Young Thais are drawn by the big city lifestyle
The dense fir-and-spruce foliage, blanketed in snow and interspersed with tundra and remote lakes, stretches for more than 60 miles south of Kirkenes, the westernmost extent of the great Taiga forests that reach far into Siberia. Throughout, secluded wooden cabins inhabit the frozen lakeshores and forest clearings, telling in microcosm the story of this once-disputed frontier territory. In the mid-19th century the Norwegian government, eager to colonise with people a terrain it owned in name only, offered free land here to impoverished farmers from the south. In an apt metaphor for Norway's transformation into one of Europe's wealthiest nations, the spartan huts that they built now serve as comfortable country cabins for the well-to-do of Kirkenes.
Although seemingly at odds with the tranquillity of the surroundings, snowmobiles make a visit deep into the valley's heart possible, with stop-offs at some of the cabins en route. Travelling at up to 60 miles an hour, they are a rare combination of exhilaration and solitude: the wind rush of cold night air with the prospect of a glimpse of the northern lights; the sun-kissed snow of twilight; and the ringing silence of the remotest country when the engine is switched off.
A popular perception of snowmobiling as a pursuit restricted to the young is dismissed by Hans Hatle, a former Norwegian army officer who trained British soldiers in winter warfare and who now leads snowmobiling safaris: 'Age is no limitation. Our oldest snowmobiler was 93, and he was an excellent driver. More important than a person's age is to remember to bring your driver's licence, lower your shoulders and have fun.'
Barents Safari (barentssafari.no) and Radius Kirkenes (radius-kirkenes.com) run three-hour snowmobile safaris starting at £158 per person.
Sami (Karasjok): Best for traditional life
While many in northern Norway explore the wilderness for fun, the Sami, the Arctic north's most enduring human presence, do so as a way of life.
Around 60,000 Sami - approximately half the world's Sami population - live in northern Norway. Although most lead modern lives indistinguishable from non-Sami Norwegians', a few Sami families still inhabit the high country in winter, herding reindeer above the Iešjokha River.
This is the domain of Nils Mikkel Somby, who has taken it upon himself to initiate non-Sami visitors into traditional Sami ways. After collecting them from the main road, he transports his guests in a small, covered sled towed behind his snowmobile up into the rolling hill country and into another world. There, atop hills haired by thin birch forest, are the prodigious antlers of his family's reindeer herd, more than 2,000 strong. They move silhouetted against a land white as white, bathed in gentle light as the sun traces a low arc across the horizon. Here, Nils lets the landscape and the Sami life within it speak for themselves.
Later, he takes his guests to the family's winter home, a teepee-shaped traditional Sami hut or lavvu. While his mother serves a warming reindeer stew, Nils wonders about the Sami's future: 'The modern world needs so much, things like roads and resources from remote places. And with so many distractions for young Sami, it is difficult to keep our culture alive for the next generation. Fifty years from now, I hope that there will still be Sami up here. But I am not so sure.'
And yet, throughout their history, the Sami have always faced down seemingly insurmountable challenges, from a harsh and changing climate to the hostility of non-Sami peoples. Whatever the future may hold, moments spent here with Nils and his family feel like a fleeting gift, a rare opportunity to pick up the unbroken thread to a past stretching back over 2,500 years.
A half-day Sami excursion with Nils Mikkel Somby including lunch, costs £113 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Witnessing the Northern Lights
The aurora borealis might be the greatest show on earth. Like smoke signals from infinity, these shape-shifters in the Arctic night sky have the quality of some half-imagined fairytale.