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Posted: Sunday, Sep. 07, 2008

Lapland boasts its own ice castle

Published in: John Bordsen

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Ari Hiltula, 48, is owner of Taxari Travel Agency (www.taxari.com) in Kami, Finland, and director of the Simon Wanha Pappila (Old Priest House) hotel there.

The town, pronounced “Kemm-me,” is in southern Lapland, at the northeast corner of the Baltic Sea's Gulf of Bothnia.

Hiltula lives in Simo, a village about 13 miles away.

Q. What does your area look like?

It's flat in southern Lapland – quite different from the north, where there are mountains with ski centers. But it only takes an hour's drive to be in the mountains.

The sea is what brings tourists here: When the sea freezes, we take them out on ice breakers. We also have the world's biggest snow castle here.

Q. When does winter set in?

Normally winter comes at the end of November. That's when the sea begins to freeze. You can go out on it toward the end of that month and the beginning of December; you can drive on it.

Christmas is usually white in that area, though we generally don't have that much snow. It is cold, though, and the sea ice doesn't begin to leave until May. We have snow until mid-May.

Q. Is ice fishing popular?

Yes, and we do it on the sea. One thing that's unusual is how we fish under the ice with nets. You make a hole in the ice that's maybe 50 cm or 1 meter across (1.6 to 3.3 feet); you put the net in it. You make another hole in the ice 50 to 100 meters (164 to 328 feet) from it, and pull the net up to that one to set the net. When you pull out the net to see if there are fish, you always withdraw it through the first hole.

Q. How do fishermen get the net to the next hole?

We have a joke: That's why fishermen have wives: To dive there. Actually, there's sound where the underwater net is. You listen, and dig the second hole there. It's tricky the first time you do this.

Q. Your ice castle: How large is it?

It's so big it even has a snow hotel inside. The castle has rooms where everything is built on snow or ice. You can stay overnight in the ice hotel, under warm blankets. Nobody books a room for a week, but a night there is fun. The temperature is minus 4 Centigrade (24 Fahrenheit), but you stay comfortable though your nose is outside the blanket. We start the castle in January, when the temperature can be minus 30 (minus 22 Fahrenheit).

The hotel rooms have doors but no TVs.

There is even a fire-alarm system in the rooms. The rooms are impossible to burn, but this is Europe and we have regulations.

Q. What is autumn like?

Much like Canada or the northern United States. Very colorful, with leaves that turn red, yellow, violet and other colors. People go through the forests and pick berries and mushrooms.

Hunting is very popular. The biggest thing to hunt is elk. That season starts in September and goes through November. All the real men here go hunting. We also have bears in the forest.

Q. Lapland is famous for reindeer. Are there reindeer in southern Lapland?

There are more reindeer than people in Lapland, and this is the southernmost area where there are people in the reindeer business.

Q. Are the reindeer tame?

It's funny, but we use reindeer and also think of them as wild. Every spring we collect them and decide which we will eat and which we will let loose. They move around in the forest; there are reindeer safaris. We use some to pull sleds.

Q. Are sled reindeer hard to train?

Not every reindeer can be tamed; they need to have a certain kind of personality. Training them – taking a wild animal from the forest and teaching it how to behave – is very tough work.

Q. So there are professional reindeer trainers?

Yes. Many times, they're the guys who own them. And of course, we have this one guy who does that all the time. His name is Santa Claus.

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