Forget about the decadent pleasures of apres-ski in France. This year I opted for an alternative winter break: Finnish Lapland. More specifically, the resort town of Saariselkae, on the 64th parallel, 260km north of the Santa Claus village in Rovaniemi. Further north than most inhabited placed in the world, in fact.
Three flights away from London, this is truly a different world. We got a taster of the magical qualities of the northern skies already on the second leg of our journey, from Helsinki to the tiny airport of Kittila. On one side of the plane (west), the sun glowed like a fluorescent orange lost in the sky. On the opposite side, the full moon rose high against the indigo sky. At Ivalo Airport, our final destination, we picked up our rented car. At 7pm, 3 hours after sunset, the drive to Saariselkae was as dark as anything, interrupted only by the eerie silhouettes of snow-packed trees scattered along either side of the road. We took a closer look at the trees the day after, when we retraced our steps and drove the same route in the opposite direction, past Ivalo, to visit the Sami centre of Inari.
Before it gave into a greener landscape, the scenery was that of a fairy-tale. The tree branches covered in thick snow looked like beautiful arctic monsters, the stumpy saplings like small elves scattered around a field coated in thick sugar icing.
The first night the temperature gave us a slow, but tangible, shock. The dryness of the cold fooled our bodies into thinking that -25 c was, after all, a manageable condition. When we stood outside for more than three minutes, however, our gloveless hands would soon start to hurt, the cold air slowly seeping through our lungs. It makes perfect sense, then, to long for a shot of strong vodka: Koskenkorva, the most popular Finnish brand, would provide the perfect antidote to hypothermia.
The harsh weather and complex logistics of living in a natural environment that would appear to be hostile to ordinary human living conditions made me wonder about why, at the time of great migrations, humans would choose to settle – albeit in nomadic conditions – in this part of the world. Why would they not be tempted to find balmier temperatures further south?
After a few days I came up with two answers to my question. On our third day we went on a snow-mobile safari, by far the most adrenaline-inducing activity you may be likely to experience in Lapland. Dressed up in overalls to shield the cold breeze away during the journey, we rode through the fells surrounding Saariselkae, flying through the white forest and occasionally blinded by the low rays of sunshine. Our final destination was a rein-deer farm, where we also had the opportunity to ride a traditional reindeer sledge and learn all sort of curious facts about these amazing animals.
Here are the highlights:
- In July reindeer antlers will grow 2cm a day ahead of the mating season (when strong antlers are crucial)
- Antlers are furrier and softer in the summer and harder in the winter
- A male reindeer will aim to own a harem of 30 females
- 1,700 hairs grow on each square cm of reindeer skin
- 5 cm of fat cover a reindeer bottom (good insulation is fundamental for survival in subzero temperatures!)
- Reindeer can smell lichen (food) up to 1,5m deep down in snow.
- It takes only one day for a reindeer baby to learn how to run!
The visit to the reindeer farm offered the first obvious answer to my question. Sami economy, heavily based on reindeer farming, is tied to the animals’ natural habitat. If your subsistence relies mainly on this animal, every part of which has a use after the animal is killed, then you can’t go too far from where they live.
But there is more to life in Lapland, and this became apparent to me as we went snowshoeing, accompanied by Niko, our Finnish guide, up a small mountain in the middle of Finland’s largest national park, Urho Kekkonen. We felt as close to nature as we could get: no noisy snowmobiles, no chair-lifts, no crazy skiers speeding impatiently past you. When I asked Niko if he enjoyed his job, he opened his arms wide, pointing to the scenery: “What do you think? This is my office!” Thinking back about the ordinary world, I couldn’t help but notice the strangely humanoid appearance of Arctic plants: the trees looked like bodies, an army of white-coated warriors or giant skeletons. The snow mounds, uncut and pristine, also took on multifarious shapes, taking the semblance of large mushrooms, reindeer antlers or jellyfish, when supported by branches or bush underneath. It hardly surprises us that the folklore of Northern Europe maps these regions as the magical homelands of fairies, trolls and elves.
As with the day before, the light kept changing with the time of the day, with a soft palette of pinks, purples, and steely greys alternating in front of our eyes. The enchanting appeal of the Finnish landscape was the answer I was looking for. Why, I asked myself from the top of the mountain overlooking this dream-like spectacle, would you ever want to move elsewhere?
We ere lucky enough to see the northern lights, too, on our first two nights in Saariselkae. Aurora Borealis has a very imaginative name in Finnish, ‘Revontulet’. As I read on a Finnish website, the name derives from a Sami myth:
Here in Finland we call the lights as Fox Fire (in Finnish it’s “revontulet”). There is a Finnish folk story, that a fox in the north is running on the snow, and it’s sweeping it’s tail so that sparks fly off into the sky. This story is very common in different versions in whole Finland. In addition we do have about 20 different folk stories about the origin of the northern lights in Finland. One claims that there is so much fish in the Arctic Sea that the sun light is reflected back into the air from the backs of the fishes. Well in fact, in the old finnish language there exists a word, resembling to the word fox, but really meaning something like making magic. So actually our ancestors really meant the magic lights – and not the fox running on the snow – when they spoke about the fox fire. (Arctic Academy.fi)
We saw them for the first time on our very first night. As we were tucking into our starters of cured salmon and marinated reindeer, the waitress of the Petronilla restaurant came over to our table to check that everything was OK with our meal, adding, casually, at the end of her sentence: “Have you ever seen the northern lights?”. We listened on eagerly, hoping for some useful tips, before she continued “You can see them outside now.” We fumbled with our multiple layers and popped outside as quickly as we could, to witness what looked like the most supernatural of natural phenomena. The green shadows hovered above us against the moon-lit sky. A fleeting, graceful choreography of green ghosts. A nocturnal dance of fluorescent veils.
Sadly, I couldn’t take any photos of the northern lights. My hands were too cold to set up a tripod, but my Finnish friend Johanna sent me this link to a wonderful video, which will give you a good idea of the magical spectacle Finnish Lapland may have in store for you…
I did succeed in taking some good shots of dawn, though. It helps, of course, that the sun doesn’t rise until 9 o’ clock! Getting up ‘before the crack of dawn’ has an entirely different meaning in wintertime Northern Finland.
Waiting for the sun to pierce the sky into a deep red wound, the spectrum of colours I observed from the vantage point of Kaunispaa (the highest mountain in the area) may have not been as spectacular a show as the norther lights, but a good enough runner-up, without a doubt.