A trip to Finnmark, Norway's Arctic wilderness, is the perfect tonic for the winter blues
For Seasonal Affective Disorder sufferers, a journey to Finnmark in February might seem like suicide on ice. However, working on the principle that a few days spent fending off packs of hungry wolves in -20C blizzards might actually make wintertime UK seem like a honeymoon in St Lucia, last February I flew up to Alta in Norway’s most northerly wilderness for an SAS Arctic manoeuvres-style approach to fighting the winter doldrums.
One of the many misconceptions about Lapland is that for six months of the year it plunges into perpetual darkness. In reality, by early February, it enjoys seven hours of sunlight, and by 10am on my first day, I was driving through a dazzling sunlit landscape of steep canyons and craggy mountains, en route to Alta’s famous Igloo Hotel, Sorrisniva, for a snowmobiling safari across the Finnmark plateau. Once our group was kitted out in Michelin Man thermal Arctic suits, Pår our tall, blue-eyed guide went through the instructions with us. As a non-driver, I assumed I’d be merely a passenger and didn’t listen to a word he was saying, so I was a bit shocked when I was plonked down in the driving seat and told with a wink that police never check licenses here. “Does this make it go forward?” I meekly asked as I turned the right handlebar and screeched away at breakneck speed straight into a snowdrift. After a couple of minutes I’d mastered the technique and was soon trailing somewhat erratically behind the group, but nevertheless feeling immensely exhilarated at my first driving lesson. The bleak primeval landscape of distant ice-shattered mountains, topped by storm clouds tinged salmon-pink by the low-lying sun, was truly humbling. This really did feel like Europe’s last great wilderness.
Another misconception about the Arctic is that staying in an ice hotel is a cosy, en suite experience in which the laws of physics miraculously go into reverse. If you think about it, if the hotel was kept at 25C your ice loo would soon be a puddle in the tundra. In reality, the hotel is merely a glacial work of art; built afresh each year to a different theme. Last year, it was “Wildlife of the Valley”, and walking into the igloo-like structure, I felt like Edmund walking into the White Witch’s castle surrounded by ice bears, reindeer and lynx sparkling mysteriously in the soft light. Either side of the sculpture hall, corridors led to tiny, bare, monastic style cells in which you sleep on a reindeer skin-covered block of ice in a teeth-chattering -6C. It’s not for those suffering from weak constitutions and if you need a pee at 3am, you’ll need to trudge across the snow to the permanent main buildings. Many guests never return and sneakily curl up for the rest of the night in the cosy sauna changing rooms!
Earlier in the evening, somebody rushed into the hotel foyer and announced that the Northern Lights had started. I’m sure an earthquake couldn’t have emptied the hotel any quicker. Grabbing some kick sledges, we sped over the icy grounds to get a clearer view of the sky. At first, all we could see were a couple of disappointing cirrus clouds. However, after a few minutes, we were soon gasping like children at a fireworks display as the “clouds” began to glow and pulsate, and then spewed out billowing curtains of green, shimmering light. Then, in a dazzling display of pyrotechnics worthy of Sydney Harbour on New Year’s Eve the curtains began pulsating in rippling bands of pink and purple.
The next morning, after I'd brushed away a pelt of reindeer fur that had stuck to my frozen lips overnight, we drove inland to Karasjok, the capital town of the indigenous Sami people, for a day’s husky and reindeer-sledging. We were greeted at Engholm Husky Tours (www.engholm.no) by Sven, an intrepid husky racer well used to competing in the Canadian wilderness who’d built the farm and a series of beautiful Hansel-and-Gretel log cabins himself. Sensing playtime, the huskies were soon straining at their leashes as one by one, our sledges lurched forward and hurtled down a slope towards a wide, frozen riverbed. The sense of freedom felt speeding along the ice, listening to the wolf-like yaps of the huskies was almost atavistic and really got my Ice Age genes stirring. The huskies are used to a cuddle after their exertions, but even in the animal world looks count and an aquamarine-eyed stunner well accustomed to the paparazzi, was soon pouting at the flashing cameras.
Having said goodbye to our blue-eyed cover boy, we made our way over to a Sami reindeer enclosure where we were met by Anna, the family matriarch, resplendent in her traditional scarlet-and-gold costume. After taking a short spin on a sledge pulled by an adorable, doe-eyed miniature reindeer, Anna led us into a lavu, the traditional Sami wigwam. Arranging herself on the birch-twig carpet and prodding a flickering fire, she began regaling us with tales of the Sami spirits and even sang us a jolk, the traditional chant sung in memory to departed ancestors and separated love ones. We quickly resembled participants in a Victorian séance, staring wide-eyed through the flames at a bubbling coffee pot as if it might explode at any moment in clouds of ectoplasm. I felt a deep respect for Anna and was sure that this last vestige of European nomadic culture was safe in her capable hands.