Northern lights? No but you can still chill

Luosto in Finland is an icy paradise even without the Aurora Borealis

Telling people you are going to search for the Northern Lights provokes an odd reaction: a mixture of curiosity, excitement and mild jealousy. “Oh I wish I were going” and “I’ve wanted to do that for ages” (in a semi-acted whine) were common responses to my news that I was off in search of nature’s greatest light show, in Pyh�-Luosto national park, northern Finland.

This winter, along with the next two winters, is one of the best times to see the Aurora Borealis, as the solar cycle reaches a peak of activity. Strong solar winds and more charged particles from the sun mean instances of the phenomenon are much more common. As such, trips to Finland, Norway and northern Canada are booking up quickly. Every trip has the disclaimer: it is a search, not a guarantee- you are at the mercy of nature.

As the plane descended through what felt like miles of thick cloud into Rovaniemi airport, about the only thing that was clear was that the chances of seeing anything in the sky were slim. My guide Sale confirmed on the bus to the village of Luosto that my suspicions were correct: the cloud bringing in an early first snow was going to persist over the four days I was to stay in Lapland. November is not the best time to see the lights, he confirmed- they may be up there, but the weather prevents you from viewing. December and January are better, he added, because the temperature is lower and there is less cloud.

Still, we had an itinerary that incorporated some Northern Lights treks as well as winter-based activities that would have been impossible without the three-four feet of snow that coated the Finnish forest.

First things- try the local food. The night I arrived I was served a reindeer steak from the hotel’s set menu- one of only two places to eat within walking distance of my room at this point in the year (in peak ski season, there are a few more places open). The waitress planted it on my table. “Enjoy it!” she said with a smile, with a tone that suggested she was going to follow on with “it’s your last!”. Maybe that was just my nerves- surrounded by snow, and with not many people around, my setting was redolent of Kubric’s The Shining. For anyone curious, reindeer tastes halfway between beef and veal.

The low season provides a very different holiday, with its own charm. Luosto being a ski village, it comes to life in December and January, but there is barely a place for lunch during November. I decided the way forward was to take a walk to the local supermarket and buy some supplies to tide me between breakfast and dinner: bread, salami, cheese, two cans of beer and that glue that binds the seemingly disparate cultures of western Europe together: Nutella. All of this was stored in the cold part between the panes in the double glazing in my room and nibbled on at intervals. Others I went on excursions with reported they had crisps for lunch. The other option was to take a bus into the bigger village Pyha, 25km away in search of food. In high season, with ski bars open, I suspected this wouldn’t be a problem. For the record, the hotel food was great (which given the circumstances, we were all happy about).

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On one day, I visited the local amethyst mine via snowmobile across the Lappish forest, once I was kitted up in a full body thermal suit and helmet (the latter was to come in handy- I flew off the back of the snowmobile driven by my guide Sale not once but twice, the deep snow cushioning my fall). The mine entrance was on top of Lampivaara Hill, currently surrounded in thick cloud so that all that could be seen on approach were two wood cabins and a post with a reindeer skull on it. I was assured the view from here is spectacular but I couldn’t see a thing. After some warm berry juice (set to become a staple refreshment during my stay). It was down to digging for some gems by hand. This co-operatively owned mine is one of the few that still mines without machinery for the gemstone- and the guide gave us a talk on it’s history. The name comes from ancient Greek ‘a-methustos’ roughly meaning ‘not intoxicated’ and comes from the belief that receptacles made from the substance would protect the owner from drunkenness, after a Greek king used an amethyst glass to drink only water during a banquet. Other strange stories associated with the gem include a benedictine nun who believed water boiled with an amethyst in it had magical, healing properties.

Luosto makes much of it’s local gems:another trip was to a reindeer farm, where the heritage of the practice was made clear to us by the owner, over coffee and salty sweet biscuits in a large log cabin. Reindeer farming is a serious business out here, and only established farmers, with special traditional ear markings can set up farms, to help control the reindeer population.

The evening entertainment in low season is mainly based around night hikes and drives to look for the Aurora. In this case, try as we might, there was nothing to be seen. It was still something quite special to take a nighttime trip out into the still Finnish forest and set up a fire though. I have never heard silence like it.

We also spent an evening taking a trip out to the house of a local scientist, who has spent his life studying the lights and has his assistants put on talks about Aurora Borealis, it’s history, and the science behind it, in a minor audio-visual spectacular. A team of around ten scientists work at the local observatory and communicate with the local hotels for a special text service to wake you up in the middle of the night if the lights appear. Inside this cabin, surrounded by pictures of the northern lights and foxes (the Saami people traditionally associate the two) we were to hear our fate: “Sorry, better luck next time” said scientist Riike, rather chirpily, which gave a rather disappointing tone to the rest of her presentation- about how magnificent it is to experience the Northern Lights.

But spending time up there taught me that with or without the lights in view, there’s some magic there. You can feel it when you set up a log fire in your cabin, put a blanket over your knee and get round to reading that book you have been struggling with on the tube for ages, momentarily looking out of the window- at the forest sitting there in welcome silence.