful example of Finland’s modernism.

Bedding down at Ounasvaaran Pirttit in its well-appointed cabins more than pleased me as I noticed the little private sauna off of the bathroom. The small but adequate kitchen facilities with modern facilities was also a plus. Its proximity to ski slopes was also a temptation.

Winter Games

It was in Rovaniemi where I really got into life outdoors, Lapland style. Huskies pull and reindeers tug. The city is clogged with snowmobiles parked for the next day’s adventure and still late at night the pulse of nightclubs filled the crystal air.

One can only wonder what the scene would be like in the summer when the sun doesn’t set.

Sammy the SámiSammy the Sámi.

The city is geared up for winter visitors and we had the chance to explore via reindeer sleigh and dog sled, both exhilarating. The most exciting ride, however, was as co-driver for a miles-long rally race, pine trees wizzing by within inches of my face, and down snowy roads.

The actual Arctic Circle is about six miles north of the city and it is possible to visit Sámi homesteads and listen to their tales.

Sammy the Sámi told us the tale of the Northern Lights. The lights are called the Fox's Fire (Revontuli) in Finland, based on an ancient story. Long ago a fox was running across the fells when its tail hit a snowbank and threw sparks. Ever since, the Aurora Borealis has danced across the winter skies of Lapland.

After a few saunas and some cold beers I am betting that many visitors have stories to tell about Finnish Lapland. 



Kent E. St John, GoNOMAD's former Senior Travel Editor, circled the globe many times to report on exotic destinations. He is a correspondent for Around the World Radio which broadcasts in California and Australia.  We lost Kent in 2012 but he will always be remember by his stories all over GoNOMAD.

A sugar bird in Nevis Visit our Kent St. John Page with links to all his stories


 Read more GoNOMAD stories about Finland:

Turku and Helsinki, Finland: A Tale of Two Cities in a Young Republic
A Railway Tour of Sweden and Finland

Finland: A Once-in-a-Lifetime Arctic Adventure  


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Tags: storySection: Destinations
Location: Arctic,Europe,Finland
author: Kent E. St. John
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