“While a lot of people come searching for The Northern Lights,” Markku told us, “the Northern Lights don’t necessarily want to be found.”
Hearing this two days after venturing into the middle of Finnish Lapland in mid-September to see what was guaranteed, by solar wind forecasting channels in the months prior, to be one of the most spectacular Aurora borealis displays of the last ten years was, admittedly, disappointing. To his credit, Markku, the Finnish guide tasked with taking our little group into the wilderness to search for the Northern Lights, was only trying to temper the expectations of what was already a highly enthusiastic group of people.
My arrival in Nellim, on the shore of Lake Inari in Finland, was the result of two fortuitous Google searches. The first, on the Northern Lights phenomenon itself, yielded results pointing to countless reports predicting increased solar wind activity in the second half of 2013. The second, on how one might actually go about searching for the Northern Lights, led me to Aurora Zone, a UK travel agency dealing exclusively with Northern Lights holidays in Finland, Sweden and Norway. For someone who has never attempted an extreme holiday before – you know, the adventurous type that requires a lot of pre-existing knowledge and long treks through difficult terrain in the cold – the assurance that everything from the location, flights, accommodation and itinerary to weather-appropriate clothing and a friendly local guide would be carefully arranged a presented in a neat, four-day package was too good to pass up.
I met my Aurora Zone group – eight of us in total – in the arrivals hall of Ivalo airport close to midnight on September 19. We were greeted by one of our local guides, who bundled us into a van and drove us an hour north to Nellim, a small village on the shore of Lake Inari. The only hotel in town is the Nellim Wilderness Hotel, a beautiful log cabin-type complex that backs out directly onto a large forest with tall, smooth trees, soft undergrowth and sunlit clearings where you can catch glimpses of dozing reindeer. The rooms, basic but tastefully decorated, are divided between three accommodation buildings surrounding a central courtyard. There are also two saunas – almost compulsory in this part of Finland – and a lounge area with a fireplace, where our group made a habit of gathering every night before and after dinner to drink wine and get to know each other a little better. The hotel is run by husband and wife team Jouko and Mari Lappalainen, a warm, friendly couple who were always on hand to answer questions and occasionally accompanied us for dinner or outings. Due to its remoteness, the hotel provides breakfast, lunch and dinner for its guests, which in turn is a great opportunity to sample local Lappish cuisine – think fish soup, reindeer stew, lots of boiled, mashed and baked potatoes, and a varied range of cream-based sauces.
After a brief introduction and welcome speech over breakfast on our first morning, Jouko led us on a walk aimed at introducing us to our surroundings. Life in Lapland, it seems, is pretty relaxed: according to Jouko, there’s not much to do around here except eat, hunt and “make love”. The proximity of the Russian border provides some excitement: there are yellow warning signs for a few kilometres leading up for the border, but if for some reason you miss these, the many Russian guards posted at and around the border are only too happy to fire a warning shot to let you know you’re trespassing.
That night, we rugged up – although too early for snow, nighttime temperatures in September this far north frequently fall below freezing – and made our way to our first base camp, a mountaintop twenty or so minutes’ drive from our hotel. Getting to camp was an adventure in itself: we couldn’t, as I had assumed, drive all the way up, as the terrain was too rocky. Instead, we hiked the whole way up the mountain in pitch-blackness. Our guide was infallible, forging ahead with superhuman speed and only barely flinching when someone mentioned wolves. There are wolves, he confirmed, but they rarely attack humans. Still, he’d brought a hunting knife. Just in case. Once at the top, all accounted for, we built a fire, unrolled our sleeping bags and waited. Unfortunately, the cloud cover that had persisted all day refused to lift, and after three hours we were forced to pack up and go home, disappointed.
The next day’s activities involved a day trip to Inari, the capital of Sami culture in Finnish Lapland, and a visit to the Siida Museum to learn about Sami history and customs. After dinner, the group gathered by the fire to discuss expectations of that night’s Aurora hunt. It was evident that I wasn’t alone in thinking that once in Nellim, the skies would light up in a vivid and spectacular Northern Lights display not seen for centuries. No one, it seemed, had thought about things like cloud cover and wind speed. So we resolved to stop feeling disappointed: if we saw the lights, great. If we didn’t, we’d still have the experience of being in a wild and remote part of the world, seeing and doing things any normal person would be insanely jealous of.
Our guide for the second night was Markku, an ebullient local photographer with an impressive recall for ‘80s action film catchphrases. Despite his initial warning that the lights often don’t want to be found, Markku proved so optimistic about our chances this night that it was hard not to believe him. He drove us to Paatsjoki Bridge, overlooking Lake Inari, where we again set up camp to wait. It looked promising: the sky was completely clear of clouds. After two hours of nothing, Markku reluctantly gave the order to depart, with the intent of trying our luck further north. As we bundled into the back of the van, someone yelled out – a thin green swirl had become visible directly above us. As we ran back to the bridge, the swirl became brighter, morphing into a long, clear streak that was immediately joined by two more – one reddish, the other white – swirling and changing shape in the sky. We stood, transfixed. There were more colours and patterns over the course of the next five minutes, intertwining, growing long, then short, fading in and out again, reflecting on the water below. People often talk of crying when they first see the Northern Lights, and while I cannot confidently say this was true of our group, it was undoubtedly an emotional experience. We were all on such a high that it was difficult to tear ourselves away, even after it became obvious that was all we were going to see. Sleep was certainly out of the question – back at the hotel, the majority of us grabbed blankets and cushions and set up camp in the backyard, hopeful of another glimpse of the lights before sunrise.
Our last day was spent traipsing through the forest near the hotel, silent and unspoiled. We tried looking for reindeer – even descending on some of their well-known hangouts – but had no luck. That night, Markku, determined to surpass the previous night’s efforts, drove us around for hours, from a deserted beach to a mountaintop, texting fellow Northern Lights fanatics and constantly checking weather apps in the hope of catching a final look at the lights. But even on clear nights, in the peak Northern Lights months, there are no guarantees. Not that any of us cared all that much – we’d already seen what we’d come to see, a brief and dizzying encounter with something truly thrilling.
For more information, visit http://www.theaurorazone.com/
About Invisible Cities
Laura Parker is a freelance journalist living in New York. Born in Europe, she moved to Australia when she was seven years old, and, motivated by an early fascination with archaeology and Indiana Jones films, set about becoming a world-renowned adventurer. That hasn't quite happened yet, but she's working on it.