It is half past midnight, the temperature is -12c and I’m standing on a frozen Lake in the heart of Finnish Lapland hoping for a glimpse of something very special. Something heavenly. It’s a perfect night, nearly silent but for a wolf or two howling in the nearby forest.
An ink-black sky free of light pollution is contrasted by twinkling stars looking down on us while we wait; and like us, the ice is restless, making rumbling noises under our feet. Not long now, I am assured.
I’m here in a remote part of Finland, 30 minutes from the Sami village of Inari and just 150 miles south of the Arctic Ocean and Barents Sea to enjoy an activity packed Aurora Wilderness Experience and experience the Northern Lights in Lapland. This region unspoilt by tourism is surrounded by vast wilderness where traditional reindeer herding communities still retain a strong identity with the indigenous Sami people of Lapland.
Indeed the Hotel Korpikartano on the edge of Lake Menasjarvi my base for the trip, was until 2005 a Sami school and while it now offers all the creature comforts of a 3 star hotel, it does so in an understated way and totally in keeping with its surroundings.
The Northern Lights
Back on the ice lake our patience is finally rewarded. At first there is just a feint almost imperceivable green glow. Slowly and almost surreally it increases in clarity, until one of the earth’s greatest phenomena, the Aurora Borealis or more commonly, the Northern Lights is upon us.
The display dances slowly and silently, changing shape as it moves across the sky. For around twenty minutes Mother Nature provides her own light show for us before fading from sight as surreally as it appeared and leaving us speechless but euphoric. Many people travel here in the hope of catching this stunning spectacle and many leave unfulfilled. Not me though, the first day into my Lapland Wilderness Experience and already one huge box ticked!
The next morning we are kitted out with full face helmets as Toni our guide instructs us on using the Yamaha snowmobiles. Fairly simple controls, very similar to a jet ski really so nothing too complicated. The acceleration can be quite fierce and some power assist on the steering would be helpful but now I’m accelerating across Lake Menasjarvi at a heady 30mph (although these machines can reach top speeds of nearly 40 mph)!
At first I’m struggling to keep the snowmobile in a straight line as it tries to follow older frozen tracks on the ice but once we are off the lake and on virgin snow it becomes easier and I can enjoy the rush. Box number 2 ticked!
You could argue that shattering such a peaceful wilderness with screaming motors is criminal yet Toni explained later that for the local communities snowmobiles are essential; crucial to the reindeer herders to keep in touch with their remote herds. After following a network of trails for over an hour we arrive back on the frozen lake for some ice fishing.
A large corkscrew implement appears and I’m told to drill a hole into the ice with it. Thoughts of large cracks and sudden submersion are banished as the corkscrew makes light work of it and I sit patiently by my newly corked hole with my rod and line waiting for lunch to bite. Sadly I have no takers and have to make do with the delicious reindeer stew back at the hotel.
It’s afternoon now and we have some free time to wander. The days are short here and in December sunset starts at around 1.30pm (sunrise is at about 10.30am ) so with such a clear sky I grab my camera go to the lake and enjoy a stunning sunset. Huge hues of green mixing with red creating an astonishing vista. I’m having a moment here.
Before the night time activities kick off I spot a couple of toboggans left out for guests. It’s been many a year since I have tobogganed alone but seizing the moment I jump on one and go speeding down towards the lake. Unfortunately I miss a turn and end up on my side in deep snow. With no one around to witness the shame of it I try again, master the turn and slide triumphantly onto the lake.
Not quite sufficient for ticking any more boxes but great fun all the same.
Night Snow Trek
After a hearty evening meal, we are on the move again donning snowshoes and an extra layer underneath the Arctic onesie as the temperature has dropped a few more degrees to -14c.
We are on a night trek through the woods and hoping for a further sighting of the Northern Lights. The signs are good, the sky is clear and the air still. So you never know. We stop frequently to savour the quiet and stillness whilst Toni tells us of the wild life that inhabit these woods such as capercaillie (an elusive member of the grouse family) wolverine and brown bears, although some of my fellow guests seem relieved to hear the bears are hibernating.
Sadly there are no Northern Lights tonight. Instead, lying on our backs in the snow, we watch a meteor shower criss-crossing the night sky. Yet another free show from Mother Nature.
Snowmobiles are one thing, but getting back to traditional Lap transport was something else to look forward to. You need a certain level of fitness to control these sleds, which is why my travel companion had already opted for the role of passenger. A cacophony of howling signalled our arrival at the Siberia Husky Farm as owner Tinja known locally as ‘The Dog Whisperer’ “gathers us around to offer some basic tuition on handling a team of excited huskies.
We learn two basic commands in Finish, seis (stop) and menna (go). I don’t think I’ll need to use menna much but I mustn’t forget seis while using one foot to stand on the brake – a bar with teeth that dig deep into the snow like an anchor. Other than that, it’s all about balance and shifting body weight as the sledge moves over uneven ground and round corners and jumping off every now and then to push a bit to help the dogs. Tinja calls the huskies down one at time and we help harness our team of six. As the dogs strain in their halters voicing their excitement I stand on the back, my foot firmly on the brake waiting for a signal.
Suddenly we’re off at breathtaking speed. The dogs making easy work of hauling the sledge and two not so insignificant bodies across the snow. Three amazing, tiring but exhilarating hours later, we arrive back in one piece, my arms and legs aching, my passenger a little battered and bruised but more importantly, box number three well and truly ticked!
The Inari Community
Before heading back to Menasjarvi we visit the village of Inari, the heart of the Sami community who have inhabited Lapland for thousands of years. The Siida Museum and Northern Lapland Nature Centre provides a fascinating insight into Sami culture and the diversity of Northern Lapland and a must when you visit this unspoilt region of Finland.
Lapland provides a rare and authentic taste of wilderness adventure and although this is not a cheap trip, you will feel it is worth it. Of course, getting the Northern Lights to do their thing will be the icing on the cake.
Getting to Menasjarvi
All images: Northern Lights in Lapland (c) Colin Hockley