FROM THE Finnish saga Kalevala comes the tale of Louhi, the Witch of North Farm:

And so it happened one winter day that Louhi put on her skis and set off to do mischief across the fells and into the clouds, past Seppo the Smith working in his shop and on to where Vainemoinen the Knower was singing his songs.

It was there, while Vainemoinen was making the sweetest music heard on the fells, that Louhi changed into an eagle and stole the sun and the moon.

Back to North Farm she flew, to hide her treasure behind nine locks, behind nine great doors of Copper Mountain.

And it was dark everywhere.

Vainemoinen asked Seppo to fashion a golden sun and a silver moon. But when these were put into the sky, no light shone.

Angry, Seppo began to forge an iron collar and nine terrible chains to wrap around the skinny neck of a certain Witch.

But the sound of the anvil put fear into the heart of the hawk that was now Louhi. Quickly she flew back to Copper Mountain and took her nine iron keys and opened the nine iron doors of the storeroom to find the sun and the moon sitting sadly side by side.

She placed the sun back in the pine tree. She placed the moon back in the birch.

And Vainemoinen sang his songs again.

Welcome to Lapland.

Here in the far north, on cold winter days when the sun does not shine, the charm of such tales can warm the spirit. In these lands above the Arctic Circle, the folk stories talk of cold and darkness, but also of hope and light. The people who live here have learned to adapt to the strange patterns of nature that bring no light in the winter and no darkness in the summer.

These are rugged lands, and it is no surprise that they are inhabited by strong and independent people able to make the most of what they have.

Finland's Lapland occupies roughly the northern third of the country, nestling against Norway, Sweden and the USSR. In the old days, the original inhabitants Samis, they call themselves wandered across the entire top of the continent, before the somewhat artificial political boundaries created more fixed territories. Today, in fact, Finland has one of the smallest populations of Lapps of the 30-40,000 left in Europe, roughly 3,000 still live in Finland.

The Sami are slightly built, with dark hair and brown eyes a contrast to the tall, fair-haired Finns. Originally, archaeologists speculate, they may have come from the Ural region of Russia, moving west as the snow and glacier fields retreated some ten thousand years ago.

The days of nomadic wanderings, following the reindeer herds across the landscape, are gone. Although the reindeer are still herded, it is settled reindeer herding, much like what is done for cattle or sheep.

And the Sami have been pretty much assimilated into the Finnish culture. They still wear their traditional, colorful costumes, but only for special occasions, celebrations _ and for visitors. And today, the snowmobile, rather than the shaman's drum, is used to tame the reindeer.

In contrast to Norway's northern mountains with steep slopes and majestic fjords, northern Finland is gently rolling hills _ the fells, they are called. Trees are abundant - three-fourths of the whole country, in fact, is covered with forest. However, here above the Arctic Circle trees grow slower and have smaller branches than their southern counterparts. Lakes, too, are plentiful. (A running competition seems to exist between Sweden and Finland over who has more lakes. A recent recount in Finland puts the total at 187,888 _ with a few ponds held in reserve in case Sweden comes up with a higher number.)

In summer, so they say, the richly forested north is breathtakingly beautiful. Mid-May to the end of July is the time of the midnight sun. Autumn puts on a magical show of color and natural pageantry. But winter and spring have their own dramatic charm.

Ocean currents and winds temper the climate somewhat. "We are warmer than Siberia," the Finns proudly announce. But it can get chilly enough.

Snow _ piles of deep, dry, powdery snow _ can lie on the ground from October to May. From approximately Dec. 4 to Jan. 9, the sun does not come up at all. In the old days, this was a time to tell stories and save up power for when the light came again. Now, they say, life goes on pretty much as usual, with only minimal accommodation to the darkness.

And then as the days begin to get longer and warmer, another figure walks the land: sport.

Nordic sports have always been a necessity in the wintery north; today they are a passion. Cross-country skiing was invented as a way to get around; today trails are created and groomed for pure enjoyment.

And in the spring, Finns and visitors alike, flock to the increasing number of sporting centers dotting the north. March to May is the high season. The snowis still deep and good, but the air is warmer and light comes in increasing abundance. Around the time of the spring solstice, for example, days lengthen rapidly, gaining as much as 40 minutes in just a week. Typical of the popular sport centers is Saariselka, in eastern Finland, just a short drive from Ivalo'sairport, some 200 miles above the Arctic Circle.

Much of Saariselka lies within the boundaries of Urho Kekkonen National Park, named for Finland's late president. It is a great ridge of fells, with terrain for all levels of expertize. There are even a couple of downhill ski areas _ offering gentle slopes rather than steep runs. (It is no accident that Finland's recognition in the sports world comes from Nordic events and ski jumping, rather than alpine skiing.) A number of hotels and ski lodges accommodate visitors, and scattered warming huts provide a temporary respite for skiers.

Nor is skiing the only attraction. The area is ideally suited for snowmobiletreks; the gently rolling terrain offering a chance for a bit of speed; the soft snow giving the novice a chance to fall off up to her neck in powder without injury.

Skiing, snowmobiling. Not exciting enough, you say _ even in the lands abovethe Arctic Circle? Then there's always a reindeer safari.

This little outing is a true Lapland adventure. At one time the Sami would have transported his goods and perhaps his family in the little reindeer-drawn sleds. Today, it is the visitor that is bundled into a snowsuit and packed into the sled, handed a rope and given one very important instruction: to slow down dig your heels into the snow.

Then it is off across the fells - and at a nice clip. The small-bodied, big-hoofed reindeer is well-suited for a brisk pace even in deep snow. On a crisp, sunny day, when the snow-covered trees sparkle in the clear Arctic air, when thebells jingle merrily and the colorful harnesses flash brightly as you zip acrossthe snow, when there is poetry in the landscape and awe in your soul, there are few adventures that can equal this one.

And afterward? What else but a Finnish sauna. Another invention of this intrepid people, the steamy, glowing sauna is the perfect ending for a day of outdoor activity. It provides a chance for total relaxation, an opportunity to let warmth sink into the very center of your bones, a time for one last bit of pondering about the landscape and adventure of the far, far north.

While much has changed in modern Lapland, one thing has not. The yapuli, the great spell-casters of the past, still work their magic.

Carma Wadley visited Lapland as the guest of the Finnish Tourist Association and Finnair.

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