Finland 2014: The Northern Lights

Since Rovaniemi city centre isn’t the most beautiful place in Lapland, I decided to head for the river. On a clear bright day – bright in an Arctic way with a blindingly bright but low sun – it was very pretty, everything frosty, the river half frozen. I followed the river and came to a barbecue hut – just a little wooden shelter with wood stacked under the benches and a fire pit outside, with a view between the trees over the river. I would love to come there at night and have a fire but it did perfectly well as a picnic spot.

I carried on, crossed the main road and went into the church park, where an inlet of the river forms a lake and walked round, meeting dogs and contemplating that Rovaniemi doesn’t really have any soul and what I’d do with the new Kiruna if I could, to turn it into a winter wonderland.

By now I was getting cold. Even in winter clothes, the cold gets to you after a few hours outside so I decided to head back into town in search of warmth – a cafe maybe. I came to the church and thought I’d shelter in there, since apparently there are things of interest inside. It was locked.

I wasn’t entirely sure how to get to the city centre so I decided the best course of action was to go to the supermarket and then home for a while to warm up before I went back out. On my way I met two Mormon missionaries (Elder Garrett and Elder Johnson, from the USA – I got confused by Elder Johnson because on his badge, it looked like he had a Finnish first name. It took a long time to finally realise that’s just “elder” in Finnish) and after a chat, they invited me to their Halloween party. Finland just doesn’t seem to do Halloween, I haven’t seen any sign of it here whatsoever.

Outside the supermarket, I met a white fluffy dog I’d met in the park. It was tied up and barking like crazy so when I’d bought lots of chocolate, I went to visit it. Like the huskies, it wanted my pompom and when I took the pompom away, it jumped on me and I hugged it and its fur was so thick!

I sort of intended to go to the party but when I got back, I noticed the Northern Lights leaflets and it was a really clear day and I thought it was something I should do so I booked that instead.

I was half-expecting to be the only one on the trip – it’s not exactly high tourist season but there were seven of us – a Chinese couple, a Portugese woman, a couple that sounded Russian, Nicola, a nurse from Derry working in Finland for a month and me. Our guide was Anthony – an Englishman who’s been living here for ten years.

We were taken to the office first for warm clothes – extra socks, real snowboots, padded quilted overalls like I wore snowmobiling, warm mittens and red furry ear hats. We had a stripy bag to put our own clothes in and then we headed out.

We stopped on the way to base camp at the side of the road to watch the lights. They were a bit pale but visible – streaks across the sky that got a bit brighter and a bit dimmer, a sort of pale blue to the naked eye but bright green on camera, sometimes a cloud, sometimes several bands. The sky was absolutely clear.

We drove on when the lights faded, to our base camp, an old village school, where we left all non-essentials and climbed a hill – Katkevaari, I think – Wolverine Fell. We stopped regularly and the lights made a nice wiggly S in the sky behind us. But at the top, they just stopped playing. There was a very pale arc across the sky from south to north – lights, but really not exciting ones and they didn’t come out on my camera at all.

When we’d all got tired of staring at the stars, Anthony took us into another barbecue hut, just like the one I went in in Sweden, where he had a fire lit. I cooked oat bread on a fork and then tried to melt some Finnish Edam in it while everyone else cooked Finnish sausages – these are precooked and then sealed up so you can throw them in a bag and carry them around the wilderness perfectly safely for a couple of days before warming them up over an open fire and eating them. But they do look raw at first. The bread didn’t work brilliantly but I ate half of it, until I got down to the bit that I’d burnt (in fact, at one point I set it on fire) and the cheese had softened to the point that it became rubbery and almost unchewable.

Hot chocolate and sweet dried bread biscuits were better and then we told our fortunes. We were all given two little tin/lead horseshoes to melt on a big spoon over the fire. When they were melted, we tipped them into a bucket of cold water and then you hold a light up to them and look at the shadow to see what you can see in the shape. Mine came out very silvery – everyone else’s came out covered in little grey bubbles that means money is coming. One of mine – the biggest and therefore the only one relevant – looked like a dragon or a chicken or a mermaid, depending on how you turned it. The smaller piece looked a bit like an animal’s head.

Then we were about done with the campfire. The lights still weren’t playing and it was late so we headed down. Now, climbing the hill was no problem but getting down was. The top is covered with loose rocks and they are covered in ice crystals. When you’re wearing an LED headtorch, it looks like you’re climbing over massive gemstones and it feels like you’re going to slip, all the time, even though they actually weren’t very slippery So progress was slow.

When we reached the school. Anthony told us all to turn out our lights and look at the sky. The Northern Lights had come out to play! Green vertical lights like clumps of pencils, just above the trees, dancing and moving and putting on a lovely display. I couldn’t really get them on camera but it was the best display of the night and posed so prettily over the trees.

We changed back into our own clothes and got back in the bus for the long ride back to Rovaniemi. The last excitement of the night was a mountain hare hopping along in front of the bus – it was huge and it was absolutely pure white. No moose, no reindeer, no wolves, no bears. Apparently we were in bear territory and evidence of bears has been seen up there. I had no idea there were wild bears still livingin Europe! Anthony said it’s extremely rare to actually see one because they avoid humans, he told us about people who work for the Finnish equivalent of Ordnance Survery, who spend all their time outside in the mountains, seeing so much fresh evidence of bears but never actually seeing one in their entire lifetime.

We got back about 2.30am and it was so cold that I had to go and sit on the radiator to thaw out. The radiator is in the shower so that was comfortable.

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