One night, we had dinner at Humina, a rustic place where we could sample a true Lapland specialty: reindeer. Chipped, and sauteed in butter, the rich, gamy meat was served in a crater of mashed potatoes, with lingonberry preserve. The general, post-meal consensus was that while Rudolph may have done fine guiding Santa’s sleigh, he shined brightest on the plate.
On what may have been the coldest night of our visit, all seven of us trekked through the dark to the edge of Akas Lake, a flat white expanse — the ice was covered by snow. There, a bundled-up man greeted us at the steps of a small shack that puffed smoke into the moonlit air.
The whole point of the exercise that came next was to laze in a 212-degree sauna until nearly overheated, then scuttle outside down a slippery gangway, descend a set of icy steps and plunge through a hole cut in the yard-thick ice into nearly freezing water.
We entered the hut, which had one changing room with a wood fireplace, and a larger sauna room. Then we set about roasting ourselves, ice-hole bathing, roasting and snow-angel-making in a cycle of extreme temperature change that Finns, and some controlled studies, say is good for the health.
Sitting in a bar that night, one of the men in our group remarked, “This whole country is about being either too hot or too cold.”
The next night, whole swaths of the sky danced with brilliant greens, purples and reds. Inside the curving, billowing, twisting streaks, the action was psychedelic. Tiny ripples, hundreds in parallel, danced like the light of a plasma lamp but with more variations of color and movement. What was green one second flashed to red, translucent and miles long. A streak that ran from horizon to horizon might phase out, then reappear at another location, or bend into the shape of an oxbow and spring back.
Finnish legend says that the lights are formed by a giant arctic fox running so quickly its tail sends plumes of snow from the fells, glittering across the night sky. It’s an unbelievable explanation for an unbelievable phenomenon that somehow smacks of truth.
By the end of the trip, the group showed symptoms of a successful adventure: sniffles, minor injuries, exhaustion. Ahead, we knew, was a long journey home.
But just as the front door of the cabin was locked, a reindeer came sauntering over. It watched us, and we watched it. Its googly eyes were insectlike, and its furry feet had sharp hoofs for breaking through the snowpack.
When I held out my hand, the reindeer nuzzled it.
A final dose of Lapland magic.