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. 


A Day in Old Town Tallinn

Finland was the primary focus of our trip, but Helsinki is so close to Tallinn that we couldn’t resist popping over to Estonia for a day. There’s a ferry that runs direct from city to city and takes just over 2 hours. We did the evening run and arrived in Tallinn around 11pm and took a taxi to our hotel. We had a small crisis before leaving Helsinki. I thought we were staying in a hotel and was checking my email for the address before leaving and found an email detailing instructions on how to get into the apartment (I had assumed there was reception). The instructions said that the code to get in would be texted to us the day before, which is a major flaw because obviously our phones didn’t work in Europe. I frantically emailed them for the code, but fortunately Katie was able to call them on her phone and get it for us. We’re just relieved we made this discovery in Katie’s apartment and not at the entrance to the hotel, which is not manned and we would have be locked out of without wifi at night!


So crisis averted and fortunately, the apartment was lovely! All our hotel bookings in Finland were very expensive, but Tallinn was cheap and the location was unbelievable! Tallinn is centered around the Old Town, but there’s not much actually in Old Town for accommodations. Our hotel was right on the edge of Old Town and was a large 1 bedroom apartment with a full kitchen and living room. This was amazing the following day because it was really cold and we loved having the apartment to pop back to every couple of hours to warm up.

We had a nice breakfast at a nearby café and did a bit of exploring around Old Town. We started at the Town Square, which we were right next too, and just meandered around the city. The streets are mostly pedestrian only and very confusing, but Old Town is small enough that you can’t ever really get lost. It’s a really beautiful place though – Old Town is split into two parts, the upper and lower city – and it’s completely encircled with old stone walls, so it really lives up to its name of being “Old”.


We decided it was a good place to learn some real history and we found a free walking tour at 11am. It needs 10 people to run and I was convinced it wouldn’t get enough because it was really not busy, but we ended up with 14! There were a few people traveling around like us, but a bunch of the guests were on a cruise. It seemed like an odd time of year for a cruise (especially considering they were Australian and it’s summer in Australia), but hey, who am I to judge!

The tour was excellent! Our tour guide had grown up in Estonia and was the same age as me. She shared lots of personal anecdotes from her family history that really made the tour come alive. Estonia has a long and storied history, like most of Europe, but here it’s mostly about occupation. Her history lesson dated back to the 1200’s, when Estonia first fell to Danish occupation. Denmark occupied the country for a long time and constructed a lot of early Old Town. Old Town is interesting because the Upper part of the town has a great view, which is actually very unique because Estonia is super flat and the highest point in the country is only 318 metres high.


The story changes in the 1500’s when Estonia submitted to Swedish occupation. From there, the history sounded very similar to what we learned of Finland when we visited Suomenlinna. The Swedes ruled the country until early 1700’s, when they were succeeded by the Russians, same as in Finland. There was a brief period of independence in 1918 following the Russian Revolution that lasted for 22 years, until the Soviet Union invaded again in 1939. This reign lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall and Estonia re-gained their independence in 1991.

Despite the long Russian rule, there’s limited Russian influence around Old Town. During first independence, the Estonians tried to remove as much of the visible Russian monuments around town, save for the beautiful St. Aleksander Cathedral, which apparently they didn’t have the money to tear down. But our guide felt that throughout time, it’s generally become a beloved part of the Old Town.


Russian influence is still very evident in Estonia today though, with some 40% of the population speaking Russian. It was 1 day to a year from when Russia first invaded Ukraine when we were there, which was a somber reminder of how recent Estonia’s history really is. Our guide explained that though there is a large population of Russian-speaking Estonians, Estonian is the only national language and there is still a lot of animosity between the Russian and Estonian speaking Estonians. Her grandmother actually spent several years in a Siberian labour camp and she indicted that her father’s generation are still very opposed to the Russian speaking Estonians and don’t mix with them, even though most Estonian-speaking Estonians of that generation are also fluent in Russian. In contrast, she felt her generation wasn’t so caught up in segregation, but still didn’t mix with one another because these days, neither can speak the other’s language, so it’s too hard to communicate.


We spent most of the tour in the Upper city, which has less tourist amenities and more history. We visited two lookouts, which provide a great view down on to the Lower part of the city and the more modern parts of Tallinn. We didn’t explore much of Tallinn beyond Old Town because we only had 1 day, but we did walk outside of Old Town to the “hipster district” (so named by our guide, we don’t know how legitimate this label is).

But before leaving Old Town, we treated ourselves to my favourite meal of the entire trip! Our guide recommended a small restaurant called Rataskaevu 16 and it was so delicious! We started with mulled wine and homemade rye bread for an appy and then I had an elk steak and Seth had a wild mushroom risotto. Then we finished off with an Estonian cheese platter for dessert. I’m not a big foodie, but it was heavenly! Although I was sad to learn after the fact that what the Scandinavians call “elk” is what we call “moose”, which was a little less exciting have grown up in Newfoundland. Seth also informed me that caribou and reindeer are also basically the same, the name just depends on what part of the world you’re in.


The “Hipster District” isn’t too far from Old Town, so we walked over to the Balti Jaama Turg, which is a giant indoor market with tons of food options and clothing stalls. We found some snacks and spent an hour browsing through the stalls. One thing I noticed in Helsinki, and subsequently in Tallinn, is that there is a lot of quality thrift options. I was sorely tempted by a floor length puffy jacket while thrifting, but figured it would have limited use in wet Vancouver, so I let it lie.

If you continue a little further, you get into more of an industrial area filled with lots of beautiful murals. There’s a collective of artists working in most of the spaces and we did some exploring before taking a break for a beer at one of the breweries. The dark caught up with us after that and we decided to return to Old Town for dinner – it was a nice meal, but compared to our amazing lunch it was a bit forgettable.