The great light show
Finland offers adventure in the quest for nature’s sky spectacular
Our bid to view the world’s greatest natural light show begins with a train ride from Helsinki one frosty autumn morning. The spectacular Northern Lights (aurora borealis) appear randomly in northern latitude skies, mainly in winter. Shimmering in the sky in fantastic, seemingly supernatural, dancing swirls and shards of greenish light, they are a stunning sight — but they are hard to predict.
I have seen these awe-inspiring lights in Manitoba, Canada, but my wife has not. And Finland is one of the best, most reliable places for the experience. So, cocooned in this warm, bright rail car, the wall speedometer measuring 200km/h, we race north through evergreen and poplar forests and past rushing rivers not yet ice clogged. Summer cabins along the many lakes and a few farm houses are the only signs of human habitation in this wild land. The dazzling winter wonderland is familiar from the train scenes of the movie classic, Dr Zhivago, which were shot here. By 4pm this November evening all we can see are shapes of the trees and some modern windmills against the darkening sky. The rail line ends in Rovaniemi, just 10km south of the Arctic Circle, so next day we continue our journey through Northern Lapland by bus. For hours we pass a rugged, scenic land of silvery birch forest, moose crossing signs and occasionally reindeer scampering away, hoofs spinning on the icy road. The brooding skies are not a good omen for Northern Lights watchers.
Our destination is the small town of Saariselka, 250km north of the Arctic Circle and about 1000km from the southern capital, Helsinki. Nearby Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort, with numerous log cabins and glass “igloos” scattered around the forest, provides probably the most remarkable accommodation for adventurous travellers anywhere in the Arctic. It is an extensive wilderness resort, with snow instead of the inevitable sand found in better-known beach destinations.
This is not roughing it in the wilderness; the spacious cabins have kitchen facilities, giant fireplaces, even private saunas. The many options for “soft adventure” include snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, reindeer sleigh rides and snowmobiling.
On our first brilliant, clear sunny morning, we join in the most popular activity, which is dog sledding. With an international group including honeymooning Asian couples and two young Australian women now living in London, we bus out to the husky safari kennel.
There, the staff outfits us all with a full snow suit, heavy gloves, boots and a bulky snow hat. It is 20 below zero, but with the low humidity and bright sunshine, plus our bulky attire, it feels invigorating.
The husky wrangler demonstrates how to drive a sled, with one person a passenger in front and the driver standing on skids at the back, holding on and working the sim- ple brake. “These dogs really love to run,” the wrangler says, and the huskies are eager to go, howling in anticipation. Five sleds with six dogs each take off, following the wrangler speeding along a trail through the wintry forest on a snowmobile.
The dogs yelp with enthusiasm as I balance unsteadily on the sled. It is a bit bumpy at first, but I quickly get the hang of it and it is a real rush racing along the trails, the incredible morning light shining through the snowcovered trees from the low-hanging sun.
“Driving” is easy enough, the only problem slowing down the eager dogs by stepping on the primitive brake, and the two hours pass far too quickly.
Back at the centre, peeling off their snow suits as they sip hot crowberry juice and munch cinnamon buns, the sled riders are exuberant about the experience. These outdoor activities build up a fierce appetite for the traditional Lappish cuisine served in the resort’s 500-seat Aurora Restaurant, which emphasises ingredients from local farms or the surrounding forests and lakes. The varied menu includes delicacies such as Roquefort cheese soup with smoked reindeer, charcoal-grilled salmon with creamy wild mushrooms, fillet of elk, sauteed reindeer or wild boar fillet. It can end with a forest berry cocktail or cloudberry tartlets. The distinctive cuisine, relying on local ingredients rather than spices, provides a sort of culinary “soft adventure”.
That evening, we try snowmobiling, the motorised version of the dogsled. Besides the snow suits and boots, we don balaclavas and helmets. “I feel like an astronaut,” one woman says as she waddles out to the snowmobiles.
The guide gives us a quick lesson on how to drive the vehicles: very simple, with just accelerator and brake controls on the handlebars.
Climbing on, two to a machine, we take off, following the lights of the sleds ahead. Although it is night, the trail through the forest is clearly visible, with the moon reflected off the bright, freshly fallen snow. “It’s like a mango pie in the sky,” says my exhilarated companion. With these powerful machines, a slight twist of the handle sends us surging ahead, another thrill in the snow. Deep in the forest, we stop for a break.
And there, above the trees, we see a slight shimmer of the Northern Lights, a greenish glow in the night sky, a promise of more to come.
That night we move into one of the igloos, a thermal glass geodesic dome with good heating, comfortable beds and private toilets, but no shower facilities (provided nearby), so most guests stay for only one night. It is wonderfully cosy and peaceful when we turn out all the lights and gaze in wonder at the dazzling display of the stars above. Finally, about midnight, we nod off to sleep.
Next day, in the bus to the airport, we agree it has been a fantastic experience, even without the light show. But the two Australian women are giddy with excitement. “It was fantastic, the colossal lights, all shimmering and dancing in the sky,” one says. And when was that? “About 3am. We stayed up all night, and finally saw it.”
At least my wife and I have a good excuse to return next year.
• visitfinland.com • kakslauttanen.fi
Kakslauttanen soft adventure options include dog sledding, middle, and snowmobiling, above
Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort igloos, left and above, offering guests a bedtime view of the Northern Lights