The last time I had traveled by helicopter, the pilot squeezed between Boston skyscrapers as we flew toward the barren islands in the city’s outer harbor. I was 13 years old, thrilled to be riding in a Plexiglas bubble where I could see the rippled water beneath my feet.
Now, nearly 40 years later, I grinned at two Canadian kids-Kyle and Brendan Kraiker-enjoying their first helicopter ride above an arctic plain in northern Finland. It was wonderful to share their excitement. Weighted down with folding canoes, gear, and heavy food packs in exterior cages, our chopper swooped across low mountains where small patches of snow still lingered in mid-July.
At 69 degrees north latitude, we were heading to the rolling tundra that forms the upper valley of the Poroeno and Lataseno Rivers. Our group of 10 European and North American paddlers would be together for the next 17 days. We planned to first canoe these Finnish rivers close by the Norwegian border, then portage across the frontier to the headwater lakes that feed the Kautokeino River. That river in turn would lead us to the village of Kautokeino, the municipal seat of the indigenous Sami (Lapp) people, where we would switch from tandem to solo canoes for a descent of the Reisa River. Through exquisite canyons, we would then paddle the Reisa to the Norwegian coast, not stopping until we felt the tidal pull of the Barents Sea near Nordreisa.
Tundra, in doses large and small, has been an important part of my life ever since an early traverse of the Presidential Range in New Hampshire’s White Mountains at age nine. My love of the far north was reaffirmed in eight subsequent canoe trips beyond the Arctic Circle. Pakboats owner Alv Elvestad understood, and offered me the opportunity to paddle with him once again on the rivers of his homeland. Our final destination was, in fact, Elvestad’s family home near the Norwegian coast, one of the few farmhouses left unburned by the Germans during World War II.
Upon landing at a site used by the Sami for summer fishing, I hiked through the lush grass and bright flowers, deliriously happy to be back on rolling tundra. Bugs danced crazily in the warm wind. Northern Scandinavia typically receives twice the rainfall of Arctic Canada, which only enhances the bug-breeding cycle in this northern region of 60,000 lakes. At this same latitude in North America, a much harsher landscape is evident, but the Gulf Stream bounces off the coast of northern Norway and creates a more temperate climate across the region.
At our put-in, I stood amid lush clusters of white-flowered cloudberry-an Arctic prize that yields a plump, golden berry later in the summer. It’s a hard-to-find and very expensive fruit, and I was standing in the equivalent of a gold mine for anyone in the berry business.