In October 2014, I went to Finnish Lapland. I travelled up to Rovaniemi from Helsinki by train, spent a few days bimbling around in the cold and flew home in the sensible way.
One of the big adventures I had on that short trip was the compulsory Northern Lights hunt. Because you can’t go to the frozen north in winter without looking for the Northern Lights. How many bucket lists have “see the Northern Lights” on them? (Let me take this opportunity to remind you that my success rate in seeing them is 20% so if you see something spectacular on your first time then you have no idea how lucky you are)
Anyway. There we were in Rovaniemi. Our guide was Anthony, a Brit who’d been living in Lapland for ten years. He got us all dressed up in padded oversuits and fur-lined hats and warm socks and boots and then we got in the minibus and drove well out of town. The Northern Lights are delicate little flowers and any hint of light pollution will completely wash them out. I still don’t know exactly where we went. Somewhere south-west of Rovaniemi, a hill sitting above an abandoned village. Or semi-abandoned. The old schoolhouse functions as a cafe/restaurant during the day, although I couldn’t work out what’s drawing visitors to a cafe in the middle of nowhere.
We did pause on the way. Anthony spotted a hint of lights in the sky, so we piled out to look at them. There wasn’t much to see. A pale hint of light that looked more like cloud on the horizon, which you could see better if you didn’t actually look at it. If I say that the photos came out better than the reality and then showed you the photos, you might start to understand why it was somewhat underwhelming.
When the lights had completely vanished, we went on to the village and the hill. We got changed in the schoolhouse and then crossed the road to climb the hill. But our luck was out – the lights had done what they were going to do and even a good SLR camera couldn’t pick up so much as a hint of green in the sky. Instead we lay on the rocks and stargazed.
Even supersuits couldn’t keep us toasty forever and when Anthony thought we might be getting chilly, he invited us into the barbecue hut where he had a fire going. If you can’t see the Northern Lights, you might as well have a nice convivial time around a campfire. He’d brought sausages – special Finnish ones, pre-cooked, vacuum-packed and designed to last forever even in terrible conditions. These are sausages you can throw in your backpack and carry around on a wilderness hike for months and then you warm them up over a fire and eat them with no risk of food poisoning whatsoever. He’d also brought oat bread and cheese for anyone who didn’t eat sausages. It was ok but I burnt the bread, one piece of cheese fell out onto the floor and the other piece didn’t so much melt as just turn into strings. We had coffee and hot chocolate and Anthony produced some Finnish dry bread which is ideal for dunking. Well, I didn’t think so because I prefer things crunchy over soggy so I happily ate mine dry. It’s not really bread, it’s more like hard biscuits and it had a coating of sugar. Very tasty. Wish I’d found that in the supermarket.
But that wasn’t it for the evening’s entertainment. Anthony next produced some little tin horseshoes for fortune telling. This is apparently a Finnish custom usually practiced on New Year’s Eve but it was October 31st and I didn’t think fortune telling was entirely inappropriate at Hallowe’en. What you do is melt your horseshoes on a big iron ladle over the fire and drop the liquid into a bucket of cold water. Pick it out and examine the twisted metal. If it breaks into more than one piece, examine only the largest and look at its shadow on the wall. Everyone can gather round and comment but only the holder of the fortune can truly interpret it.
I had two pieces and my larger one looked like a boat or a dragon or a mermaid. The best I could interpret from that was that maybe the sea was in my future.
My little fortunes were too precious and delicate to just shove in a pocket. I descended that hill holding them flat on the palm of my hand and the descent was much harder than the climb had been. The frost had come out in the couple of hours we were up there and the hill, composed mainly of small boulders, now looked like it was made out of diamonds. I absolutely could not trust my feet on those gleaming stones, no matter how many times I tested the slipperiness. No, the surface felt like sandpaper but it looked like sheet ice and I really didn’t trust myself not to fall the entire way down to the valley on them.
Just as we were going to the door of the schoolhouse to get changed, the lights finally came out again, a faint line of green above the trees, so we all stopped dead to watch. These weren’t clouds of lights, these were pencils, visible to the naked eye, just about, but not to the camera, oddly enough. It’s always been the other way round for me.
But once they were gone, they were gone. Even Anthony didn’t see so much as a glimpse on our way back to Rovaniemi.