Lapland is a destination that many put on their ‘once in a lifetime’ list – where months of saving are turned into unforgettable experiences of being able to stand within the dreamlike landscape of the Arctic, cross its wilderness by husky sled and snowmobile and watch the dancing lights of the aurora borealis (Northern Lights).
100 years ago, Lapland didn’t have any country borders – it was simply the mass of land above the Arctic Circle that now forms parts of Norway, Sweden, Russia and Finland – the area I visited in January. A flawless patch of the Earth’s surface, Lapland retains its natural order and balance of nature despite new borders and touristic additions.
Lapland is no exception to the rule of how Finnish culture is strongly tied to a close relationship with nature, and it was here that I felt the most wild and free, despite my summer escapades. All year round Lapland remains a pristine, unspoilt wilderness, where life is unhurried and tradition remains. The perceived idea of winter in Lapland being a pure white snow-coated hinterland akin to Narnia doesn’t seem real, except when you finally see it for yourself, it really is…
Visiting Northernmost Lapland – Innari-Saariselkä
The capital of Lapland, Rovaniemi, is the usual stopping ground for tourists to Finnish Lapland, yet one extra flight gets you a little further afield to the region of Innari-Saariselkä – a cluster of smaller villages scattered within a vast empty space known as ‘Northernmost Lapland’, also home to the ancient Sami culture.
Here, I found a stillness I’ve never felt anywhere else, a majestic calm under an ink blue sky pierced only delicately by a sun which remains under the cloak of darkness for much of the day.
Here, I felt an intense freedom, and a crisp, freshness of air that was exhilarating – something I’ve never once said that about the cold. Lapland truly was a sensory awakening.
Chasing the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)
In Lapland, the wilderness calls upon you to explore and watch the skies dance in a multitude of colour. I spent the first night out on a snowmobile in the village of Inari, with local adventure experts, Joiku-Kotsamo, in minus 38 temperatures searching for the Northern Lights, and my final evening in Lapland ripping through the dense wilderness of Saariselka on a three-hour long snowmobile safari, stopping for warm berry juice and sausages over the fire, before turning back to head back to civilisation.
From beginning to end, you will spend your entire journey here chasing those lights.
Catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights is as much about luck as it is about patience. A true spectacle, their sighting is a blessing and not a guarantee, although being as far north as possible ensures a better chance of view. But when you get lucky on a clear and cloudless night and see the flames whirl hues of blue and green, you feel a powerful connection to nature. Chasing them down via snowmobile, through forests blanketed in a never-ending sea of pure white snow, only adds to the sense of off-track adventure, the speed of which is in juxtaposition to the calming isolation once you turn off the entire, stand in the darkness and take it all in.
Staying in a Glass Igloo in Lapland
For a more relaxing and serene means of watching the Northern Lights without the minus temperatures, I was invited to try out the world-famous glass igloos of the Kakslauttanen Artic Resort.
A family hotel situated 250 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, Kakslauttanen Artic Resort is literally built on a vast patch of wilderness mapped out with lit pathways, and dotted with wooden cabins and showpieces like ‘Santa’s Celebration House’. These resorts are huge set-ups built on acres of barren land, so be prepared to have to walk long distances between things and front extra costs to get between different sides of it or to other villages and smaller activity hubs. My advice? Do as many of the more intrepid visitors do in Lapland and hire a car.
The igloos themselves are spectacular looking capsules and a brilliant concept, although you wouldn’t spend more than a night in one. They are both expensive (at 400 euros a night) and without the full stretch of bathroom and sauna amenities you find in all Lapland accommodations (although there is a toilet and sink). Staying in a glass igloo is therefore a novelty, but if you are lucky enough to see the sky burst into colour above you, it’s a very surreal experience watching the Earth perform a show until the early hours of the morning, from within a heated cocoon.
Tradition Vs. Tourism in Finnish Lapland
Traditions have morphed in tourist activities, keeping locals in business and allowing visitors to sample the Arctic way of life. Huskies, known for their endurance, have been used for centuries in hunting and long distance travel. Your team of six dogs pulls the sled that you have to run with, balance on and control.
All the while, your friend sits in the sled and enjoys the crazy ride, until you get to swap over in relay. Everyone, including the dogs, loves the thrill of the race. I think I spent most of my time in a daze of adrenalin, guiding my dogs and trying not to fall off, while staring wide-eyed and astonished at the most incredible path way that cut through a forest of white-coated magical looking trees.
Breathtaking scenes really do exist beyond a movie green screen.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the reindeer safari – it felt gimmicky, despite them being beautiful creatures to watch in their natural habitat. Yet there are two sides of the coin in this debate. Reindeer herders were some of the first people to come into contact with the tourism industry, moving into the activities business in order to sustain their livelihood. Upon asking about the impact of tourism in a land still so untouched by mass modernity, one reindeer herder told me: “If there were no tourists, we wouldn’t use as many reindeer, and my children wouldn’t get to see such traditions, especially in a generation where snowmobiles are the popular choice of transport.”
One the other hand, the argument is that if the herders only rely on tourism, then it keeps the rangers out of the forest and that can have a negative effect (in that they are not utilising resourceful skills passed down through generations, most notably in the Sami culture). It has simply become a matter of personal choice, rather than a must-needed shift to survive.
You can learn more about Sami culture and traditions at SIIDA (Sámi museum and Nature centre) Www.silda.fi in Inari. The Sami are seen as the only indigenous people of the European Union (there are over 10,000 Sami in Finland) and today they have the right, through constitution and law protecting their culture, to maintain their own language and customs. Their traditional livelihoods centre on this notion of being resourceful (including reindeer-herding) alongside fishing, and the gathering of nature’s ‘products’ such as bone, wood and leather, to make handicrafts. Reindeer are important for survival in this sense too, and crafts are now an income source through tourism.
In Lapland, life continues as it did many years ago. Nature beats to its own unique rhythm of the seasons. Winter’s dusky twilight skies evoke contentment, even when you are being whisked at high speeds across the wilderness in grand adventure, before the arrival of May, where the landscape thrives in a new energy under a midnight sun that never ventures below the horizon for three months.
For those looking for a flawless patch of the Earth, whose paths still remain largely untouched and whose skies spend much of the year dancing, the Lapland of Finland really is your calling.
Things to Know About Travel to Finnish Lapland:
- Innari-Saariselkä is well-connected, with over 13,000 beds and easy flight connections, including a bus from the airport. Ivalo airport is the northernmost airport in Finland.
- October marks the time of permanent snow cover and September for cool temperatures perfect for hiking. During Winter months it is advised to pack: thermal under layers, base layers, mid layers (such as a fleece) to insulate, outer layers (I took a gillet with a faux-fur lined hood), gloves, thermal socks (layered), waterproof and insulated trousers, snow boots (insulated and waterproof) and down coat.
- Extra layers and a full-insulated body suit are provided when going on a snowmobile and husky safari
- The further north you are the better the chance of seeing the Northern Lights, where it is said they can be seen for around 200 nights a year in northernmost Lapland. The best viewing time between 6pm to 2am
- For further information visit, inarisaariselka.fi and www.visitinari.fi – the regional tourism boards who helped facilitate my stay in this incredible part of Lapland
Want to see the Northern Lights in Finland? Pin It!