December 2019 in Finnish Lapland in the Arctic Circle, this yule tide denier saw the spirit of Christmas is in fact alive and well, and it doesn’t need to rely on mountains of presents and shopping stress… just snow and magic.
For many people. ‘Bucket List’ events are things you think you’ll only do once, if you do them at all. They’re the long-held desires that sometimes don’t and/or aren’t supposed to come to fruition, even if you think they are. Events that are risky or fleeting, expensive or unusual, things that for you are not easily accessible, but deemed to be worth the effort… probably.
The Northern Lights or the Aurora Borealis is a common bucket list item. It’s an unpredictable weather phenomenon. You can study weather patterns and dates and history and plan a holiday around seeing the lights, and then not see them. Similarly, you could walk out of a bar late on a winter’s night and think, why is the sky funny colours and how are the clouds dancing? … and that might not be the alcohol talking. (Is the apostrophe in the right place?… I think it is, but they’re not my strong point)
Given that the northern lights are unpredictable, many of the experience providers in the arctic circle offer holiday makers package deals where you go aurora hunting, but also have the opportunity to experience other arctic activities you would never get to do at home. That way, if the lights don’t shine for you, hopefully you’ve still had an experience to remember. What you don’t expect is that the added value items might be the things that completely blow your mind.
Finnish Lapland is in the aurora zone, the area where the lights are quite common. Reindeer are also common, as common as sheep in New Zealand I was told by a Finn. However, sheep don’t fly around the world with Santa at Christmas time delivering presents, so for those of us who aren’t from the area, they’re enigmatic and endearing. When you’re used to Santa riding on the back of a fire engine at the Christmas parade, seeing him riding an actual sleigh being pulled by actual reindeer is exciting, even for an adult. I can only imagine the thrill children get from seeing that. So, while a reindeer sleigh ride might not be the reason you visit Finland, it will likely be an event to remember.
Snowmobiles are another commonality in the area, but for those of us who don’t have snow underfoot all winter long, they’re fun… so much fun! Riding across a frozen lake passed snow covered tress and scenery that looks like it’s straight out of a movie set offers a level of exhilaration you just don’t expect. When I say the air is crisp on your face, think -10, -15 degrees crisp, although with the fascination of piles of untouched fluffy snow you just don’t notice the cold… that and the hand-warmers on the handlebars, becuase why shouldn’t a snowmobile have fancy add on’s like cars. Every now and then your snowmobile will jolt a little, and you’ll realise you’re riding over a frozen lake and be momentarily afraid you’re going to crack to the ice and fall in. You won’t, but you will certainly know you’re alive with the fear and thrill that comes with that jolt. Sure, you could probably go aurora hunting in a car, but there’s no awe and wonder in that.
There’s cross-country skiing, there’s snow shoeing, there’s ice fishing, there’s lighting a fire in the snow and having a -15 degree picnic of reindeer soup and toast… things you would never normally do at home are in abundance, and then there’s the thing you never knew you always wanted to do… until you did it… or at least the thing I never knew I always wanted to do. Husky Sledding. I can’t say this about everywhere in Finland, but at the place I went to the guides assume you are a grown-up who can follow instructions. (I am pro this attitude) Your husky sledding induction is a good 5-7 minutes long. They show you what a sled looks like, tell you how to brake, how to stop, and show you some important hand signals. Our guide said, ‘If you fall off don’t worry, I’ll get the dogs.’ Whereby you immediately think, ‘oh my god, please don’t let me fall off,’ followed by, ‘Will you come get me if I fall off?’ It’s great for the adrenaline. I didn’t fall off, but the person in front of me did. Perhaps the guide should have also said, ‘If you do fall off, don’t stand up and try to outrun the huskies behind you, you won’t win.’ He didn’t say that but then again, some things you should probably just know. When you first get to your sled, all the dogs are together, they’re excited and yappy, it’s noisy and exhilarating and you start getting really nervous. However, as soon as you start moving the noise stops and you hear nothing but the sliding of sled on snow. You’re not looking at the wilderness, you’re a part of it, your senses are heightened, your awareness is off the charts. At some point you’ll notice how the dogs work together and it is a thing of beauty. The silence and the scenery while husky sledding heightens your senses… the temperature could help with that too. Add in an amazingly beautiful almost sunrise, almost because the sun doesn’t rise during the polar night, and you realise that magic is actually real.
These are just some of the things you don’t expect when you go to see the Northern Lights in Finland. They are the bonuses, they’re the things most of us would never do at home, because for most of us, you can’t do it at home, and that’s what makes a holiday in Finnish Lapland all the more impressive.