Thursday, 19 December 2013

Finland Northern Lights - 11th-14th December 2013

Weather: Very, very cold. Much snow.

Wildlife seen:
Carrion Crow; Great Tit; Magpie; Woodpecker. Husky Dogs; Reindeer.

Places visited:
Finland and Sweden.

We were here for the Northern Lights but unfortunately we did not see them.

'Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe.' Albert Einstein

'Love is a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it flips over, pinning you underneath' Matt Groening

Finland, officially the Republic of Finland, is a Nordic country situated in the Fennoscandian region of Northern Europe, whilst Sweden, officially the Kingdom of Sweden, is a Scandinavian country also in Northern Europe. Sweden borders Norway and Finland, and is connected to Denmark by a bridge-tunnel across the Oresund. At this time of year the long polar nights last for upto 22 hours a day, with the sun never quite managing to rise above the horizon.

The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis are curtains of colourful lights that dance across the night sky due to the expulsion of solar flares from the sun. Each flare releases a billion times the energy of an atomic bomb. The radiation from these flares are deadly but fortunately the Earth is shielded by a magnetic field so most pass by harmlessly into deep space.

Our Hotel, the Arctic Star
We flew in to Enontekio airport and arrived at our hotel, the Arctic Star in Karesuando (Latitude 68 degrees). I found the hotel to be very basic, with very small rooms painted plain white with no d├ęcor whatsoever. 

Presumably they were trying to emulate the snow-fest outside. To open the door to the bathroom you had to first close the bedroom door and vice versa. But that didn't matter too much as, unfortunately, the bathroom light wasn't working anyway. Our particular room was external to the main hotel in what looked no better than Nissen Huts. I think Nelson Mandela had a bigger cell. The food was simple fare, warm and filling, nothing too special. The staff were courteous and polite, especially the barman. The usual expensive lagers were on offer but were offset by Guinness and Leffe.

The local hooch
The village of Karesuando is situated on the border of Finland and Sweden separated by the River Muonio. It is very small and rural with a population of less than 500 people with limited amenities. It is also part of the Sami homeland area, a people who are still semi-nomadic today, herding their many reindeer across the vast landscape. They are the only European ethnic group to be recognized as an aboriginal people.

Where are the NLs?
We were due to spend 3 days and 3 nights here but unfortunately our 10am flight from Luton airport was delayed by over 7 hours and we did not arrive at our destination until after midnight, local time. We were told that the plane couldn't land in the thick fog that had engulfed Luton and that it was, in fact, circling above waiting for it to clear. Strange then, that our plane was the only one to suffer this problem, as all the other flights seemed to be unaffected. This, of course, had a delayed knock-on effect. We were supposed to take possession of our all-in-one thermal suits and boots and attend a welcoming information session by the tour reps. But because of the late hour we all went straight to our rooms. We were informed that our key would be in the door. Ours wasn't. But it was open anyway.

Early the next morning after breakfast we attended our first excursion, a 2 hour session at a Reindeer camp, where we learnt all about herding and lassoing from the local farmers. We were split into 2 groups to take turns in experiencing a sled ride. All the sleds were pulled by one reindeer and were all tethered together. It was a slow, chilly 25 minute walk around the area. It gave us an opportunity for a few scenic photos but it was quite cold just sitting there. Some of the group spent extra time with the reindeer and some of us spent time in the local, warm tepee where the local hot brew was on offer. It was like a warm ribena and, to me, tasted quite like Swedish Glogg, but without the alcohol.

The weather was quite cold, but I was warm enough in my layers, especially with the added help of the thermal suit. But I found the boots sadly lacking and decided to wear my own boots from then on. We were told that a couple of days ago the weather went as far down as -37 degrees but today it was a balmy +1, with a slight breeze. On subsequent days we experienced -12 and -24 degrees. Luckily I remembered to bring my scarf.

After a nourishing lunch, during which the TLs gave us their welcoming speech, we had the afternoon off and so a walk around the area was called for. Even around 2pm it was already getting dark and so we found ourselves walking from the hotel in Sweden over the border to a bar and souvenir shop in Finland. A few beers later and, armed with a fridge magnet and the obligatory t-shirt we headed back to the hotel for tea.

Dressed up and ready for our next excursion, a snowmobile safari, we found that the admin side of the tour was not the finest example on the planet. Apparently there were to be 2 sessions this evening, one group was to venture out at 7 whilst the other, my group, was to go out at 9. Only to find that both groups had been set to start at 7. And, after much delay and debate, we found ourselves back in the hotel bar, dressed down, waiting for 9pm. Unfortunately, this was not a one-off incident and we soon learned to check the noticeboard on a regular basis as the paperwork was changed and altered almost hourly. It seemed to me that the left hand wasn't talking to the right hand.

Local transport
Anyway, our time to depart soon arrived and we found ourselves out in the wintry wilderness listening to the 'experts' explain what and what not to do on the snowmobiles. I decided straight away to volunteer to be just the passenger, if only for the fact that I had drank too much beer earlier. Unfortunately, our snowmobile decided to have a mind of its own and we soon found ourselves flat on our backs with the snowmobile on its side. No injuries were suffered, other than our pride, either to us or the snowmobile.

But it was here, in the snow, flat on my back, that I looked up into the sky and noticed what I
Which way is it?
thought at first to be a cloud in the night sky. I gave it a second look and, whilst doing so, one of the 'experts' came over to see if we were alright and saw me looking up. She exclaimed and shouted that the Northern Lights were arriving! Unfortunately, that was a bit premature as the main lights did not, in fact, appear. It was only a mild, light green wisp of a cloud. It was indeed recognisable as a northern light but was hardly what you would have seen on the TV and in photos. And, unfortunately, it proved to be our only encounter of the trip. Still, it warmed us all up and we set off on further noisy circuits around the dark forest. It was past midnight when we got back to our hotel room, via the bar.

Next morning was another early-ish start as, after breakfast, we set off to see the 'Call of the Wild' Husky safari. This was quite probably my favourite excursion of the trip as we were allowed to jump on a sled and 'mush-mush' the dogs around the area. We each had 5 dogs to a team and every one of them were noisy and enthusiastic. One team overturned their sled but this time it wasn't us. A quick few photos of the morning and, sadly after only an hour here, we headed back to the hotel for lunch.

I decided to stay in the bar afterwards and meet up with a few of our fellow travellers as there were quite a few of us here and before long it was time for tea and then preparation for our last excursion, the Northern Lights Forest Trek.

What we saw instead!
What we should have seen!
This entailed a trip to the other hotel, the Davvi Arctic Lodge, where all the families were staying, mainly to see Santa. I hope for their sake he turned up and wasn't still circling high above. I'll gloss over more admin problems here and we soon found ourselves at the top of a viewpoint, after a 15-minute trek, overlooking the whole area. Here it was almost totally dark, with the exception of two things, a roaring fire and an almost full moon.

The fire could be avoided by trekking into the darker areas but the moon was disturbingly bright and did not bode well if the Lights were to appear. In the event, it didn't matter as we didn't see any at all. Sadly the night sky did not give us any better views of the Milky Way as we get at home either. After about an hour or so I headed back to the fire to warm up and have the promised hot drink only to find that the fire had almost gone out due to lack of wood and that the hot drink had vanished back down the hill. As had all the Tour Reps, leaving us to fend for ourselves. Now, I'm not really a fan of Health and Safety but they would have been all over this. To me, it was an accident waiting to happen and the TLs were very lucky that no-one incurred any injuries this night.

Put some more wood on!
Around 11pm the cold was finally getting to me and, more importantly, to my camera which was beginning to seize up. I found myself one of the last to head back down the hill to the hotel for the pick up by coach back to our own hotel. But, another admin mess-up, I found others still waiting to be picked up. Some had been waiting for nearly an hour, as the coach had been replaced by a car. After much discussion (!) with the local Reps the coach returned in place of the car and transported us all back to the hotel, arriving after midnight.

The next morning saw us checking out after breakfast for the trip back to the airport. Thankfully the plane was on time and we arrived in Luton just after 6. Baggage reclaim wasn't too painful and a couple of hours later I found myself at my local supping a decent beer.

If the Northern Lights had appeared I would have given the trip 6 out of 10, but it only merits an over generous 4. I know that the travel company had no control over the Lights or the flight delay but the hotel, the admin and most of the TLs were sadly lacking. I don't think I will be travelling with this Tour Operator again, despite the cheap price and, if I decide to try and see the NLs again it would probably have to be somewhere else.