Looking up for the Northern Lights in Finland's wintry wonderland - Spear's Magazine

Looking up for the Northern Lights in Finland’s wintry wonderland

In the white Finnish wilderness, somewhere below the Arctic Circle, the fabled Northern Lights tempt travellers

In the white Finnish wilderness, somewhere below the Arctic Circle, the fabled Northern Lights tempt travellers

 

ENDLESS MILES OF icy roads were densely lined with pines so heavily weighed down with snow that they no longer resembled trees, but rather huge, melted church candles. In the murky conditions the occasional street lamp gave off an unnatural orange glow. 

The minivan I was sitting in was full of families on their way to enjoy half-term skiing at the Hotel Iso-Syöte, the ski resort at the top of the southernmost fell in Finland, just shy of the Arctic Circle.

There is a stark contrast between the slightly youth-hostel feel of the reception, with its whiteboards detailing the day’s excursions, and the beautiful new eagle’s-nest suite I was staying in. Perched on the end of the hotel, it is a double-height space dominated by an old tree jutting up through the middle of the room, with a wooden staircase winding itself around the trunk up to the second floor.

The suite is an unexpectedly luxurious retreat, with windows encompassing both the floor and the ceiling, a small wood-burning stove in the lower living area and two bathrooms: one with a sauna, the other with a Jacuzzi tub complete with LED constellations on the ceiling.

Upstairs, under the canopy of the tree, there is a huge round bed that echoes the circular room, and a door leading out on to a small balcony so covered in snow that I could barely step out on to it. Lying in bed with the snowflakes falling on to the glass above, I was soon lulled to sleep. 

 

Snow aplenty

The morning revealed an icy blue sky. Small clusters of traditional cottages, all part of the resort, peppered the fell, although they were barely visible under their hefty blankets of snow. Iso-Syöte sees the highest levels of snowfall in Finland, turning white in September and remaining that way until June. With snow a metre thick (thigh-height for most, slightly higher for me), the landscape is otherworldly. Even seasoned skiers will not have experienced snow like this: it is entirely different from Alpine scenery.

In such an extreme environment (although minus 35°C seems positively tropical compared to the Antarctic — see James Suenson-Taylor on page 89), you need to have the correct equipment, clothing and, more importantly, a knowledgeable guide. In addition to the gentle ski slopes and langlauf runs, the Hotel Iso-Syöte offers a range of guided excursions from snowmobile safaris to husky-sledding, snow-shoeing and ice fishing, all designed to help you to make the most of your time.

The 2012-13 winter was one of the cloudiest since the Sixties. You have to be very lucky to see the Northern Lights at the best of times, given their unpredictable nature, but with weather conditions as they were it seemed futile to even bother to look up during our first day exploring the wilderness on skidoos. That said, there was not exactly a shortage of exceptional scenery to enjoy as we hurtled by at speeds of up to 60kmh. (There is a reason why you need to have a valid driving licence to drive one.)

 

Dark materials

I have dreamt of seeing the Northern Lights ever since I watched The Snowman as a child, but after I had been on the back of a snowmobile, powering through the wilderness, for three hours, the sky began to cloud over. The light was fading fast, and in the absence of moonlight the headlamps cast monstrous shadows against the trees as we sped back towards the lights of the hotel.

I set my alarm at regular intervals that night in the vain hope of spotting something shimmering in the sky, but I saw little more than a dusky haze from the street lamps, a flurry of snowflakes, and one lonely ski lift snaking up the fell opposite.

The following day was taken up by husky sledding over the vast snowfields. As each group waited their turn in a dark wooden hut, owned by the dogs’ enormous trainer, with only the fire for light and warmth, you could hear the piercing howls and yelps from the dogs outside. Behind the eight strong, lean dogs there was a small, rust-red kick-sled just big enough for one passenger and a driver.

Charging across the snow with only two Finnish commands and a semi-circular brake pedal for control was exhilarating. The moon began to rise in the purple sky as the dogs heaved their way over the ground, and crucially the sky was clear for the first time in a long while. After a very brief supper and a look at a fellow traveller’s ‘Aurora App’ (which unpromisingly predicted very low levels of atmospheric activity) , we headed out once again into the night on our snowmobiles. 

Somehow I ended up with a fifteen-year-old girl on the back of my skidoo, so the stakes were even higher: not only was this my last opportunity to see the Northern Lights but I also had to drive extra-carefully so as to not damage the poor child. 

An hour into the drive, we still hadn’t seen any glimmers. The snow, though, reflected the moonlight so brilliantly that you could see for miles. Bitterly cold despite the ingenious heated handlebars of the skidoos and our five layers of thermal clothing, we stopped for what had now become the customary hot drink and Finnish bun by the fire.

We made camp in a government-supplied shelter, one of many dotted all over the wilderness to provide a safe resting spot for weary wandering locals. Sitting half in the shelter and half on upturned logs, our guides charmed us with the stories and science of the Northern Lights.

 

Science and myth

Scientifically speaking, the lights are highly charged solar electrons colliding with particles in the earth’s atmosphere. Oxygen particles, being most common, are responsible for the most frequently seen light — a delicate yellow-green. They turned to the myths, too: in Finland they believe that the Aurora is caused by a mythical firefox running along the tops of the snow-capped hills, his bushy tail brushing the ground and sending sparks up into the sky; those sparks are the Aurora Borealis.

As we meandered our way back to the hotel following the deep tracks we had created, the column of red skidoos came to a sudden halt. Engines cut, lights out. Flickering over the tops of the pine trees was a glorious pale green ribbon of light creeping its way across the starry sky.

Unexpectedly, nature was obliging. The last time I felt such a rush of excitement was on Christmas Eve, before I had worked out that Father Christmas had the same handwriting as my mother. 

Read more by Emily Rookwood

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