Palsas, pingos and tundra

Adrian Mourby

Adrian Mourby joins the nomads on snowmobiles in Lapland and finds a whole new world in the Arctic Circle's icy tracts.

In the past few years the Finnish Tourist Board has been trying hard to convince children that Father Christmas lives in Rovaniemi, the ancient capital of Lapland, but there is a lot more to see in the Land of Midnight Sun than elves and reindeer.

The Santa Claus village lies two miles outside Rovaniemi, a friendly modern city rebuilt after German devastation in World War II. One new building that immediately strikes visitors to Rovaniemi is Arktikum, which looks like a very long modern igloo made of glass and steel recessing deep into the banks of the Ounas river.

Arktikum is a visitor centre for people who want to learn about life in the Arctic Circle. As such it would make the ideal base for a class who are grappling with ice ages, tundra, permafrost and much else that comes with a cold climate. Inside this pleasant modern building a startling image is encountered as you first enter the exhibition area and come to a four-sided gallery. Below is a huge canopy shaped and patterned to represent the top of the northern hemisphere. Suddenly our whole perspective is changed. Scandinavia, Russia, Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Iceland are no longer at disparate corners of a map but part of one homogeneous region. In fact an illuminated line denoting sea temperatures is the only thing that can explain why the North of Scotland is not also part of this pan-Arctic confederation!

Throughout Arktikum the exhibition halls are ordered to give an Arctic Circle, rather than nation state, view of the experience of living so close to the North Pole. In the room devoted to accommodation we are shown how the Lapland kota tent is actually the same as the North American wigwam and Siberian chum. In the languages room you can press a button to see where people speak Jupik. The answer - Alaska and Siberia - is significant reminder that the Arctic nomads have always migrated. One of the curators tells an engaging story about when Russia sold Alaska to America in 1867 and the Americans explained to their new compatriots that the border between Alaska and the USA had now been abolished. "What border?" replied the nomads.

Elsewhere Arktikum provides dioramas, videos and exhibits of how natural history adapts to three months of winter darkness. A riekko, or willow grouse, not only changes colour in the winter - so it is completely white - but also tunnels into the snow to keep safe. The bird's feathers are insulated so its body heat does not melt the snow that is protecting it. Displays show how huge hills can be thrown up when ice develops under the tundra. Palsas are mere hummocks in the peat, pingos are huge ice-cored hills that grow by a metre a year.

The human history of the Arctic Circle is well represented by sections on shamanism and how you can build your entire lifestyle around moose, sea lion or reindeer.

Across the corridor in the Provincial Museum of Lapland, local children learn about the Saami (their name for Laplanders). Teaching packs are available for Finns and I was assured these could be translated if an English-speaking party were interested in using the facilities It was the existence of migrating reindeer herds that caused wholesale settlement of the Arctic areas. Early nomads followed the herds inland and continued to do so right up until the recent invention of snowmobiles which are manufactured in Rovaniemi. These wonderful ski-motorbikes allow modern reindeer farmers to build themselves a permanent home and still to visit their flocks daily.

Winter tourists to Rovaniemi can try out the snowmobiles, and more traditional transport like husky-driving and reindeer sleds at the Father Christmas village, which is open all year.

One hour away from Rovaniemi in a smaller settlement at Ranua, once the shoreline of a great glacial lake but now an enormous pile of boulders that were washed up on that prehistoric beach, is Ranua Zoo, the pseudo mediaeval Murr Murr Tower (which houses a local teddy-bear industry) and a sweet factory. This place would make a good one day excursion.

The zoo is is structured on Pan Arctic lines and devoted to the birds and animals that live within the Arctic Circle. I saw a talking raven and a six-month-old baby lynx called Vaino who has been reared by the zoo and sleeps on the managing director's desk. When it was time for me to go Vaino leaped into my arms and held on like a child. I was also licked by a reindeer and growled at by polar bears!

There are a few disadvantages for a school trip visiting Lapland in the winter. There is very little daylight so outdoor activities must be limited - or conducted with the use of headlamps (as when out snowmobiling through the forests) or indeed arc lights (as when skiing down Ounasvara). But the great advantage is that this is a land where children can take part in all manner of winter sports and learn about the Arctic at the same time.

Finnish Tourist Board, tel: 0171 839 4048. Arkticum: contact Johanna Tolonen, Pohjoisranta 4, SF-96200, Rovaniemi, Finland. Tel: 358 16 317841, fax:358 16 317843

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