In search of the northern lights
The pilot announces it without emotion, as if he is reporting the lightest of breezes: “The current temperature is minus 25 degrees.”
To reach Kittilä Airport, in Finnish Lapland, we have flown almost the entire length of the frosty country. From the plane window we saw sheets of ice and rivers and lakes frozen in place like pieces of a brilliant white jigsaw.
I am in Lapland with my wife and two friends to celebrate her “special” birthday. We chose February, in the closing stages of the European winter, because it is one of the best times to see the northern lights.
The lights, or aurora borealis, are one of Mother Nature’s most stunning shows. When electrically charged particles from the sun collide and enter the Earth’s atmosphere, the result is ghostly green lights that streak and dance across the night sky.
A trip here requires preparation and we have spent the previous weeks and months buying warm clothes and reading up on how to survive such uncompromising cold.
As we head to the nearest town by coach, I feel smug – if a little uncomfortable – in my thermals, long-sleeved shirt, jumper and Doona-sized jacket. The coach temperature gauge shows 24 degrees and it is heating up outside too, climbing to minus 22.
We are dropped in Levi, a ski town popular with Nordic tourists and filled with restaurants and karaoke bars. I zip my jacket to the top and add a lined beanie and ski gloves that turn my hands into giant lobster claws. Other than my eyes, very little is uncovered. On the snow-filled streets, every second person looks like a bandit fresh from raiding the nearest The North Face store.
For five minutes all is well. But the cold finds a way. The small areas of skin not covered by layers are attacked. The wind whips red into the top of my cheeks and finds the shin of my right leg where my thermals have not rolled all the way down.
We seek refuge in a restaurant before transferring to our accommodation. For the next three nights we are staying at the Northern Lights Ranch – individual cabins in the Lapland wilderness. Free from light pollution, the ranch offers one of the best chances of seeing a phenomenon that is famously fickle.
We bounce along an ice-encrusted road past a blurred landscape of white and grey. The trees at the roadside bend under the weight of the snow piled on their branches. Ten minutes out of Levi, we don’t see another car. The ranch is nearly 200 kilometres above the Arctic Circle and it feels like we are travelling to the end of the earth.
At the ranch, rectangular cabins perch on the snow. They have a bathroom, table and double bed and floor-to-ceiling glass windows on two sides. The glass roof is heated, in case any snow threatens to obscure the view of the northern lights from the bed.
To the right of the cabins are pine trees and on the left a reindeer enclosure and restaurant. The dining room is typical Nordic chic with high wooden ceilings and a crackling wood fire.
We sit by the windows overlooking the reindeer. They are docile creatures with small horns, luxuriant soft coats and bulging eyes. That evening’s dinner menu features elk and reindeer. We eat with our eyes fixed on our plates.
Outside, the sky is a grey blanket and the forecast confirms there is no hope of seeing the lights – or even stars – tonight.
The following morning at breakfast, a staff member tries to describe the feeling of seeing the sky light up in ethereal green.
“When they come it might be for hours or five minutes,” she says.
“When they do it is just...” she inhales deeply and searches for the right word in English, or the right word in any language.
“It is just great.”
Skiing and northern lights spotting are not the only activities available in Lapland and we spend our first full day at the Lainio Snow Village. The village has a hotel made of snow and ice that takes 28 builders about a month to construct. The outside temperature has perked up considerably to 3 degrees, but inside the hotel you can still see your own breath.
This year there is a Game of Thrones theme, with impressive ice sculptures of characters from the show. The craftsmanship is intricate and impressive, but, as I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t watch the show, the references to dragons and “White Walkers” fly over my head.
In the afternoon, we walk out of Levi to a huge frozen lake covered by a thick carpet of snow. Snow covers everything without question – lakes and forests, playgrounds and cars. For those who live with it, snow has the power to disrupt and destroy. But it also turns mundane scenes into pictures from a fairytale, so we forget and forgive its menacing side.
Is there anything more satisfying in nature than the first crunch of boot on snow? We pad across the lake to a soundtrack of our footsteps accompanied by the gentle swish of cross-country skiers and the occasional roar of a Ski-Doo. A woman emerges on skis from a red wooden cabin, pulled by an energetic dog.
The sky is light grey and there is little contrast with the ground. On a hill at the lakeside is a dark blotch of forest. Earlier, Mila, our guide at the snow village, had told us the nearby Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park had its air recorded as the purest in the world.
“When you go to the forest in Lapland, you can definitely breathe easier,” she said.
The weather doesn’t improve and our chances of seeing the northern lights are cloaked in doubt for the second night. Even if there is something dancing in the sky, it is hidden behind cloud.
On our final day, the forecast has improved. Clear skies are promised and a window that night – from 2am until 5am, according to our aurora tracking apps – when the lights may be visible.
By afternoon, there is a weak sun and a milky, dreamlike light. Back at the ranch, my wife and I strap on snowshoes to go for a walk. There are pine trees either side of the path and an everlasting conveyor belt of white ahead.
We stop when we see the horizon through the trees. The sun has turned it a hazy pink. The sky above us is deep blue. There is only the sound of our breath. Breathe in and you feel the rush of clear, crisp air in your lungs and forget about interest rates and Instagram and Netflix. Breathe out and you want to scream and laugh. We could be the only people left on Earth.
As promised, the night is clear. We see a star – the first since we arrived. Then another. A satellite appears with several more stars. We look away and when we look again there are too many to count.
From 2am we are at the mercy of maps and apps. We wrap up and head out to search for any sign of the lights. A light patch is in the sky, but it is only the faintest, teasing green, not the vibrant colour Mother Nature can deliver.
Cold and tired, we accept defeat. It won’t happen tonight. Before we sleep, we lie back on our bed and watch the stars, and the stars wink back at us.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 25, 2019 as "Into the lights". Subscribe here.