By Nicholas C. Hersh
The red brake lights dim as the car slowly starts to pull away. Tensing my arms, I lean back and watch the coiled nylon rope in front of me gradually disappear into the night. I nervously laugh at myself, kneeling in a hot pink plastic sled in the middle of an icy country lane in southern Lapland, and look up at the sky. The scene feels more akin to some icebound Impressionist painting than a late night moment of idiocy outside of Vuokatti, Finland.
Located a few hours north of Helsinki by car, Vuokatti sits right in the middle of Finland, at the point where the thousands of lakes in the nation’s south begin to slowly give way to the pine-filled expanses of Lapland. The town itself spills out of a mountain valley and onto the shores of Lake Nuasjarvi, making it a prime destination for tourists who come to soak up the constant sunlight in the summer while swimming, picking berries or hiking in the hills. However, it is not the gleaming summers, but rather the unlit winters of Vuokatti that are truly bewitching and make this isolated town genuinely worth the visit.
Wintertime in Vuokatti feels as if one accidentally fell off the Polar Express on its journey north and discovered a small town cloaked in snow and hidden in the forest. At night, the stars materialize by the millions, yet still manage to be engulfed along the horizon by the fully ablaze Caribbean blues and greens of the Northern Lights. The silver-outlined silhouettes of the surrounding hills and the thickly caked snow on tree branches and frozen lakes add still more shimmer to the darkness, allowing the beholder to momentarily forget the prickling cold.
As night turns into twilight for a few hours each day, the wilderness trails of Vuokatti channel cross-country skiers through ageless glades of pine and over mountain ridges. Skiing past an outlying farmhouse, lucky visitors are often conducted inside for a meal by the fire and a bout in the sauna. After smoked fish on home baked bread, reindeer meat and potatoes, naked sprints between cedar sauna and fleecy snowdrifts and possibly one too many local beers, the quiet feeling of contentment sits deep in my stomach. The satisfaction quickly flees me, however, as the suggestion of going car-sledding is boisterously made and the faces of my new friends perk up…
My gaze returns quickly from the stars as the slack in the rope is taken up and the sled begins to slide forward on the ice. I manage some final worried glances at the steely and frozen snowbanks hovering over the sides of the road and sigh in resignation. My breath escapes me in one last lingering cloud of anxiety, but I begin to smile regardless. The memories, after all, will last much longer than the scars.
I feel the snow skim smoothly under the sled; the fluid sound is interrupted only by the shouts in Finnish coming from the car.