Festival of Lights
Many Finnish hotels have the pleasant custom of hoisting the national emblem of each new guest who arrives. We were the first Americans to register at the hotel in Rovaniemi; in our honor, up went the American flag.
This was the city, directly on the Arctic Circle, where I had ended my Lapland Arctic adventure, just as spring was turning the deep winter snows to slush. Now it was June 23rd, eve of St. John’s Day, and the city was crazy with excitement. Longest day of the year (almost). The Arctic Circle, where—on this one day—the sun does not set, even at midnight. Townspeople, tourists, and travelers, backwoods settlers from the forests of northern FinlandRovaniemi was crowded with celebrants. Crowded, too, with entertainment—street fair and circus, clowns, even a third-rate American cowboy doing roping stunts.
At 11:00 P.M. all eyes turned toward Ounasvaara Hill, and the thousands who jammed the streets began trekking toward its summit
The hilltop was studded with massive rocks and on these the throngs stood in clusters facing the light. All day there had been clouds but, like a real miracle, at half an hour before midnight the clouds parted and revealed the sun. Not only were we seeing it at midnight but that was the only time of day it had been visible. From a band concealed somewhere in the rocks came the strains of Sibelius’s tone poem, Finlandia. All heads were bared as the Finnish flag was raised aloft. Midnight came, and the sun—just touching the horizon—slowly began its ascent of another day.
Helen was overwhelmed; tears streamed down her face as she listened to the music, which was like a review of our entire Finland trip—rippling forests of birch, surging streams, mysterious backwoods life, with its friendly people who had helped us along the way. All these things flowed through her mind and were contained in the music. A woman standing near her asked: “Are you Finnish?” Helen replied: “At this moment I am.”
St. John’s Eve—the Festival of Lights—had been celebrated after the manner of the Arctic.
The Great Arctic Highway, extending from Rovaniemi northward to Liinahamari on the Arctic Ocean—down which I had traveled a portion of the distance to terminate my winter trek to Lapland—this Arctic Highway journey would be Helen’s and my last adventure in Finland. At the city’s outskirts, the bus driver kindly stopped so we might film the sign, in four languages, “Arctic Circle.”
From that point northward the highway cut for miles through heavy forest. Here and there in small clearings were the log huts and rude sheds of Finnish settlers, invariably painted red. Each tiny clearing meant toil—a struggle to push back the forest; each little home meant that a family of hardy pioneers was doing its bit to extend civilization into remote places.
It was nearing the first of July and spring plowing had just begun. The first frosts commence in August. Only with the aid of continuous sunlight can there be any hope at all of growing a crop in two months.
As we passed the isolated farms—fragmentary specks of human endeavor in a wilderness of forests—we marveled that people could choose to live in such remote locations.
Bus travel on the Arctic Highway is not a rushing affair. The buses are actually the mail conveyances, which carry passengers only as an accommodation. Each time we came to a farmhouse there would be a stop to leave or pick up mail The farmers would bring down their tiny cans of cream to send out, and receive “empties” in exchange.
In addition to mail stops, each hour or so we would pull up at some farmhouse in which the housewife had turned her sitting room into a “ravintola.” There would be ten minutes for coffee or milk, or half an hour for a full meal. We would lay out a few pennies as payment and be off.
At such places, gaily-attired Lapps, who lived far back in the forests, would come down to stand around and stare at the strange-looking bus passengers who were invading their land. Occasionally the Lapps, as well as others who lived in the backwoods, traveled on the bus. In almost every case they became car sick. Paper sacks for sick passengers were standard bus equipment. The road was not excessively winding but there was scarcely a time when some passenger was not ill. For Americans who are born to auto travel—virtually using the steering wheel for a teething ring—it is hard to realize that a novice can be quite as distressed in a swiftly-moving car as in a ship at sea. Many of those sick folks were having their first auto rides.
Reindeer blocked our progress on two occasions, then leaped off into the forest as the driver blasted his horn. We saw many of them back in among the spruce and birches, heads alert as they watched this strange yellow demon on wheels rushing through their domain. Once, on a distant hill, there was a whole herd—like sheep on Scottish moors.
BANG! and the yellow demon slid to a stop with a punctured tire. All the passengers alighted—then all began a wild batting and slapping. Mosquitoes!
The country became more mountainous and the road more winding as we forged onward into Petsamo, the area which until 1920 was part of Russia. (Following the Russo-Finnish War, shortly after our trip, part of it again was annexed to Russia.) Mixed pine and birch gave way to birch alone, which became more scrawny each mile we traveled, until at last only the scrub-covered rocky fells of upper Lapland met the eye. Sparkling salmon-laden streams surged down the low mountains on every hand. Lakes were cupped in the lowlands, and moss-crusted rocks were tossed about in grand disorder. Just at 11:00 P.M.—but with the sun still high in the sky—we swung down a slope to the Petsamo fjord and into the little fringe of settlements which border its shores. They were more Russian than Finnish, with the fat domes of a Greek Orthodox church in the center of each tiny cluster of houses that made up a town. Then, just at the edge of the harbor of the fjord, sat the Liinahamari Inn with the highway running on down to the very shore, ending in a pile of rocks by the salt waters from the Arctic Ocean.
Filming the Midnight Sun
I stood on a mountain crest high above the Arctic and surveyed the world below me. It was midnight, with a flashing crystal sun shooting white light over all the earth. My climb to the mountaintop had been glorious—that first stretch along the tumbling stream in the late evening, that mad scramble over the rock-strewn falls, those ticklish jumps from boulder to boulder, with one jump almost disastrous.
It was July, yet large fields of snow were still battling it out in a life-and-death struggle with the sun. But the sun, working double shifts, was winning out. Foaming rivulets of the melted snow went careening down between the rocks as though in frantic retreat; wide pools of icy water lay concealed under the spongy moss as though in belated hiding from the enemy. This battleground between sun and ice was grand in aspect, yet hard to travel. By jumps and leaps I had made headway toward the summit.
A promontory. A quick turn around a rock cliff There ahead, on my way up, I saw two mountain peaks turned upside down. The thing seemed eerie. More Alice-in-Wonderland stuff. A brief moment of study was necessary in order for me to realize that this was a reflection—one of the finest I had ever seen—with the two peaks and their patches of snow all done in duplicate on the surface of a mountain lake. The sky was clear and white, without color, and the clear yet strange light of midnight so confused me that the whole thing was unreal. It was a perfect subject for photography. It was for something such as this that I had taken this hike—to film one of the beautiful spots in the Arctic by midnight light.
Exhilarated by the beauty of it all—with the summit just ahead—I leaped the boulders recklessly. They were encrusted with moss. The space between them was moss-covered and soggy. My camera equipment was clumsy. A rock slipped. Or I slipped. Or something. I turned an ankle and a somersault at the same time.
A fine patch of moss, with a puddle beneath it, broke my fall. I was unhurt. My camera was unscratched but my trousers were soaked and my watch broken—stopped at twenty-five minutes to midnight. The bow of my glasses had snapped in two. Quite lucky on the whole.
The summit was close at hand and although I was now without a watch, there is no doubt I made it before midnight. There have been so many “best moments” on this trip that one shouldn’t keep adding to them. But this night on the Arctic summit near Liinahamari in north Finland must have a place on the list.
There, far below, was the Arctic Ocean. Liinahamari harbor is on a fjord so this was my first sight of the actual Arctic itself It was the only one of the “seven seas” that I hadn’t seen. Just to think! There to the north, on the other side of this ocean, was American soil—Alaska. Not far, comparatively, but that connection with America will be useless until polar aviation becomes a reality.
But in the other direction—off across the Arctic and the Atlantic toward the west and south—there was a connection which meant something. For across that vast stretch of water flows the Gulf Stream. Like a Nile carrying fertility into a barren land, that strange current in the ocean gathers some of the warmth from our American continent and bears it to the far northern shores of Norway, Finland, and Russia.
Finland’s southern ports on the arms of the Baltic are frozen in winter months—navigable only with the aid of ice-breakers—but Liinahamari, nearly one thousand miles northward, is ice free year-round, thanks to America’s Gulf Stream. This northern exit offers an outlet to Finland in case of a Baltic blockade in time of war. (A few months after our visit, as a result of the Russo-Finnish War, Finland had to relinquish this area, with its strategic harbor.)
As I looked to the west I could see the peaks of Norway. The frontier was only seven miles distant. And the Soviet Union just six miles in the other direction. This northern area of FinlandPetsamo it is called—is in reality just a narrow corridor jutting northward to the Arctic waters.
Narrow, but mighty in interest. There below were the lakes beyond which Helen and I had hiked, the day before, to a village of Skolt Lapps. That had been an important adventure. Farther down—too far to see—was Boris Gleb, a village of Russian Lapps which we had visited. And beyond that, two of the greatest waterfalls in Finland—small Niagaras hidden in the Arctic. We had spent half of one night hiking to them, then spent hours just gazing at the splendor.
And beyond all that was Finnish Lapland, then Finland proper off below the Arctic Circle. From my Arctic pinnacle I looked and thought and “daydreamed” at midnight. We would be leaving Finland now in just three more days. What a country it had been.
Doing a makeshift repair job on my tripod, I took a full reel of colored movies by the light of the midnight sun, then started down. It was nearly 4:00 A.M. when I reached our little inn. The place was bolted securely and it took a lot of pebble-throwing against Helen’s window before she awakened and let me in. A few days later, in a small motorboat, we went down the Paatsjoki River, across the Norwegian frontier, to Kirkenes. A fjord steamer carried us up around North Cape, where we were at approximately the same latitude as Point Barrow in Alaska, then down to Hammerfest, from where it was just a day’s journey into Karasjok, the Lapp capital I had visited at Easter time I was glad to see my Lapp friends again, and they, too, rejoiced at my return.
Heavy summer rains greeted us at Karasjok, and we had to wait a couple of days before attempting a boat journey up the swift Karasjoki River, where we wanted to visit a Lapp summer camp. During this time, we had opportunities to observe and film the contrasts between the summer and winter life in this interesting land. While awaiting the storm’s cessation, we visited a number of my old friends. Many were out at the coast with their reindeer herds, others were far up the river tending cattle, but of those still remaining in Karasjok, all were glad to see me. As we walked along the grassy lanes which served for streets, even those whom I didn’t know personally would smile and beam in recognition. At Easter time I had taken snapshots of scores of these people, and on this second visit we brought back pictures by the dozen to distribute amongst them. These snaps were the first photographs of themselves some of the Lapps had ever possessed.
At last the storms abated and we headed up the Karasjoki. Our first objective was a Lapp summer camp, where the cattle and horses are taken for better grazing during the hot months. The huts of the camp were of sod, many of them unlighted except for a smoke hole in the roof Some of them were lined with colored comic sheets from Norwegian and Finnish newspapers. It was strange to see Jiggs and Maggie, Mutt and Jeff, Little Henry, and similar characters in this out-of-the-way place. And all printed in foreign languages.
After filming one abode and its occupants, I offered a trinket of jewelry to one of the girls. Whereupon another girl ran up and gleefully exhibited a pair of blue glass beads. At once I recognized them. They were a pair which I had given to a woman back in Karasjok the winter before. A series of trades had finally brought them into the hands of this girl far up the river. With movie camera recording the scene, we gave her another pair—this time some green ones. With no sense of incongruity, she slipped them on with the others.
Back to Karasjok and Hammerfest, then by steamer down along the Norwegian coast, on to Denmark, and across a corner of Germany, en route to England to reunite with our two young girls. Our departure for America was scheduled on the Queen Mary’s sailing in September.
But during our two days in Germany we heard some news which altered our plans considerably and possibly saved our lives.