David Jester: Eight Hours Above the Arctic Circle is a Town Called Kilpisjärvi

The plan suddenly fell into place. With a can of gasoline upended, the stench of fumes permeated the air. The fuel soaked into the snowy surface. Ate away at the white blanket until the clear black ice was exposed. I struck the flare, it lit the night with a continuous hiss. We glowed red in the phosphorescent light. Tossing the torch, the lake began to burn. The ice melted away, eating through the cold surface, leaving the hole we needed to complete our ritual.

 

We’d been driving days in that dilapidated Defender. Arctic air crept through gaps between door and frame. Louvered vents wouldn’t shut, leaving a perpetual chill puffing in like cold breath in the night. No route had been planned out. We navigated as the landscape unfolded before us. Days before, we’d left Helsinki with a direction and location; North, Kilpisjarvi. We knew what needed to be done and were committed. So we embarked across the frigid Tundra of northern Finland.

A promise had been made. We were determined to follow it through to the end. We just weren’t sure what the end was.

We entered the city limits of Rovaniemi around 5 pm. The neon lights of the city lit the inky sky. Night had come two hours earlier. The city’s illumination was welcomed in this land of perpetual winter darkness.

January is cold in Finland. A frigid chill eats away at your skin and gnaws on your bones above the arctic circle. We wanted adventure, Tom and I, and the man in Helsinki sold us a Land Rover Defender on the cheap. It barely ran; dilapidated, to say the least. We never thought about insulation either. This Rover had been a desert vehicle, not designed for the cold tundra. A small portable heater was the only warmth in the cab. On occasion, it would smoke and stink of burnt rubber. Cold moves through metal like water through a screen, and it was a brisk negative 19 degrees fahrenheit.

Finland was not as expected. We knew it would be cold, but the lack of sunlight was unsettling. The effect it had on us was astounding. The sky morphed into a dull grey around 11am, and would turn to black just a little after 3. Lethargy sets in. Your bones ache. Motivation lessens. The Finns accept this perpetual wan as life, yet remain motivated, always on the move.
Maybe the darkness explains their stoic nature.

We were told by locals that summer is intense, that the world awakens with bursts of color. I was also told so too do the Finns. They would always say this with a wink, the most animated I saw any native during that trip.

 

My grandfather had a nickname for me. Laiska sika. He would watch me play video games on my Atari as I fiddled with the joystick. I defended the world from alien space invaders. I controlled a jousting knight atop flying ostriches. He sat there in his chair observing. When he spoke, his voice was commanding, soaked with a thick Finnish accent. “Laiska Sika. Why’re you always wasting your time with these games? Learn. Read. Go outside. Run around like a boy should.” He would then sit back, watching in silence. He didn’t speak much. He was a quiet man. I always wondered what thoughts swirled inside his head.

Mom always said his demeanor was his way of showing affection, trying to mold me into a man. As a child it frustrated me. I felt he didn’t understand me. As Tom, my best friend, and I, ventured across Finland to honor Matteus Aho’s last wish, I thought the nickname was endearing, and I held it to my heart.

The road out of Rovaniemi is desolate. We left in the dark of morning and arrived in Kiruna, Sweden, in the dark of night. We booked a cheap room at Yellow Hostel, and explored the town, infamous for its iron ore mining operation. In the night sky, the northern lights refused to expose themselves to us. An orange city glow was the only illumination. We cursed the arctic night sky’s reluctance to reveal the brilliant light show.

The town of Kiruna is in the process of a slow relocation. One building at a time is being moved to the east. As the mining operation grows in size beneath the surface, looms the threat of the town swallowed up by the earth. Cavernous shafts below threaten the stability of the surface, and as a result, there are only two options. Cease mining operations and watch the town wither and die from loss of commerce, or move. The good people of Kiruna chose the latter.

Kiruna is now a living ghost town. When you visit and walk down the streets, you are viewing the past instead of the future. In sixteen years, this will all be gone. The town will be different. The present, nothing but spectres in a forgotten past yet to come.

 

My grandfather’s instructions were specific on how his body was to be dealt with after death. He would be cremated and placed in a simple, grey, pottery urn. I was designated as the bearer of his remains. What were once his bones, now pulverized into a fine grey powder, traveled across the Atlantic and moved north, toward a small town named Kipisjarvi, on the edge of a lake in northern Finland.

 

Kilpisjarvi is desolate during the winter. The northern road out of Kiruna led us to the town. It is eerie in its quietude and isolation. It is barren, white, sterile landscape. Undulating hills are covered in a blanket of chill. Reindeer, sporadic grey dots in the distant horizon. There is a beauty in the stark conditions of this land.

Earth ends at Rovaniemi. Everything north of that city is a different planet. If you live below the 66th line of latitude, the arctic circle is unknown and unimaginable. The frigid world there is frightening and wondrous in its differences. Trees are white gobs of frozen marshmallow. Snow is powdery, crystalline, and dry. Reindeer are plentiful and roam the landscape like squirrels do Central park. Air stings lungs upon deep inhalation. Sweat freezes to eyebrows as it rolls from beneath knit cap. It takes consideration to exist here. Living is survival, survival is living.

 

The kolmen valtakunnan rajapyykki was our destination. This monument—translated to english “The Three-Country Cairn”—would be the final resting point of my grandfather’s ashes. The people in the town of Kilpisjarvi were polite. Directions were explained to us. The trailhead pointed out. Matteus fastened tightly in my pack, we set out toward the Cairn.

The weather was no different that day. The temperature was hovering at 20 below freezing. Snow covered the ground in a perpetual knee deep blanket. The sky was a dull grey light. After checking the trail, which trekked across the rounded backs of mountains covered in snow and ice, we decided to take a straight path across the lake. Although we waded through uncut snow, we thought it would be faster with the lack of elevation gain. We were wrong.

Three hours later we found ourselves on the long lake with the sun setting. The temperature dropped to an unbelievable cold. My coat stiffened from the sweat I had generated. Tom’s hat was a solid block of ice, chilling his head rather than warming. We turned around, trudging across the ice.

We didn’t reach our cabin until 11 that night.

Kilpisjarvi is more of an outpost than a town. The population is 114 people. There is very little signs of human habitation here. The silence deafens. Tinnitus rings in my ears as it is amplified by the lack of ambient sound. Experiencing remoteness is unique.

The stars were so brilliant in the sky. The northern lights still hid themselves from us. That Boreal show remained an elusive fairytale generated to capture the imagination of travelers to the arctic landscape.

The next day we tried again, but still, the cold defeated us. We slogged through the frozen moisture. I ached. A chill ran through me. I was defeated. It grew dark again so quick. The urn weighed my pack down. I had a job to do, but I was weary.

Our legs carried us back to town, wobbling with each step.

The defender was parked on the edge of the lake. I opened the rear door and rummaged through emergency supplies that came with the vehicle. Pulling out a flare, I held it before me.

I disconnected the gas can from the back. Its contents sloshed as I grasped the handle. Tom stood back in silence. He followed my path down to the lake. I stepped onto the ice and walked fifty feet away from shore.

Pouring the contents of the can onto the ice, we stepped back. Striking the flare, I threw it onto the bare spot that stunk of petrol. The night blazed. We were illuminated in the dancing glow of the fire.

If the north wouldn’t perform, show me Aurora Borealis, I would create my own light show.

From the pack I removed Matteus. The urn was cold and slick in hands. The ice melted and after the fuel dissipated, a small hole was burnt through the ice. Opening the urn, I held it within inches of the dark waters and poured out his ashes. After the last bit of Matteus sifted out, I placed the vessel in the water, watching it bob on its side with a list. I pushed it down into the lake until it belched air, and watched it sink as it disappeared into the murky depths. Before we left, the hole already began to slush up. It would be frozen by morning.

 

That night, defeated, we went into the local grocery store. We were beleaguered. Cheeks were bright red with cold. My gloves had been frozen in a solid block from the water that splashed up.

The store was quiet. A desolate place. As we walked out, something sparked in me. I turned and walked over to the clerk. I had a question that, after all that time in Finland, I had never bothered to ask.

“Excuse me.”

“Yes,” he said.

“What does Laiska sika mean?”

The clerk’s face contorted. He was dubious in answering.

“Is this a joke?” he said.

“No, really. My grandfather, Matteus Aho, who’s ashes I just spread out on the lake, called me by that name. I never thought to ask.”

The clerk fell into a fit of laughter. It was strange to see this emotion after only seeing reserved temperaments for so long. Gaining his composure, he stop and wiped a tear from his eye.

“You see. He wanted to be spread at the Cairn, but we couldn’t make it, the trek was too far. So we put his ashes in the lake,” I said.

“That figures then.”

“How so?”

“Laiska sika means, lazy pig. That is what Laiska sika translates to, lazy pig.”

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