It’s bone-chillingly cold. Snow and ice smother every speck of ground outside the Harriniva Holiday Centre in far north Finland. A thermometer on the wall beside the main entrance reads minus 20 degrees.
That’s hardly surprising, given it’s the first week of February – the depths of winter when the sun barely pokes its brow above the horizon for more than a few hours a day. Apparently it had hit minus 34 the previous week. Yet somehow, on this night, I feel remarkably toasty wearing every bit of clothing in my suitcase. I increase my Michelin Man look by slipping into an Arctic jumpsuit, merino-lined boots and woollen mittens courtesy of the hotel. A polar bear wouldn’t feel warmer than I do right now.
I’ve come to Finnish Lapland with Melbourne-based specialist tour operator, 50 Degrees North. Having arrived a day early, I fill in the hours making Finnish fish soup and berry pancakes on a Wilderness Cooking Course, before attaching myself to the end of a line of people in snowshoes, traipsing through pine, spruce and Arctic birch forest.
Guests prepare traditional Finnish meals during Wilderness Cooking Course at Harriniva Holiday Centre
We start our tour at 9pm – an odd hour to be going for a stroll, I think, until it is explained the timing will maximise our chances of seeing the Northern Lights. We spend two hours trudging through virgin snow on an unmarked trail tangled with fallen branches.
Regular stops enable us to catch our breath, or right ourselves when we tumble over into the snow. Buried snags are forever tripping us up and the snow depth is inconsistent, causing much lurching sideways. The snowshoes require walking with an unnaturally wide gait. It’s more tiring than I expect and I work up a decent sweat as a result. Our Finnish guide Jeni eventually suggests we build a fire so we can boil a kettle and snack on some biscuits she’s brought along. Normally, at this point, we’d be gazing up in awe at the Aurora Borealis, which streak across the Nordic sky some 200 nights of each year. Not tonight.
“It looks like we’ve lucked out,” Jeni says, calling it quits. “I was told there would be activity in the sky, but we can’t see it because of the clouds.”
We spend the next four days visiting reindeer farms, going on snowmobile safaris and cross-country skiing – and praying the Northern Lights will appear. Each night we’re told there’s ‘activity’ – the word used to describe the spectacular effect caused by gaseous solar particles colliding with the Earth’s magnetic field – and we duly rug up against the cold, hoping the clouds will clear. They don’t.
We need a serious storm to clear the sky. Fortunately for us, that arrives on the last night of the tour. Leaving Harriniva, we cross into Norway – and another two evenings craning our necks skywards in vain. On our first morning in the coastal city of Tromsø, we’re led around icy streets past the harbour and monuments to polar explorers. Inside the old Customs House, that is now a Polar Museum, Satu, our tour leader, tells us a dog-sledding outing the next day is off due to an approaching storm. Of all the winter activities on our itinerary, it was dog sledding I was looked forward to the most. So I’m bitterly disappointed, but I’m also hoping the changing weather might enable us to see the Northern Lights.
Because of predicted hurricane-force winds, we depart early for our next destination. Sommarøy or Summer Island – ironic in the circumstance – is 90 minutes west of Tromsø by coach, and we barely reach it before Hurricane Ole hits the coast. The wind gusts and some four inches of snow fall while we linger over lunch at the Arctic Hotel. Then it becomes eerily still and increasingly dark.
At the insistence of the hotel’s bubbly proprietor, we step outside to ‘feel’ the weather. He warns us the wind would return, fast and furious. None of us expects what comes.
We’re later told the wind reaches up to 140 kilometres per hour as it howls throughout the night, coincidentally ruining a scheduled morning at sea in search of humpback and killer whales. But later that afternoon, Satu knocks on my door. “The lights. Hurry up. They’re out!”
I race outside to see wispy emerald streaks dancing across the sky in waves and swirls, in a choreographed symphony from one horizon to the next. I watch, spellbound, for well over an hour until the display begins to fade.
It’s close to midnight when I retreat to my room. The Aurora Borealis has put on a show better than I ever expected. Tomorrow, I will farewell my tour companions – and the weather can do whatever it damn well likes.