A Winter in Lapland

What I learned by falling into a frozen lake

I wish I had taken this picture but Rayann Elzein did.

Cold, real cold, life-threatening cold, makes you forget about everything else. You feel painfully alive because it’s the only thing you feel. You have to focus on surviving in a way so different than what you’re used to that every inconsequential, daily problem disappears. It’s only you against goosebumps, burning cheeks, chattering teeth and frozen ideas. Just you, the forces of nature and that exhilarating sensation of insane freedom you only get when free falling. In the face of something that can so clearly kill you, you can’t help it but feel it — if nothing else, you’re this: alive.

Most of Lapland is above the Arctic circle. It’s north to some of the places that come to mind when thinking of polar climates, such as Iceland and Alaska. There are more reindeer than people and during winter the darkness is total (the infamous polar night) for more than 20 hours a day. From this you can guess that yes, Lapland is a fairly cold and inhospitable place. It only makes sense that its people are different than us southerners. How similar can we be when they live in a place with conditions so dramatically different? Being in Lapland you can forget about your cravings for Mexican food unless you can make it yourself — and have planned way in advance to buy the necessary ingredients. Instead, say hello to moose burgers, wild salmon, lingonberries and mild-tasting frozen carrots.

I don’t remember when was the first time I heard about Lapland but I do know two things: that my mother was the one that introduced me to it and that I was immediately convinced I had to go there. Before I was born she had traveled to the Finish part of the region to cross-country ski the hell out of the area. The Pyrenees are not the best place for a nordic ski aficionado so my mom was thrilled to go somewhere her sport wasn’t only practicable but a country favorite. Maybe it was because of the way her eyes shone when she told me about the adventures she lived there, or because I find Scandinavia fascinating. When I finally had the chance to travel there, I didn’t set for the touristy, visit Santa’s home part. I went to the north of this nordic region, where you can drive for miles to only encounter a remote wooden house or a cartoonish gas station that, if you’re lucky, will sell decent hot dogs.

In the winter of 2017, a friend and I flew to Tromsø, rented a car to get as far away from the city as possible and stayed in a wonderfully isolated farm where the only company we had were dozens of Norwegian sheep and a handful of Icelandic horses. Of course the farmers were also there, but we saw them less than the other mammals of the property. It was exactly the type of place we were looking for. Every morning we woke up early, ate our oatmeal with skyr and questionable coffee and left for the mountains — be it to hike, ski or mush.

After a few days of having satiated our need for nature and lack of human contact, we decided to momentarily descend into civilization and drive down to lake Kilpisjärvi, right beyond the Finish border. Compared to the raw forests we had quickly gotten used to, the practically non existing village next to the lake felt like an overwhelming theme park. Nevertheless, we still wanted to explore the area so we decided that the most adventurous thing was to do so in a snowmobile. At that point, skiing on the frozen lake felt too familiar, too tame. We found a TripAdvisor-approved rental place and got our vehicle for the day. We could only see a blanket of white and a forest that seemed more out of reach than the horizon itself so we set for it, the only reference we had in that castleless Arendelle.

We drove for miles until the sun began to set. Since we had to get back to camp before dark, we stopped for a minute to contemplate the forest as close as we would ever see it. I got down from the snowmobile to take the mandatory pictures to prove that we had actually been there. The ice was slippery under my Sorel boots but I could manage to walk far enough to frame the picture as I had imagined it. I was turning to try a less conservative angle when I suddenly felt a crack beneath me. Don’t get me wrong. I love Death Cab for Cutie as much as the next hipster but at that moment the irony of living one of the songs I have compulsively listened to the most completely eluded me.

The ice broke under my feet and I fell into the barely liquid lake. As soon as I started feeling the icy water take over my snowsuit, thermal leggings, boots and skin, I stopped feeling anything else. I am usually prone to anxiety but having only one sensation to worry about, my head was clear. Although I’m no Wim Hof and I haven’t run a barefoot marathon in the Arctic (yet) I’ve never been afraid of the cold either, specially when related to water. As a kid, I got undressed and into the sea whenever we were close to it, no exceptions, no matter the company or the time of year. My family used to joke that I actually wasn’t a human but a penguin and I remember thinking that they were wrong — I was clearly an orca. To this day, I can’t be close to the sea and not touch it.

In that moment, none of this mattered. My only goal was to get out of that hole. Somehow I managed to climb out of the water, jump onto the snowmobile and drive like a demon to also get out of my dripping wet clothes as soon as possible. I was definitely colder than I have ever been but I felt at peace. All the mindfulness bullshit had nothing on the liberating sensation of being extremely cold. It was not a pleasant sensation but feeling my body like that — without thinking, only sensing every pore and the way the cold was affecting it — is the most present I have ever been.

When we finally reached the rental hut and I jumped into a reviving shower I started thinking again. I wasn’t that cold anymore but I still felt a worrying numbness in my right leg, so I thought that day might be the one I lost not only my foot but life as I used to know it. I was right. Not about the foot, but that trip changed my perspective — and what is life if not a story we tell ourselves loosely based on the events that happen while we are alive?

We explained our accident to the rental guys and they simply shrugged and said we shouldn’t have been driving in that area. The ice was too thin. We had expected a little more surprise — not to mention concern for my wellbeing — but they were not the least shaken by our experience. The year before some girls had fallen with a snowmobile (!) into that very same part of the lake. Their distinctly calm and viking-ish attitude stayed with me. It made me realize what a trap urban life is. Living in a city, specially the one you grew up in, surrounded by comforts and even luxuries, is so easy. Want a new coat? Get it delivered at the end of today. Feel like Vietnamese for dinner? The best pho is a short bus ride away — unless you also want to get it delivered right to your doorstep. Humans are lazy animals and cities have brought this trait to a ridiculous extreme.

But a city is a paradoxical place. At the same time it numbs us to our idlest self, it crushes its inhabitants day by day. In a city you are always competing, even when you don’t notice it. You’re competing for a prestigious but underpaid job; an overpriced, shoe box-sized apartment; a cool boyfriend you don’t even want to spend that much time with. You’re competing with thousands of people every single day, every single step of the way. To describe it as exhausting would be a huge understatement. You even end up thinking violence, pollution, madding crowds and overpriced everything are intrinsic aspects of modern life. It’s that consuming, that life-altering. If Italo Calvino was right and “you take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours”, I guess all my questions regarding my lifestyle have been answered: I need to leave for the countryside.

This is something almost impossible to think unless you get out of the urban spell. City life is so convenient yet so hectic that it makes you forget there are other ways to live. You forget that you could just abandon it. Really, it’s that easy. You could go up to the mountains or sail to a remote island. You could get a small cottage and farm and fish and hunt for the rest of your life. You could live there and adopt a different rhythm. You could forget about all the woes of urban life and just be as happy — or, I would dare to say, happier.

On the days after visiting Kilpisjärvi I could feel something had changed within me. We went mushing again and after a long ride around an island north of Tromsø, we parked the sleds in a sunny patch so the dogs could catch their breath and we could enjoy the view. It was magnificent. There was snow as far as the eye could see, the glistening white only punctuated by some rogue trees and far away tiny red houses. And yet what I cherished the most about that moment was the invigorating cold breeze that slapped my face, as if urging me to come back to the present every time my mind flew somewhere else. Only then could I fully enjoy the feeble sun on my hair, the smell of tired dogs, the sounds of birds unknown.