Points North

The Lapps, when questioned, about the possibility of attracting tourists to their country, shrug and sigh. “It’s a problem.” Yet Phoebe-Lou Adams found many enticements during her visit there, among them a ride behind a reluctant reindeer.

ACCORDING to the books, Lapps are at best a little over five feet tall, wear gaudy clothes, and spend their time following herds of reindeer. The Rovaniemi airport, which is reindeer pasture seldom and only by mistake, was therefore no place for a Lapp, yet the gentleman slumped in the lee of the lunch counter could hardly be anything else.

A blue cap with four points (for the four winds) hung over his left ear. His blue anorak was encrusted with red and yellow braid at collar, yoke, cuffs, hipbone, and tail, and his legs were encased in leather trousers, fur gaiters, and a pair of fur shoes with upturned toes. The Lapp shoe, stuffed with hay or leaves against the cold, has little relation to the size of the wearer’s foot. These shoes were colossal. The fellow had to be the real thing in spite of the long legs, which, angled across the floor, indicated a most un-Lappish height.

A tangle of hair and a flushed, sharp-nosed face emerged from all the finery. The face looked disgusted, and the eyes focused glumly on nothing. This Lapp was plainly unhappy. I began to wonder if he represented an oppressed minority and got aboard the airport bus concocting sly questions designed to unearth the true status of Lapps in Finland. Slyness was unnecessary. My first question turned up the explanation. Early March is roundup time, and despite the annual efforts of the authorities, bootleg liquor flows in rivers at these affairs. The airport Lapp, in retrospect, was merely a man with a terrible hangover.

He had brought his troubles to the traditional spot. The town of Rovaniemi lies on the Arctic Circle at the junction of the river Ounas and the river Kemi. The name means island between the rivers, and the place has had a wild past as the trading center for all west Lapland, for, according to the present inhabitants, the great fairs that used to bring everybody in from the bush would have made Council Bluffs look tame. The Lapps came by boat — three hundred kilometers down the Kemi, if necessary — with furs, salmon, handicrafts, and a notable thirst, while the lumberjacks’ slogan was “Money come, money go, but don’t roost under my nose.” The twice-a-year fairs nowheld in Rovaniemi are reported to be regrettably reasonable and businesslike, although a few stubborn lumbermen still contrive to drink three months pay in two days.

Rovaniemi is, like virtually everything in Lapland, entirely new since the war, for the Germans burnt the place on the way home from their unsuccessful attempt to help Finland against the Russians. As one citizen put it, “We had friends, but they were not good friends.”

Rebuilt Rovaniemi is a blunt, open town where every street leads the eye into empty whiteness. It is largely treeless and was, when I saw it, well muffled in the astoundingly clean feathery snow of the North. It is also a town without landmarks. Since the whole rebuilding program was directed by Alvar Aalto, hotels, apartment buildings, churches, city hall, houses, and shops are all in the same forthright style. Everything is cubes or rectangles in gray, white, cream, or brick red, and there are no crumbling antiquities, no nineteenthcentury fake castles, no private whimsies in nightclub Moorish or Christmas card Gothic. Rovaniemi has a pleasant air of uniformity, but the stranger quickly discovers that all streets look alike.

IN DEFAULT of historical landmarks, Rovaniemi maintains what is referred to as a hut on the Arctic Circle. It is a few miles out of town, reached by one of several bridges that cross the frozen white trench of the river junction. The snow on the rivers was broken by ski tracks and footpaths, and on every bank of any steepness, children on skis crabbed up and shot down constantly.

During the summer, campers proliferate along the river, where a sort of park is set aside for their convenience. I flatly did not believe the numbers given me, but the man from the tourist office insisted that the figure was correct. “They’re absolutely wedged in,” he said sadly. “It’s awful.” He added that it would be much better if these campers, who are mostly southern Finns, other Scandinavians, and Germans, went upcountry and scattered themselves in proper solitude. “But we can’t make them. They don’t want to leave the shops. They come back and complain that there’s no frozen orange juice up there. And then there are the mosquitoes.” He sighed. “It’s a problem.”

The Arctic Circle hut proved to be a large, elaborate log building with a corner fireplace bulging like a great concrete teardrop. The fire crackled, and the wooden-walled room smelt of fresh coffee and was full of mercurial light reflected from the snow outside. Every window gave on blue sky, green spruces, and snowdrifts.

The purpose of this establishment is to amuse skiers in winter and travelers at any time. A counter along the windowless inner side of the room offered food, drink, and souvenirs which ranged from unaccountable absurdities to knitwear and woven ribbons that can safely be described as Lappish. The hats and mittens explained themselves, but the woolen ribbons, patterned in white, red, and yellow, puzzled me. They were about two feet long, with each end folded to a point from which extended a foot or so of multicolored cord ending in a fat tassel. Belts?

The man from the tourist office allowed they could be used as belts, but were really designed for keeping snow out of boot tops. He propped one foot on a chair and pulled down an imaginary pants leg. Then he pulled up the top of an invisible fur shoe. Then he wound a nonexistent ribbon over the joint, tightened the cords to hold this puttee-job in place, and tied a bow over his outside anklebone.

It was a fine piece of pantomime and left me with only one question. What are all those antlers doing in the corner? It was really quite a pile of ocher-brown horns stacked below the windows, untidily because there is no other way to stack antlers. Each pair retained a sad little tuft of fur at the base, like a scalp lock, and was attached to a small wooden plaque. Price tags indicated that the things were for sale, but why? “Germans,” I was told, “buy up the lot every summer.” There was a pause. “We don’t know why.” Another pause. “We think they hang them on the walls.”

At ten to twenty dollars a set, Lapland can afford to be philosophical about the murky Teutonic destiny of these antlers. They derive, of course, from animals butchered in the normal commercial course of events, for reindeer stew is delicious, smoked reindeer meat is a treasure, and one of the Rovaniemi hotels serves a reindeer-base onion soup that is a thing to dream of forever after. Reindeer’s Tears, on the menu of a rival house, are more spiritual; the name conceals a cocktail resembling a martini, but with two small red berries in place of the olive.

There were various snow-covered humps among the trees outside the hut, some practical outbuildings, and some replicas of old Lapp structures. A log and turf house, rounded like an igloo, had its door frozen half open and overhung with a ripple of snow which frothed out, at the edge, into huge frost crystals resembling ferns, trees, lacework, and garlands of flowers. They glittered like sugar against the black interior behind them. There were also several things like miniature log cabins, each three or four feet square and raised a yard off the ground by a single large post under the center. Lapp iceboxes, it seemed, designed to discourage thieving animals.

When I asked what thieving animals. I learned about wolverines, although my companion’s otherwise admirable English vocabulary proved inadequate to express his ideas on this topic. It was not that he didn’t know the words. He was hampered by an aversion to swearing in the presence of females.

We went back inside to observe the stuffed wolverine by the fireplace. It was a brute about the size of a Gordon Setter, but longer and thinner in the body, thicker in the leg, and finished off with a nondescript tail. Somewhat weasel-shaped, in fact, with a flat, viperish head, a mouthful of mean teeth, and a coat of dark, coarse, scruffy fur.

A nasty beast, the Finn assured me, capable of killing astounding numbers of reindeer because it eats only the heart from each victim. It also tears up cabins and camps and robs storehouses, obviously for plain malice. It is sly, wily, very strong, and passionately hated as a wasteful killer. Is there a bounty on them? I asked, and had to explain, because bounty is a word unknown in Scandinavian English. The Finn rather took to it.

“There certainly is a bounty,” he said, and explained that both the government and the association of reindeer breeders pay bounties on wolverines, the reward amounting to five hundred marks, or about $125. Later, at Pallastunturi, I heard that the government pays five hundred marks, and the reindeer men (who are believed by all other Finns to be scandalously rich because how can the tax assessor count a herd of reindeer if the owner chooses to mislay it?) two hundred and fifty. I thought an expert hunter could live rather well on wolverines, but was informed that the creatures are very hard to catch. And the official book of facts on Finland sets the total bounty at a figure below five hundred marks. Although the exact payment for a wolverine remains a question, it is a fact that the bounty is handed out for a totally worthless carcass. Neither the flesh nor the fur serves any sensible purpose, which explains the prevalence of stuffed wolverines in Lapland hotels.

I asked if wolverines ever attack anything but deer. What I had in mind was sheep or cattle, but since both are scarce in Lapland, the Finn misunderstood me, and said, “No, he is too little for people.”Wolverines, I gradually discovered, are always referred to as He.

ROVANIEMI is the capital of Lapland and the way station to everything further north, where I was bound for a ski hotel at Pallastunturi, somewhere up the river at the end of a five-hour bus trip. The bus sat in front of the terminal while other buses disgorged passengers and freight. The driver did paper work, and his assistant, a pretty, goldenhaired girl of about seventeen, heaved skis and suitcases into the lower deck baggage compartment. She stacked packages alongside the dashboard, gradually accumulating a considerable manifest. The sun was brilliant and the air very dry, but it was nevertheless decidedly cold. The girl leaped in and out of the bus without jacket, scarf, or gloves, and continued to do so throughout the trip. A real little snow bear.

Outside the flat town, the countryside rolled in great white billows broken now and then by low ridges covered with trees. The scattered houses were low, too, and looked almost swamped by snow piled a yard high on the roofs. Somewhere about each building was a ladder, braced against the eaves without visible relation to any other feature of the structure. When we eventually passed a house with its roof half cleared, I decided that the ladders were there to facilitate snow removal, which is evidently accomplished by running a stick or shovel into the snow and starting an avalanche to one side of the ladder.

The road was packed snow almost as white as the fields alongside, for the Finns do not deface their highways with sand. One learns to drive on snow or dies young. Eventually we reached forest country, and the Lapland evergreen forests are a marvel — brushless as a parade ground, with neat, slender trees spaced well apart and frosted all over with snow. “You can tell you’re in the Arctic,” said one Finn, “when the snow goes all the way around — no difference between the north side of a tree and the south side.”

All the way around, the snow, which had been falling almost nightly for four months, filled the branches with loops, puffs, drifts, and swags. As dusk came on, the bus headlights picked up a procession of masqueraders — climbing bears, dragons, huge owls, a bride and groom posed for a photographer, a scrawny waiter offering a champagne bottle, a Turk in a vast turban. They also picked up seven honest reindeer waiting at a crossroads. A rattletrap car had pulled up by the roadside, and four youths were scrambling out with determined expressions. The reindeer, pearlgray creatures whose large feet suggested a ballet dancer gone wrong, faced the herdsmen with melancholy, aimlessly dignified faces.

This bus was evidently the major local transport system. Passengers hopped on and off, frequently in what appeared to be an uninhabited wilderness of trees and snow, and packages were unloaded at each little town. One small boy left us in an empty wasteland, but a tall old man in boots and a leather coat was met by a party of respectful juveniles. On his way out of the bus, this gentleman paused to bow, smile, and present me with a folder of matches covered with printing. I eventually got it translated. It was an appeal to vote for the Agrarian Party in the coming election. (The Agrarians got clobbered, as everyone I met in Helsinki had prophesied they would.)

The first coffee shop presented a difficulty, for I had no way of asking how long we would be there and the driver had no way of telling me. The baggage girl and I finally settled things by holding up fingers. Three hands. Fifteen minutes.

The coffee shops were clean, bare, sunlit places with three or four kinds of simple sandwiches and a terrifying variety of flaky, sugary pastries. There was always a jukebox, and our gypsy passenger (she wore hoop earrings, blue satin blouse, pink velvet ankle-length skirt, and yards of demented lace ruffles — a perfectly orthodox outfit, in fact, except for the ski boots) always pounced on it and activated rock ‘n’ roll. There were no other customers in these shops until after dark, when we stopped at a grimly overlit café full of old farmers in high boots, youths with unwashed hair, and girls in high heels and beehive coiffures of inappropriate elegance.

Somewhere beyond this café, the baggage girl put on her gloves and dropped off into the darkness, and the driver, left to his own devices, overshot a target. The bus suddenly stopped. The driver grabbed up the last of the manifest and read the address by the dash light while backing the bus rapidly down the icy road. It was a startling performance, but successful. We trundled along until the driver, locating some invisible landmark, opened the window and hurled the package into limbo. The bus once more advanced, and we were on the last lap to Pallastunturi, which we reached at nine in the evening, precisely on schedule.

THE hotel at Pallastunturi was so full that putting me up for two nights had been a problem, and I was grateful for reindeer stew, good wine, and a soft bed. The skiing crowd danced until the band collapsed, and was out again at an unnerving hour in bright sun and a wind that turned everybody red and tearful on the lobby steps.

A nearby reindeer village had produced two sleds and two deer, which were parked in the field across the hotel drive. The Lapp proprietors of this carnival ride lounged around the front desk waiting for customers and eyeing the pretty waitresses. Since most of the hotel staff were southerners up only for the season, the girls may have had exotic charm as well as beauty, but the whole crowd looked like Finns to me, including the Lapps.

Solomon in all his glory was nothing to those two Lapp boys. Their four-cornered caps sprouted felt ribbons, their blue anoraks were heavily braided and bedizened at the throat with large silver brooches, from which depended fluttering silver disks. They wore trousers tight as Levis and large white fur boots bound with red and yellow ribbon around the ankle. When they walked, the hat ribbons, the silver disks, the pleated tails of their anoraks, and the tassels at their ankles all waggled and jingled.

The costume was pure show business. Genuine antique Lapp dress, as displayed in the museum in Helsinki, was much gaudier and made of elegant furs as well.

After lunch, trade began in reindeer rides. It had been encouraged by a few demonstration runs past the dining room windows, one of the boys riding the small, old-fashioned low sled called a pulka, drawn by a deer who threw out his feet like a camel and ran like a tornado. Every child in the place wanted to try it, and so did I.

I had heard that when one wishes to travel by reindeer sled from point A to point B, the method is to have a deer fetched from point B to point A, hitch it up, and wait for the animal to walk home. I did not learn whether this account is accurate. Sled rides at Pallastunturi ran in a large loop over the field and back to a pile of fodder to which the deer were devoted.

What I did learn was how to assemble the rig for a modern sled with shafts. (The pulka has none.) It is assumed that you have your deer.

1. collect sled

2. put fur into sled to sit on

3. harness deer with embroidered, yokelike collar carrying two lines

4. back deer into shafts

5. attach collar to shafts with a loop-throughloop hitch

6. throw lines into sled

7. embark passenger

8. grunt to start deer

Grunted at, the deer set off, head down and large, fog-colored rump heaving up on one side and down on the other, over the prearranged track. His short tail wagged industriously, but halfway around, the animal lost momentum. He paused. He thought. He stopped. He brooded. He turned his head and gave me a mournful, wondering stare. Since he had only one antler, and that of exceptional size, he suggested a dignified, bewildered drunk in a top hat. I prepared to walk back, but it was unnecessary. The deer, with what was clearly a stern intellectual effort, recalled his duty. We were off again, bouncing and sliding over the drifts, and returned to the starting point. The deer instantly resumed his lunch, which appeared to be moss.

The hotel at Pallastunturi is a pleasant establishment which, like all the Lapland resorts, caters principally to Finns. There is very little foreign trade in skiers, and this, as usual, is a problem. Lapland offers any amount of empty, rolling, powdery snow for cross-country skiers, and the ground, being less flat than it looks from the hotel windows, shifts angle and perspective with interesting rapidity. But fast downhill runs are rare, and where they occur, there is usually no lift because the Finns don’t have enough foreign skiers to raise the money to pay for the lifts that foreign skiers demand. The same circular difficulty applies to hotels, of which there are not enough for the locals, much less any number of people from outside the country. Easter weekend at Pallastunturi had been booked solid the previous September. The management, far from being pleased with this condition, called it a problem.

The hotel had a display of minerals, plants, and stuffed creatures in its back corridor. There is some desultory gold panning in Lapland, and a map with red pins showed exactly where this can be done. A trickle of semiprecious stones finds its way down to Helsinki, where the rocks (garnets, smoky quartz, crystal, spectrolite) are snapped up by houses like Koumis Koru and made into light, angular, distinctive jewelry — very modern, and unlike much modern jewelry, very wearable. The proprietress of Koumis Koru, who rather resembled a Gainsborough duchess, was adamant on the folly of serious rock hunting in Lapland. There are simply not enough good rocks, she said, and snorted about topaz and opal. “People come in claiming they have found these things, but they haven’t. It’s smoky quartz and some kind of pegmatite rock, maybe. There are no opals in Finland.”

BY THE time I got back to Rovaniemi, I had become so distressed by the tourist shortage in Lapland that I inquired into what seemed to me several possibilities for enticing the kind of visitors who do not clutter up hotels. Trout fishing, for instance. It seemed that the best streams belong to the government, which is rigorously preserving the trout, although for what, nobody quite knows. As to hunting, I gathered that Laplanders in general do not enjoy seeing people carry off their grouse, while nothing makes a reindeer breeder more nervous than the appearance of a stranger with firearms. Canoeing down the Kemi would be quite possible and even, with a bit of portaging, safe and easy, but a campaign in this direction was tried some time ago and chopped after a party of Germans elected to shoot the rapids, causing great inconvenience to some backwoods coroner. And the mosquitoes — well, that’s a problem.

Rovaniemi itself, however, has made a considerable effort to provide amusements for visitors. The new hotels are gay and attractive, with multilingual staffs and excellent food. By sheer good luck, the neighborhood includes the studio of Elsa Montell Saanio, who designs modern rugs derived from old materials that the Lapps used for hangings, bedding, and the outside of tents. The Lapp name for such rugs is raanu, and Mrs. Saanio has four girls weaving them from wool spun and dyed on the premises.

The rugs are made, for the most part, in brilliant colors used with a fine daring. There is much blood-red, orange, lilac, and hot blue, and these colors are combined in unexpected but delightful ways, for the Finnish sense of color is quite different from that evident in the rest of Scandinavia. The designs consist of blocks and stripes that begin at one end of the rug and work through subtle variations until they arrive at the other. There are no central points; each rug flows like a river rather than sitting like a pool.

Mrs. Saanio’s rugs have names, as is proper for works of art. Sininen Hetki means blue moment — that instant after a winter sunset when snow, trees, sky, and buildings exude, or seem to exude, a dark electric-blue glow. Joiku is what Lapps do instead of singing, and the rug is lovely, although the noise it represents is something no non-Lapp has ever thought well of. Coitsu is a shaman, the old drumbeating magician put down, with difficulty, by the Christian church as recently as the eighteenth century. Altogether, there are about twenty rug designs available, and they are shown, along with locally knitted goods and fur rugs, in a two-hundredyear-old farmhouse that somehow survived the war. The furniture in this house includes an ancient wooden chair, extremely narrow but cleverly shaped to the sitter’s rump and spine. It is the obvious ancestor of Saarinen chairs, and its only fault is that one must be sober to stay on it.

A little outside of Rovaniemi is a plateau with steep sides that have been converted into five ski jumps and several slalom courses. There are lifts and lights for night skiing, and the top of the plateau is a tall, open wood where less enterprising skiers can just mush around. In summer, this plateau is given over to viewing the midnight sun, a sport which requires merely privacy, a companion of the opposite sex, and a little mild hypocrisy. No transport? I asked. “No,” said the Finnish girl who was finally giving me the facts on the midnight-sun kick. “Young Finns can only afford Volkswagens or those new Russian midgets, and you cannot view the midnight sun from a bucket seat.”