The Fascinating and Elusive Aurora Borealis

Obviously, one of the main reasons for this trip to Finland was to make at least a nodding acquaintance with the Aurora Borealis. I mean, there’s lots to do in Saariselka, apart from skiing and hiking. You can do husky tours, reindeer safaris, horse riding tours, snow mobile tours, and you can rent and use snow shoes. If you don’t know how to ski, you shouldn’t really even be here, but if you are, you can get skiing lessons. So yes, lots of things to do, all you need is 100 Euros or more for each activity.

Since all I really wanted to do was to see the northern lights, I decided to spend my limited money on that. I booked two aurora tours for consecutive nights, hoping to beat the odds, because April isn’t the best time to see the northern lights. You need long, dark nights and clear skies. I had he clear skies alright, but with long bright days instead of long dark nights.

I knew my chances of spotting the aurora weren’t high in April. All the same, I don’t really want to travel to a place that has 18 hours of darkness, even to see the aurora. So I’d come with high hopes and low expectations. Most of the travel companies wind up their aurora sighting tours at the end of March. A few have them running until the middle of April. Inari isn’t the best place for these commercial ventures; they all run out of Saariselka. Reaching Saariselka in mid-April, I was really at the tail end of the tail end of aurora season. Hence, two tours – hopefully at least one would be fruitful.

The northern lights are caused by solar flares that send charged particles shooting towards the polar region. This solar activity can be predicted and tracked, but not three months in advance. So I really had to gamble on the dates. Once the required level and type of solar activity has occurred, that northern lights will occur three days later is a given. But you know this only three days in advance. And you don’t know at what time the elusive lights will make themselves visible. And if there’s cloud cover, then you can’t see them anyway. So, in short, my prospects were dim.

The two aurora tours that I booked both involved long drives, one to a river, the other to the Russian border. I had no real reason for booking these particular tours, except that they looked and sounded beautiful and they were still available in the middle of April. Besides, a long drive in the snowy countryside, late at night in a heated van? That’s a winning proposition right there. I like long drives when someone else is driving and all I have to do is sit with my mouth open looking out the window. Did I tell you that already?

The first night there was another couple with me on the tour. They were from Thailand. They’d been aurora hunting the night before and had had great success. They very kindly showed me the pictures. Our guide, Erik, assured me that the predictions for today looked good. It had been a clear, sunny day. There were clouds at the horizon in the north, he said, but the south was clear, so we’d drive in that direction. After almost an hour, we stopped on top of a dam. I don’t know how the power station there generates anything because the water was almost frozen, but Erik assured me that it works. It was still daylight, although close to ten by now. We stood around for well over an hour. I’d been outfitted in a full body jump suit kind of thing, which should have kept me warm as toast, but I was cold around the neck and ears and basically, if you’re cold somewhere, you’re cold everywhere. Also my feet were freezing, not to mention my fingers. At least my teeth weren’t chattering, though by the end of it that was largely because my jaw was frozen in place.

After we’d stood around making small talk for a long time, Erik pointed to the northern sky and said, there. Well, where? What there? That’s nothing. Or almost nothing. I mean, it’s so close to nothing that I’m probably imagining it. In fact, if I were to imagine it, it would be something more than that! But of course, he was right, that over there was the northern lights. It was extremely dim, so I didn’t even bother with my camera. It shifted shape a bit, to reassure me that it was what it was supposed to be, then it disappeared.

So that was it. Done. I’d seen the northern lights. A bit underwhelming, but one can’t complain in this season. It’s much brighter in winter when the nights are dark, Erik said. Yet again.

We stood around for a bit longer. Freezing though I was, I didn’t want to give up right then. Just as well, too, because then the northern lights made a second appearance and this time, they gave me no cause for complaint. There they were, bright and clear, magically green and luminous and flowing across the sky. At one point they covered a vast arc overhead, then they hung in one spot, dropping towards earth like a teardrop from a green giant’s eye.

The show lasted several minutes. I was too captivated to take photos. Without a tripod, it would be difficult. And my fingers were frozen even inside my gloves. And my brain was numb, just taking it in. (Or perhaps due to the cold. Brain freeze!) It’s true that the reality of aurora borealis is exactly like its photos and so if you’ve seen the photos you know almost exactly what you’ll get if they grace the evening with an appearance. But it’s also true that, like the Taj Mahal and Niagara Falls, the reality is simply overwhelming. The only pictures I have now are in my mind, which is a pity. But I can get pictures on the internet any day. The moment, in its entirety, is in my mind. It will fade, of course, as moments always do, but the fact of it, the memory of it, will remain.

This was the last night of the season for Erik. He had his camera and tripod all set up, even though he must have seen this dozens of times. The next night, he said, he and his wife were going to go camping and they would lie in their tent and look out waiting for the aurora to appear. It sounded heavenly, but needless to say, very very cold.

When the show was over, we piled into the car, which had its engine running and its heating on. It took quite a long time for me to thaw out. As we drove back, the woman from Thailand fell asleep and her husband was flicking through the photos he’d taken. Me? Head turned all the way to the side, mouth open, gaping at the sky where the aurora had returned with full force, beautiful patterns forming, moving along the sky, rearranging themselves constantly. Of course it didn’t last the entire drive back. Maybe it lasted only a few minuets. But it was as much as I could have wished for and more.

The next night, off I went again, just me this time. My guide was Jukka. First off, he surprised me by asking if I minded if he smoked. I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that. Those who want to smoke just smoke. Also, he didn’t want to smoke in the car, only outdoors before we started out. Imagine asking permission for smoking outdoors! We started talking about smoking and from there the conversation went all over the place. It was one of those rare, long, deep conversations that you have with complete strangers only when you’re traveling. In the van, I sat up front with Jukka. They drive these huge vans that probably seat ten and it didn’t make sense to sit in the back where you can’t really talk to the driver without making a huge effort.

I didn’t get to see the northern lights that night. But it was a fabulous evening. I’d chosen to keep my own Bear Force jacket on this time, so I wasn’t cold at all. We drove for over an hour and parked on the shores of a lake, about a kilometre from the Russian border. It as a beautiful location and just off the road there was a small grove of trees with a clearing and a fireplace! Jukka got out a box of wood and lit a fire in about five minutes. One strike of a match and the wood was burning happily. He’d brought juice (part of the package) and gluten free cookies (Erik had promised to tell him I needed gluten free) and we sat cozily around the fire and talked about all kinds of things. When we were done with the juice, the cookies, and the fire, we went back up to the road and waited and chatted some more. And then we came back.

If the northern lights had appeared, it would only have made the evening even more magical. But even without them, it was one of those experiences where you realize that this is what travel is all about. It’s not just about the sights you see; it’s about the people you meet.

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