We came to Finland to see the Northern Lights and were very lucky - success five nights in a row - a stunning spectacle.
On top of that a husky safari, snowmobiling to reindeer races, snowshoeing and a day with a reindeer herder - all great days.
A fantastic little holiday.
We had been planning a trip to see the Northern Lights for some years but decided to wait until the projected "solar maximum" to give ourselves the best chance of success.
We also decided to go as far north as we could manage, inside the Arctic Circle, for the same reason, and to choose a location with plenty of activities on offer as we'd have all day to occupy ourselves before hunting the Northern Lights.
For all these reasons we chose to stay at the Nellim Wilderness Hotel near Ivalo in the far north of Finland.
We arrived late in the evening - there were quite a few people arriving in Ivalo from Helsinki to stay at the Wilderness Hotel so there was a big coach to take us. It started to snow as we drove away and the driver began to give dire warnings of the consequences of not wearing enough warm layers - put the fear of God into me!
I'd packed thermals, ski pants, fleeces, jackets, socks and gloves as well as woollen sweaters and hand and foot warmers. The hotel is excellent in this regard too as everyone on the trips is provided with a heavy duty coverall, huge gloves to go over your own and boots - everything a size too large so as to accommodate the layers beneath, some nights I was wearing three pairs of socks!
Our first evening we were kitted out with all this stuff, shown to our more than adequate room (love the heated bathroom floor!) and then went to the restaurant for dinner.
Throughout our stay we were very impressed by the food. It was a buffet arrangement always with soup, two choices of a hot main dish, selection of fresh salads and vegetables and dessert. The soups were very good ranging from shrimp to vegetable and the main courses from reindeer to excellent fish.
That first night we were very tired but spotted that the hotel offered Aurora alarms - a phone with an alert system if the Lights were active in the area. This was extremely lucky because the very first night, at 11:38, it went off! We were asleep but shot out of bed, got warmly dressed and dived outside. And there it was, the most amazing green band spreading across the sky then breaking up into long vertical ribbons of emerald light. After about fifteen minutes it faded, and we didn't have time to get the camera sorted, but it was magical - whatever happened now, at least we'd seen the Lights!
The following morning we were up early and after breakfast decided to go for a walk down to Lake Inari, only about fifteen minutes - it takes longer to get all the outdoor clothing on!
Lake Inari is the third largest in Finland at 1040 sq km. This area that we're in is Lapland which straddles northern Sweden and Finland north of the Arctice Circle. It is the area occupied by the Sami people. The Arctic Circle is 66° 33' 44" north of the equator - Nellim is at 68° 51' 00" N.
It was extremely cold but sunny, though the sun isn't very high in the sky at any time of day. The lake is vast and completely frozen and covered in snow. There are tracks across it made by snowmobiles and sledges.
We headed back to pick up our helmets and balaclavas for snowmobiling. We were to spend the day with a reindeer herder and that meant learning how to drive the snowmobiles. This we did on a smaller frozen lake behind the hotel. It's quite easy, though the accelerator is very sensitive and I felt most of the time I was fighting the machine as it's quite hard to steer in the rutted tracks.
We set off through the forest, first to reindeer corrals (no reindeer - they are mostly roaming free at the moment). Here our guide talked about the people who live in the area and the life of a reindeer herder. In the summer the young reindeer are marked with the owner's identification which consists of notches made in the ear of the animal. There are thousands of different combinations. The animals are gathered together and penned - these days snowmobiles and even helicopters are used. When they've been marked the reindeer are released to roam the forests. Autumn is the time for slaughtering the animals.
In the past, when the Sami people were nomadic, they did not actually own animals. They took what they needed and lived harmoniously with the land. Reindeer supplied food, clothing, tools (from the antlers and bone) and were used as beasts of burden. The Sami could add other wild animals to their diet such as bear and fish as well as berries and nuts.
With the encroachment of the modern world and various countries staking claim to the traditional lands, the Sami were required to pay taxes. First they bartered with reindeer, then they began to herd and sell them to obtain money. Now the Sami people are far removed from their nomadic ancestors, but still live lives reliant on the reindeer. Sami Culture on the University of Texas at Austin website provides further information on traditional practices of the Sami.
We were shown how herders use a lasso to catch reindeer though our "reindeer" was a set of antlers tied to a fence. Everyone had a go but few succeeded.
Then it was back on the skidoos to the reindeer herder's home where he had a number of the animals waiting to be fed. From his interaction with them it was obvious he cared a lot for them, talking to them and hand-feeding them with some form of pelleted food. We all had a go at feeding them - they're gentle but fast eaters.
One of the deer had by far the largest antlers because he'd been castrated which stops the hormones which usually prompt the reindeer to rub the antlers. Castration also makes them put on fat - reindeer meat normally has no fat at all. Because their dense coats of fur are composed of hollow hair the animals can withstand an amazing range of temperature from -60°C to +40°C.
We then went on to the Russian border for anyone who needed to use the facilities - two WCs in a hut with nothing else around - very strange!
Then time for lunch at an open cabin close by with a good wood fire and reindeer skins on the benches. Hot reindeer soup, toast and hot berry drink with raspberry jaffa cakes for anyone who wanted them.
While this was being prepared for us we wandered off to a nearby photogenic frozen lake and river, the low light on the snow was beautiful too.
After lunch we were back on the skidoos to get to Lake Inari where the guide demonstrated ice fishing, drilling a hole in the metre-thick ice with a huge "drill bit". Some people had a go at fishing but no-one caught anything.
Much more interesting were the reindeer herder's fishing nets, strung out under the ice, the ends marked on the surface of the frozen lake by small dead bushes stuck in the snow. He and the guide expended a good deal of energy drilling and digging a largeish hole in the ice so that the herder could find one end of his net.
Then he and Andrew and I went about 100 metres to the mark for the other end of the net. Andrew drilled a hole in the ice - extremely difficult and the herder had to do just the final bit which was very tough. I then used a curved length of wire rod to hook around a rope attached to the end of the net underwater - I was terrified of damaging the net which is very precious!
The herder attached a length of red rope to the net rope and we returned to the other end of the net which he hauled out of the water, very methodically and neatly and untangling any snags as he went. His hands were in and out of the icy water but it didn't bother him. It was four days since he'd last checked his nets and he'd caught two catfish, a whitefish and a perch. At the other end of the net he took hold of the end of the red rope and hauled it out of the water so pulling the net back into position under the ice. He repeated the procedure with a second net which only had one fish in it but it was nice to know that this wasn't just a demo for tourists - this is part of his life.
That evening we had out first trip to an Aurora Camp out on Lake Inari where it is perfectly dark. We left around 9:30pm travelling in a snowmobile-driven eight-man sledge which was most uncomfortable. I'd chosen to sit in the back double seat and this was a mistake - it seemed to leap into the air at every bump and the seat itself came loose so I ended up almost crammed under the seat in front! After about half an hour we reached the camp and the guides built a big wood fire back in the trees near a shelter while we set up cameras on the ice for we were lucky again and the Aurora was already on show, this evening streaked in a huge arc across the sky.
This was our first attempt at trying to get photographs and it was pretty tricky. Though we'd set the camera up in manual mode for 1600 ASA (equivalent) and focus on infinity we still had to mount it on the tripod and this was very hard to do in a temperature of -28° C. We eventually managed and began to shoot. Exposure time was several seconds and as the Aurora is in constant movement we were sure our images were going to be at least slightly blurred. We didn't think we'd managed to get anything but when we looked later we found we had one shot which really wasn't too bad at all, given this was our first attempt. In any case, we were just thrilled we'd again been able to see the Lights.
Even if you are unlucky and have poor conditions with only a weak Aurora where you can see very little with the naked eye, by using a sufficiently long exposure you can get an image of a diffuse green glow over the sky.
We were really lucky to see active Auroras each evening, the Aurora strength increasing over the five nights, and perhaps strongest on the third and fourth nights.
It was extremely cold so we headed back around 11:30pm - with the wind chill on the sledge the temperature was about -38° C! We couldn't see anything out of the visors of our helmets as it was impossible to stop breath frosting them - we just hunkered down and looked forward to getting to bed!
The following day we had a good four hour snowshoeing treck in the forests. We'd never done this before but the technique is very easy. We walked for about an hour and a half through the snowy landscape - the snow was about a metre deep.
We passed reindeer, saw arctic hare tracks and dips in the snow where the reindeer dig for lichen.
At a camp we all collected as much dead wood as we could find and our guides made a fire to cook lunch, today extremely good sausages in warm flat bread with ketchup or mayonnaise or mustard. They were so good we had two each, as well as chocolate chip cookies and the ubiquitous hot berry juice!
After lunch an hour back to the hotel, passing at one point over a frozen marsh, though in some places there were signs of ice melting.
That evening at 9:45 the Aurora alarm went off again. Outside the Lights were more spectacular than ever; we made our way to the shore of Lake Inari where a fabulous display wove across the black sky, stars twinkling behind.
It was pitch black on the shore of the frozen lake, we used a Flashlight app on the iPhone to see what we were doing and move around.
The photographs are slightly fuzzy for two reasons: first is that it's a relatively long exposure time of a few seconds and the Aurora is in motion, second is that I had no means of focussing properly so had to preset to infinity - of course the display is not at infinity! Still, you get the idea!
The red light is from the town. Though it is some way behind us the exposure is long enough to pick up even the faint glow of street lights on the snowy lake and ice-bound boat.
The Aurora spiralled and sent out streaks, weaving across the sky, then morphed into a more strung-out diffuse shape. We stayed for about ninety minutes, mesmerised by the scene.
The following morning we had a bit of free time before an early lunch and as it was another beautiful day we got well wrapped up and walked down to Lake Inari and out across the frozen surface for a way. The waitress at breakfast had said it was -30°C at 6:00 a.m. that morning so we waited until 9:30 to give it a chance to warm up at least a bit.
As we returned a husky expedition was crossing the lake - soon that would be us!
We had a quick and early lunch before meeting the musher at 1pm. Originally we had been scheduled for a four hour husky expedition including lunch at a camp but I think the hotel must have over-booked as they were doing shorter expeditions twice a day every day we were there. We never had an explanation, apology or compensation from the hotel; this and the fact that room service was somewhat erratic, were our only real complaints, everything else about the hotel and expeditions was excellent.
This was absolutely my favourite activity. There are three sledges available, each pulled by six dogs and with two people aboard, a driver and a passenger bundled up under rugs behind the dogs. First the musher explained about standing on two runners at the back of the sledge. To brake there is a deeply serrated bar between these which you stand on to a greater or lesser degree to press it into the snow. Going around bends you lean to left or right as appropriate. That's it. It sounded quite difficult but it isn't. The only difficult bit was the start of the run as it's downhill through forest in a deeply rutted track, across the main road and down a steep snowy bank and onto the lake. There was no practice so that was a bit scary but from then on it was easy and I couldn't get the dogs to go fast enough for me!
We went to an island jutting out of the frozen lake, a distance of around 10km which took about an hour - at top speed the dogs can do around 20km/hr. They are quite sneaky though, only really going at full speed when they spot the musher looking back at them.
I absolutely loved it and did all the driving there and back.
Andrew was quite content as a passenger on this one - his favourite is the snowmobiling. His feeling is that dogs are less controllable than a snowmobile and without a short practice he wasn't about to risk not getting on with it and falling off as some people did!
The two dogs at the back on our sledge were brothers and one of them kept having a go at the other - I suspect it was the younger bothering the elder, who just ignored him. They dogs pee on the go and have a tendency to wander if they see something interesting - especially another dog!
We stopped at a camp on the island and the guide built a fire and we had hot berry juice and rather chilly jammy dodgers.
Back at the hotel the musher showed us how to remove the dogs' harness and I took them off my six and let them go. They are very docile and put up with me dragging the harness over their heads! They are lovely dogs.
That evening we were off on another Aurora Camp trip, setting off around 9pm. We took care to choose a different sledge and sat in the second row of two seats and it was much more comfortable.
We returned to the same camp we'd been to with the huskies. At the hotel it was cloudy and we thought we might be unlucky but at the camp the sky was quite clear and amazingly we were lucky again, the Northern Lights putting on a great display spread across over half of the sky.
Bands and swathes of light are much easier to photograph (relatively speaking) than the lovely vertical streaks.
There were lots of vertical streaks, shafts and arcs - all green. The green colour comes from charged particles from the sun interacting with low-level oxygen, red with high-level oxygen, and blue/violet with nitrogen. Atmospheric Optics has a very good explanation of the processes involved.
The stars were stunning too - away from the Aurora the sky was brilliant wth them.
Whatever I've managed to capture in the photographs, it just doesn't do justice to the spectacle which the eye sees so much better. The real thing is much, much more impressive and beautiful.
It began to get cloudy, which itself added a different effect, and we decided to return to the hotel at around 12:30.
On our final full day we'd been scheduled to take a four hour snowmobile trip out onto Lake Inari. However, there were reindeer races going on in Ivalo which we wanted to go to and, fortunately, so did the guide. It meant a much longer day, starting at 10a.m. to make the 50+km journey across Lake Inari and down the frozen Ivalo River. Also our guide said we were going to have to go at a fair speed, so I opted out of the driving - mostly I'd driven on rutted forest tracks which I'd found difficult and I'd have preferred another practice on the flat lake first but speed was of the essence. This was Andrew's favourite activity so he didn't mind doing all the driving, though he was very tired when we got back. The snowmobiles had heated handlebars for both driver and passenger which was a real boon.
At Ivalo we parked the snowmobiles and just left them as we wandered around the race site. This was quite something to us as anyone could have taken them and they are not cheap bits of kit.
Lunch was sausage sandwiches and pancakes with jam or a doughnut from one of the stalls and hot berry juice which the guide had brought with him - I think they must be heartily sick of it, it was beginning to pall for us at this stage!
The race is between skiers pulled by reindeer and is surprisingly fast.
In an interval there was also a lassoing contest - less than riveting I'm sorry to say. The contestants hurl a coiled-up rope at a peg some distance away.
There were stalls selling food and local products. A large stall selling animal furs and fur clothing was quite upsetting, but this is a traditional way of life and I was assured there are strict quotas, particularly for the beautiful blue fox. I've since discovered that these are actually farmed animals.
We had a look around the reindeer corrals before heading back. Andrew was pretty weary when we finally got back to the hotel at around 4:30 pm but did enjoy the snowmobile - definitely one to do again (I feel the same way about the huskies!).
That night was our final Aurora Camp excursion.
Again the Aurora appeared, this time more diffuse but spread out over a good portion of the sky
This time I started to experiment taking photographs with trees in the near foreground, illuminated by the fire, first without the Aurora in the background then with it lighting up the sky behind.
All the time we were out and all the way back the Aurora was strung across the sky. Even at the hotel it was still visible, though fading a bit, so longer exposures were required. I stayed out as long as I could stand the cold to take more photographs. It was well after 1:30 a.m. when I finally went inside.
We'd had five nights and seen the Aurora Borealis every single night - amazingly lucky.