In Lapland, Nature’s Outdoor Sculpture Park



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The Art of the Arctic

CreditIlvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times


AKASLOMPOLO, Finland — I strapped on snowshoes and wriggled into multiple layers of spandex and fleece to trek up Kukastunturi, a 1,555-foot-high Arctic fell, a word derived from the Old Norse fjall, for a high, barren landscape.

Barren except for the spruces dotting the fell’s gentle slopes that, during the winter months, develop a hard, frosty covering known in Finnish as tykky or tykkylumi, or hard rime in English. The coating transforms the trees into snow sculptures that look like enormous, misshapen towers of shaving foam, or maybe lumpy columns of popcorn.

It was cold, minus 8 degrees Fahrenheit, on this particular day in January, and I’d booked a half-day trip with Seven Fells Up, a small tour operator that conducts cross-country skiing and snowshoe treks in the ski resort area of Yllas, about 90 miles north of the Arctic Circle and about 500 miles north of Helsinki, the Finnish capital.

Kukastunturi’s fell-top forestation and easy climb make it the best place in the area to see the trees, and the phenomenon usually is at its best in late January if the right conditions have prevailed.

The icy residue forms when the minuscule water droplets in fog, clouds or humidity make contact with the tree branches — freezing instantly and forming a crisp, white coating of crystals. (Imagine, for example, a small freezer in serious need of defrosting.)

Sabrina Haberli, a Swiss transplant who was our guide for the day, was ecstatic as we suited up, stressing that the weather was the kind of ideal conditions she sees just a few times a year: windless, cloudless and warm enough to venture out.

She said the snow sculptures would stand out against the azure sky and, if the conditions continued into the evening, we would see the sunset tinge them with shades of orange, pink and lavender.

But the fact remained that by our standards — four Swiss tourists, one Dutch, a Dane and an American — it was cold. Fortunately, Ms. Haberli, who has been escorting groups here for seven winters, had a wealth of tips, like showing us how to line our hiking boots with newspaper to block the cold and to layer several pieces of light clothing to avoid sweating and, later, chills.

Still, the cold remained a concern as we set out, although Ms. Haberli assured us that our labored, ducklike waddling over the snow would soon warm us up.

She was right. Within 20 minutes of setting out from a cafe used by cross-country skiers, some of us remarked that we felt mysteriously comfortable despite the extreme chill. We followed Ms. Haberli in a single file, our snowshoes leaving only shallow tracks as the lightweight metal frames prevented us from sinking into the three-foot-deep snow.

“The only thing you could hear is your breathing and the crunch of snow among your shoes,” said Leonie Rohde, who was visiting Lapland, as the Finnish region is known, from Bern, Switzerland, with her husband, Sascha. “It’s so peaceful.”

My desire to see the snow-sculpture trees began a few months earlier, when my sister in England sent me a photograph. Had I seen them before? How did they form? Despite having lived in Finland for nearly eight years, I had never seen a snow-covered spruce that looked more like a head of cauliflower than a tree.

Pauli Jokinen, a meteorologist with the Finnish Meteorological Institute, said in an email that variations in wind direction and speed effectively sculpt the encrustations over time, usually creating rounded, pronounced formations, he said.

“The shapes depend on wind direction and how long the trees have been exposed to the conditions,” he said. “If the wind blows strongly from one direction only, it could be that only one face of the tree gets a rime coating.”

As we approached the top of the fell, we stopped for warm berry juice in so-called kuksa cups, which Ms. Haberli explained are made by the Sami people of Lapland from large growths, or burls, on birch trees. By tradition, the cups are always gifts, never purchased outright by their intended owners. (It is also customary to christen them with strong liquor, although they are most often used for coffee.)

We ate sandwiches of reindeer meat on a potato-flour flatbread called reiska. The smokiness of the reindeer paired well with the bread’s slight sweetness. For dessert, we had tarts that Ms. Haberli had baked herself, small pastry rounds filled with cloudberry, an orange berry that grows in swampy Arctic areas and is prized for its nutty but tart flavor.

After lunch we reached the top of the fell. The temperature was noticeably warmer, about 4 degrees, a phenomenon known as temperature inversion. Temperatures normally decrease at higher altitudes, but an inversion allows heat atop the fell that normally would be trapped by clouds to be released. The cold surface, in turn, cools the air, which then flows downward and becomes trapped in valleys between the fells, leaving warmer temperatures on top.

Warmer weather aside, the endless white landscape was a picture of wintry perfection — even for those from lands normally associated with breathtaking winter landscapes.

“It is the kind of winter you know from the Christmas movies, the fairy tales and maybe even from Grandma’s stories from earlier years,” Sascha Rohde said.

It was windless, silent and still on top of the fell. And up close, the rime-encrusted trees were larger and more surreal than I had expected. They even had distinct personalities — some looked like gentle giants, while others appeared downright sinister as they cast long blue shadows on the pristine snow.

Everyone had their own description: waves frozen in mid-crash, piles of whipped cream or large pillars of cotton candy.

Then, as the sun set, the forms began to turn golden, then pink lavender and finally blue, mirroring the indigo of the coming dusk.

“I felt like in a fairy tale, the huge frozen trees were out of this world, it was like another planet,” a fellow tourist, Irene Hennet, wrote in a later email. She and her husband, Thierry, had visited from their home in Zurich. “This was a completely different world than what we find in Switzerland.”

“What touched me most were the changing colors of the sunset,” she said. “The colors changed from yellow, orange to pink and it was so cold, but my heart felt so warm.”

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