Aurora Hunting in Akaslompolo

After Rovaniemi, it was a pretty leisurely drive to our next stop, Yllas. I’m not sure if it’s just because most of the roads in Lapland were covered in a hard layer of snow, but they were in amazingly good shape. With our studded tires, it made for easy driving, though there wasn’t a lot to look again except flat forest and meadows. The trees were still covered with a thick layer of frost, so they were very beautiful.

There was a reasonable amount of traffic on the road on the main highway, but eventually we branched off the main highway on a shortcut and that road was pretty much deserted. It was still light out and the driving was fine, but it did make me a little nervous to be driving through the freezing cold wilderness without a working cell phone. Nothing happened and it was all fine, but my safety conscious mind tends to wander to these things sometimes.


We arrived in Yllas just as the sun was going down. When we originally booked the trip, I assumed there were mountains in Lapland because of the numerous ski resorts, but overall Lapland is quite flat and Yllas Mountain was one of the only major landmarks in the area. It’s definitely on the small side for someone who regularly skis Whistler, but it is located adjacent to Pallas-Yllastunturi National Park, which has beautiful rolling white hills. Yllas town is pretty much just resort hotels, so we were staying 15 minutes away in the small town of Akaslompolo. This was mostly because it was cheaper than Yllas town, but now that I’ve been to both, I would recommend it because it has more amenities.

We were also staying in a cabin here, but it was part of what I can only describe as a large hotel resort. The hotel had a reception building and a giant restaurant to accommodate the many visitors they receive. There were all kinds of accommodation options and we had a small one-bedroom cabin for our 3 nights there. It was a classic log cabin and was very cozy with both a woodstove and a sauna. The one glaring flaw was that it didn’t have wifi. It was supposed to, but it wasn’t working at the cabins the whole time we stayed there, which was very frustrating for us since we were planning our activities on the go, but we survived.


What made up for the lack of wifi was the restaurant and the location. They treated us to a free buffet supper at the restaurant and we stuffed ourselves on traditional salmon soup, elk stew, and all the fixings you can possibly imagine. But the highlight was the proximity to Akaslompolo Lake, which was recommended as a great place to watch for the aurora and was only a 10-minute walk from our cabin.

Since the previous night, the low KP forecast for the week had done a complete 180 degree transformation and was now forecasting 4-6 for the next three days! Unfortunately, it was looking a little cloudier, so I kept an eye on the app for when the clouds would move out. I think we went down to the lake around 8pm and we had to wait around for a while, but eventually we started catching a glimpse of the aurora through the clouds. It was pretty similar to the previous night and was dancing around, though it was still pretty faint. We watched for a while and then the clouds moved back in and we went back to the cabin to enjoy our sauna.


We were exhausted after the sauna and were getting ready for bed when I got enough of a wifi signal for my app to send me a notification that the aurora was heating up. I popped outside for a minute and could indeed see it dancing around up in the sky, so despite it being 11:30pm and being super tired, I couldn’t resist suiting up again to go outside and look at it. I just walked up the road a little bit at first, but it was much more intense than everything I’d seen thus far, so I immediately got super excited about it! I decided to fully commit and went back to the cabin to tell Seth I was going back to the lake. For safety reasons, I made him set his alarm for 1am and told him if I wasn’t back by then, to come looking for me.


I all but ran to the lake and was panting from the freezing air when I got there, but it was so worth it! The aurora was much more active and visible to the naked eye. Nothing too crazy, but easily the best I’d seen. I set up my tripod and was shooting north for a while when I noticed a pinkish glow coming from the other side of the lake. A few photographs confirmed that I was lucky enough to witness red aurora! Red aurora is supposedly pretty rare, so I was ecstatic about it. I’ve since learned that colour is an indicator of the altitude of the aurora, with red aurora being the furthest outside the atmosphere and blue being the closest, so both of these colours are harder to see. Green and purple hang out somewhere in the middle. We saw purple aurora the following night, but otherwise we mostly saw green.


It was hard to tear myself away from the lake, but I had to get back to the cabin by 1am and my camera battery kept freezing on me (a very annoying problem as I had to keep removing it from the camera to warm it up with my body heat). It took me a while to walk back though because the aurora kept distracting me on the way and I’d have to set the tripod up again. Like I explained in my last post, the aurora goes through cycles and so it will seem incredibly active for a while and then seem to disappear before returning in full force. Eventually I made it back to the cabin with 5 minutes to spare!


Experiencing the Aurora by Reindeer

The highlight of our short weekend visit to Rovaniemi was easily our “northern lights reindeer safari”. After exploring the city, we returned to our cabin to bundle up in every layer we’d brought on the trip for the forecasted -20 degree evening temperature. The KP was a little higher than the previous night (3), so I was hopeful we’d see the aurora with the help of our experienced guides. It was completely clear, so if they were out, we should be able to see them. Overall, the weather was looking really good for our week in Lapland, there was no snow in the forecast and it was calling for relatively clear days, but the KP forecast was looking low for most of the week, so I was really crossing my fingers to see anything.


Before visiting, I assumed we’d have to stay up really late to see the aurora, but all the tours leave at 8pm and apparently early evening is the best time to see them, which was really fortunate for my sleep schedule. We got picked up for the tour, which was just the 5 of us, and on the way to the farm Katie swore she could see the lights from the bus window. They were pretty faint, but when we got to the reindeer farm, it became evident that the lights were indeed out and we crossed our fingers they would get a bit stronger.

We all loved the reindeer. There were 3 sleds for the 5 of us and our reindeer’s names were Sale, Kake, and Eetu. Seth and I were in the front with Sale (pronounced like Soleil) and he definitely had a personality. The reindeer are trained, but they also seem to just run when they want to and stop when they want to. Seth and I were bundled into the sleigh with *reindeer* pelts to keep us warm. It felt a bit morbid, but an important part of any animal trade is not letting any part of the animal go to waste, and we can’t deny they were very warm.


We rode through the trees for a bit and came to a clearing where we could see the aurora! I was so stoked. It was not at all what I was expecting because it was pretty faint and looked like more of a greenish tinted cloud than anything else, but I was still excited to photograph it, so I hopped out of the sleigh to take some photos and was disappointed to discover I’d forgotten to take my camera clip off the camera when we were hiking and without the allen key to remove it, I couldn’t put the camera on the tripod. I can’t lie, I was heartbroken about it. This is not the first time this has happened to me and I had been so scrupulous to make sure I had every part of the tripod, including the allen key, but then we’d switched to Seth’s bag at the last minute and I forgot it. I wasn’t sure if this would be my only time to photograph the lights, so I was very disappointed, but I tried to just sit back and enjoy them with my eyes (a radial concept, I know).


As we continued on the ride, I wiggled that damn clip with all my might until I finally got it wedged off the camera using brute force. The end result really worked in my favour though. Because of all the time I’d burned trying to sort out the issue, we arrived at a second clearing at the exact moment the aurora really started to light up. It split across the sky in several bands of green and we while they still weren’t super bright, we could see them dancing. I took pictures of them for as long as the group could stand the cold and was so thrilled by the experience.

After the ride, the guides take you back to a little cabin to warm up and roast sausages and drink hot cider. The group enjoyed the fire, but if you know me at all, you know I’m a bit obsessive about these kind of things, so I wasted no time in setting up my tripod again on a little viewing platform and kept photographing the lights. I don’t know if the guides were just trying to make us feel special or not, but they told us it was the first tour in 2 weeks where they’d seen the lights and that the lights tend to hang out just in the north, whereas tonight they were dancing all over the sky, making us very lucky. Initially I believed them, but I ended up seeing a much more vibrant and intense aurora later in the week, so maybe they were just humouring us. Either way, I was incredibly satisfied.


The final part of our “safari” was feeding the reindeer. We got to go into the farm and feed them an entire block of lichen (their favourite food) through the fence. They were really cute and I felt totally high on life from the entire experience. The sky started to cloud in just as we were finishing the tour at 11pm and that ended the light show for the night, but it removed a lot of the pressure to see the aurora during the rest of the week. We did sauna again when we got back to the cabin before passing out in contentment.

The clouds stuck around for our final day in Rovaniemi, so we had a lazy morning before heading to Santa Claus Village. In addition to the plethora of Santa shops in town, Rovaniemi also has a Santa Park and a Santa Village. I’m not sure what they have at the park, but the village has free admission, so we opted for that one. We were a little bit skeptical about the village and assumed it would be very touristy, which it was, but it’s one of the biggest attractions in Rovaniemi, so I wanted to at least stop by. We started with a visit to the Christmas Store to pick up some souvenirs before exploring around. They have reindeer sleigh rides, dogsledding, tubing, as well as something called Snowman World, which I gathered is a bit of a snow hotel. It would be a great place to take kids. We didn’t really do much besides check out the shops, but I did enjoy a photo op on the official Arctic Circle. We were actually north of the Arctic Circle for the entire week we were in Lapland, but it was nice to get the commemorative photo.


We learned that Rovaniemi more or less shuts down on Sundays when we returned to town for lunch and discovered most of the restaurants were closed. It took us a bit of wandering to find something that was both open and had seating for us and ended up returning to the waffle cafe, though this time I had bao buns and cauliflower instead!

Sadly, we all parted ways after that. Katie and her friends were flying back to Helsinki at 10pm to get back for school on Monday, and Seth and I were driving 2 hours north for the next part of our adventure. We still had one more night with Katie on the way back though, so we wished her a safe flight and started our drive north in mid-afternoon, hoping to get there before it got properly dark (around 6pm). 


A Sunny Welcome to Lapland

We had an early departure from Tallinn for a flight to the far north of Finland. We had a layover in Helsinki, where we were joined by Katie and 2 of her friends, before flying to Rovaniemi. It was a sunny day from the air, but a thick layer of clouds hung over Rovaniemi and there was a fresh coat of snow on the ground and trees. I picked up my rental car, which was a tiny Toyota Yaris with studded tires, and we did our best to cram 5 people, 2 suitcases, and 5 backpacks into it – not an easy feat!

Rovaniemi is located right on the Arctic Circle and it’s a very popular tourist destination. I haven’t seen any stats about Finland’s tourism, but I’d argue that it’s probably stronger in the winter than in the summer, at least in the north. Lapland is a large region that dominates Finland’s North, attracting tourists who want to visit a snowy wonderland, see the northern lights, and participate in a range of traditional winter activities. Unlike Norway and Sweden, which are quite mountainous, Lapland is pretty flat and is characterized more by trees and barrens.


In general, Finland actually reminded me a lot of Newfoundland. While it definitely has more topsoil than “the Rock”, the terrain is really similar. Finland in Finnish is called Soumi, which loosely translates to Swamp Land, so it boasts a lot of the same boggy mosses and lichens as Newfoundland. Lapland is filled with elk and reindeer, whereas Newfoundland has moose and caribou – but the most notable is the berries. Lingonberries and cloudberries are incredibly common and popular in Finland, which reminded me a lot of home, where they’re known as partridgeberries and bakeapple.

While maneuvering the luggage into the car, the clouds started to break up and they completely transformed the landscape in no time. Where it was cloudy and snowy when we arrived, the sun filled the sky, sparkling on the fresh snow. We were staying about 15 minutes outside of Rovaniemi in a quaint little cabin in the woods. It wasn’t very big and only had one bedroom, but there were 2 futons in the living room, a toasty fireplace, and a sauna.


It was around 2pm in the afternoon, so we were all hungry for lunch and immediately returned to Rovaniemi in search of food. We opted for a chicken and waffles restaurant called 21, which was delicious and filled our bellies for exploring. Everyone was in search of some warmer items for the -20 degree weather we were expecting, so we set off wondering around town to do some shopping. It was about -10 degrees, which we thought wouldn’t be too bad for walking around in the sun, but the cold felt different in Lapland and I immediately wished for a few more layers. I may just be a wuss from living in Vancouver for the past 10 years, but we did get used to it over time.

Rovaniemi is a quirky town. Its big claim to fame is that it’s the “home of Santa Claus” and they’ve definitely leaned into the marketing. We passed everything from Santa’s “city office”, to “Santa’s Hotel”, to “Santa’s Luxury Boutique”, to my personal favourite, “Santa’s Donor Kebab”. We ended up at the Kemijoki River, which was mostly frozen over, and went for a very chilly walk along the riverbank, enjoying blue hour as the sun went down and the frost sparkled on the trees. When it started to get dark, we made a stop into the grocery store for some breakfast foods and pizzas before heading back to the cabin for the night.


We spent the evening playing cards while periodically checking outside for the aurora. I had downloaded a bunch of aurora apps for the trip, the best of which was definitely “My Aurora Forecast & Alerts”. The forecast is indicated using KP, which measures geomagnetic activity and is an indicator of whether you’ll see the lights. Simply put though, the numbers just indicate how far north or south the lights will be/can be seen. So for a low KP, they will only be in the far north and difficult to see until you are also very far north. 0-2 is considered low on the index, though Rovaniemi is far enough north that you can still see them when the KP is 2. 3 is moderate, and 4-6 is quite high, though the index tops out at 9. Once the KP hits around 4, you can see the lights in Helsinki, and at 6 you can potentially see them in Scotland and parts of the UK. But of course, that’s only if the sky is also clear of clouds, so in addition to KP, the forecasting apps also tracks cloud cover.


I didn’t really understand all of this until after the trip though. The forecast was only at 2 on our first night, so we kept popping outside, but only for short periods of time and we didn’t really know what we were looking for, so we didn’t see anything. Personally, I suspect they probably were visible, but when the KP is low, it takes a bit more patience to see them. I’ve since learned that they go through cycles when they are more visible and with a low KP, they can be pretty faint and won’t look how you expect. They photograph super well because it’s easy for all that light to show up on camera, especially when you leave the shutter open, so we expect them to look like all the viral photos we see on social media (which they do when the KP is high). However, when the KP is low, they are more of a faint white-ish glow, so it would be easy to mistake them for clouds if you didn’t know what you were looking for and you need to give your eyes a bit of time to adjust to the dark to see them best.


In any case, I had 7 nights in Lapland, so I wasn’t too concerned and had a great night socializing with Katie and her friends instead. I get a lot of energy from other people, so it was fun to hang out in a cabin in the woods and play cards and enjoy the sauna. I knew a bit more what to expect from the sauna this time and it wasn’t as hot as Loyly, so I enjoyed it a lot more. We did a few sauna sessions, followed by a roll in the snow for cold therapy, before heading to bed. My favourite part of sauna was how well it helps you sleep!

We woke the next morning to cloudless skies! It was an absolutely beautiful day, but despite the sun, it was still very cold, around -10 again and going down to -20 overnight. We didn’t make any mistakes this time and fully bundled up before we went out. We decided to go for a little hike in the morning. Usually I dress on the light side for hiking, but I also don’t usually go out in such cold weather, so I decided to commit to the warm clothing. The snowpants were definitely overkill once we started walking, but they’re too hard to get off, so I ended up hiking in just my sweater and snowpants, which wasn’t too bad either.


We went hiking in Ounasvaara, which is just across the river from Rovaniemi. It’s a popular outdoor spot and even has a small chair lift and a few ski runs – but it’s not very high, so I’m not sure I’d recommend it for skiing. Instead, we hiked up on the back side of the ski hill to a viewpoint. It’s really common in Lapland to come across small shelters out on the trails. I’m not quite sure about their history; I was guessing they might originally have been constructed for hunting, but maybe they’re just constructed by the municipalities for safety when adventuring. But it’s very common to find small cabins and lean to’s with a few benches and firepits for roasting sausage. The one at this viewpoint was heavily in use, but there was also a big wooden viewpoint to help you see over the trees, so we had a really lovely view of Rovaniemi and all the surrounding snow-covered forest.


We did some more wandering along the trails before returning to Rovaniemi for lunch. We landed on a burger restaurant called Kauppayhtio and had the most delicious reindeer burgers! I was really adamant that I wanted to try reindeer while in Lapland and it ended up being incredibly easy. In addition to the burger, I also had reindeer pasta and pizza on the trip, though I was a little dismayed that the pizza was called “the Rudolph”.

There’s a few museums and art galleries in Rovaniemi, so we decided to visit the Arktikum after lunch. It was a bit of a mix of museum and science centre and had a lot of great exhibits. We didn’t get to do them all, but my favourite was their very large exhibit on culture and history in Lapland. It covered everything from the local Sami culture, to Lappish history, to the local flora and fauna. They also had a very large science exhibit on the arctic, which I enjoyed. The other big art gallery is Korundi House of Culture. Me and Seth skipped out on that one because we were heading further north, but Katie visited it before returning to Helsinki and said it’s also excellent.