Joanna Booth falls in love with Finnish Lapland
Heading up above the Arctic Circle, I’d expected snow. I hadn’t expected it to snow upwards.
The water in the Paatsjoki river flows at a sedentary pace, hovering on the edge of freezing. It’s still a darn sight warmer than the air above it, and this clash in temperature causes the water particles to evaporate and then instantly freeze again.
Forget the science behind it – it looks quite magical, like a quietly levitating cloud of diamonds hovering up into the bright, crisp morning.
It’s not the only thing that seems enchanted about this corner of Finnish Lapland. As someone who has been spotted sunbathing under, rather than on, my towel, on a breezy day in the Med, I was worried about the cold. I feared that temperatures of -30C meant I would end up setting fire to my own clothes simply to stay warm. But somehow, the crisp, dry quality of the cold here, plus multiple layers of clothes, make it eminently bearable. I’ve actually felt more chilled to the bone in the fierce air conditioning of our London office.
But now I’m almost 1,500 miles northeast of London and more than 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle, near Saariselka, in the northernmost part of Finnish Lapland. At least, that’s what the map says. My inner child believes I’m in Narnia, such is the spellbinding quality of this great white wonderland.
The most perfectly powdery snow forms in deep drifts, and the sky – above a silent, still forest of pine trees – shifts from pink to bright blue to lavender over the course of each short winter’s day. And at night, well, that’s the most magical time of all. That’s when the northern lights come out to play.
However, the lights are fickle friends. To see them frolic across the skies you need luck. It also helps to have an expert on hand.
And that’s just what I have, in the shape of Jouko Lappalainen, the owner of Muotkan Maja Wilderness Lodge and northern lights hunter extraordinaire.
As we set off up the Kakslauttanen fell, we pass a group of French tourists heading back to the warmth of a bar – unwittingly missing the witching hour for the northern lights. Jouko knows we’re most likely to spot them between 11pm and 2am.
Sure enough, not long after we reach the peak of the fell and set up my tripod, a faint glow forms above the horizon. Before long, whip-like tendrils of light are curling across the sky, shifting slowly as if controlled by some otherworldly wind.
With Jouko’s advice on camera settings, I’m soon snapping away and achieving results that, while unlikely to win prizes, are precious evidence that I saw this legendary phenomenon.
I show my photos to the same French group an hour and a half later. They’ve just come out again, intending to make a second aurora-hunting effort. Jouko advises them to try again tomorrow – at 11pm.
I saw the lights on two of the four nights I spent in this region of Finland with Taber Holidays, and each time was an utter thrill.
There are no guarantees, but the chances of a sighting here are good, according to Suzel Taber-Shaw, the operator’s managing director. “It’s the perfect destination from which to view the northern lights due to its remote location far away from light pollution on the edge of Finland’s Urho Kekkonen National Park,” she tells me.
Matti, the guide who took me snowmobiling across a frozen lake in search of the lights, said that in his many years of guiding he could recall only one group who’d stayed for a week and not seen the lights. And this year promises to be a fantastic one for the aurora – scientists at Nasa say the lights will reach an 11-year peak in strength this December – so now is a perfect time for clients to book.
But while the lights are commonly the catalyst for a wintry adventure trip, they’re just a small part of the fun once you get there.
I have a terrible secret. I’m 33 and I still haven’t got round to learning to drive. Usually this doesn’t bother me – there’s never a reason not to have a glass of wine – but I was concerned by how frequently I was going to be in control of a moving vehicle in Finland. Was it really safe to let me loose, piloting huskies, reindeer and even a snowmobile?
Despite one close shave with the snowmobile – funny how panic makes you forget the difference between an accelerator and a brake – the whole thing turns out to be an unmitigated success.
Driving a snowmobile is like quadbiking over duvets: zippy fun with – so long as you’re not going stupidly fast – a relatively soft landing if you tip into a snowdrift. Snowmobiles tend to stay in the tracks of the vehicle ahead, so as I zoom through the woods behind Jouko I don’t have to do much more than hold it relatively steady and duck under branches.
I feel rather like I’m starring in a snowy version of Easy Rider, and dismount with a definite swagger as we stop at a cafe for a lunch of reindeer soup. Yes, reindeer soup. I do feel a little guilty, stuffing my face with Rudolph. Especially as I’ve just met him – or at least one of his extended family.
The Riekkovaaran Porotila farm is owned by Markku and Satu Nikodemus, a family of Sami reindeer herders, and a ride in a wooden sled behind a reindeer, sitting on a reindeer hide blanket, is just the start of things. The ride is slow, steady and gentle – like the reindeer themselves – and would be suitable for even the smallest children.
Inside, Satu is waiting with coffee and cake, and a fascinating insight into the life of the Sami people in the 21st century. These Arctic tribes of herders and traders have lived in Lapland – across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia – since prehistoric times.
Husky dogs are indigenous to the area too, and as I arrive at Husky Co, a farm with 70 Siberian husky dogs, the barking is pretty deafening. These stunning creatures may look cute, all fluffy coats and bewitching blue eyes, but they just want to run, and they aren’t shy of telling you.
Yet the minute my team of six set off, dragging my sled behind them, they’re silent, entirely caught up in the joy of racing through the snow. So am I – it’s utterly exhilarating – and I’m almost as disappointed as the dogs when I have to stand on the brake to slow them down.
Huskies are equipped with a thick double coat of fur to withstand the freezing temperatures, but even with layers of thermals, fleece and snowsuits, there comes a time when there’s nothing nicer than coming inside to get warm.
Muotkan Maja Wilderness Lodge offers warm, cosy rooms set deep within a pine forest. It’s comfortable rather than luxurious, with wood-panelled walls, fleecy blankets and toasty underfloor heating in the bathrooms. As with everywhere in Finland, there’s an in-house sauna – the best way to warm up after a day in the snow.
Taber Holidays sells Muotkan Maja on a full-board basis with activities and food included. When it comes to the latter, the lovely Saana cooks up a storm, providing huge, multi-course meals that keep out the cold, with traditional reindeer stews and desserts to die for, including Finnish munkkis, or doughnuts.
Book it: Taber Holidays’ three night Aurora Adventure In Finnish Lapland departs daily between December 1 and April 26 and starts from £1,520 per adult, £1,326 for 12 to 14-year-olds and £1,245 per child aged four to 11.
The price includes full-board accommodation at Muotkan Maja Wilderness Lodge in Kakslauttanen, flights from Heathrow to Ivalo via Helsinki with Finnair, transfers, thermal clothing and boots. Activities are part of the package and include a visit to a reindeer farm, snowmobiling, husky sledding and snowshoeing, with evenings spent relaxing and seeking out the northern lights. Extra nights can be added.
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