“I can see few stars and the moon. Our best chance to see the lights is tonight. Let’s go.”
It’s a text message from our professional Northern Lights hunter, Jouni Mannisto. For the past few days, Mannisto has kept his eye on the sky, ready to spring into action. Until now, it’s been veiled by cloud and snow.
Abandoning a half-eaten dinner, we pack up as if the Rapture is looming. We don’t want to miss our chance.
It’s the dead of winter in Saariselka – a frontier town that’s a 11/2 hour flight from Helsinki, roughly 25 minutes by car from Ivalo’s airport, and about 250 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. It’s a tiny village nestled in a valley, with slopes that attract ski enthusiasts from around the world. Except for its remote location and striking scenery, the main drag is mostly unremarkable: a strip of log buildings, a gas station, gear and souvenir shops, and a handful of hotels and restaurants – some of which serve sautéed reindeer. More utilitarian than picturesque, it’s the wilderness and the people that bewitch.
But this region called Lapland isn’t just Santa’s official headquarters or a great name for a strip club. It’s also one of the best places in the world to spot the aurora borealis.
“Finland is a great place to watch auroras,” says Dr. Tiera Laitinen, research scientist at the Finnish Meteorological Institute. “The nights are dark enough from September to April. It is very easy to travel to the auroral zone here, and there are plenty of skiing resorts and other touristic services.”
It’s why we travelled 6,000 km to Lapland: because here, hues of green and red blaze across the sky on roughly 200 nights a year. In southern Finland, the lights are only visible on about 10-20 nights.
The Northern Lights are triggered when material thrown off the surface of the sun (solar wind) collides with the atmosphere of the Earth. Multicoloured displays form when different atmospheric gases are agitated by this solar wind.
But this, as explanations go, is a downright bore. Locals tell tales of the fire fox: A mythical beast that charges along the mountainside, hurling sparks into the sky as his fur scrapes against the rocks. The ultimate aspiration of every Lappish hunter was to take down the fire fox and be blessed with wealth, happiness and power beyond measure.
We are hunting the elusive fire fox in our own way. Seeing the Northern Lights calls for patience, co-operative weather, help from locals and, when it comes down to it, dumb luck.
“Tourists should stay for many days,” says Mannisto, a retired military official who guarded the Finnish-Russian border for 30 years. “Because no one can absolutely predict the weather or visibility of the lights.
“The phenomenon is like a secret. You don’t ever know if they will appear.”
There are, however, some things you can do to stack the deck.
“You should stay outside for a long time, not just one or two hours,” says Mannisto. “Get away from the village and any light pollution.”
One option to maximize viewing time – without freezing your butt off – is to sleep in a heated glass igloo. This is the genius of Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort, where gazers can watch the lights and a cabaret of stars dance across the sky from the comfort of their beds.
Despite clear skies, the aurora are a no-show on our glass igloo night.
Another evening, we snowshoe into the wilderness at twilight. The trek yields views of “snow sculptures” – birch, pine and spruce trees cloaked in white snow, towering over us like ghostly figures. But again, no lights.
Tonight, our third and final, is our last shot. Mannisto meets us outside, wearing a thermal snowsuit so puffy that it looks inflated with air. But with such a deep cold, that feels chillier than -20 C, it’s warranted.
Speeding along the frosted highway, our van ventures far away from the village’s light pollution and into the Lappish wilderness. As we sip hot tea from thermoses in the back seat, Mannisto explains his passion for chasing the lights.
“Photographing the aurora is a challenge,” says Mannisto. “It’s different every night. Sometimes the lights move very fast and then disappear. It’s something special we have here.”
This is the second winter that Mannisto has offered aurora hunting excursions with his company, Ivalo Trek Lapland. Two years earlier, Mannisto was photographing the lights from a hilltop, when a taxi arrived with two Japanese tourists.
“They asked if I could take pictures,” says Mannisto. “Afterward, I started to think about the possibilities. A taxi tour isn’t cheap for tourists, and there aren’t many companies serving small groups. But I have the time, I can photograph, speak English, and I know how to manage in the wilderness.”
On excursions, Mannisto uses a mix of local knowledge, meteorology reports and apps to track aurora activity. Usually his groups get to witness and learn to photograph the Northern Lights in action, amid Arctic wilderness.
The van pulls into a lakeside park, thick with trees shrouded in marshmallowy snow. Here, the night is dark and silent, overlooking a vast ethereal landscape. It feels surreal to be this far north, where the borders of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia meet and the Arctic Ocean is within reach.
Mannisto checks his apps and, satisfied, wades through the snow and onto the frozen lake. He points upwards to a lighter grey area in the sky, where cloud cover is thin and a few stars peek out.
“They are there, but faint,” he says.
A pale green glow writhes under the haze, like ribbons blowing in the wind. Tripods set up on the ice, we get snapping. The lights are incredibly dim, but with Mannisto’s guidance, streaks of green appear in the photographs. Taking a cue from an indigenous legend, we whistle to coax out our fire fox. As the lore goes, whistling brings the spirits closer so you can exchange whispered messages.
Instead, we are gifted with an epiphany: The hunt for the fire fox is just as exciting as the capture. You cannot command nature to deliver a light show. It’s not Ticketmaster. But it’s the chase that is at the heart of this adventure.
CHASING THE AURORA IN CANADA
Take a Northern Lights learning vacation
Marvel at the Northern Lights from the comfort of the heated viewing dome at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, a non-profit research and education facility near the Hudson Bay seacoast.
On the Winter Skies: Aurora and Astronomy excursion, travel by plane or train from Winnipeg to Churchill, Man., and embark on a six-day adventure involving local tours, lectures, outdoor activities, cultural presentations and photographing the aurora.
Tours are scheduled for Feb. 4-9, 2016, and March 3-8, 2016, and cost $1,325 a person plus train or airfare. Space is limited to 24 participants. churchillscience.ca/events
Watch the lights from your bathtub or bed
Book the Aurora Bedroom at the Takhini River Lodge, located 40 kilometres northwest of Whitehorse, Yukon.
Away from the city’s light pollution, the room is ideally set up for Northern Lights viewing, with a wide skylight in the bedroom and another above the tub.
Or just mosey down to the lodge’s dining room – the windows rise two storeys, offering outside views.
For the Aurora Room, rates start at $230 a night on a double occupancy basis, $220 for a single occupancy. Breakfast is included. takhiniriverlodge.com
Watch from the deck of a ‘Tundra Buggy’
With Frontiers North Interpretive Guide, you can chase the lights from a Tundra Buggy, an all-terrain vehicle that enables travel across the tundra.
The eight-day adventure starts in Winnipeg with a city tour and an aurora photography clinic at the Winnipeg Planetarium.
Once in Churchill, evening expeditions are offered in the Tundra Buggy, offering the opportunity to capture the dancing skies from your seat or on the outside platform.
The Northern Lights and Winter Nights Enthusiast excursion is offered from March 7-14, 2016, and costs $4,499 a person including flights. Space is limited to 18 people. frontiersnorth.com
Watch from a hot tub
Who says you can’t rock a bathing suit in the Northwest Territories during the winter?
Located 25 minutes by plane from Yellowknife, the Blachford Lake Lodge invites guests to soak in the outdoor hot tub and absorb stellar views of the aurora dancing overhead.
The lodge even provides an aurora wake-up service until 1:00 a.m., just in case the lights get going while you’re sleeping.
Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, stayed at this lodge during their tour of Canada.
Costs vary based on the season and package, but room rates start at $1675 for two nights. All meals and transportation are included in the price. blachfordlakelodge.com
“Glamping” in Jasper National Park
Alberta’s Jasper National Park is one of the world’s largest dark sky preserves, ideal for stargazing year round due to limited light pollution. As daylight hours recede in the fall and winter months, it’s also prime territory for Northern Lights hunting. Launch your aurora stakeout in Parks Canada’s oTENTik, a cross between a tent and a rustic cabin ($90 per night). The safari-style tents are bookable online until the season ends on Oct. 11, and with luck, you can watch the skies illuminate from your private deck. pc.gc.ca
If “glamping” isn’t your thing, there are plenty of aurora-gazing opportunities at the annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival in mid-October. This year’s bash features Colonel Chris Hadfield, and so far, includes a guided night hike to take in the skies (along with a fondue dinner and hot drinks) and an aurora-spotting excursion on Pyramid Lake with an astronomer. Tickets to the festival’s events are available at http://jasperdarksky.travel/
IF YOU GO
Visit between September and April when the nights are darkest in Lapland. During the winter months, the sun rises at approximately 10 a.m., and sets by 3 o’clock. Forget summertime – the “midnight sun” brings daylight almost 24/7, making aurora-viewing near impossible.
The best time to go aurora hunting in Lapland is March or early April, when the weather is clearer and warmer. Also, the daytime conditions are optimal for other outdoor activities.
Bundle up and dress in layers. Lapland winters bring a dry but deep cold, ranging between 0 and -40 C from December to April. Some resorts and some operators lend out thermal suits for outside activities. We found hand- and foot-warmers to be a blessing during outdoor excursions.
Finnair and Norwegian Air offer direct flights from Helsinki to Ivalo. From the airport, taxis to Saariselka can be expensive, so your best bet is to arrange ground transportation with your hotel or a local tour operator in advance. Avoid driving in Lapland during the winter. The highways are in good condition, but many tourists are not prepared to handle snowy, icy and remote roads.
Where to stay
If you stay at Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort, book a few nights in the log cabin. The rustic cabins are cute and comfy, each equipped with a wood-burning fireplace, hot shower, kitchenette and private sauna. In the heated glass igloos, there’s a remote-controlled adjustable bed and a toilet, but showers and saunas are shared in a separate building. Starting this November, the resort is launching 16 new hybrid cabins made of pinewood but include a glass-roofed bedroom. In the high season, prices start at $260 a night per person in the cabins, and $350 a night per person in the glass igloo. kakslauttanen.fi
What to do
You can book a guided aurora hunt with Ivalo Trek Lapland. In the evenings, local guide Jouni Mannisto leads small group excursions by car or snowmobile for varying lengths of time (4-6 hours). Rates start at $150 per person, and Mannisto will only go out if there’s a fair shot at seeing the aurora. ivalotrek.com
Saariselka is a haven for winter sports, including cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing. Both husky dogsledding and the reindeer sleigh rides are chilly, but exhilarating. inarisaariselka.fi
Get north. Further north means more hours of darkness in the winter.
Staying a week or longer maximizes the odds of seeing the Northern Lights. The weather and visibility can be unpredictable and quickly changes.
Watch the sky. If it’s clear and starry at night, there is a good chance the aurora will make an appearance.
The darker, the better. Get away from bright lights and buildings that pollute the skies. Hilltops and lakeshores make good vantage points.
Stay outside for a long time. One or two hours may not be enough. The lights can appear any time from sunset to dawn, and they often quickly vanish.
Download a Northern Lights app on your phone. It sounds an alarm if the aurora become active in your area.
This is handy for getting a decent night’s sleep, but a WiFi signal is needed for it to work. Currently, Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort doesn’t offer WiFi in the cabins or glass igloos.
The writers travelled courtesy of Visit Finland. It did not review or approve the article.