Explore North Norway
Venture far inland from Alta and you enter the Finnmarksvidda, a vast mountain plateau which spreads southeast up to and beyond the Finnish border. Rivers, lakes and marshes lattice the region, but there’s nary a tree, let alone a mountain, to break the contours of a landscape whose wide skies and deep horizons are nevertheless eerily beautiful. Distances are hard to gauge – a dot of a storm can soon be upon you, breaking with alarming ferocity – and the air is crystal-clear, giving a whitish lustre to the sunshine. A handful of roads cross this expanse, but for the most part it remains the preserve of the few thousand semi-nomadic Sámi who make up the majority of the local population. Many still wear traditional dress, a brightly coloured, wool and felt affair of red bonnets and blue jerkins or dresses, all trimmed with red, white and yellow embroidery. You’ll see permutations on this traditional costume all over Finnmark, but especially at roadside souvenir stalls and, on Sundays, outside Sámi churches.
Despite the slow encroachments of the tourist industry, lifestyles on the Finnmarksvidda have remained remarkably constant for centuries. The main occupation is reindeer herding, supplemented by hunting and fishing, and the pattern of Sámi life is still mostly dictated by the biology of these animals. During the winter, the reindeer graze the flat plains and shallow valleys of the interior, migrating towards the coast in early May as the snow begins to melt, and temperatures inland begin to climb, even reaching 30°C on occasion. By October, both people and reindeer are journeying back from their temporary summer quarters on the coast. The long, dark winter is spent in preparation for the great Easter festivals, when weddings and baptisms are celebrated in the region’s two principal settlements, Karasjok and – more especially – Kautokeino. Summer visits, on the other hand, can be rather disappointing, culturally speaking at least, since many families and their reindeer are kicking back at coastal pastures and there is precious little activity in either town. Still, your best bet for spotting small herds are along the road to Hammerfest and in the area around Nordkapp.
The best time to hike the Finnmarksvidda is in late August and early September, after the peak mosquito season and before the weather turns cold. For the most part the plateau vegetation is scrub and open birch forest, which makes the going fairly easy, though the many marshes, rivers and lakes often impede progress. There are a handful of clearly demarcated hiking trails as well as a smattering of appropriately sited but unstaffed huts; for detailed information, ask at Alta tourist office.Read More
It’s a two-hour drive or bus ride from Alta across the Finnmarksvidda to KAUTOKEINO (Guovdageaidnu in Sámi), the principal winter camp of the Norwegian Sámi and their reindeer, who are kept in the surrounding plains. The Sámi are not, however, easy town dwellers and although Kautokeino is very useful to them as a supply base, it’s still a desultory, desolate-looking place straggling along Highway 93 for a couple of kilometres, with the handful of buildings that pass for the town centre gathered at the point where the road crosses the Kautokeinoelva River.
Easter festivals in the Finnsmarksvidda
Easter festivals in the Finnsmarksvidda
As neither of the Finnsmarksvidda region’s two principal settlements, Karasjok and Kautokeino, is particularly appealing in itself, Easter is without question the best time to be here, when the inhabitants celebrate the end of the polar night and the arrival of spring. There are folk-music concerts, church services and traditional sports, including the famed reindeer races – not, thank goodness, reindeers racing each other (they would never cooperate), but reindeer pulling passenger-laden sleds. Details of the Easter festivals are available at any Finnmark tourist office.
The northernmost reaches of Norway, Sweden and Finland, plus the Kola peninsula of northwest Russia, are collectively known as Lapland. Traditionally, the indigenous population were called “Lapps”, but in recent years this name has fallen out of favour and been replaced by the term Sámi, although the change is by no means universal. This more commonly used term comes from the Sámi word sámpi referring to both the land and its people, who now number around 70,000 scattered across the whole of the region. Among the oldest peoples in Europe, the Sámi most likely descended from prehistoric clans who migrated here from Siberia by way of the Baltic. Their language is closely related to Finnish and Estonian, though it’s somewhat misleading to speak of a “Sámi language” as there are, in fact, three distinct versions, each of which breaks down into a number of markedly different regional dialects. All share many common features, however, including a superabundance of words and phrases to express variations in snow and ice conditions.
Originally, the Sámi were a semi-nomadic people, living in small communities (siidas), each of which had a degree of control over the surrounding hunting grounds. They lived off hunting, fishing and trapping, preying on all the edible creatures of the north, but it was the wild reindeer that supplied most of their needs. This changed in the sixteenth century when the Sámi moved over to reindeer herding, with communities following the seasonal movements of the animals.
The contact the Sámi have had with other Scandinavians has almost always been to their disadvantage. In the ninth century, they paid significant fur, feather and hide taxes to Norse chieftains. Later, in the seventeenth century, they faced colonization and moves to dislocate their culture from the various thrones in Sweden, Russia and Norway. The frontiers of Sámiland were only agreed in 1826, by which point hundreds of farmers had settled in “Lapland”, to the consternation of its native population. By that point, Norway’s Sámi had kowtowed to Protestant missionaries and accepted the religion of their colonizers – though the more progressive among them did support the use of Sámi languages and even translated hundreds of books into their language. In the nineteenth century, the government’s aggressive Social Darwinist policy of “Norwegianization” banned the use of indigenous languages in schools, and only allowed Sámi to buy land if they could speak Norwegian. Only in the 1950s were these policies abandoned and slowly replaced by a more considerate, progressive approach.
1986 was a catastrophic year for the Sámi: the Chernobyl nuclear disaster contaminated much of the region’s flora and fauna, which effectively meant the collapse of the reindeer export market. While reindeer herding is now the main occupation of just one-fifth of the Sámi population, expressions of Sámi culture have expanded. Traditional arts and crafts are now widely available in all of Scandinavia’s major cities and a number of Sámi films – including the critically acclaimed Veiviseren (The Pathfinder) – have been released. Sámi music (joik) has also been given a hearing by world-music, jazz and even electronica buffs. Although their provenance is uncertain, the rhythmic song-poems that constitute joik were probably devised to soothe anxious reindeer; the words are subordinated to the unaccompanied singing and at times are replaced altogether by meaningless, sung syllables.
Since the international anti-colonial struggles of the 1960s, the Norwegians have been obliged to thoroughly re-evaluate their relationship with the Sámi – initially by amending the national constitution to include social, cultural and linguistic rights for them in 1988, then a year later establishing a Sámi Parliament, the Sameting, in Karasjok. Certain deep-seated problems do remain – issues such as land and mineral rights and the identity of Sámi both as an indigenous, partly autonomous people and as citizens of a particular country – but at least Oslo is asking the right questions.
Hikes into the Finnmarksvidda
Hikes into the Finnmarksvidda
Karasjok is an excellent point of departure for an exploration of the Finnmarksvidda. The region’s most popular long-distance hike is the five-day haul across the heart of the Finnmarksvidda, from Karasjok to Alta via a string of strategically located huts – gorgeous and invigorating but not for the faint-hearted or inexperienced. More gentle a trek is the 3.5km Ássebákti nature trail, which passes more than a hundred Sámi cultural monuments on the way. Clearly signed, the trail begins some 16km west of Karasjok along Highway 92 towards Kautokeino. For information on walks in the region, enquire at either the Karasjok or Alta tourist offices.