I read a lot about Lapland and Inari before my trip but I still wasn’t sure if I would be able to handle the frigid cold temperatures. The time had finally come to find out what it feels like to experience -20° F (-30° C) temperature!
Flight from Helsinki to Ivalo is about an hour and half long. After picking up our rental car, we drove to Saariselka for brunch and to buy some snacks for the week. The first ting I wanted to eat in Lapland was Reindeer. The restaurant we picked (can’t recall the name) had reindeer burger. I expected reindeer meat to be gamy but it wasn’t. The burger was juicy and delicious. We also picked up some alcohol and started driving towards our Airbnb in Kaamanen.
Driving in the snow was actually easier than expected. In fact, driving in upstate NY during winter is harder because of black ice. Roads aren’t salted in Finland so the water doesn’t melt and then suddenly freeze creating black ice. The temperature is below freezing all winter long so the snow doesn’t melt. Our cabin was at the edge of a frozen lake called Haaraldinjärvi and it couldn’t have been any more perfect.
Our Airbnb host was amazing, showed us how to use the sauna, and warned us that most tourists get stuck in the snow so be careful. Well, it hadn’t been 10 mins since she left before we managed to get stuck in the snow. The driveway up to the cabin was narrower than I had thought because of the huge piles of snow that had been shoveled. I got stuck in that pile while trying to reverse. It took us about an hour to get ourselves out. I guess driving in the snow still has a few challenges.
Once the car was finally out, I wasn’t in the mood to drive anywhere for the rest of the day. And with a frozen Haaraldinjärvi lake about 20 steps away, we didn’t really need to either. The first time you stand in the middle of a lake, it feels so strange. You know you should be sinking in water, except you are not. We ate dinner at the restaurant closest from the cabin, Kaamasen Kievari.
I was determined to eat reindeer in different forms. We had the reindeer soup and Hunters steak (skirt steak with mushroom sauce and bread). Both were delicious but the reindeer soup was the star of the meal. Reindeer meat is just delicious!
When you visit a small town, everyone knows everyone. So when tourists visit, people notice. While waiting for our food, a very friendly and very drunk guy started talking to us. He was celebrating his birthday and immediately knew we were Americans. He was there with his Sami friend who was a reindeer herder. They were both from Norway and come to this restaurant often. We learned that asking a reindeer herder how many reindeer he owns is like someone asking us what our bank balance is. It’s a very personal question that you should never ask anyone. He did invite us to visit his reindeer farm.
After a few minutes of pleasantries, he asked us how we feel about our president. After explaining that we are from New York, a place where he is disliked strongly by most, they decided to open up to us. Lets just say, they do not have a very high opinion of our president. They are very proud of their socialist system, universal healthcare and wondered why the president thinks people from Norway would ever want to immigrate to USA. It was definitely an interesting conversation.
We were very excited to watch the auroras but unfortunately it was very cloudy. We walked on to the frozen lake hoping to see a small patch of clear sky. Occasionally we saw a patch of cloud glow. We assumed it was from the auroras but we can’t be sure. Sky wasn’t clearing up so we called it a night around 1:30 am.
The next night wasn’t much better. It was cloudy again. The third night was slightly better. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky but there was no solar activity so no auroras either. We still had an amazing time star gazing from the middle of a frozen lake. It’s crazy just how many stars you can see on a clear night from a remote part of the world.
Finally on the fourth night, our luck started to change. We saw auroras for a few hours and we couldn’t be happier. Finally! They lasted for about 2-3 hours. We turned the sauna on and stepped inside to warm up every so often in between aurora watching. Once we were warmed up, we would go back on to the frozen lake where the horizon is clear and nothing was obstructing our view. Our hosts told us there are many nights when aurora hunting tours would end up at Haaraldinjärvi lake.
The next two nights were the best aurora watching nights ever! There was a solar storm and the charged particles reached the earth’s atmosphere putting on a very bright and colorful dancing show from sunset to sunrise. Those two nights we saw red, pink and even violet auroras dancing all over. No matter where we looked, we saw auroras. The sky was LIT!! These were also the coldest nights I’ve ever experienced.
I had many layers on but still couldn’t manage to stay out for more than 45 mins at a time before I had to take a 5 min sauna break. I was so glad we didn’t go on any aurora hunting tour because we would have been outside for at least 2 hours at a stretch. We saw the best aurora show the last two nights and it couldn’t have been any more perfect! Once in the arctic circle, the best auroras are seen in the direction of magnetic north, not directional north.
A few tips to surviving in the arctic circle in winter:
- If you can afford it, rent a 4WD
- Invest in a lot of leg and hand warmers. I went through about two leg warmers per day. One set for activities during the day and the other for aurora watching at night
- Getting a place with sauna will be the best decision you make
- Get a lot of Koskenkorva vodka to keep you warm during long nights of aurora watching
- Follow @Aurora_Alerts on twitter. They post Kp value every night and how long the auroras will last for.
- Download 1-2 apps that also tell you the Kp value in your location and probability of seeing auroras. My two favorites were Aurora Alert and Aurora Forecast.