Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Finding Finland, Chasing Auroras

At half term, I set out on an adventure to fulfil a life ambition. Woolly fleece-lined hat packed? Check.

Passport: check.
I hit the airport and had an enormous meal of arancini, pasta and enough garlic bread to feed a small family. Check. Because flight sustenance is important for any flight that could last almost three hours.
The plane was quite empty and I somehow ended up on the exit row with extra leg room all to myself. Cool. With an enjoyable murder mystery loaded onto my Kindle, I prepared to head into the heart of Scandi, beginning with a hop to Helsinki for a glamorous night in the airport hotel. But from there, I would be heading to the far North of Finland into the arctic circle in search of the Northern Lights. Are they out there? Would I see them?
Cloudy weather was forecast...
The next day, I was up at seven (local time, so 5:00am really, ouch) and headed for breakfast. Finnish breakfast seems to include meatballs (score!) and herby beans. Whether that's traditional in Finland or just a mish-mash of hotel airport canteen breakfast fare remains to be seen.
Full, I headed for my flight which was going from Helsinki via Kittila.
Given that this flight took place in daylight, I could see the snowy ground drop away (hello window seat!) and I'm pretty sure that Finland is Narnia. Seriously. There are snowy trees and everything. I watched the soft blankety earth drop away until we flew into clouds.
The flight was busy for the first leg, but emptied out at Kittila and only a few of us rode the final half hour up to Ivalo. It was a dinky airport, no one wanted to look at my passport and so I collected my bag and approached a chap who looked like he might be my ride.
He was; we slung my bag in the back of his truck and he let me ride up front as I was the only person he was collecting, so I could see the views. He entertained me with local facts and knowledge, and I could tell he was a good sort as he phoned the lodge to make sure they saved me some lunch. BOOM!
We drove along and I couldn't tear my eyes from the scenery: pine trees and snow as far as the eye could see. I commented that it was lovely to be in the snow and that we don't really get any at home. The driver pointed out that it's very warm at the moment (it's -2 degrees).
At one point he slowed down and said if I peered through the trees to the right, I might see reindeer. He was bang on the money: reindeer! He told me they were semi-wild, not domesticated like horses, but they all get rounded up a couple of times a year and people feed them to support the herds through the rough winters.
We went on a little detour through a winter holiday village, but driver chappie wasn't a fan. He said it was very commercial, for mass tourism, and couldn't work out why they'd built the hotels in the style of Alpine chalets, instead of in the traditional Finnish style. He had a point. It was kind of tacky.
"And look, there is an Irish pub"
"But why?"
Apparently the area is popular with tourists all over the world. Or as he put it "there are 5 million people in Singapore, and I think they have all come here". When the population of the entire area is 7000, I imagine it can seem pretty crowded. But when he described how my remote lodge was quiet and still, I felt pretty happy. Much as I love London, it's nice to escape the hustle and bustle and hear yourself think from time to time.
And it is quiet. As the driver put it: "we say the rush hour is four. But not 4 o'clock, we mean 4 cars"
On a side note, everyone I came across spoke perfect English. And I mastered the word for 'thank you' in Finnish which is pretty shameful.
In fact, according to the driver, the vast majority of people work in tourism here, as there's no industry really. Only testing winter weather tyres. But there's only so many people that can do this. Apparently it's harder on the older generation: those under 45 tend to have good English and can get tourism jobs, but it's much harder if you haven't. In general, he thought that most people appreciated the tourism as it employs locals. What he didn't appreciate was initiated tourists driving around in treacherous icy conditions, unprepared and thinking that they can just drive around like they're at home. The conditions can be challenging.
We zipped past a camera trained on the road at one point, and the driver explained that it's for checking the road. If there's a lot of snow, they dispatch people from Ivalo to clear it.
After about half an hour, we arrived at the lodge: Muotkan Maja. Or Muotka. I'm not sure what the difference is but I've seen both written down.
I tumbled inside and discovered that the lodge is truly lovely: I had emerged into a big central dining room with tables for meals and sofas around a fire. Comfy chairs were scattered in the corners and there was an air of informal comfort and warmth, with families and couples hanging out. Large windows looked onto snowy views which sparkled white, and there was a lovely feet-on-the-sofa, make yourself at home feel.
Plus tea was available all the time. Without charge.
I inhaled some lunch (meatballs!) and got checked into my room, down the hall from the main area. I sorted my things and was soon ready to see what the lodge had to offer. I rolled along back towards the main room, book in hand and spent a glorious afternoon reading and admiring the snowy vistas. I also booked myself into the sauna.
It turned out that anyone could book a bit of sauna time, and so I asked reception if I could have a turn that very afternoon. Six was free, so the receptionist booked me in for an hour (more than I thought I needed but she insisted) and explained that it would be for my private use during that time. Awesome!
When six rolled around, I ventured in, and found several showers, space to change, a little sitting room and a large sauna, all completely empty and just for me for the next hour.
Eventually however, I had to totter from my warm cocoon in search of dinner. Which I found and swallowed with haste partly due to deliciousness and partly to compensate for the immense amounts of weight I probably lost in the sauna. Obviously, I am concerned that I might accidentally waste away and so I had double helpings of chocolate mousse. With sprinkles.
There was then only an hour to go before my first expedition into the wilderness. It had been a cloudy day so I wasn't particularly hopeful that the Aurora Camp would live up to its name, but I was looking forward to riding through Narnia in the dark. In a sleigh.
I kitted myself up in full-on thermals, leggings, joggers, two T-shirts, three layers of increasingly chunky wool socks, a fleece, a scarf, a hat, thermal gloves, even-more-thermaltastic mittens and my full length overalls, which you zip down the side around your legs, and then the front zips up and belts and it's basically like wearing a sleeping bag that's human shaped.
It's very warm and comfortingly toasty.
For about 3 seconds and then it's wretchedly hot indoors so I shambled into my fleece-lined snow boots and went outside. I abandoned the outer mitts and swapped the hat for a balaclava and helmet combo and felt much better in the freezing temperatures. Winning!
Having promised Mum that while in Narnia I wouldn't drink anything the White Witch gave me, (although she did give me permission to take tea with the beavers or Mr Tumnus), it was time to enter the forest. There were two snowmobiles hooked up to two sleighs, close to the ground, transporting the group in twos, each seat covered in a reindeer skin. However, being a solo individual, and the sledges being slightly short on seats, I ended up riding on the back of the snowmobile.

This actually turned out to be fun: my first snowmobile experience, weaving through the darkened, snowy lanes, gliding between drifts, skimming trees and ducking out of the way of branches which loomed out of the gloom.
I learned to do this after the first one clobbered me on the head. Hurrah for helmets!
I had my visor down and the shodowy, snow-clad scenery flashing past made me think of the Snowman and I wanted to sing "Walking in the Air". But I didn't.
We arrived in a clearing containing a small wooden hut and a tipee and our guides set to work lighting fires in both. We all crammed into the hut, slinging reindeer furs over rough hewn benches and tilting towards the merry flames. A couple of kettles appeared and we hunkered down for the night.

After a little while, a few of the group left the fireside to head out and watch the sky, and we wondered out loud if we should all be out there. "Ah, but we have cookies and berry juice," noted our guide, pulling a kettle off the fire and handing round cups of hot, fruity juice. He was right, we did.  And so we stayed inside for a few more moments, fingers clasped around warm cups, enjoying the treat.
Braced against the cold, and full of warm berry juice, I headed out into the night air with my camera.  I had attached it to my little Gorilla Pod (a mini tripod that’s portable and has flexible legs so you can tilt your camera in any direction), and I had picked up a remote shutter release in order to take long exposures of the sky and hopefully capture the elusive aurora.

Clouds aside. Although sadly the clouds didn’t move aside, and so the aurora danced, and we missed it.

I wasn’t the only person fiddling around with a camera.  A few of us had positioned ourselves away to the side, lenses trained on the sky, gloves off and fingers bitingly cold, all the more to twiddle dials and press buttons. Our guide was quite willing to hand out photography tips to the uninitiated and I heard him explaining the infinite focus setting to one chap, pointing out that "The stars are just before infinity".  I rather like that as an idea.
Despite the fact that the aurora twinkled away while the clouds stubbornly refused to budge, I really enjoyed my evening.  I loved experimenting with my camera, never having shot in these conditions before.  I loved being cosy in my human duvet suit; it was so warm and completely waterproof and I could lie down in the snow to peer through my viewfinder and not feel the invasion of the ice.

Except in my fingers, but if you shuffle snow about with your bare hands, you should be prepared to accept that, in my opinion.
I could take long exposures that made the faint shadow of the trees stand out against the night sky, and compose pictures of our little hut aglow with warmth.  I happily slurped down hot berry juice, made all the more delicious in cold surroundings.  And the air was fresh and clean, everything was still, and it was so lovely to able to have time to sit, think, reflect and appreciate the beauty of a remote and silent night.
Eventually it was time to tumble back onto the snowmobile and return across country to the lodge. The trees zipped past, bidding us goodnight as they maintained their vigil.  With the prospect of a cup of tea by the fire, and the cheerfully methodical investigation of a good murder mysetery, I was extremely content with my lot.
Kisses xxx
P.S. The real world is somewhat disappointingly less snowy than Finland.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! You sure live your life)) Looks like a real adventure.
    ps. I almost added Finland to my "to go" list. Almost... that part about overalls and layers? Nope, thanks. We have it three months here.