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Sunday, 01 January 2017

Chasing the Northern Lights in Finland

Written by Dale Fehringer
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We traveled a long way to see them, and we have one more shot at it. We flew for nearly 11 hours from San Francisco to Copenhagen, and then another two hours to Helsinki. After a couple of days exploring Finland’s capital, we boarded a train (the super-fast, super-clean Lapland Express) for an eight-hour ride up Finland’s west coast to the Lapland city of Rovaniemi. We are staying in a comfortable small hotel and hoping for the best. Last night was too cloudy and tomorrow we will head back to Helsinki, so this is it … our last opportunity on this trip to see the Northern Lights.


It’s on our bucket list, for sure. We have heard about the Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis, as we knew them in school) our whole lives. As children we studied what caused them, but we didn’t really understand it. Our science books said they are the result of collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth's atmosphere. Collisions? Cool. From the pictures in our science books we knew they could be different colors, and we were told that was caused by different molecules striking the sun’s particles. Green, for example, is from oxygen; blue is from nitrogen.


Our temporary base, Rovaniemi, is a beautiful and clean city filled with friendly people, good food, and lots to see and do. We are staying in a new and delightful small hotel (The Arctic Light Hotel) that has friendly staff, spacious rooms, and fantastic breakfasts.


Our train trip from Helsinki to Rovaniemi was fun – cruising up the west coast of Finland in a modern, clean train, and taking in the sights. There were views of farms, villages, and forests along the way – all very rural and beautiful. Farmers were cutting and baling hay to lay aside for cattle feed during the long, cold winter. It was warm (in the 60's) and tree leaves were starting to turn; soon this part of the world will be covered with snow.


Rovaniemi is the capital of the province of Lapland and it has numerous government buildings, two universities, and three excellent museums. Unfortunately, it also has a sad history, because the retreating German army during World War II burned nearly every building in the city. But it has recovered, and today it is a testament to the strength and resolve of the Finnish people.


There are several excellent restaurants in town, and we had dinner at a small establishment called Roka, which is billed as a bistro serving Lapland street food. The owner waited on us and encouraged us to order fried local cheese; risotto with fresh salmon, lemon, and ginger; Brussel sprouts; and a blueberry panna cotta. Everything was wonderful, and we called her over to tell her. She was pleased and told us a little about herself. She was raised in Rovaniemi (she’s a Laplander) and is married to the chef, who is away for two months fishing for salmon. So she takes care of their five children, runs the restaurant, and waits tables. Her husband is due home tomorrow, and she seemed pleased about that. When we told her we were from the U.S., she reported that she and her chef/fisherman husband spent a week in New York City last year. We asked what they thought of New York. They loved eating in all the fabulous restaurants, she said, and she got lots of ideas for their bistro. It’s not like here, she added, in New York there are so many people on the streets and so much noise. So as we walked back to our hotel we compared. Yup, there are a lot more people on the streets of New York.


The Northern Lights are only visible at night, and it doesn’t get dark here in September until nearly 10:00 PM, so we spent the next day walking around Rovaniemi, enjoying the fall weather and exploring the city’s museums. We learned a lot about Finland’s history, its culture, and its environment. This is a country of tough, independent people, with a long history of progressive, democratic government. It is also the home of Santa Claus, and there are opportunities to experience the whole Santa thing (including rides in a reindeer-pulled sleigh), which we avoided. Instead, we went for a walk along the river, encountered a rain storm, and were treated to a rainbow that stretched over a bridge and into the woods north of town. That was an encouraging sign!


As the afternoon passed, our prospects of seeing the lights grew dim. There were clouds most of the day, and it rained, pretty hard, in the afternoon. But as evening approached the clouds blew away, the sky cleared, and our hopes improved. The front desk hotel clerk, whom we had befriended, insisted it was going to be a good night to see the lights, and he booked a tour for us to see them. So, what the heck, we put on layers of clothes, girded our spirits, and went off for our tour.


But when our tour guide (Matti) came to pick us up, we had more doubts. Matti, who was all of 21 years old, drove up in a clunky old van, and then promptly left us to go meet other clients who were going with us. Janis and Ash turned out to be a delightful couple from Boston who were equally excited about the adventure, and our spirits picked up after Matti let us into his company’s offices (which were clean and organized), explained what we were going to do, and loaned us rubber boots, because he said we would be hiking in mud. That sounded like fun, so we put on our boots, jumped in the van, and headed out for a 30-minute ride into the woods north of town. We drove down a paved highway, turned onto a narrow dirt road, which ran into an even narrower rutted lane. As we bounced along we nearly ran into three reindeer, which ran across the path in front of us. We asked Matti if he was taking us to the woods to kidnap us, and when he assured us he wasn’t, we lapsed into silence as we made our way through increasingly dense forests and came to a stop in the middle of the woods. We’re there, he announced, and he turned the van around, hopped out, and started on foot through the woods. We followed in our rubber boots, making our way to two wooden cabins by a small lake. This is where Matti's company takes snowmobiling groups in the winter, and now we were there to see the lights. We stood around the lake while it got dark and Matti headed into the woods to gather firewood. We heard him whistling as he started a fire.


The sun began to set around 9:45, and it reflected an orange glow as it sank into the horizon, making tree shadows on the water. We could hear the crackle of the fire and we grew more confident that at least we wouldn't freeze out here in the woods.


Shortly after the sun disappeared and twilight turned to semi-darkness, a thin wispy cloud appeared in the western sky, running vertically from the horizon up to a point above our heads. We all watched it, but no one said anything at first, but then someone said it seemed different. As we watched, it changed shape and turned light green. I think that might be one, someone finally said, and about that time it twisted slightly, faded away, and was gone. Matti suggested we come over to the fire and sit down on the wooden benches.


We sat around the fire and scanned the sky. Another wispy white cloud appeared, this time in the east – running horizontally most of the way across the sky. It turned green, curled, bent into a horseshoe, and disappeared. Wow, everyone said together, that one danced! Another one appeared in the north, this time a darker green and twisted like a corkscrew. It shimmered, waved, faded, and disappeared. Another green light appeared in the west, above the little lake -- iridescent and pale green, with a thin yellow outline. More appeared – different shapes, sizes, and locations -- colored clouds that twirled and danced, then faded away. It was mysterious and magical! A sky full of green crazy-shaped laser lights.

Northern Lights1

The show lasted about a half hour, and then stopped. We marveled at what we had seen while Matti cooked sandwiches, sausages, and heated tea on the fire. It was delicious and we felt wonderful! We had just witnessed a magic show from above, and one of the most amazing experiences ever!


And reindeer, too!



©Dale Fehringer


Northern Lights photos (c) Ashok Rao



Last modified on Thursday, 29 December 2016