Chill out with the leaders of the pack

6th December 2002 at 00:00
Renata Rubnikowicz finds there's more than snow and Santa beyond the Arctic Circle

As possibly the only sober person ever deemed incompetent to hire a moped on Majorca - the rental shop owner ran down the street shouting "No! No!"

before I'd gone 20 yards - I was jubilant to find that in the wilderness north of the Arctic Circle even someone as wobbly and diffident as me could zip through the daylong twilight on a snowmobile.

Speeding over the snow on one of these makes you feel like a real Laplander. These days, snowmobile is the preferred way of herding reindeer. So what if you're going a bit (or even, like me, a lot) more slowly than the others - the empty white plain stretches as far as the eye can see over frozen lakes and treeless fells and there's nowhere to get lost, as long as you don't veer off into the limitless pine forests, where wolves, bears and lynx may lurk and, who knows, maybe even Santa himself.

As the Finns so charmingly put it: "You can meet Santa in many places in Lapland because he travels a lot." Although it's not all snow and Santas in the Arctic Circle in Finland, on most holidays - even at February half-term - there will be a chance to meet the "real" Father Christmas, post a letter with present requests for next Christmas and buy a souvenir made in his workshops. The elves must have been having a union meeting when I visited, for they were nowhere to be seen, although the reindeer were out in force.

For time out of mind, these animals have been the mainstay of the Sami people, as Laplanders are more properly called, and they are still an important source of wealth, providing skins and food. The other constant companion of the Sami is the husky. These dogs are as different from our household pets as a cheetah is from a pet moggie. There's no adoration in a husky's matter-of-fact grey eyes when he looks at a human. Instead, there's an acknowledgement of his place as leader of the pack and an acceptance of the job that needs to be done.

I got the impression that nothing would stop a husky pulling his sled if that's what he'd been told to do. The team gallops over the snow like a racing locomotive rippling with fur. It's an exhilarating ride. The snow offers no resistance to the sled and such is the speed of the huskies and the whoosh of the wind past your ears that you do feel as if any moment you could be airborne. If I hadn't been having so much fun I would have been terrified. But as with the snowmobiles, there's nothing to crash into, so you can let rip. In any case, I don't think the huskies' pride in their job would let you do otherwise.

After all that activity, it was time for a rest in a kota, a kind of tent made of reindeer hide, where lunch was a one-pot salmon stew, cooked over an open fire. The huskies, still tethered, stayed outside, insulated from the cold (in February it's about - 13C) by their double layer of fur.

Back at the hotel, it was time to try another typically Finnish activity - the sauna. The intense heat is just what's needed after a day in the crisp winter air, and I was pleased to see that although birch twigs are provided, neither whipping nor rolling in the snow afterwards are mandatory.

In the evening, we tested the wider reaches of Lapp cuisine. Don't tell Santa, but reindeer meat is very good, especially when preceded by smoked salmon and followed by cloudberries and yoghurt. The traditional drink is, of course, vodka - Finland excels in distilling spirits and even exports vodka to Russia - but with a snowshoe safari and ice-fishing still to come on the holiday timetable, I made for bed early, too tired even to look outside to see if the aurora borealis was making an appearance against the cold night sky.

Walks Worldwide offers a "Family Lapland Snow Adventure" based in Hetta, from pound;980 per adult; pound;740 for children aged two to 11, and pound;50 for infants; including scheduled Finnair flights departing Heathrow for KittilA via Helsinki on Saturday mornings February 15 and 22, and returning Saturday afternoons, February 22 and March 1 respectively, half-board accommodation and most lunches, transfers, all activities and excursions, and the services of a tour leader and local guides. Details: 01524 262255;

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