This is my last attempt to see the Northern Lights as not a sign of them on my trip to Iceland last winter!
Aurora Zone were very helpful in organizing everything, including detailed information about what to pack depending on the time of year and type of trip. Please note that they do accept Euros everywhere in Finland, and also seem to have a better WiFi reception than we do at home! September is the Finnish ‘Ruska’ season, the autumn as nights are drawing in and the trees are changing to vibrant orange and gold colours, perfect for intense reflections in the calm stillness of Lake Menesjarvi. It is surprising to think of seeing the Northern Lights at this time of year, I always assumed it had to be during the winter months, but here in the northern-most part of Finnish Lapland, well within the Arctic Circle, the Aurora Borealis has been seen from mid-August. I was also unaware that ‘Lapland’ is the area that covers the north of Norway, Sweden and Finland, apparently geographic distinctions lost on the wandering reindeer!
Sami herders have lived in this region for centuries, and the importance of their cultural heritage is being recognized more fully now with a growing base of information available in the nearby Slida museum in nearby Inari. With visits included to see husky dogs, reindeer, an internationally-renowned felt-maker, wood-craft in local forest, and a session on how best to photograph the Northern Lights, it is a packed itinerary that also gives a few time-slots to just relax, explore (no shops in walking distance), or take in the beautiful surroundings.
We stayed at Hotel Korpikartano on the edge of Lake Menesjarvi, originally a boarding school now converted to comfortable wood-pannelled bedrooms, lounge area and dining room. It is very remote, but a perfect location with no light-pollution to hinder the look-out for the Lights. This is a lovely warm, comfortable hotel that provides real home-cooked food using many local ingredients such as mushrooms from the nearby woods.
Stayed overnight for early flight from Heathrow to Helsinki then transfer for flight to small airport of Ivalo in northern Finland – I was very happy to see my luggage also arrive at Ivalo! I love Finnair travel, lovely plane and very comfortable journey. The transfer at Helsinki was a bit scary as we were stuck on our plane on the runway for 25 minutes waiting for bus to terminal. This meant I had to sprint all the way across to other side to get to my transfer departure gate, fortunately got there just as they were starting boarding. This wasn’t a problem on the return flight.
Timor from Hotel Korpikartano met us, just me for this trip plus two guests from Japan who had booked it separately, for around an hour’s drive to the hotel. It really is in the middle of nowhere, wonderful position on edge of the lake, a perfect spot for photographs with or without the Northern Lights. It was cloudy but due to be clearer by the weekend (I left on Sunday).
A lovely home-cooked meal was ready for us, especially the mushroom quiche with fresh mushrooms picked nearby. We had a session on how to set up a camera for the best shots and went outside to see what we could find. Mine is a digital camera, a good one but not easy to change settings even on manual settings. We were given a tripod to make photographs better as it needs a longer exposure for night-time shots. For those who want the details – 800 or 1600 ISO, 5-15 seconds exposure time, focus on infinity with Autofocus off (I think!). A good start to the trip.
Breakfast includes eggs, meat and cheese, bread/toast, cereals and a different type of porridge each day, yoghurt and jam, so a good selection. 10.30am we met for a ‘woodcraft’ session with Martti and James, walking through woods of fast-growing birch trees and pine along the marked trail but sometimes through areas of soft, spongy, moss-covered undergrowth (so you need to wear boots). The whole area is rich with bilberries, this an ideal climate for soft fruits and berries used to make sweet dishes, jams, fruit wine and liquers – they do make some beer in Finland but not distilled spirits.
There are many different types of lichen and moss on the ground and trees, adding to the diet of the roaming reindeer. There are four resident reindeer in this area, and one apparently visited the hotel grounds last night though we didn’t see him. It is also fungi land, fantastically-shaped mushrooms and toadstools everywhere. We had a great guide, very knowledgeable, and I can confirm that we now know the difference between reindeer and moose droppings.
Back to the hotel for lunch cooked over an open fire in the little hut next to the lake – how special is that! Coffee and tea brewed over the fire, we cooked our large reindeer/pork sausages at arms’ length enjoyed with bread and mustard, Martti cooking us all pancakes wrapped around home-made jam to finish.
Free time, dinner, then out to find best spot near the lake to catch sight of the Lights as the sky was clearer today. Beautiful reflections as sun setting, very dark by 11.15pm when something started to form across the lake. Yes! Two shapes across the sky, green, growing stronger with perfect reflection in the lake. Excellent. Unfortunately, until then, the camera was working fine but at the crucial moments – no images on camera. No photos of any worth. But, I did see the Aurora Borealis for the first time. Try again tomorrow night.
As I was the only person on this trip with Aurora Zone (there were other people staying at the hotel of course) I had a trip with Jeroen the guide to see a Finnish felt artist, Kaija Paltto, at her studio in Lemmenjoki National Park. Beautiful pieces made using the traditional felting process using Finnish fleece dyed locally – I did buy a felt hat. As reindeer are not kept on a ‘farm’ as such, as they spend most of their time roaming freely, there were just a few in the paddock to see. They are shy so photo opportunities a bit limited. However, we did see a reindeer just grazing at the edge of the road as we travelled back to the hotel.
After lunch, I was joined by the two Japanese guests for a visit to the Sami museum. This is a fascinating place, very informative displays about the history and the way of life of the people who have survived in these very harsh conditions. There is an outdoor section with old buildings to show how they lived, but also modern exhibitions of work by local textile artists. Note at this time of year, the skies were bright blue, strong sunlight keeping the temperatures around 12-15 degrees at midday so a perfect time to visit if you are not keen on the snow.
Tonight, we stayed out until midnight for the lights, a fabulous clear sky but only a slight glow in the distance around 1.00am – I had already gone to bed by then. The forecast for the best activity is Saturday night so I will definitely stay up late for that as it is my last chance.
Visit to a husky dog farm, a fascinating experience. Husky dogs have actually only been in Finland since 1960s, then only for tourists as the local people have always used reindeer to pull trailers across snow and ice-covered rivers. Around 70 dogs at this centre, a varied mix of colours, eye-colour and abilities. For example, which ones are chosen to breed for strength, speed, intelligence. They are very friendly and excitable, as soon as a car arrives they think they are going out to pull a sled and all bark like mad. They are in same-sex pairs in each of the fenced compounds, and males/females are generally kept apart as teams. They are clearly well looked after and love their main handler who showed me around.
One set of puppies, only 4 weeks old so very cute and fluffy. The mother was quite happy to go and explore the yard while we went in with her babies. They are a bit wobbly on their feet going up the ramp, very soft hair and content to be held and just starting to eat prepared food. I am not a dog person, but this was a great visit with freshly brewed coffee in the teepee to finish.
Today was the official opening of the 2Km trail in the woods near the hotel, so I was invited to join the local villagers walking the trail and checking posters. These are excellent information boards all around the trail, explaining about flora and fauna with brilliant illustrations by local school children. Time to get ready for the wait for the lights tonight – it is a perfect sky so hoping to be lucky.
Once darkness falls, you do need to wrap up warm, thermal underwear, hat scarf and gloves, and a winter-weight jacket. It is not arctic-wear, still waiting for their first frost and no sign of snow yet. Tried the Cloudberry Liquer after dinner, a lovely clear, pale golden liquid with soft perfume of berries. Not sweet, just a great balance of alcohol and fresh fruit taste, perfect to set me up for the evening. Rather than set up on the jetty, I walked a little further along the lake to set up on the next shorter jetty so could still get a good view around the skies.
First sighting was behind the hotel, a very quick burst of bright shifting light hidden by the treetops but still visible. It is very exciting, waiting, scanning the skies for any of the signs Timor told us about – a line of smoky cloud suddenly appearing, gradually deepening in colour and intensity. Just before midnight it started to form across the lake, streaking off to the right, obscured by some clouds but still a fantastic sight. Just as an encore, the lights came and went for the next hour and probably well into the night. But I had seen what I came here for, and more, and felt extremely satisfied!
Would I recommend this Aurora Zone trip? Absolutely. Our hosts have been lovely, friendly, helpful and all the staff very welcoming. Lovely home-cooked meals that are tasty and very satisfying throughout, though not necessarily slimming! Early start for Ivalo Airport, 5.30am, so a packed breakfast to take with me – sandwich, energy bar, apple and fruit juice. Everything is well organized, excursions are provided but also some free time each day, and there really are few opportunities to spend too much money.
It is very educational but not in a lecture-type format, just lots of history of the place and the people who have lived here for centuries. This is also a spectacular time to visit with leaves changing colour, wonderful reflections of orange and gold in the many wetland areas as well as the magnificent Minersjarvi lake, bright blue skies and sunshine, with the nights just starting to get colder. I would have been happy to stay here longer than 4 nights and would certainly love to visit again.