From cascading waterfalls and mighty mountain peaks, to ancient forests and tundra-like heaths, from green-white glacier melt water to crystal clear rivers, Lapland is home to the last remaining areas of extensive wilderness in Europe.
Throughout Europe, the last remaining areas of extensive wilderness are limited to the Arctic regions, and they remain sparsely inhabited and relatively unexploited up to the present day. Of these Arctic regions, it is Lapland — covering northern areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and even Russia — that continues to spark the imagination of nature-loving Europeans.
Many of us have heard of Lapland, and yet, in reality, it remains relatively undiscovered. There is much that we do not know about its inhabitants, its culture, and its wildlife, and the geographical dimensions of Lapland are also largely undetermined. This general lack of awareness is due in part to the vast and often inaccessible area Lapland covers. The scope of Lapland is often little known even among Scandinavians and little has been written on the region and its hidden treasures.
With this serving as fuel for our enthusiasm, we embarked on our trip of discovery to this outermost region of Europe, hoping to discover some of the beautiful treasures of Lapland and capture them through our images.
Our mission was to create a vision of the simple and majestic life found in Lapland, and in doing so, our endeavours became a labour of love. We hope that you, the reader, will not only have been immersed in the beauty of Lapland but that you will also have a greater understanding of the wonders of the natural history of this unique location.
This story is adapted from the adventures and images we share in our book, Lapland — The Alaska of Europe, published with National Geographic.
Riisitunturi is the smallest and most southerly national park in Finnish Lapland, yet it contains more interesting features than many of its country-sized northern equivalents. At first sight, you will be forgiven for thinking that it is nothing more than a remnant of the vast taiga (boreal forest) whereas, it is indeed covered by wonderful ancient forests and mires, often obscured by a mysterious haze on certain days of the year.
The small forest paths twist and turn among magical scenery which appears as if it has been torn out of the pages of a children’s story book. The ragged crowns of the trees are evident in summer whilst during the winter months, with the snow weighing heavily on them, they appear like human-like figures, sparking the imagination.
Laponia is the largest wilderness area in Europe. It is situated in the heart of Lapland, where a host of different environmental elements dominate this diverse landscape. From rolling hills and mighty mountain peaks, to ancient forests and tundra-like heaths, and from green-white glacier melt water to crystal clear rivers.
It is a primeval landscape, which was moulded through the repeated advancing and withdrawing of ice sheets during the last ice age.
On crossing the Arctic Circle, you might expect to step foot on the Arctic tundra of Lapland. This is unlikely to happen in much of Lapland, however, in Norway, appearances can be deceptive, as the only road heading north crosses an area of alpine tundra at this latitude.
The second largest ice cap in the country can be found to the west and on harsh winter days the main road becomes impassable. The country is effectively divided in two, right on the border of the Arctic.
In the centre of the Scandinavian mountains, the mountain range of Saltfjellet protrudes. The imposing highlands begin at the coast and extend over the Swedish border. These elevations join the huge ice mass of Svartisen to the west, from which only a few small glaciers break through the cordon of the peaks. It is amongst such dramatic scenery that we cross the border into the Saltfjellet-Svartisen National Park.
Norway and Russia share the coastline of Lapland, where the extraordinary landscapes vary from deep fjords to flat archipelagos. These features can be seen at their best off the northwest coast of Norway. While the ice was carving spectacular fjords in the hard rocks of the Lofoten islands, the once high relief masses of softer bedrock along the coast of Helgeland were worn down to sea level.
A particularly rich abundance of wildlife is attracted to the islands; a quarter of the Norwegian breeding population of maritime birds nest on the Røst archipelago, which is a part of the Lofotens. More than half a million pairs of Atlantic puffins Fratercula arctica feed their nestlings on the rockslide of the cliffs during July.
After a thaw or heavy rainfall, you cannot hide from the rumbling sound of water in the mountains of Lapland. Enormous bodies of water cascade down from the higher regions through a network of permanent and temporary watercourses to resuscitate numerous waterfalls on the mountain slopes.
Pasvik is wedged on a narrow promontory between the Russian and Finnish areas of northern Lapland. The long and empty silence of this flat area covered by endless forests, sparkling lakes and soft mires, is only broken by the characteristic sounds of birds during the nesting season.
For visitors from the southern latitudes of Europe, the bizarre light conditions experienced during the long winters and short summers of Varanger can seem rather unusual. However, it is just as easy to get used to the light of the midnight sun, as it is difficult to get hardened to the almost total darkness of the winter season.
From the southwest entrance to the peninsula, you pass the tree line and into an uneventful, barren, stony desert which characterises the tundra. In these Arctic regions, from the end of November to the middle of January the sun does not rise above the horizon for nearly two months.
Moose are rarely seen on the tundra and can only be found in the forests covering the southwestern part of the peninsula. Near the settlement of Nesseby, a small population of moose lives in the willow thickets and mountain birch forests. The individual in the image below is trotting by the church, clearly visible despite the sea mist rolling in.
It comes as refreshment for the senses to head towards the coast where there is a far livelier atmosphere. Here, the varied geological formations, herb-rich grasslands, noisy seabird cliffs and colourful fishing hamlets make the once harsh tundra a far more friendly and habitable place.
Erlend & Orsolya Haarberg
Nat Geo photographers specializing in landscape and wildlife photography. Looking for the detail or the unexpected moment of light that adds atmosphere, drama or magic to the landscape.