2-4 December 2019
Visiting Lapland in winter, I have come to understand why Santa lives here. There is a stark beauty in this all-white landscape, brilliant starry skies, and moving waves of Aurora color.
Monday – Welcome to the northernmost point in the European Union
On Monday, we are picked up at our hotel by Angus of Asgard Tours. Before leaving Ivalo, we shop at their big supermarket for our staples. I am tempted to think only of alcohol for the long, cold days and even longer and colder nights. Added to our sack of supplies is reindeer sausage (poronmakkara), a beautiful filet of fresh salmon, items for breakfast and smoked reindeer and cheese for sandwiches. (So close to Christmas yet I feel no guilt.) Our list of Finnish translations for what we see in the market is helpful. Unfortunately, all cooking directions are in Finnish. Thankfully, we can make do with experience and Google.
Cozy in our van, we head north over a good road, through boreal pine and birch forests, past many frozen lakes, and between high berms of snow. This road, E75, is considered to be the most beautiful road in Finland. I cannot confirm this. It is 4 pm, pitch black night and a snowstorm surrounds us. It is a harrowing experience as we enter a high area of open tundra and unobstructed wind while thick clouds of snow obscures the road ahead. The world is white. I see less than 50 feet nor can I distinguish the road from the tundra. Our route is defined only by red and white reflector poles marking the road’s edge.
There are dense forests out there, there are wolves, there are wandering groups of reindeer. Santa could be out there. I wouldn’t see them. If not for the expert driving of Angus, I would know only a snow drift and freezing cold. We pass few cars and no sleighs.
Finally, just beyond the very small village of Utsjoki, the welcoming lights of Sámi Bridge appear out of the winter’s mist. A cable-stayed bridge between Finland and Norway, it spans the Tana River. Its customs house looks forlorn. Not a soul is in sight.
Before the bridge, we turn onto a snow-covered secondary road. Soon, we turn again onto an even narrower, snow-covered road and enter a thick evergreen forest. Snow continues to fall. It is winter. The sun has not risen above the horizon for days. We are at least 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. We have arrived! But I am thinking, “What am I doing here? How will we ever get out? What was I thinking?”
Our little cottage beckons. A footpath is plowed, the lights shine into the darkness, and its warmth is a blessing. What a welcome sight. The cottage is much more than expected. Here in the far north, the colder it gets and the longer the nights, the more important amenities become. We have a full kitchen and a BBQ in case we want to cook in the deep snow overlooking the Tana River or wave at Norwegian drivers across its frozen expanse. We can cool the wine in a snow drift. The fireplace is stocked with logs and invites us to relax with our feet up. There are two bedrooms, spacious shower and laundry. Giant curved screen LED TV with satellite, wonderful WiFi, and a tablet for communication with Angus are included. And for real Finnish hospitality, there is our own private sauna. Our cottage is nestled in a small pine forest and I am told the trees help shelter us from the arctic wind. I may not want to leave!
We fix our dinner, pour some wine and enjoy our views. Our large windows face north and Norway. Occasional cars or trucks can be seen across the river, their headlights breaking up the darkness, shining off snow. The skies are black and the Big Dipper and North Star sit directly overhead. I know what I am doing here – I am looking for the Aurora Borealis. And this is the perfect location.
Tuesday – I haven’t taken this long to dress since high school prom night.
I awake at unexpected times: 2am, 4am, 6am. Finally I get up and wait for daylight. Here in northern Lapland, the wait is long. The bright lights of Sámi Bridge reflect off low clouds. It is the only light to be seen. Sun does not come above the horizon this time of year and the most I can hope for is about four hours of civil twilight beginning around 10am. My awareness of time is incredibly distorted; my electronics are equally confused. My iPhone tells me it is 9am, but my iPad thinks it is across the river in Norway where it is 8am.
(As I edit this, aboard my Finnair flight Helsinki to Gothenburg, OMG, I see the Sun out the left side of the airplane, my first sighting in a week!)
Our day is long and mostly in darkness. A short walk around our cabins and down the road shows us the remoteness of our location. I understand why so many Christmas lights sparkle in the villages and remote Sámi houses. I am told that alcoholism and suicide are common. At most, there is a grudging gray dawn that never brightens beyond twilight. Light is flat, giving little definition or perspective to photos. There are no shadows as there is no sun.
We pass on the opportunity to go snowmobiling during the day. Instead we prepare a delicious meal of wild rice, beans, and fresh salmon. There was an excellent selection of wines in the supermarket (alcohol above 5% sold in separate liquor section), and we enjoy a good Cabernet from Italy. Then we prepare for our first night of Aurora chasing.
Angus first drove us about 30 miles east to Nuorgam, a traditional riverside Sámi village. The Sámi are the indigenous peoples of Lapland. Nuorgam’s population is approximately 200. The closest ATM is in Inari 100 miles away. The Sámi, and other residents of Lapland, earn their living through tourism, fishing, hunting grouse, and tending cattle and sheep. The Sámi also own all the reindeer; there are essentially no wild reindeer in Finnish Lapland. No surprise, the northern latitude makes it impossible to cultivate crops.
Nearby, we stop atop an extremely wind-swept fell. Fells formed during last Ice Age, approximately 10,000 years ago, when an ice sheet moved across Finland. It is a high mountain-like formation where the top is above the tree line, thus giving excellent views of the horizon. In this region, most of the land is flat and the fells are more ‘molehills’ than mountains. But, if not for the falling snow, blasting wind and hovering clouds, we possibly could see the horizon.
Angus continues our drive east where we see a couple stars and the stone marking the northernmost spot in Finland and the European Union. Crossing the Tana River, we slip into Norway. All we see are clouds. Temperatures are at -10 Celsius; Fahrenheit temperature of 14° reads no better. We continue east hoping to sight stars signaling a break in the clouds.
Varangerbotn is a one-market village on the tip of a Norwegian fjord which flows into Barents Sea and ultimately into the Arctic Ocean. A few teasing stars appear but no Aurora. She is up there beyond the clouds as the Aurora is usually at a height of from 6000-15000 feet or even higher. However, clouds cover the sky and obstruct all hope of seeing any lights beyond the ones in the market’s cafe. Some people choose coffee, I choose an ice cream.
We have driven over snow-covered everything for over 120 miles. There has been scenes of huge ice falls, scattered dwellings with colorful Christmas decorations, and Norwegian cattle farms. But, alas, not a glimpse of Aurora
We return, crossing over a brightly lit Sámi Bridge. Snow flurries obscure our way. Arriving back at our lovely warm cottage, I remove ski coat, hat, gloves and scarf; off come my clunky boots and two pair of wool socks; I peel off three layers of pants and three upper layers of clothing. Dressing for Lapland in winter is definitely not a fashion statement.
Scooping up a glass of Finnish snow, I pour a healthy portion of scotch and hope for a break in the weather.
Aurora was an elusive bitch tonight.
Wednesday – a landscape where there is little difference between original and noir.
The day breaks, which is a misnomer here in Lapland. Skies are dark and snow accumulation is in inches. No one chooses to go snow shoeing. Instead we relax, build a roaring fire, read and take a short walk. The falling snow are tiny dry crystals which can be easily swept away from our walks. I even choose to do some sweeping.
Inside it is warm and comfortable. Outside, wherever I look, the lack of color and definition is striking. Everywhere, the light is flat. When taking a photo, there is little difference between original and noir or mono settings. It is difficult to distinguish where the horizon ends and sky begins. Trees do little other than add dark shapes under their snow-laden boughs. Without the reflector poles, one would not recognize a road.
Because of the continuing storm and lack of visibility, there will be no Aurora chasing tonight.
Instead, we walk down to the reindeer pen to feed Rudolf and friend. He dines on reindeer pellets and is relatively tame, as most reindeer are. They are far less cranky and dangerous than the moose who also live in Lapland.
No need to climb to the top of the watchtower as visibility is poor. Instead, we congregate in Asgard’s kota. It is a small wooden teepee with a central fire pit. Unbeknownst to Rudolf, the bench seats are lined with reindeer skins. But the large warm fire is just what is needed. Well, that and wonderful plump sausages, some chocolate, and a spot of scotch.