Finland, Lapland and Northern Lights


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Europe » Finland » Lapland » Ivalo
March 25th 2013
Published: May 5th 2013
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After an awe-inspiring ferry crossing an ice-bound Baltic Sea, I arrived at the Finnish port city of Turku. I was rather sleep-deprived after a very early start in the morning, so I invigorated myself with a bracing run around the snowy city and then got an early night. The next morning I decided on an impulse to Finnish Lapland to see the Northern Lights. I'd read that around the equinoxes is the best time to see them, and that solar activity was at the height of its eleven year cycle in 2013. A rather expensive detour, but I decided that I couldn't really be in Finland at that time and not try and see them. I looked at various ways of getting up to Lapland (1000 km North of Turku!) and ended up booking a flight the next morning to the tiny airport at the Lap town of Ivalo, returning three days later. Getting there by any other means was a logistical nightmare. The whole idea behind my trip was to get to Asia without flying, but nevermind. I searched around and found a hostel 80 km North of Ivalo, truly out in the sticks. I made a booking over the phone and arranged an airport pickup (the pickup cost the same amount as my three nights stay!). The lady at the Hostel didn't speak great English, and my Finnish is non-existent. I put the phone down really hoping that the message had got across, and that I wouldn't end up stranded in a blizzard outside Ivalo airport.

I had time for an agreeable afternoon exploring Turku, and then took an evening train to Helsinki. I stayed the night in the Stadion Hostel, which is unusually located in the old Olympic Stadium overlooking a frozen lake in the centre of town. The next morning I flew to Ivalo, one of the few people on the plane. I got a window scene, and watched the stunning patchwork of frozen lakes and snow-bound pine woods that is Finland in Winter pass beneath us. We arrived at Ivalo airport (one runway, a terminal building the size of modest library) and to my relief found an elderly Finnish get holding a sign with my name on it. The drive to the hostel took an hour, and I noted with hope that the sky was completely clear, which meant I should get a glimps of the Lights. Apparently this far North they display frequently, the trick is getting a night which is clear enough to see them!

The Hostel is called Jokitorma and is located by a river in the tiny village of Kaamanen. They have a row of wooden summer chalets, and a jetty and boathouse by the river. However in March everything was still in deep-freeze; snow blanketed everything and river served a highway for snow-mobiles. I was staying in the main hostel building, also the home of the family who run it. I dumped my bags and wondered what the hell I was going to do here for three days.

As it turned out, I had a great time. The hostel lent out cross-country skis for free. Unless you stuck to the solitary road then there's no other way around on foot; the snow is so deep you just sink. With a small and undetailed map in a language I can't read I set off to explore. I went up and down the snow-mobile road on the river, with the occasional lone reindeer herder whizzing past on his Skiddo, and eventually came to a frozen lake. I felt like Captain Scott crossing the Antarctic as I fought my way into the wind across the featureless and glaring snow-field. I spotted some kind of tall building among the pine trees on the far side of the lake and made for it. It eventually resolved itself as a wooden bird-watching tower; after a certain amount of falling over in heavy snow banks around the trees I made it there and was able to get fantastic views of the surronding area. The next day was spent in much the same fashion.

The nights were a different number. I'd spent a lot of money and made a huge diversion North in order to see the Aurora, and I was determined that no hour of darkness would be wasted sleeping. Of the three nights I was there, I stayed up all night, watching the sky and waiting for the Lights. I think waiting for the beautiful, tantalizing, transient North Lights is like waiting for a rainbow; you better make sure you have something else to do while you wait. It's also still very chilly in Lapland in March, - 17 Centigrade on the colded night. I walked up and down and jumped around to keep warm; in the end I alternated 45 minutes of sky-gazing with 15 minutes of warming up inside the Hostel , to ensure a maximum surveillance of the night sky with minimum frost-bite. Thank God I had an MP3 player; as amazing as Lapland is, walking up and down the same stretch of tundra a hundred times in a night can get rather dull.

After two nights of this I still hadn't seen hint of them, and was rather discouraged. Had this whole Lapland diversion been a fun but expensive wild goose chase? And then, at around 21.00 hours on my final night in Lapland, I popped my head out of the door after a warming up break inside to find the show just starting. Unearthly, tenuous strands of pale green light, creeping slowly across the sky and getting stronger by the minute. I dashed back inside, pulled on every layer I had I dashed back out. It went on for hours; sometimes slow and majestic, sometimes flickering across the sky with the speed of a laser show. They looked like the were hanging just above me, but in reality they are hundreds of kilometers up in Earth's Thermosphere. The display I saw was an ordinary one, nowhere near as bright as the spectacular photographs that you see. However, I was very lucky to see them at all in just three days in Lapland; the display ended in the early hours of the morning and I went to bed exhilarated and satisfied.

The next day I still had to myself, as my flight didn't leave til 22.30 that evening. I said my goodbyes at the Hostel and decided to try to get to Ivalo by local bus. They only run a few times a day, and one left shortly after lunch. I decided to get off the town of Inari, on the way to larger Ivalo and have a look at the Saami museum. The Saami are the indigenous people of Lapland, ethnically quite seperate from the Scandanavians. Lapland, at the extreme North of Europe is divided between Finland, Sweden and Norway, but the Saami inhabitants are unified by a cultural identity quite apart from these three countries. The Saami have their own language and have inhabited the far North of Europe for thousands of years. Traditionally they are nomads who live by herding Reindeer and fishing, and many of them still do todo, albeit using snow-mobiles rather than sledges. They have their own devolved government in each of the three Nordic countries. The museum was highly informative and interesting; it also had sections on Lapland geography, plant and animal life, a history of the use of the Snow-mobile or Skido (the Saami reindeer herders were one of the first people to widely use this new invention in the 60s) and a replica of a tradional Saami village outside.

After the museum I went for a walk across vast and beautiful frozen Lake Inari (not all the way across), and then went to wait for the bus to Ivalo, alledgedly arriving at 18.25. I waited for 45 minutes, getting colder and colder; I stuck my thumb out at every vehicle which passed on that bleak and lonely road, but all I got back was a wave. So, with a sigh, I trudged up the road in search of civilisation. I found the one Hotel in Inari, where I dined on a delicious, eye-wateringly expensive reindeer steak, before asking them to book my an eye-wateringly expensive taxi to take me the remaining 40 km to the airport. That's what I get for going on ridiculousy wild goose chases to middle of nowhere. I don't regret it at all though. As a special farewell reward for my efforts, the lights started again on the way to the airport, and I got a magnificent view of them from the plane. And so, back to Helsinki and on to Russia...



Hostel Jokitorma, Kaamanen Village, Finnish Lapland. http://www.jokitorma.net/en/

great place to stay, in the middle of wild Lapland, ski touring and Aurora watching in the winter, boat hire and hiking in the Summer

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