Hi everyone, and welcome back to The Finn Journalist!
If you haven’t already figured it out, I’m really enjoying my time here in Finland. And just so you know, this may be the post that finally convinces you to come and visit yourself.
Earlier this month, I packed up my things and headed north for a taste of so-called “real Finland.” I had been told that while the metropolitan feel of Helsinki is great, the vast wildernesses of Lapland are where you really get to know what Finland is all about.
I went with about 90 other students on a trip organized by the Erasmus Student Network, the primary study abroad program for European students. We left from Helsinki at 9:00 pm in two tour buses, and drove through the night. The next morning we arrived in Kemi, a town on the coast of the Gulf of Bothnia and about 50 miles from the Arctic Circle. It was there that we saw our first main attraction, the Snow Castle.
The Snow Castle is open from the end of January to the beginning of April, and the architectural design and theme of the castle changes every year. The castle included a chapel (a real ecumenical chapel, where weddings are often held), a cafe, and even hotel rooms complete with beds. We spent a fun couple of hours exploring the castle and walking out to sea on the ice.
Our next stop was Rovaniemi, on the Arctic Circle…the home of Santa Claus! Apparently American children have had it wrong all along…Santa doesn’t live at the North Pole, he lives in this small town in Finland. Everyone I talked to was pretty adamant about this fact, and I wasn’t inclined to disagree.
It was clearly a very popular place, with a reindeer farm, ice skating rink, and endless souvenir shops. I’m one of those people that absolutely loves anything Christmas, so you can imagine that I enjoyed the atmosphere, despite Christmas being quite a long way away.
In case you’re wondering, yes, I did meet Santa…my friend Nadia and I waited in line to see him, and amazingly he spoke both English AND Danish! There was a live Internet stream of people getting their photo taken with Santa, and Nadia’s boyfriend snapped this screenshot just as we sat down, all the way from New York…so we didn’t have to pay Santa’s exorbitant fee for a picture! Since we cheated Santa, we may not be getting anything for Christmas, but hopefully he’ll forgive us.
After a total of about 14 hours of travel, we finally arrived at our final destination. Saariselkä is a ski resort that sits at a little over 68°N latitude, with a local mountain that climbs to a very manageable 1,500 feet or so. It was a very beautiful and peaceful place, with snowdrifts that could easily swallow your whole leg. I shared this cabin with 8 other people– it was built to hold 14– two of whom I knew previously, and I got to know my other cabin mates well over the course of the trip.
The area was amazingly beautiful. On the first full day we were there, I went out and climbed the mountain, snapping pictures all the way.
It seemed to be a very peaceful place– we were told people don’t even bother to lock their doors. After a big day of exploring, we were all pretty happy to retire to our cabins to relax, play cards, and go to the sauna. There’s a tradition in Finland to roll around in the snow after being in the sauna- don’t ask me how they figured that would be a good idea. The cabin had its own sauna, of course, which meant we could roll in the snow as much as we wanted– and trust me, we did!
The next day was a busy one. In the morning, we got to go cross-country skiing through the woods. I had never done it before, but I caught on pretty quickly, and absolutely loved it! When skiing, you can either stick to the grooves that you can clearly see in the pictures, or ski outside the grooves, which makes the marks you can see in the middle of the picture above.
Later in the day, we left the town and headed to a reindeer farm. We had seen a couple of reindeer roaming around by the side of the road, and a few at Santa’s village, but this was our first opportunity to really interact with reindeer up close. As we would later learn, there are actually no wild reindeer in Lapland– every single one is owned by someone. There are 200,000 people in Lapland, and about 200,000 reindeer as well. Nowadays, reindeer are bred almost exclusively for meat.
We even got to feed the reindeer their favorite food, lichen. They were clearly quite shy creatures, and meeting them was a really cool experience.
After we had met and fed the reindeer, it was time to go for a ride! We were later told that reindeer aren’t typically used for pulling sleighs, even by the native people, so it was pretty special to get to ride in such a traditional way.
After our adventures with the reindeer, we went into a nearby hut to cook sausages and learn about the native Sami people. (They were regular sausages by the way, not reindeer ones. It would have been a little sad to enjoy the company of the animals and then immediately eat them, after all.)
The Sami (or Saami) people of Lapland are indigenous people who have lived there for thousands of years, and are best known for herding reindeer. We learned a lot about the Sami from a native man who spoke to us in the hut. He was even wearing traditional Sami dress, which includes bright colors and pointed hats, which a couple of people on the tour had even seen being worn in Helsinki.
At the end of the presentation, we got to hear a beautiful Sami song, and even got to sing along…
Our big day continued when we got back to Saariselkä. What was next on the agenda? A snowshoeing adventure, why not? The snowshoes were nothing like the “tennis rackets” that most people (me included) envision when they think of snowshoes, but rather they were sophisticated pieces of footwear. That didn’t stop them coming off every so often as we scrambled through the dark woods in pursuit of our tour guide.
It was hugely fun, especially since the tour guide chose the most challenging routes he could find as we trekked all over the mountain. By this time, we were not only starving for food, but also hungering for a glimpse of the elusive Northern Lights. The sky was as clear as it could be…would tonight finally be the night?
At last, exhausted but triumphant, we went into another hut to enjoy a traditional Lappish dinner of, you guessed it, reindeer. Delicious!
As we were finishing our last bites of food, our tour guide, Urno, stood up and asked us, “Who here has seen the Northern Lights?” A couple of people raised their hands. “Why haven’t you all seen them?” he asked the rest of us. “They’re outside right now!!”
As you can imagine, there was a stampede for the door. Sure enough, there was a small green aurora, which quickly spread to cover the entire sky above our heads. After all that waiting, we had finally seen the Northern Lights! I’m not ashamed to say it- it was pretty much a dream come true.
While we were admiring the auroras, our trip photographer was filming a time lapse of the sky, and captured the progression of the lights throughout the night beautifully.
On our last full day in Lapland, we took a day trip even further north, to Norway. The landscape changed abruptly as we passed over the border, from rolling hills and pine trees to huge black rocks and fjords along the Arctic Ocean. The views were breathtaking as the bus wound its way along the icy roads next to the frigid ocean.
The village of Bugøynes, where we stopped, is home to about 200 people. A lovely and picturesque place, it felt as though the village had been modeled off of a postcard, instead of the other way around.
An elderly lady named Elsa was there to greet us and tell us about the village. Elsa has lived in the village for over half a century, and mentioned a sobering observation to us– in that time, she has seen the sea levels rise. She reminded us that we need to take care of the planet, if natural beauty like this is to be preserved.
It was here that we once again took part in that crazy Finnish tradition…swimming in frigid water after being in the sauna. In a previous post, I described what it was like to jump into a freezing lake after the sauna…today, we would take it to the next level. The sauna held about 40 people, and we ran at least 100 yards down to the freezing sea in shifts. Apparently the Arctic Ocean doesn’t freeze over because of the warm Gulf Stream waters from Mexico, but the thought still wasn’t all that comforting. There was nothing you could do, really, but sprint into the icy ocean and go to your happy place, which is exactly what I did.
On our last day in Lapland, we had a free afternoon before heading home on the bus in the evening. We spent our time at the local spa (very relaxing) and conquering Europe’s longest sledding hill (quite exhilarating).
As we left the wilderness behind us, I had no doubt that everyone involved would remember this trip for the rest of their lives. We had witnessed startling natural beauty, tried new things, and made many great new friends from all over the world. We were all feeling the absolute best kind of exhaustion– the kind that comes from making memories that make you smile whenever they come to your mind.
It was one of the best weeks of my life.