This article was published in Raushier Reisemagazin on the 15th of March 2015.
I squeeze the map in my hand as I squint, attempting to read the name of the road sign under the glowing streetlamp. The streets are unmarked. Frosted snow gathers on the street signs, which are rare among the few houses and roads. That, and my bad eyesight make it impossible to decipher my location.
As I yank my luggage through the deep snow, I can feel its weight stacking and increasing with each tug. Even the bus driver was unsure when I asked about the name of this road as he unloaded me off of his empty bus. With this “reassuring” thought, I continue walking, while my limbs begin to freeze. Hearing some muted footsteps behind me, I see the first humans in the town – an elderly couple. Hoping they understand English, I am relieved when they do. Glancing at my address, they nod and point to a nearby supermarket, smiling.
“No, no. I was looking for the apartment check-in.”
“Yes, apartment check-in,” they again point to the supermarket.
Confused, I stumble into the supermarket, where I am directed to the cafeteria. The elderly woman there surprisingly knows my name as she presses a set of keys into my hand. After a discussion full of hand gestures, I finally understand where to find my room. Keys in hand, thus begins my dispute with the Finnish doors, which neither lock nor unlock when I want them to. Struggling to close the apartment door, I sleep with a knife under my pillow. The clicking noise of my neighbor’s washing machine heightens my paranoia. After thinking about all my options, I realize that this town is too cold for crime and slump into a deep sleep.
Welcome to Saariselkä
The small town of Saariselkä has 350 inhabitants. Besides one supermarket, few restaurants, three hotels, and a ski resort, the main attraction is the Urho Kekkonen National Park. The National Park offers various activities. Amongst them are snowmobiling, walking with snow shoes, cross country skiing, and hiking. Located in the Arctic Circle, in Saariselkä is well known for its Aurora Borealis. This is also the reason why I travelled to the far North. With the goal to fulfill my childhood dream, I came to observe and photograph the Northern Lights.
I step outdoors into the -30 degree weather in the quiet morning. A this time of day, the street lamps far outnumber the population. The few cars I notice speed down the icy road, sliding and turning on the snow. As the treetops begin to glow red, I see the first rising sun of the season. This, as I later discover, is a very emotional moment for the Finns, who spend a few months of the year in pure darkness.
While the sky wakes up, the first dreamy tourists begin to wander out of their hotels. Identifying the tourists among the locals is simple. Like a sore thumb, they stick out in their Eskimo attire, fur hats and arctic boots. As I watch the Finns walking down the streets in their jeans and jackets, I cannot help but wonder how they keep warm. With my own thick layers of clothing, I assume the locals will address me in English.
Aurora Hunting in the Dark
To find the best locations to photograph the Northern Lights, I ask a friendly local guide for advice. Her suggestion to trek the national park using snowshoes seems like a great idea. This is before I realize that the park stretches 2550 square kilometers across Lapland. On top of that, it dangerous wild animals also inhabit the park. Nonetheless, I decide to take the risk.
My first night of aurora hunting is a very lucky one. The probability of seeing the Northern Lights in a town center is slim. Yet, what first appears as a glowing cloud above my apartment becomes the most beautiful aurora show during my stay. With a frozen camera and numb fingers, I wander around the park for two hours, photographing and observing the midnight sky. The soft snow is knee deep and the sounds of the forest are somewhat unnerving.
As my frozen eyelashes begin to stick my eyelids together, I decide it’s time to return to the apartment. After several attempts to exit the forest, I finally discover the route to the town center. I try to thaw my frozen fingers and eyelashes in the apartment sauna. Yet, soon I realize that my skill of heating up a sauna is as refined as my ability to lock Finnish doors.
A trip to the South
On my way to southern Finland, my pit stop for the night is (surprise!) a professional sports resort in Rovaniemi. The sports resort make sure to highlight their sportiness with loud techno music and gym exercises. Looking for my room number, I see young Finnish men shamelessly undressing behind wide open doors of the changing rooms. Followed by their wide grins, I stumble into my room. This is not how I imagined the innocent town of Santa Clause.
As I leave Rovaniemi for Vaasa, I have the pleasure of hearing old Lappish folklore about the Northern Lights. A kind young man, who happens to speak four languages tells me about the Lapp mythology of the Aurora. According to him, Lapp mythology associates the Aurora Borealis, or “revontulet” with the arctic fox. One of many stories tells of the arctic fox sweeping the moonlit snowflakes up into the sky with its bushy tail. There, they continue to glow in various colors.
The multilingual locals grows as I come to Helsinki,. Yet, the culture, personality and beliefs of the Finnish people remain the same. Drinking berry juice, eating reindeer meatballs, biking through deep snow, and dragging groceries on kick-sleds is their norm. From igloos, smoked fish and reindeer farms, to bonfires and saunas, my expectations of an arctic adventure ended in a much richer experience of the tradition and lifestyle of the Finnish people. The only mystery to unveil now is the complex mechanism of Finnish locks. But I will probably never learn how to operate those.