The Sami woman named Leena looked me up and down. I was wearing the warmest clothes I own—a ski jacket, snow pants, my best gloves and boots. Underneath all that I had heavy long underwear, a down vest, and my thickest fleece. I live in Maine now, I thought when I packed my bag last week to return above the Arctic Circle. This will be enough.
“No.” Leena lit a cigarette and raised her eyebrows over her cat-eye glasses, which highlighted the curve of her eyes.
“No.” She turned to Tytti and said something in Finnish, gesturing at my clothing.
“Leena wants to give you some warmer clothes,” Tytti said.
I remembered September 2014 in Lemmenjoki, how I had rolled my eyes at Mika Telilä as he zipped me into a massive down jumpsuit for an ATV ride. The time I fell in the creek how Sirkka had insisted I wear her jacket even though it was only my feet that were wet. I felt proud of my northern roots, yet when I came to Lemmenjoki, I was never quite northern enough.
It was not lost on me that Leena’s last name was Jomppanen, the same Sami family who lent Petronella clothes in 1949. The temperature was dropping. I followed her inside.
“You are lucky.” Leena tugged an enormous skimobile suit from the closet. “A gold miner left this with me.” I started to take off my snow pants, but she insisted I pull the suit on over what I had on. She frowned at my feet. “What socks are you wearing?”
“I have some warm ones in the car. Wool.” I’d learned last time that if it isn’t wool, it doesn’t count as warm in Lapland.
Leena handed me a pair of slippers. “Go get them,” she said. She rubbed the socks I brought back between her fingers. “No,” she said again.
When every bit of my body was covered in Leena-approved clothing, I waddled outside to where Tytti was packing the last of our things into the wooden sled. Aki was fixing his snowmobile with a roll of duct tape. “We will see,” he said. “This might be an adventure.”
The sun was setting slow and pink behind the fjelds. Tytti and I took our seats in the sled, and Aki started the engine. Just before we pulled away, Leena ran out and threw a beige down jacket over my shoulders. “Kiitos,” I called, waving goodbye as the snowmobile took off toward the frozen river.
We crossed the Lemmenjoki and wound upward through a pine forest. My ukulele clutched between my knees, I held tight to the wood rails. Snow dust and gas fumes blew back in my face. I ducked my head down to keep out the creeping cold. The snow held the glow of the setting sun as we slid through trees, over a frozen lake, between the rolling white fjelds. Aki stopped the snowmobile to check the oil.
“We are twenty percent there. This is going too well,” he said.
Reindeer, startled by our engine, fled into the forest. My toes turned to ice, my fingers went numb. As we ascended, I began to understand the context of this winter and the people who live in it. What I had formerly dismissed as Mika, Sirkka, and Leena’s caring concern was actually 20% concern, 80% no-but-actually-you’re-going-to-die-out-here. We passed a tree where a gold miner froze one winter, the carved wooden sign nailed to it: The end of the road for Pauli.
This was a new kind of cold.
The day before, as my plane dropped below the gray cloud line I saw Lapland from the sky for the first time—rolling tunturi as far as I could see, a river snaking through the middle, curvy and white. I pressed my fingers to the airplane window, eyes watering, forgetting to breathe. The man in 22D, who looked vaguely familiar, pretended not to notice.
I first came here in 2014, on foot. Well, sort of. Starting at a bridge in Malmi, Helsinki in late June I walked north with my ukulele and a heavy red backpack, slept in the trees on the side of the highway, hitched a ride by car, by boat, by mail taxi when I could until I reached Lemmenjoki, the home of the gold miners. I was following the footsteps of a woman named Petronella van der Moer, who I’d met in California just before she died at the age of 90.
“I walked…to…Lapland,” was the first thing Petronella said to me, and I knew then with frightening certainty that I needed to go.
Legend has it that Petronella came to Finland in 1949, just after WWII. She skipped out on her hotel bills in Helsinki, fled the police up north to Lapland, hiked into the gold fields with a man she met on a bus, and lived and worked with the Lemmenjoki gold miners until the Finnish secret police found her, months later. Petronella was arrested and deported, and then disappeared from the public eye for sixty-five years, a legend growing in her wake.
The road across Finland broke me apart and built me up again, sending me end over end until I arrived, more alive than I’d ever felt, at my own two feet. For the last three and a half years I have been writing Finding Petronella, the book about my journey. Those of you who have been along from the start—for your patience while I got my Master’s in Creative Writing from Stonecoast MFA so I could write this story the way it deserves to be written; for your abiding faith in me—thank you. Those just joining this journey—welcome. By the end of 2018, I hope to have a finished first draft.
The truth of the matter is that the book has been writing me. This journey is my genesis story. The writing of it is teaching me how to surrender, and how to fight. How to show up and be curious. How to write my way out of deepest heartwreck. How to wake up in the morning with a salt-stained heart, in a country my government is bent on destroying, and spread my love out like a cloth on the table again.
The book is a love story, though not in the way you’d think. It begs questions of the way we live, the way we die. It is a claiming of space—for wild places, and a woman’s place in them. For folks who choose to move differently.
This trip back to Lapland was a snap decision I made last fall when I noticed a drop in ticket prices. Could I have known then how much I would need it now, this upward tilt as my heart lives these questions again? Could I have guessed how this frozen land would open me?
Once we had opened the cabin with a screwdriver (“I left the keys in the car,” Aki said), once we had shaken the ice from our limbs by the fire and Aki had poured the whiskey, once we had roasted a few sausages, once we had told the old stories and laughed and remembered, I went outside to pee.
Splayed across the sky was the most bright and brilliant spread of stars I’ve ever seen, and northward—a cloud. No, that’s not a cloud, I thought. Must be the light pollution from the city. I shook my head. There is no city for hundreds of miles. Is that a mountain? A great green arc hovered above the gentle slope of the fjeld.
The Northern Lights.
“They’re here! They’re here!” was all I could yell, and then a flurry of zippers and boots from inside the cabin and Tytti and Aki climbed up next to me in the snow.
“Pohjan portit,” Tytti said, excitement in her voice. “The Northern Gate. Never have I seen this.”
I put an arm around each of them, my two friends brought so alive by this place.
A shooting star streaked downward out of the sky, toward the gate.
Selected photos by Tytti Bräysy, Paarma Design: https://www.paarmadesign.fi