- Amy Laughinghouse Special to the American-Statesman
It begins as a faint glimmer on the horizon, the merest suggestion of illumination flirting at the fringes of a black velvet sky. Yet that’s enough to trigger a tremor of excitement among a few dozen hopefuls gathered in a frosty Finnish forest, many of whom have travelled from as far as China for a glimpse of one of nature’s most ephemeral phenomena.
We struggle to detect even a hint of green in that celestial glow, but moments later, a camera’s long exposure confirms what the naked eye cannot. Definitely green. Those are the northern lights, all right.
Admittedly, my friends and I had expected an extraterrestrial spectacle with a bit more blow-your-woolly-socks-off oomph. We’re tempted to wait a while longer to see what materializes at the Aurora Hut on the outskirts of Saariselkä, a tiny village 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Inari, Finland’s most sparsely populated municipality. But here in Lapland, the largest and northernmost region of the country, the night is cold — relentless icicles-in-your-nostrils cold that would make a snowman shiver — and our toasty beds beckon.
Just as we’ve begun our descent along the woodland path, ol’ aurora pulls out all the stops, apparently reluctant to surrender her audience. A hazy, taunting temptress of a cloud suddenly transforms into a bright green mist, and then a ray like an alien tractor beam blazes diagonally above the treetops. A sinuous green snake simultaneously writhes overhead, followed by a shimmering curtain rippling on an invisible cosmic breeze. We’re almost dizzy now, twirling, gasping, laughing, craning our necks to catch each new display as it erupts among the stars.
The grand finale is a circular shower of light, a slow-motion firework bursting in the frigid arctic air. Like children straining to catch snowflakes on our tongues, we turn our faces eagerly to the sky, basking in the celestial radiation raining down upon us as the solar wind shoulders its way through the atmosphere.
We’re hardly alone in our enthusiasm. Slogging along a snowy path in Saariselkä one morning, I ask a couple from Newcastle, England, why they’re here. “We’re aurora hunters,” the man announces with a rabid gleam in his eye. “Oh, really?” I reply. “Do you plan to mount it over your mantelpiece?”
Does he smile? He does not. The northern lights — or “the bloody borealis,” as it’s sometimes known among visitors for whom it’s proved infuriatingly elusive — are serious business in Lapland. Sure, some folks come for winter sports, and families flock here hoping for an audience with the big-bearded elf himself. (Santa Claus Village is located in Rovaniemi, 160-miles south, and he apparently maintains one of five “Santa’s Hotels” and an office — a red-painted, peaked-roof log structure — here in Saariselkä.)
But the aurora seems to rank as the top attraction among tourists willing to brave the harsh winter in northernmost Lapland, when the sun refuses to rise — much less shine — throughout December and half of January, and temperatures can drop to minus 40. (No, that’s not a typo.) Even “Game of Thrones’” fans might long for the relatively balmy climes north of the Wall.
So we should count ourselves lucky when James Robertson, a native Scotsman who works for U.K.-based tour operator Inghams, offers up a relatively optimistic forecast. “Most of the week, it’s meant to be just below zero, so quite warm, really,” he says without a trace of irony. “Of course, it’s a dry cold, so even if it’s minus 15, it’s not too bad,” he says cheerily. Somehow, I’m not reassured.
Fortunately, Saariselkä’s Top Safaris has plenty of cold-weather kit: puffy thermal suits (which do undeniably make my bum look big, and not in the sexy Kim Kardashian way), cross-country skis (upon which I perform a bumbling impression of a giraffe on roller skates) and snowshoes.
The fastest way to make tracks across this blizzard-blanketed landscape is via snowmobile. Janne Niskala, a Top Safaris instructor, is tasked with leading my friends and me on a ride into the wintry wilds. Sitting aside the gleaming black machine, anonymously attired in my thermal suit, black balaclava and helmet, I look like a smash-and-grab robber about to pull a heist. But in the quiet town of Saariselkä, home to one grocery store, a handful of restaurants, pubs and hotels, and a slew of souvenir shops, at best I might net a haul of reindeer magnets, plush polar bears that roar when you press their belly and a few sticks of salted licorice (a coveted local specialty, but perhaps not worth being sentenced to years wearing an orange jumpsuit).
Abandoning my criminal reverie, I direct my attention back to Niskala, who is explaining how to steer, accelerate, brake and — perhaps most importantly — operate the hand-warmer. With one last word of warning — “Try not to kill anyone” — we’re off!
I feel like an Ewok, flying through the sugar-dusted forest past snow-pregnant pines, many bent double, as if praying on their knees for an early spring. As we approach a vast, windy hilltop, the trees disappear, replaced by an otherworldly moonscape. The terrain is barren and unrelentingly white, tinged with long, purple shadows cast by the setting sun. Then, as if on cue, Niskala announces, “The reindeer are coming.”
Sure enough, a few hundred yards away, Donner and Blitzen and their posse are teetering over the horizon. Spotting us, the herd stands stock-still, frozen (probably literally) in place. As the rest keep a wary watch on us, the lead reindeer suddenly plunges her head deep into the snow, like an ostrich. “She’s digging for moss to eat,” our guide tells us. And here I was thinking that reindeer subsisted on a diet of candy canes and Christmas cookies.
I’ll have an opportunity to meet these critters up close and personal before the week’s out, but first, I plan to try my hand at husky-sledding. We hear the dogs, baying as if for blood, long before we reach the farm 12 miles away. After a few quick instructions — lean left to steer left, lean right to steer right, brake by pressing down on the serrated metal blade at the back of the sled — we pair off two by two. My friend takes a seat while I man the reins, following our guide, who leads the pack on a snowmobile.
Our dogs, unlike the others, aren’t particularly bothered about speed. They trot along contentedly, nipping at the snow and barely breaking stride as they answer nature’s call. Easy peasy, I think, until I notice a tree perilously close on our right. Desperately, I shift all my weight to the left … but the dogs make a beeline for it as though it’s the last fire hydrant on earth. In the blink of an eye and a bump of the sled, I find myself being dragged along behind, clinging helplessly to the handlebar. If that’s my life flashing before me, it looks a lot like the back end of a dog.
Finally, after what seems like rather a long time, the guide hears our cries and pegs my predicament. Calling the huskies to a halt, he rushes back, his face full of concern. “You did a great job to hang on!” he says, shaking my hand before enveloping me in a comforting hug.
“He’s the best-looking boy I’ve seen in Finland,” my friend confides later. Maybe so, but I reckon there are more effective ways of flirting than being dragged through dog-pee-drizzled snow like a Finnish version of the bungling Bridget Jones.
There’s no balm for frazzled nerves like the Muotka Wilderness Hotel, where we transfer the next night. This woodland camp, about 9 miles south of Saariselkä, encompasses a main building with a dining room bookended by a lounge with an open fireplace and a well-stocked bar, which is surrounded by detached log suites and intimate Aurora Cabins.
Each conical Aurora Cabin features a large glass window wall, which allows you to view the northern lights (should they deign to make an appearance) without leaving the warmth and comfort of your bed. The lodge also offers nocturnal excursions deeper into the darkness in search of the aurora borealis, with the option of steering your own snowmobile or cosying up in a snowmobile-drawn sled, which bumps and winds through the snow-iced forest like a children’s funfair ride in a magical fairyland.
After one restful night here, I feel ready to face another animal encounter. This time, it’s a reindeer sleigh ride on a farm run by the indigenous Sami people, who speak in a variety of unique dialects and dress in colorful wool clothing, laden with symbols that relate details about where they’re from and even their marital status. (Woe to the husband who comes home with the tassels on his “four winds” hat draped to the wrong side!)
Determined not to let this experience go to the dogs, so to speak, I surrender the reins to my friend. This time, I’m happy to ride shotgun on our short, circular jaunt through the snowy pines.
Unlike Santa’s reindeer, Snowball, as we’ve dubbed our pure white steed, never comes close to attaining liftoff. But never mind. My spirit is soaring high on the thin arctic air.