Rare but beautiful winter daylight in Lapland

Everyone loves Northern lights. Why not? They are a beautiful light show and only a handful of people live in the region where they are common. But there is also another beautiful light phenomenon that is not as well known but is also bright and beautiful: the polar night.

First light hits the trees

It’s not just darkness. Think it as a slow motion sunrise and sunset. In the South of Finland sunset and sunrise are over in 15 minutes, but in Lapland together they can last for hours.

Above the arctic circle sunrise lasts about 1,5 hours during the polar night. Just before the sun goes up, it starts to set for another 1,5 hours.

One other thing are late mornings. No need to wake up at 04 am for sunrise shots. You can sleep up to 10 am. Perfect!

I spent the Christmas week 2017 in Lapland enjoying polar night colors. Here are some photos of my trip to Kiilopää fell near Saariselkä. This was a 4 kilometer hike to get there and back.

Temperature was about -12 degrees Celcius. Put some warm clothes on and I was ready to go. Fresh snow made the landscape look untouched. Just a few animal trails here and there. Luckily I was the first to climb the fell.

I spent 1,5 hours just photographing the view. The colors were amazing! It was a little bit windy on the top of the fell, but still manageable. I didn’t see anyone until I started my descent from the fell.

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Diary of an Aurora-Chaser

When it comes to aurora-chasing, any number of unexpected, lucky or unlucky things can happen. Along with more obvious hazards such as being exposed to extreme cold and simply not seeing any northern lights, there can be camera malfunctions and even trouble from wild animals, unwanted police presence and then a shooting star to break it all up.

A chase can end in total failure — or a whole-sky aurora storm. The single greatest problem is having the aurora blocked out by clouds. Much research and planning goes into understanding when is the right time to search for the lights. But when you can see them, it makes it all worth it.

This was a spectacular aurora storm… and in a CITY (Helsinki) too! Still the best show I have seen… yet.

I am an adventure-minded Australian that has been chasing auroras since my time on a study exchange in Helsinki in 2017. Since then, I have become almost addicted, taking many opportunities to go in search for them, even in my home in Southern Australia (where it is MUCH harder to see them).

Here is a diary of my adventures… and misadventures searching for them in Southern Finland. Note: while most of these below photos were taken by me, the few that weren’t have the photographer fully credited.

Chasing auroras can often be a game of waiting for months… or even years for the perfect storm. Photo: Jonna Saari

Friday October 13th 2017 — Kirkkonummi, Finland

This was to be my first ever aurora chase, and what better night to go out into the wild than Friday the 13th. To start off, I took a night bus from Helsinki that meandered its way through the Finnish countryside.

I looked at the dials that measure the chance of seeing an aurora. They were looking very promising.

This is the area around my destination during the day — very enchanting.

When I arrived to my destination, the air was cold and crisp, with few clouds in sight. The perfect setting.

Then as I started walking towards a better vantage point along the lonely road, I wandered past a large, guarded gate. It was opening.

Coming from within, there was a menacing large vehicle. The vehicle pulled up beside me. Two heavily armed military soldiers stepped out.

They questioned what I was doing there. Unknowingly, I was in a restricted area.

The soldiers escorted me to the cell at the back of the vehicle. The vehicle started to move. There was only a tiny window in the cell. It was very dark inside. The walls were closing in.

The vehicle kept moving.

Another photo from during the day.

Worrying and tense feelings came over me.

Suddenly, the vehicle stopped. After getting out, they exchanged words with each other that I could not understand.

They approached close, looming over me. Closer yet. Interrogation.

Then they began to speak in a surprising manner.

‘Never come back here again unless you want to be arrested. You can find the bus stop further along this road.’

They trudged back to the vehicle and droned away through the cutting darkness.

I had a sense of overwhelming relief. I was free.

But it was the middle of a dark forest road. Walking was now the only option.

Tall, twisted trees loomed on either side. The night was clear with stars flickering. Leaves rustled in the distance. But no view of the northern horizon, and no sign of those elusive lights.

What it was like being in that forest.

Then… a clearing could be seen ahead! I hurried there and set up my camera equipment in anticipation.

Looking upon the northern horizon there was a pale glow low on the sky. To my great luck, there suddenly was…

A bright shooting star!

 

Being still inexperienced at aurora chasing, I had no idea whether this mysterious glow was an aurora or not, so I let the camera shoot away. At home, I looked at the photos properly.

Sure enough, the pale glow was green. It was my first capture of the northern lights.

This was the aurora adventure that turned into a ‘lucky’ misadventure.

Aurora Chase Result: 6/10

 

Tuesday November 7th 2017 — Helsinki, Finland

There is always something mysteriously enchanting about the northern lights, even a certain sadness about them, as they have the capacity to lift ones psyche right up regardless of the circumstances. And this night truly did that.

On a relatively quiet night, where there was no major activity forecast, I was just sitting in my room reflecting on things. The shortening and mostly grey days of November give a sombre air at this time of year.

Then I got a notification on my phone that the northern lights may be visible in Helsinki imminently.

The solar activity was much stronger than forecast, and was now at moderate storm level (kp6+). These events are quite rare.

So I hurriedly raced down in the cold, middle of the night with my GoPro camera to the Helsinki ‘beach’. More like a rocky outcrop.

When I got there, to my complete shock, I saw them! They were reasonably low on the horizon, but they were moving much faster than I expected, and there was definitely some colour in there as well! There were these forms that kind of ebbed and flowed.

My first glimpse of the aurora from that rocky outcrop complete with city lights.

Unbelievable. This was my first time seeing the northern lights properly — and the best word to describe it is maybe mesmerizing. Like wow, they are really there.

I almost fell over on the rocks and almost dropped my camera in the sheer excitement.

Then, problem!

The GoPro started beeping non-stop as I tried to set it up.

But to my great luck it wasn’t broken and I managed to make it work again.

The unexpected combination of northern lights and a big city, captured by Ustun Ergenoglu on this night also.

Started to take some photos. The lighting and setting wasn’t that good so I decided to change location to another nearby ‘beach’.

This one turned out to have much better photos, and the northern lights after being quiet for some time again flared up and this time were very spectacular.

I stayed for a while longer until the show really died down.

Later, after a bit of editing the photos I thought it would be a good idea to try my luck at sending the photos to the Finnish news. To my surprise, they offered to post them on their Facebook!

The original edit of the northern lights from the Helsinki foreshore that night.

This was truly a night to remember, and was one of the most widely seen and photographed northern lights events in Finland in recent years. Still the best show I have ever seen.

Aurora Chase Result: 9/10

 

Tuesday, December 5th 2017 — Tampere, Finland

This day I embarked on an overnight trip to Tampere to chase the northern lights. Far in advance, there was a predicted high level of activity as the region of the sun that caused the previous northern lights show in Helsinki returned to face earth.

A picture from an earlier daytime trip to Tampere.

Everything was set, and the conditions were slowly creeping up to the expected levels as night fell. But there was one problem — cloud cover that didn’t seem to be budging to go away.

Tampere is a picturesque city situated between two lakes — ideal for viewing the lights if they are present.

As it was an overnight trip, I waited until it was almost 10pm to head to the ideal viewing location by the lake, as auroras are generally strongest and most likely around midnight. However, they can happen at any time and this came back to bite me this day.

While I was walking towards the vantage point, I could hear cheers coming from the lakefront. I figured that the people already there had seen something exciting, so I hurried to get there — but all I could see was cloud cover and a small amount of glow, like something was happening above the clouds near the horizon.

Bad luck… this is the best it got for the night; just a streak of colour behind the clouds.

I figured that in between the heavy cloud there must have been a break, allowing the others to catch a glimpse of an auroral show, even if just for a few minutes. It eventually started snowing and I decided that was it for the night. I learned not to trust rules of thumb with aurora hunting — the lights can appear early evening, midnight, or morning.

Aurora Chase Result: 4/10

How to use the open wilderness huts in Finland? Exploring the Pallas-Yllästunturi national park

One day can be a good example of how unpredictable and quickly changing the weather can be in the Lappish fells. In an instant it can change from a freezing rainy fog to bright sunshine, and forenoon and afternoon can be totally different.

I started my day in an early forenoon of October as I climbed up the hillside in a rainy fog. I could only see a few meters onward and the freezing drizzle made me cold in no time. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my time in the silence and taking some pictures. As I reached the wilderness hut I got inside to warm up and get dry.

In Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park there is a 60 km route from the village of Hetta to the nature center in Pallas fell. The trail is quite popular especially during the summer and early autumn. It is also possible to reach the trail and the fells of the national park as a day trip. I made this trip starting from Vuontisjärvi and climbed up to the fell and to the wilderness hut called Montellin Maja.

The wilderness hut Montellin Maja looming ahead. The route from Vuontisjärvi up to the cabin is not long but it is really steep so it will challenge your strength.

Open wilderness huts are for hikers and skiers to have a rest or one overnight stay. They are usually located in roadless backwoods of Northern and Eastern Finland.

Open wilderness huts are free to use for shelter and for 1-2 night stays, when you are hiking in the wilderness. Just remember a few important rules and you too can enjoy them!

Open wilderness huts are free to use, but you can not reserve one for yourself. So keep in mind that you can not plan a hike thinking that you will only use these open cabins. In case there are other hikers arriving after you, you must let them in and make room for them. This can mean that you have to sleep outdoors. This is why you must always have an alternative shelter (for example a tent) with you. This, of course, is also a safety issue – you might get lost or be too tired to walk to the next hut, so it is good to have some kind of shelter with you.

Remember also:

  • Always leave the hut in same or better condition than it was when you arrived.
  • In general, keep everything tidy and be mindful for others.
  • Before you leave, make some fire wood ready for the next hiker.

Read more about the Finnish wilderness huts here. You can also find there information about every open wilderness hut in Finland, where they are and how they are equipped!

There is also a possibility to reserve specific reservable or rental huts. These can be found in some hiking areas and national parks, and there is usually some kind of a fee. Also about this you will find information from the link above.

After my break in Montellin Maja, the weather started to clear up. It was supposed to be clear the whole day according to the weather cast, but you’ll never know. Anyway, I was glad to finally see what the surroundings actually looked like!

The trail from Montellin Maja to Pallas is about 15 km long and will pass the highest point of Pallas-Yllästunturi Nationalpark in Taivaskero. On the afternoon the sky got clear and I got to enjoy the sunshine!

For the evening I headed up to the Punaisen Hiekan Autiotupa which is another wilderness hut, located by the lake Pallasjärvi. The name literally means “hut of the red sand”: the sand of the beach really has a rusty red color. This place also has the perfect view towards the fells of Pallastunturi. I can imagine how spectacular the view would look during a northern light storm in winter! Actually I was curious if I’d see some auroras that night, but then the sky went cloudy again.

 

What happens in a reindeer round-up?

Reindeer wander freely in the nature of Northern Finland. However, they are semi-domesticated animals: every reindeer has an owner. But how do the owners know where their reindeer are, how many of them may have disappeared and how many new fawns have been born?

That’s why regular reindeer round-ups are needed.

There are special kinds of reindeer round-up fences all over Lapland. In Finnish they are called “erotusaita” meaning litterally separation fence.

Above: Large numbers of reindeer are gathered to these fences from the surrounding areas a few times a year. In the actual round-up they are being separated to different kinds of smaller groups, according to their destination or owner.

Before the round-up the reindeer are being watched to see which fawn follows which mother. This is how the owners find all their new fawns.

Above: The most hectic and crucial place is a round fence called kirnu. Kirnu is usually situated in the middle of several other fences and there are doors in every direction. Here the actual separation takes place.

This is how it goes:

  1. The reindeer waiting in the big fence are taken into the kirnu in small groups.
  2. In the kirnu the reindeer owners capture, recognize, document and sort every reindeer. New fawns get their earmarks.
  3. The vet monitors all this and vaccinates the animals.
  4. One by one, every reindeer is being sent out of the kirnu. The bookkeeper writes down all the information.

It’s interesting to see what’s going on in kirnu, that’s why there’s often a curious audience.

Above: How do the owners recognize their animals? Every owner has a registered earmark, so reindeer owners can recognize every reindeer only by taking a look at their ears. During the round-up every new fawn gets its ears marked.

Above: In the kirnu reindeer are also marked with spray tags and fur marks to easily keep count of all the animals also after they have been liberated back to the nature.

Above: One by one every reindeer gets sent out of the kirnu. There’s always a bookkeeper registering each reindeer according to what the reindeer owners in kirnu report to him or her. This person keeps count on how many reindeer each owner has, and whether these animals are male, female or fawn.

Above: Reindeer on the left side have already been counted, marked and documented in the kirnu. The ones on the right are still waiting for their turn.

The amount of reindeer in reindeer round-ups vary quite a lot. In the Northern parts of Lapland there can be as many as 3000-5000 reindeer in the big fence at once. However, in the South it’s common to have anything between 150-1000 reindeer in the fence. The pictures of this article were taken in a round-up that had about 300 reindeer.

When the round-up is done, all the animals get to return to the nature. The owners now have an up-to-date knowledge on how many reindeer they own and that all their animals are in good shape.

If you ever get to participate to a reindeer round-up, consider yourself lucky! Only reindeer-owners get to know when and where the next round-up is going to be, and they often get the information only a day before. So if you’re in Lapland already and it’s either September, October, November or December, you can contact the local tourist information to check if they knew any upcoming round-ups nearby.

Every man’s best friend, Siberian Jay – Meeting the soul-bird in Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park.

When you walk through the nature in northern parts of Finland, especially in Lapland, you will most likely end up meeting a new friend during your lunch or coffee break.

Siberian Jays are known for being fearless and tame, and they will often land close to you immediately when you pause and dig up your lunch or snack. For hundreds of years these birds have been companions to hunters and rangers in the woods. In the Finnish folklore Siberian Jay was called a ‘soul-bird’ and when a ranger died his spirit was believed to move to one of these birds.

Siberian Jay is a member of the crow family but is much smaller compared to the actual crow. Their colour is grayish brown with beautiful bright rust-coloured markings on their rumps, the edges of their tails and wings. This bird lives mostly in the northern boreal forests of spruce and pine, the so called taiga area.

I’ve never met a Siberian Jay as close as I did on my latest trip to Pallas-Yllästunturi Nationalpark in western Lapland. These little fellows were so tame and eager to get a piece of my food that they even landed on my hand. I felt gratitude to meet the soul-bird so close.

I spotted Siberian Jays almost everywhere in the woods and forest parts of Pallas-Yllästunturi Nationalpark. But these pictures are from an easy 3 km trail called Saivionkierros, which is located near Ylläs and Äkäslompolo village in Kolari. If you are interested in this or other hiking trails around the Ylläs area you can find more information via this link.

If you meet one of these birds on your travels in Lapland you can offer them a small piece of white bread, but remember that salt and salty foods are not healthy or good for them.