The distracting beauty of the place was a recreational hazard. I kept expecting Santa, or a yeti, to emerge from the snow-blanketed forest. Perhaps it was my lack of focus during our short training session, or my continually drifting gaze to the blue-black sky overhead as it transitioned through layers of green to a blood-red horizon, but after a two-mile climb up a lighted ski track, I aimed back down the hill and bit it. Hard. The cartwheeling fall became my first, painful, souvenir from Lapland.
The consolation was our cabin’s sauna: After stripping off our ski gear — and then our clothes, in line with custom — the women, then the men, took their turn in the small, wood-paneled sauna. With two benches, a small window onto the woods and a stove on which to pour water for steam, the sauna was a tonic for sore muscles.
Lapland isn’t only about skiing and sky watching. On one particularly cold morning — the mercury outside the window registered 15 degrees — four of us visited a husky racing center on the outskirts of town.
“If you step off the sled for a second,” said Mikka, our Swedish guide-cum-mountain man — his scraggly blond beard, wide cheekbones and squint placing him somewhere on the Scandinavian Viking-gnome continuum — “the dogs will take off and leave you. They want to run.”
Otherwise, the instructions were simple: Stand on the sled’s rear runners, and mind the brake.
Each pair was given a sled, a six-pack of Alaskan huskies (leaner but faster than their Siberian relatives) and a stoic nod of encouragement. In the United States, I surely would have signed liability waivers, taken a premushing written test and filled out medical emergency forms. But here a worker simply untied the rope anchoring my sled, and the dogs rocketed forward. The lead dogs, Igor and Ben — predominately white, pale-blue eyed and thinner than I had imagined — dropped their heads and pointed straight.
“Those are two of our smartest lead dogs,” Mikka told me afterward. “We use them for racing.”
We passed through frozen marshland, pristine with untracked snow, then a dense spruce forest, followed by a hardscrabble landscape, a cross between Arctic taiga and alpine tundra. All the while, a bright blue sky, yellow light and wispy clouds hung overhead.
The dogs were silent and stopped for nothing. When thirsty, they funneled snow into their mouths midstride. They seemed irritated only when we stopped for too long. A few seconds of rest transformed the air into dense steam billowing from the mouths of the dogs. Stopping longer resulted in an eruption of howls and barks and full-bore attempts to pull the sled.
After a couple of hours out, we returned to the racing center to pet, cuddle and get to know the dogs. One of the women in our group made a canine friend, the two of them huddled up on the snow together like old companions.
Night life in Yllas was countrified and slow — one might even say Arctic. There isn’t much of a town, really, just a supermarket, cabins and a few shops on a couple of otherwise empty streets. The bars, small, dark and very neighborhood sports-pub-style, were, like everything else, accessible on skis. The clientele was a mix of locals and confused-looking tourists, particularly at one of the karaoke bars, where we caught a Finnish chanteuse belting out the classic Finnish ballad Aikuinen Nainen (Adult Woman).