14 October 2012

Northern Roads and Reflections

At the Hotelli Inari, in far northern Finland, people come more to drink than to sleep.  There are beds upstairs, according to a pricelist, but we're not sure what kind of rough-edged person might sleep in them.
Downstairs in the bar, a full range of Lapland characters came out on a recent Wednesday night.  Bleary eyed men sat slumped over beers.  Young women in perfume and high-heels gathered to laugh and chat. A group of Norwegians were in town to celebrate something.  Inari is a Sámi town, on the shore of a many-armed lake of the same name.  The arctic circle is some two hundred miles south.  There are four different languages spoken in Inari's woods and along the back roads.  A man and woman came to set up Karaoke in the bar.  When they turned on the machines, a waitress told them to wait a bit - the music was too loud for the regulars.  This is the slow-simmering life in Finnish Lapland.
The landscape in this part of the world is flat, wet and mossy.  Lakes and ponds appear everywhere in the northern forests, and dry land can seem only temporarily firm - walk anywhere in these woods, and you'll find places where the ground is soggy and soft with water.  Lake shores aren't exactly distinct boundaries, the liquid bleeds into the low rock like watercolor paint over a pencil line.  One could get lost forever here, in such featureless space.
In October, the Arctic days didn't feel too short, but the feeling of darkness approaching had soaked into everything.
Why would people live here, when it seems so much like a wasteland?  Reindeer and salmon.
Finnish Lapland is also called Sápmi, just as the indigenous Lapp people are known as Sámi in their native tongues.  The native people have lived here for thousands of years because their home is extraordinarily rich in food.  Even today, fishermen pull sixty pound salmon from the Tana river, and herds of reindeer are kept in the forests and fells.  We came across these traditional riverboats up near the border with Norway.  Boats like these are used for checking and maintaining the Sámi salmon nets that are strung from trellises in the water.  Nowadays, angling is more popular than netting.  We passed many signs advertising fishing excursions on the roadsides.
Driving in Lapland is a hypnotic experience.  Trees and water pass, the horizon opens and closes, the distances become almost theoretic.  In some ways, it reminded me of traveling in the American west, where two hours away is "close by."
When a house or a gas station does pop up, it's an event.  At Kaamasen Kievari, which sits somewhere close to two intersections, a traveler can eat, drink, sleep, gamble, send mail or just get some diesel and coffee.  It's not a big place, but it has most of what anybody could need.  The menu was heavy on reindeer, most of the daytime crowd was drinking, the sound of slot machines was a quiet constant.  The road outside is flat and fast through the trees.  If you don't need to stop, there's no reason to slow down.
A big part of the local economy here is Norwegian bargain shopping.  Finland's wealthier neighbors come across the border to buy beer, liquor and gasoline.  Näätämö is a nothing town.  It's no more than a few muddy parking lots, two supermarkets, some rusting cars and fuel pumps.  There aren't any houses - at least, none that you can see from the road.  We know someone must live in Näätämö; there was a row of mailboxes beside the K-market.  The border is ten minutes away.  Square-jawed men and women come down from the northern fjords with petrol cans and leave with bottles of vodka.
We felt, traveling here, that even manmade things had somehow become wild. There are boats everywhere, but we never saw one out on the water.  They just sat, pulled up onto the shore, filling up with rainwater, their engines taken off, looking more like driftwood than transportation.  Log trucks are common, but seem more animal than human as they careen down dirt roads.  Mailboxes sit on the roadsides, with no house in sight - they look like giant mushrooms that have sprung up in the rain.
Ivalo stands out as a metropolis in this emptiness, with its few supermarkets and three roundabouts.  We pulled into one of the two gas stations for lunch. Dolly Parton was on the radio, men in chainsaw chaps stood by their pickups outside.  The lunch buffet was popular with the locals - people sat down quietly with trays of reindeer-hamburg pasta and squash soup.  There were video slot machines at some of the tables, two euros for five shots.  Some of the old men wore cowboy hats.  Included in the price: coffee, bread, salad, herring, juice and lingonberries in syrup.
Finnish Lapland doesn't feel particularly European.  In a lot of ways it feels like parts of remote middle America - I was reminded of Michigan's upper Peninsula more than once.  The people are of a similar type: independent, citizens of vast spaces.  That's not to say that it felt American either.  Maybe better to say that there's a kinship between northern places, as though the circular world near the pole is a separate continent from those attached southern extremities.  Every part of life here is edged in tradition, but the existence is modern - the Sámi part of the land's identity is a picture frame, not the whole portrait.
We stopped the car often to get out and look at one lake or another.  Sometimes the water stretched miles into the distance, sometimes it was just a pool in the grass.  We got caught up photographing the reflections of trees and rocks.  It rained and cleared up.  We hoped to see northern lights at night, but there was nothing but darkness and clouds.  Lapland in October is a meditation more than experience.

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