In the monochrome gloom of the Arctic winter, the intense blues and reds of Sami ceremonial garb glow like the promise that summer will return someday.
When Samis, the reindeer-herding indigenous people once known as Lapps, converge on Jokkmokk for the annual winter market, the gray skies and white snow seem to recede, becoming just a background for the finery— sapphire coats stitched with yellow and orange, caps topped with shimmering crimson plumes.
As they lead reindeer through the streets lined with market stalls, visitors stiffened by 20 degrees-below-zero temperatures lean close, as if to partake of some radiant heat.
Samis have been coming to this town of 3,000, perched just above the Arctic Circle, for a market in the first week of February since the early 1600s. In 2004, the Feb. 5-7 gathering marks the event's 399th year.
Tough People, Mischievous Reindeer
It began under royal order as a way for Sweden's rulers to keep an eye on commerce and ensure that taxes were being paid, and to expose the pagan Sami to Christian proselytizing. In recent decades, it's also become an opportunity for visitors to get a taste of Sami life without the rigors of venturing into the frigid forests.
What they find is a life that is harsh but sophisticated. Sami craftwork is marked by its understated elegance — intricately carved objects of antler and wood, knives so well-balanced that the hand seems to draw strength from them.
The nightly performances of "jojk" singing also reflect this combination of the crude and the elevated. The songs are meant to evoke or identify with something in nature — a bear, a fox, moose — and at first the jojks sound to an outsider as bleak and rough as the landscape. But listen awhile and the hypnotic, even ecstatic, qualities stealthily take over. Visitors also get close exposure to reindeer, a revelation for anyone who knows them only through Christmas songs and thus thinks of them as goody-goody Rudolphs. Though compact, they're tough and powerful, and as they're led through town, there's a glint of fierce mischief dancing in their eyes.
They get to show that side of their nature on the Tavaltissjoe, the lake on the edge of Jokkmokk, when the reindeer races are held, charging full-tilt across the snow as if they want to get as far from humans as possible.
Other primally energetic creatures also are on the lake — teams of sled dogs. Although they happily accept strokes and coos from visitors admiring their plumed tails and ice-blue eyes, these are dogs with something other than humans on their minds.
They want to run, and if they have to stand still for more than a few minutes, they begin to howl in an eerie chorus of yearning. These dogs often have especially flexible voices and they seem on the verge of being able to put their desires into words. The nearby humans with cold-stiffened lips are only marginally more eloquent.
When a visitor manages to speak, he can arrange a ride on one of the sleds, either a 10-minute jaunt around the lake or an hour's trip through the woods, punctuated by a stop at a "kota" tent for a badly needed cup of coffee or tea, piping hot.
Warm Clothes, Ice Hotel
If an outsider shows up in Jokkmokk feeling underdressed for the piercing cold, he can find warm clothes in abundance and at appealing prices at the market. This may be the world's premier place to buy socks — rough wool, cuddly angora, high-tech thermal fibers and a wide selection of joke socks. A favorite for Swedes shows a goofy-looking antlered creature and the inscription "Trevlig alg" — meaning "nice moose," but a homonym for "Have a good weekend." The Ajtte museum is also a popular place to get warm, with the added advantage that it contains extensive and detailed exhibits on Sami history and culture. The $5 admission price is good for a year's worth of visits, in case one happens to be back in the neighborhood sometime.
For most visitors, though, one day in Jokkmokk is enough to thoroughly appreciate the market. After that, northern Sweden's other winter charms are at hand.
Just two hours to the northwest lies Jukkasjaervi, home of the renowned Ice Hotel, with a sauna constructed so that one can scan the sky for the aurora borealis while sweating in tropical heat.
Lulea, a coastal city of 50,000 to the southeast, has exceptionally fine cross-country skiing in the formidable hills on the edge of town and excursions into the frozen archipelago can be arranged. Lulea also has the UNESCO world heritage site Gammelstad, a collection of hundreds of cabins clustered around a 15th-century cathedral.
The church has a glowing gilded interior and, like the Samis' coats, is redolent of warmer times. Yet, throughout these northern reaches, winter is never far away, and the region's people seem to take comfort in that. Outside the Ajtte museum, a winding path cut through deep snow into which candles had been placed that lighted little placards with poems. One poem extolled the glories of summer in the forest where, even in June, "snow still sits in the shadow."
If You Go…
GETTING THERE: Buses connect Jokkmokk with the cities of Gallivare (about 90 minutes) and Lulea (about 2½ hours) and the train station in the tiny settlement of Murjek (about an hour). Two overnight trains connect Lulea with the capital, Stockholm, and both Lulea and Gallivare have commercial air service.
ACCOMMODATIONS: Although Jokkmokk has more hotel rooms than you'd expect in a small town, they're usually booked as long as a year in advance for the market weekend. The local tourist office can offer guidance to visitors who arrive on short notice. Rooms beginning at about $50 nightly for a single are usually available in Lulea, Gallivare and Kiruna.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: For Jokkmokk town tourist information, visit www.turism.jokkmokk.se/eng.shtml. For Northern Sweden tourist information, visit www.norrbotten.se. For Northern Sweden regional bus schedules, visit www.ltnbd.se (Swedish only, but with a phrasebook, you'll manage). For Swedish train and long-distance bus information: www.tagplus.se. To telephone the Scandinavian tourist office in New York, call (212) 885-9700.