Travel: The Last Wilderness of Arctic Europe

Leslie Gardiner explores northern Sweden in search of the traditionally nomadic Lapps, but finds their way of life is disappearing fast.

First sighting of a Laplander: a young girl on the sandbank of an estuary. I shout: ‘Don’t stay there, the tide’s coming in’. In near-perfect English she answers: ‘But first I catch my fish’. An hour later we met at the hotel where she works as a part-time receptionist and she showed me her string of char, about 1lb apiece. She had to wade ashore, she said, up to her hips in a swirling flood, and to get dry she ran all the way back with the fish round her neck.

She showed me photographs in books of herself on the Swedish Lapp trails, on her back her ‘kitchen’ as she calls it, at her waist a hunting knife. Up there she lives off the country, visits relatives and reverts to type. One picture shows Lena fording a torrent with reindeer. ‘You must gently coax the leader, the rest follows. They are buoyant, they float like corks.’

In another shot she is hardly visible in a melee of antlers. When they corral and segregate the bucks for slaughter, some brave person has to plunge in among the frightened animals and pick out the victims. Lena always volunteers for that job.

With the reindeer-herding Lapps she has crossed frontiers: Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Soviet Union. This is permitted to the nomads as long as they keep on the move.

Her home is Gallivare, an old Lappish market town. By rail from Stockholm it takes 13 hours (three trains a day, pounds 38 single). Lena makes the trip in 10 hours, in an old MG.

These regions of Arctic Sweden, around Gallivare, Jokkmokk and Kiruna, are billed as Europe’s last wilderness. Powerful destructive torrents surge through timber bridges, the silence of the pine forests is oppressive, distances between towns are great, the snow-water lakes – unruffled and unfished since time began – mirror in spring the passage of snow-buntings, curlews and geese in great numbers.

Then, 200 miles from the sea, you hear a ship’s siren. A big passenger vessel crosses the lake. At the far end you come to a port, a lido and the first of a chain of hydro-electric stations.

We flew from Stockholm to Kiruna on the cheap flight, pounds 42 for a round trip of 1,200 miles. It is one of the world’s greatest cities – in area. And it has one of the world’s biggest mines, producing iron ore. In summer, the local tourist association runs subterranean coach tours through the mine, which has not only a road system but also rail networks, repair shops, cafes and restaurants for workers and tourists.

Within Kiruna ‘town’ – 20 miles from the main population center – we saw the transmitters, radio-telescopes and parabolic antennae of the Scandinavian space project, a geophysical research institute, a rocket-launching site, a satellite-tracking station and a glaciological survey center.

This is the fascination of Swedish Lapland: wild landscapes supporting advanced technology, the latest in scientific development cheek by jowl with a primeval lifestyle. No wonder young Lapp girls are equally at home herding reindeer and driving fast cars.

Kiruna lies north of the Arctic Circle. From surrounding hills you can see the midnight sun from May 28 to July 14, mosquitoes permitting. (We watched some go-kart racing. The karts threw up clouds of grit which, when they drifted our way, turned out to be mosquitoes.) Here you are on the Nordkalottroad or Norgevagen (‘Norway Route’), a brand new highway tracing 50 miles of the Tornetrask Lake and leaping across the backbone of Scandinavia, over frothing waterways and the moss-grown tundra which reindeer love, to the fjords of northern Norway.

Landmarks on the route at present are old navy camps and cemeteries, relics of those who toiled and perished on the iron-ore railway to Narvik.

This is Lapland, but we did not see Lapps – not real Lapps on reindeer sledges, moving up from winter forests to summer pastures. We saw three young men careering down a slope on snow-scooters – our guide said they were Lapps. We saw a helicopter herding reindeer, and passed a convoy of ex-Army trucks – Lapp families on the move. We glimpsed what was once a Lapp settlement and is now a tourist village.

The Swedes are taking over Lapland. Avid for winter sports, long-distance hiking and nude bathing in mineral pools, Swedes enthusiastically embrace the last wilderness. Adventurous people – like Lena – strap the ‘kitchen’ on their backs and head north from Kiruna, 100 miles on difficult trails to Paltsastugan, Kummavuopio and Keinovuopio on the three-nations frontier where Norway, Sweden and Finland meet.

Maybe in these ancestral homelands they come across the odd Lapp, almost wholly dependent on reindeer for food, shelter, clothing and domestic needs, sustaining a pure and unbroken tradition, leading (as Linnaeus the botanist reported) ‘the easiest and happiest of lives’.

Of some 50,000 Lapps in the world, only about 800 do that. They have become an anachronism, fated (like the Ainu of Japan, whose customs and folklore they share) to be ‘kept intact only for touristic purposes’.

Around Gallivare there are said to be a few Lapps stockbreeding and managing the reindeer; we didn’t find any. Gallivare is another mining town, railway junction and stopover for tourists, with a famous ‘Penny Church’ built 200 years ago for the newly-Christianized Lapps with donations of one penny from every Swedish household.

Southward, on the main railway to Stockholm, south of the Arctic Circle, you hit the forest region and lakeland of Arvidsjaur, bristling with camp sites, caravan parks and boating marinas. Some Arvidsjaur buildings, including Lapp sheds and pyramidical huts, date from 1820. This was a place of pilgrimage for Lapps. In June and July they still round up and mark the reindeer and on the last Sunday in August they hold their annual party. They don’t, however, hold their liquor. Two points of lager puts a Lapp in the gutter.

Late August and early September are the recommended visiting seasons, when the forests are most colorful and the midges, gnats and horseflies (the true denizens of the north, in point of numbers) begin to get their heads down.

A first time visitor might settle for Jokkmokk, which is rather more than a large village, lying on the Arctic Circle, in a quiet watered mountain-land halfway between Gallivare and Arvidsjaur. It looks out on yet another of the riverine inland seas of northern Sweden, pristine in beauty and tranquility. Its hotels are almost surrealistically new. You can rent cabins, tents and chalets along a 70-mile-long lake shore.

The municipal museum was recently enriched with the best of all Lapp collections – sheds, huts, skin tents furnished with the paraphernalia of the nomads from reindeer cloaks and rugs to reindeer-horn carvings, ornaments and utensils. Hardly surprising that the Lapp language (which is cousin to Finnish and Magyar) defines ‘reindeer’ with more than 200 nouns.

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