Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 12 December 2019

Chasing aurora: hunting the Northern Lights through magical Finnish Lapland

Sophie Prideaux braves icy lakes, overnights in an igloo and pays Santa Claus a visit as she traverses Lapland in search of the Northern Lights

Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) in Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland.
Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) in Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland.

It’s 10pm and the temperature is threatening to dip below zero. Each time the wind blows, it’s like a harsh slap to the face. By Finland’s standards, though, the cold weather is just getting started. Still, as I stand on the edge of this inky lake, my view obstructed by the cloud of my own breath, I can’t quite believe what I am about to do.

Five minutes earlier, I had changed into a red suit so big, it borders on the ridiculous. It covers every inch of my body, save for the round of my face, and it’s all that is about to separate me from the icy waters lapping at my feet. Marjo, our Safartica guide, goes first. Gripping a small ladder on the edge of the dock, she slowly submerges herself into the lake, calmly laying on her back as the suit fills completely with air, leaving her to float effortlessly.

I follow, cautiously dipping my toe, reassured to feel nothing but the suit rising to keep my weight afloat. Using my arms as paddles, I manoeuvre myself towards the middle of the lake, away from the glow of the dock’s spotlights and the distant chatter of the others in my group, who are still waiting nervously on the edge of the water.

Out here on the edge of Rovaniemi, we are so far from any town or built-up area that the darkness is all-encompassing. The moonlit fir trees that line the far side of the lake are the only thing my eyes can make out, looming tall against a navy sky. Once I stop paddling, I find myself drifting gently with the rhythm of the lake, and tilt my head back to rest my gaze on the stars above. It’s the clearest view of the Milky Way I’ve ever seen. It occurs to me, in this moment, that this might be the most peaceful place on earth.

Aurora floating in Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland
Aurora floating in Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

It’s the second time this week that I’ve had this thought. The first came as I lay in a cocoon, strung up between two towering Lapish Pine trees. In Finland, many parents leave their babies to nap outdoors in the fresh air, even in the harsh winter months – it’s believed infants will take longer, deeper naps when bundled up in the cold. Our host Riitta had tucked me into my hammock in much the same way. With my arms tight by my side, secured by a thick layer of blankets, Riitta left me with a gentle push – and the early morning whisper of the forest as a soundtrack.

I was unsure if 20 minutes or two hours had passed by the time I was gently roused from my blissful state. “Now might be a good time to go and hug a tree,” Riitta suggested softly, and I did indeed find myself approaching a nearby trunk, ready to embrace.

The Halipuu (hugging tree) forest, like so many of Lapland’s attractions, aims to connect visitors with the region’s rich natural landscape. And while pressing your face up against one of these towering pines is certainly one way to get acquainted, just being in Lapland is enough to leave you in awe of the natural world. In the early throes of autumn, the endless forest is a mix of greens and yellows, with the first signs of reds and browns beginning to creep across the shrivelling leaves. The calm lakes mirror the landscapes by day, while at night, if you’re really lucky, they reflect one of nature’s greatest phenomenons.

It’s double aurora season: the small window of time where it is dark enough for the aurora borealis to shine, and warm enough that the lakes remain unfrozen, mirroring the colourful dance unfolding above. And it’s the aurora borealis we are here to hunt.

Our mission begins in Levi, a town approximately 170 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. Levi attracts 750,000 visitors each year, many of which come in the winter months, with skiers flocking to the town’s 43 slopes and 230 kilometres of cross-country trails. In the summer, its hilly landscape is used by hikers and mountain bikers. In this northern part of the country, the aurora are visible for an average 111 nights of the year, a statistic I cling on to as we head out in the face of a particularly weak forecast.

Still, our Arctic Frontier guide and professional photographer Juha tells me not to be too disheartened. Much like the weather, the forecasts are not always right. What we do need, though, is a clear sky, and as we stand in remote Levi, desperately searching for a break in the cloud that is not coming, the cold gets the better of us and we call it a night – but not before warming up with a campfire and freshly baked brownies from our second guide, Kate.

Day in the igloo. Photo by Ilkka Vayrynen
One of the 24 glass igloos at Golden Crown Igloos in Levi. Photo by Ilkka Vayrynen

An unsuccessful night’s hunting is left at the door when I return to my home for the night: an insulated glass igloo on the slope of Utsuvaara, overlooking Levi. The Golden Crown Igloos first opened in 2008. Back then, there were just four, but 24 luxury igloos now stand on this site, with three new suite igloos added at the start of this season. Still, it’s small enough to maintain its boutique feel, with many of the igloos offering uninterrupted views out over the fell.

Even on a night as cloudy as this, staring up at the sky from the warmth of my faux-fur-covered bed is magical. There are curtains for privacy, but I choose not to use them, not wanting to obstruct any part of the view. I sleep on and off, keeping one eye open in the hope that the Northern Lights break through. They don’t. I can only imagine what it must feel to see them from in here.

Before leaving Levi, we make time to visit the Samiland Exhibition. It is part of the Unesco Observatory Cultural Village programme, and explores the life and history of the Sami people – an indigenous people of Europe, who are split across the northern territories of Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia. From the huts families built to survive in -30°C conditions, to how modern day reindeer herders use drones to track their herds, the eye-opening exhibition paints a picture of how Sami people mix old traditions with modern day life.

I think of the ancient Sami people many times over the following days. Mainly, I wonder how it was possible to survive the cold in those dark winter months, when I am struggling with the elements while dressed in five layers in mid-September, before the first snowflake has even fallen. It won’t be long until the landscapes are coated with a blanket of white that will likely stay until the late spring.

Those months will also bring unrelenting darkness. By November, Lapland will see just five hours of sunlight each day. By December, it can see as little as 45 minutes. It’s a tale of extremes, however, as during the summer months, thousands flock to this part of the world to marvel at the midnight sun. For the months of June and July, the sun never sets.

Herd of Reindeer, Inari, Lapland, Finland. Getty Images
Winter remains the most popular time for tourists to visit Finland. Getty Images

Winter remains the most attractive time for tourists, however, with many eager to experience the region in all its winter wonderland glory. Rovaniemi plays a starring role in lending Lapland this reputation. It might be a small town, with a population of just 63,000, but it is famous around the world thanks to one very well-known resident – Santa Claus. Every storybook, every song, will tell you that Santa lives in the North Pole, surrounded by elves. But if you are looking for his exact address, it’s here in Rovaniemi. If you wrote Santa a letter as a child, it would have arrived in Santa Claus’ Main Post Office, based in the Santa Village in this town. Regardless of the season, Christmas is always present, and as I am on my way to meet the man himself, accompanied by two of his top elves, I feel myself slip back into a state of child-like festive excitement I didn’t think was ever coming back.

We are driven 30 minutes out of Rovaniemi to the Santa Claus Secret Forest – the place, we are told, where most of the elves live and build toys for the world’s children. We are shown around Santa’s control centre and given a lesson at elf school, before a not-so-surprising surprise visit from the man himself. The youngest person in my group is 24, and yet we leave feeling as giddy as a kindergarten class. Someone in our group even has to turn to Google to double check that elves really don’t exist.

Journalist Sophie Prideaux with Rovaniemi's elves. Sophie Prideaux / The National 
Journalist Sophie Prideaux with Rovaniemi's elves. Sophie Prideaux / The National

The experience is part of the Santa Park attraction – an underground bunker that has been transformed into a Christmas theme park. It is one of the town’s biggest tourist draws, and it borders the Arctic Treehouse Hotel, where we are spending the night. The hillside resort consists of rectangular chalets, decked out in cosy hygge designs, each with a floor-to-ceiling glass front – north facing to provide prime views of the Northern Lights from the comfiest of beds.

We are heading out though. It’s our last chance to see the aurora, and we are not leaving it up to chance. We meet our guides from Beyond Arctic, Markus and Juho. Both professional photographers. Both professional Northern Light hunters. The forecast remains the same as it’s been all week, with the lowest chance of seeing them, but the conditions are clear, and Juho seems unfazed by predictions. His instincts tell him different. We are taken to the edge of yet another lake. It is wide and open, with an endless view of northern sky. We warm ourselves in a traditional Finnish yurt on the bank of the lake, with the heat from a campfire glowing inside. It’s approaching 10.30pm when we hear Markus call. The aurora are out. Finally.

They start faintly, teasing us as they glow and then fade, the palest shade of green. You could almost mistake them for a wisp of a cloud in the moonlight at first, but through the screen of Markus’s camera, there is no mistaking the green hue. They soon grow brighter, and I no longer need the help of the lens to wonder at their glow. Over the next hour, they come and go, painting the sky with an ever-changing pattern. I realise I have forgotten the cold that was creeping into my bones earlier in the evening. I’m too busy etching this moment into my memory.

The magic of Finland, however, goes way beyond the aurora. It’s in every tree and every lake. In every season and every childhood dream come true. You are reminded at every turn of the wonders of nature, so easily forgotten in busy city life. We achieved our mission, and so much more.

Updated: November 19, 2019 12:52 PM

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