See Reindeer, Warm Up at Arctic Market

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

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