In my experience, life in general has many funny little ironies, and travel is one area of life where fate loves to have the last laugh. I had just arrived in Helsinki, Finland for a first visit to this Scandinavian capital and then planned to fly 500 miles north to Ivalo in Lapland, a region north of the Arctic Circle that covers parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. There I would be staying on a Husky Farm… not a refuge for overweight people, but a place where they raise and train huskies for dog-sledding. Visions of being pulled on a sled through forests covered in snow by six loyal pooches danced through my head – until I got the e-mail from the folks at the husky farm. “We have no snow here yet. There will be no opportunity for any dog-sled trips.”
And yet, here I was, exiting the Helsinki Airport Terminal to catch a FinnAir bus to the center of town in a raging blizzard! The temperature was about – 7 Celsius or about 19 degrees Fahrenheit. Icy winds roared out of the northeast (the general direction of Lapland), blowing the snow across the highway as the bus lumbered toward the city. Traffic snarled, pedestrians were seemingly being blown across streets against their will… but there is no snow in Lapland! How can this be?
I have long proclaimed that whoever invented the rolling duffel bag, or wheels on suitcases in general, was a genius. But I learned a new lesson about wheeled baggage as I exited the bus at the Central Station for the “short 10 minute walk” promised by my hotel’s website. I learned that when you drag a wheeled bag across slushy sidewalks and crosswalks, and the wind is howling and it’s way below freezing, something unfortunate occurs: the wheels freeze. That’s right folks, ice and slush and snow gather within those trusty little wheels and in an instant, you are literally just dragging your 40+ pound bag which now seems to weigh 300 pounds. Or, if you have built up any momentum when the wheels freeze, it’s as if the 300 pound bag is pulling you backward. I could not believe it. Every half a block I had to put down my briefcase, take off my gloves and dig my fingers under the wheels to loosen the compacted snow, and then kick the wheel several times with my foot to dislodge any more residue so that I could proceed another half block and repeat the same process. “Where are those damned huskies when I need them?” I mused. It took me over 30 minutes to reach my hotel, and cranky, sweaty and utterly exhausted, I got checked in.
It was already 6:30 PM by now and I’d made a reservation at what Tripadvisor ranks as the 5th best restaurant in Helsinki, Ravintola Kuu (ravintola is “restaurant” in Finnish). The idea of braving the storm to get across town did not appeal to me, but at least I wouldn’t be dragging a suitcase with ice-clogged wheels, so I headed out into the darkness and managed to catch a tram to within a couple of blocks of the place. I’d already read about the place and perused the menu online, so I knew exactly what I would order: a 4 course, fixed meal starting with salmon soup (cream based with lots of dill), a slice of local cheese with fresh fig jam, roasted filet of reindeer (venison) with sweet potato mash and mushroom risotto, and a brownie topped with orange sea-buckthorn berry sorbet arranged like a piece of artwork on a plate. The sea-buckthorn berries were tart, sort of like apricot but not as sweet. The venison was indescribable; it had to be one of the most tender and most flavorful pieces of meat I have ever eaten. And I could live on that salmon soup every day. I washed this down with some Finnish hard cider flavored with lingonberries and watched the snow outside, feeling warmer and more at peace after my tumultuous arrival in Helsinki.
As I walked back to my hotel the wind had died down but it was still snowing like crazy and the new snow did look beautiful. I began to wonder if I would have trouble in the morning getting back to the airport and flying to Lapland, but figured the Finns are likely used to snow and could handle things. The city was pretty quiet and in terms of architecture and “feel” reminded me of Stockholm, Sweden or Oslo, Norway, and at least in the area I was in, there was very little nightlife and not much open… maybe due to the storm.
I had to be at the airport for a 10:45 flight, so I was awake at 7:30 and peered out into the total darkness of a Finnish winter morning to see that it was still snowing. I dreaded the thought of dragging my bag and its frozen wheels across the tundra again, so I cleverly took every heavy and unnecessary object out of my suitcase and stuffed them into a backpack. I was returning to the same hotel on Friday, so I asked them to check the backpack for me, greatly lightening my load. This did help a lot; as I dragged my suitcase across frozen and slushy streets it only felt like 200 pounds of resistance vs. the 300 pounds of the night before. I wondered what the Finnish expression for “Mamma mia!” might be.
As I predicted, the bus to the airport and the flight itself were on time and without problems. The flight on FinnAir was a little like riding on a local bus, as it stopped in a place called Kittila first to drop off passengers and pick up a few new ones. I was able to just stay on the plane, and sip the complimentary blueberry juice FinnAir serves. It made me chuckle because Hawaiian Air always serves a rather watery Pass-O-Guava juice (Passionfruit and Guava) on its flights, and even though it’s not very good, it’s just a part of the ritual of inter-island flights in Hawaii. I have to say, the blueberry juice was a lot better!
My flight was ultimately bound for Ivalo, a town of about 4,000 residents located above the Arctic Circle and about 40 minutes from the Russian border to the east and an hour or so from the top of Norway and the Arctic Ocean… the farthest north I’ve ever been (and about as far north as you can go!) The airport was so cute and tiny that it made you wanted to pinch its little cheeks, and I easily got my luggage, picked up my shiny red Ford Focus rental car, and I was off on my Lapland adventures. The temperature outside was about 10 to 12 degrees Fahrenheit, and it was somewhat sunny. There was some snow on the ground, but evidently not enough for dog-sledding. It took about 15 minutes to drive to Ivalo, passing nothing by snow-covered fir trees and bare, white birch. So when arriving in Ivalo itself, it seemed like a metropolis. There were two large markets/department stores, a few local businesses, a hotel, three gas stations, and that about covers it.
I decided to go to a café/restaurant built into the front of one of the grocery stores, and it was actually a rather nice place. I was hungry and it was about 2:00 by now, so I ordered a reindeer burger with blue cheese on it, and it was really quite nice. As I sat there devouring my reindeer, I was taken aback by the fact that I was watching sunset unfurl before my eyes, and looking at the clock noted that it was about 2:15 PM! Yikes! I realized then that I would have to make the most of the maybe 5 hours of total daylight that this region gets at this time of year to do my sight-seeing!
After lunch, I picked up some blueberries and cookies and milk at the market and drove another 15 – 20 minutes into the wilderness to the north of town to my home for the next three nights: Guesthouse Husky. It’s a large, red house-like structure surrounded by many barns, sheds and kennels that house about 150 huskies of all shapes, sizes and colors. The little pups were just adorable, but even the adult dogs commanded attention with their beautiful features and incredibly social demeanor. They all just wanted to play. What fun! My room was on the second floor, simply furnished, but with two big windows and hardwood floors.
Because I’d looked at the week’s weather, it looked like my first night there would be the only one with clear enough skies for seeing the Northern Lights, so I had booked an “Aurora Safari” with a photographer and guide named Jouni from 9:00PM till 1:00 AM. I had dinner at the guest house that evening (simple, but delicious meal of homemade bread, stew, and a yogurt and berry dessert) and then took a short nap. I’d set my alarm for 8:30 because I knew it was going to take me awhile to get myself dressed for my safari. The temperature outside was 1 degree above zero and evidently “aurora hunting” involves a lot of time standing around outside, so the guest house lent me thermal coveralls that felt like a bloody space suit, big snow boots that made my feet weigh 20 pounds each, I’d brought a hat and gloves, and Lea, the hostess at the guest house had recommended I go into town and buy thermal long johns to put on under my jeans. I was not going to be able to run any races wearing all these clothes, but trusted I would be warm enough for my evening.
Jouni arrived promptly and 9PM and loaded me and a Chinese couple from Singapore, Melody and James, into a van and after picking up one other couple in town, we headed north from Ivalo toward the next town, Inari, which is about 30 miles away. Just short of Inari, we went up a steep, snowy road to the top of a hill for a good vantage point of the northern skies and while we waited for something to happen Jouni set up a very fancy camera on a tripod aimed to the north. I had of course seen pictures of the lights before, but honestly had no idea of exactly what to expect. The lights are caused by solar winds that send particles into our atmosphere which cause a reaction at the north and south poles. So to see the lights, there must be solar activity, the sky has to be dark enough, and there can’t be cloud cover. I’d read many accounts of people who spent a week in some far northern spot and never got a glimpse, so I was hopeful, but trying not to expect too much.
After a while Jouni pointed out what looked like a yellowish-cloud off on the northern horizon, looking as if it was being illuminated by city lights below, but of course there are no cities here. It was the Aurora, and it slowly got longer and looked like a band of green waves far off near the horizon in the distance. It was exciting, but I’ll admit, it didn’t knock my socks off and the brilliance of the stars was really more of a show. I tried to take a few photos, but that was a lost cause. My camera simply doesn’t have the ability to film the Aurora, as it requires a long exposure to capture them. So thankfully, Jouni had his camera and assured us he would take any photos we wanted and send them to us after the safari – if we saw anything of note. The faint green curtains moved across the sky a bit, fading here, getting a little brighter there, but gradually started to vanish. Jouni said this would require patience, and recommended we get back into the van to warm up and wait a bit longer to see if something else might develop. I stared out my window seeing nothing at all, and started feeling a bit tired, as it had been a long day. I figured that I’d been lucky to have seen something, but it really didn’t look as though we’d be seeing much else.
And then Jouni startled all of us by almost shouting, “Get out of the van! Now!” Groggily we stumbled out into the snow again, and as I looked up, I actually gasped and tears spontaneously began to flow. Directly in front of us, much brighter and closer than before, were five or six bands of light. They looked like shimmering curtains of green, with a little pink and white mixed in, and they moved across the sky like beams from a spotlight aimed up at the night sky. You could see stars shining from behind them, and watch them move and change shape. Jouni busily started taking photos while our group just stood with our heads to the sky exclaiming, “Oh my God!” over and over again. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before and it is difficult to find words to describe what it was like and how it made me feel. It almost felt like a living thing that had decided to show itself for us. It was beautiful and awe-inspiring, and a little mysterious and even frightening at the same time. I wondered what early peoples thought when they had their first look at these lights. The show lasted for about 20 minutes or so and just gradually faded away until all that was left were the millions of stars twinkling in jet black skies. I had to pinch myself to be sure I’d really just seen what I thought I saw!
We then went to a different location on the shores of Lake Inari, about 20 minutes away. We parked in a forested area and walked down to the lake’s shoreline and waited for perhaps 45 minutes, but there was nothing to be seen. Jouni said, “Let’s wait 10 more minutes and then we’ll call it a night.” Not five minutes later, there they were again! Beautiful green and pink curtains started dancing across the northern skies, this time reflected in the still waters of the lake. It was absolutely breathtaking, and we took several more photos and forgot the cold and watched until the show was finally over once again. So strange how the lights can come and go without warning, without sound. As we drove back to the guesthouse around 1AM I was simply exhausted, but I felt like the luckiest guy in the world.
I got back to my room at 1:30AM on Wednesday, and knew that it was now 7:30 PM Tuesday on the East Coast of the U.S. and that the election results would soon be getting reported, so I got online and for the next 7 hours, I was glued to the computer until the race was announced as over at about 8:30 AM. I had not slept at all, and now it was time for breakfast, so I went downstairs intending to eat and return to bed. Melody and James were there and asked if I wanted to join them for a tour of a reindeer farm in Inari. They had not rented a car (they actually don’t have driver’s licenses, as cars are a nuisance and a terrible expense in Singapore), but they hadn’t realized how isolated it would be here and how there would be virtually no public transportation. More than anything I just wanted to go to bed and get some sleep, and I told them no. But as I went back to my room I felt bad for them and wondered what they would do with themselves all day. I also felt it was stupid of me to waste the 5 hours of daylight on one of my only three days in, so I ran back downstairs and agreed to drive us all to the reindeer farm and off we went an hour later. No rest for the weary!
It was nice to see some of the scenery that we missed the previous night… frozen lakes, snow covered pine and birch, and a few far-off mountains. Melody and James generously treated me to a nice lunch of salmon soup and then we took a guided tour of a reindeer farm. Our hostess for the tour said that her family had owned this land for about 700 years, and she talked a lot about the way the Sami people – the indigenous people of Lapland – lived, worked, dressed, ate, etc. We had a tour of the farm and a lesson about reindeer antlers, and then it was time to feed the reindeer, who’d been grouped behind a chain link fence waiting for her to finish talking and bring them the food!
The farm has only about a dozen reindeer, and the people eat the meat, use the fur for clothing, and use the reindeer to transport things in sleds or sleighs. She told us that there are no “wild reindeer” anywhere in Lapland… every one you see along the road is actually owned by some farm and are allowed to roam. The reindeer are fed pellet like food, but their special treat it to scrape the lichen off the branches of trees… (give me a brownie or a bowl of ice cream any day…). So arming us each with branches and instructing us to hang on tight and watch our eyes (antlers are BIG and sharp), we were let into the pen to feed the beasts! A couple of the folks on our tour had their branches literally ripped from their hands in seconds, but I held out pretty long in what seemed like a game of tug of war with these really gentle and beautiful tan and white animals.
It was a fun afternoon and of course we drove back to the Guesthouse in the dark (at 4PM). I dropped them at a hotel in town, as they were taking a bus south in the morning, and then I got some microwaveable reindeer stew (not kidding) at the grocery store and ate in the kitchen at the guesthouse while chatting with two German guys that are working at the husky farm for the winter as volunteers. It was a quiet night and at 11PM, I was a zombie and fell asleep for the next 12 hours! I guess my body deserved it. It’d been about 40 hours of no sleep at all!
My last day in Lapland was sunny and after some breakfast of cheese, berry yogurt and reindeer sausage (I’m not kidding!). I took a drive south about 40 miles to a town called Saarselka. Really not a whole lot to see or do there, but the ride was beautiful. After the 2:30 sunset I did a little shopping… not a whole lot to buy anywhere and postcards sell for almost $2 EACH in Finland, with stamps to the U.S. another $1.50. Guess people are not getting postcards! Sorry!
As I was driving back to Ivalo, it was around 6:00 PM and there was a clear, starry sky. As I drove I happened to notice some faintly lit patches in the northwestern skies. I was watching them carefully, and finally decided to pull off the road into a rest area-like turn out. When I shut the headlights off it seemed awfully light outside, and when I climbed out of the car, I was shocked to see several bright bands of Aurora almost directly overhead. They had snuck up on me, so thank God I stopped when I did. There they were, dancing and shimmering above me as I just stared upwards, totally awestruck. Then I heard something move nearby and turned my attention away from the lights for a minute. All around me was a herd of about 10 reindeer scavenging for lichen off the tree branches.
“Uh-oh”, I thought. “I am outnumbered and if these guys know I have been eating reindeer three times a day, I am in trouble!”. But they barely gave me a second look, and so as they happily munched on lichen, I returned my attention to the skies and watched the show for another 10 or 15 minutes before it quietly faded, leaving a jet-black sky, punctuated by stars twinkling like mini lighthouses. Two out of three nights seeing the Aurora… I could not have gotten any luckier.
And Finland had one more surprise in store. I awoke to find about 1 foot of new snow had fallen over night! My rental car was almost invisible, and the pine branches on the trees outside were laden with snow. It was gorgeous, and I found that because it’s so cold here, the snow is very dry and fluffy, and cleaning off the car was a breeze… none of that heavy, wet stuff! As I was getting the car packed, I was entertained with the sight of a team of 16 huskies, excitedly barking and running and pulling behind them a van with two people inside! I’d been told that the dogs had been restless to start running because of the late snow, and these guys were filled with apparently boundless energy, pulling a two- ton vehicle seemingly effortlessly. I so wished I had another day to take a dog-sled ride in the snow, but the airport was calling and soon I was 30,000 feet above Lapland, sipping blueberry juice, and dreaming of the Aurora.
My final night in Helsinki was, in a word, strange. I exited the airport, found the FinnAir bus right there and waiting for me, hopped into the very front seat, and we pulled out a couple of minutes later for the city center. I was excited because it was not snowing here, and I’d arrived a bit early, so I was looking forward to seeing just a bit of the city before the sun set. As we made our way through the rush hour traffic, I noticed that there was a small delivery truck in front of us and it was not signaling, but was slowing down… and the bus was not. I almost said something to the driver, but before I could even open my mouth, BOOM! We’d hit the truck and the bus’ windshield shattered. Mamma mia! We had to wait a half an hour for a new bus to come and by the time we got downtown, it was almost dark. And as I started the familiar walk to my hotel, I found that most streets still had not been thoroughly cleared of snow and slush and ice and before you could say, “I think I’ll have reindeer for dinner!”, the wheels froze on my bag, and it was déjà vu all over again! And again I wondered, “Where are the huskies when you really NEED them?”