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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

19 tips for travelling foodies: visit these places to get a true flavour of South East Finland

In co-opetarion with Visit Kouvola, Visit Kotka-Hamina and GoSaimaa

South East Finland has some of the country’s most rugged and wild landscapes with access to excellent services. Only a short journey away from Helsinki, amidst the sounds of rushing rivers and rustling forests, you can find yourself amongst quirky cafes and excellent restaurants. We put together a list of 19 places or local delicacies that every visitor to the area should try.

1. Keisarinmaja Kahvila’s Finnish pancakes are the best in the world

? Address: Keisarinmajantie, Kotka
ℹ Homepage (Facebook)

In 1889 the Russian Tsar Aleksander III commissioned a fishing cottage to be built in the beautiful surroundings of Langinkoski river. It ended up as a stylish villa, where the Tzar with his family and friends spent carefree summer days. These days it houses the lovely Keisarinmaja cafe, whose Finnish pancakes (thick pancakes baked in an oven served with jam and whipped cream) are reported to the be the best in the world.

Photo: Sari Selkälä

2. A cute cafe in a yellow house – with a fantastic view out to Langinkoski river

? Keisarinmajantie, Kotka
ℹ Homepage (Facebook)

The yellow cafe on the shores of Langinkoski river used to be where the guard of the Tsar’s fishing cottage lived with his family. From the cafe terrace there are beautiful views down to the river. The cafe has lots of cozy nooks which also look out onto this view. Lunch is also available daily.

Photo: Sari Selkälä

3. Kymen Paviljonki: food, herbs, farm animals and rapids

Helsingintie 408, Kuusankoski
ℹ Homepage (in Finnish)

If you’re travelling on Route 6 there are many good reasons to stop at Kymen Paviljonki (Kymi Pavilion). Here you can get a decent lunch as well as take a refreshing break from driving. Walk down to Kymijoki river’s shores, get to know the farm animals and explore the wonderful herb garden, where you can pick herbs to serve with your meal.

Photo: Sari Selkälä

4. Relish the campfire atmosphere in Repovesi National Park

Riippusillantie 55, Kouvola
ℹ Read more

Repovesi National Park has many scenic campfire spots perfect for having a picnic in beautiful natural surroundings. You may make a fire in a designated campfire ring as long no fire warning has been issued. Firewood is provided on site.The easiest campfire meal is a hot dog barbecued over the glowing red coals served with whatever relishes of you chose to bring!

Photo: Tomi Pohja

5. Into Repovesi National Park via RepoTassu

Riippusillantie 55, Kouvola
ℹ Homepage (Facebook)

RepoTassu is a great little kiosk at the gate of Repovesi National park, by the Lapinsalmi entrance. Its handy location makes RepoTassu an easy place to stop off on the way in or out and prices are reasonable. There are a wide variety of refreshments available as well as lunch and coffee. You can even reserve a canoe!

Photo: Tomi Pohja

6. Orilammen Maja offers accommodation and great food

Voikoskentie 138, Hillosensalmi
ℹ Homepage

Orilammen Maja is legendary in the Repovesi area. This family business has grown over the years into a whole holiday village located right by a lake with lovely views. Here you can feast until your belly is full in peaceful natural surroundings. This place is definitely worth adding to your itinerary if you visit Repovesi National Park.

Photo: Tomi Pohja

7. Historical Fortress island: Fort Elisabeth and Restaurant Vaakku

Varissaari, Kotka
ℹ Homepage

The old sea fortress Fort Elisabeth is also known as Varissaari (Crow Island), and is a popular day trip destination and recreation area in Kotka. From June to August you can get there on board the ferry M/S Klippan from Kotka’s old harbour in Sapokka. The fortress was completed in 1796 and it was named after the Russian Tsarina Elisabeth Petrovna. Although the fortress itself was destroyed in the Crimean war, plenty of relics and monuments from the island’s history remain. As well as offering ‘fun dining in a stately environment’, according to their motto, Restaurant Vaakku also rents out SUP boards and a sauna boat!

Photo: Sari Selkälä

8. At Fortress Restaurant Kamu you can step into Hamina’s history

? Raatihuoneenkatu 12, Hamina
ℹ Homepage

Hamina’s fortress is one of the few ‘star forts’ in Finland. It was based on the one in Palmova in Northern Italy, which represented a utopian city. These types of forts are rare. Both Swedes and Russians have built hefty fortresses in Hamina. In the depths of Hamina’s Bastion, lies the atmospheric Restaurant Kamu, whose delicacies must be tried if visiting the area.

Photo: Julius Koskela

9. Anjala’s Manor House charms against a backdrop of Ankkapurha’s grand rapids

? Ankkapurhantie 15, Anjala
ℹ Homepage

Ankkapurha is the ancient Finnish name for Kymijoki river’s biggest rapids. Although the river has since been tamed to produce hydropower, the milieu of Anjala’s Manor House is still well worth a visit. There are walking trails in the area and all visitors are encouraged to try them and enjoy nature. Foodies should head to the Makasiinikahvila (Warehouse cafe) to sample the coffee and cake.

Photo: Julius Koskela

10. Salmiakki cheddar and hydrogen-powered cars at Kirjokivi manor

? Rudolf Elvingintie 109, Vuohijärvi
ℹ Homepage (in Finnish)

The idyllic Kirjokivi Manor and its surroundings are a sight in themselves, but once you’re there, you can fill your stomach with exotic treats. How does salmiakki (salty liquorice) cheddar cheese sound? Kirjokivi manor house is part of Woikoski Feeling – a company that provides a range of experiences in the surrounding area. The place’s special feature is the car museum, where all the cars reveal interesting parts of Woikoski’s and all of Finland’s history.

Photo: Julius Koskela

11. What on earth are Vety and Atomi? Taste Lappeenranta’s specialities

? Lappeenranta, South Karelia

Vety and Atomi have already gained quite a reputation. These local delicacies can be found at the hotdog kiosk, and should be enjoyed in in Lappeenranta’s urban surroundings, where they might be ordered by locals at the end of a night out. In true Finnish-style, you can wash them down with a glass of milk. Vety is a high quality meat pie, filled with either ham or egg. Atomi is filled with both.

Photo: Julius Koskela

12. Särä is Finnish food, with a thousand year history

ℹ Restaurant Kippurasarvi Homepage

Särä is the oldest dish in Finland, and its history goes back at least 1000 years. The name ‘särä’ comes from the wooden trough, on which lamb and potatoes were served. The meat rests on a bed of potatoes and is dished up with rieska (Finnish flatbread) as an accompaniment and homebrew to drink. Looks pretty good, don’t you think?

Photo: Julius Koskela

13. Melt-in-your-mouth hot smoked salmon in Lohela

? Karjalantie 372, Puntala
ℹ Homepage (in Finnish)

Could this be the world’s best hot smoked salmon? Test for yourself. Many travel from afar to buy Lohela’s smoked salmon to take home, or savour it slowly there and then. The quaint shop there has plenty of other items for sale, including delicacies and souvenirs for the traveller.

Photo: Julius Koskela

14. At Korpikeidas you can fish and meet some other animals

Vesikkolantie 415, Joutseno
ℹ Homepage (in Finnish)

At Korpikeidas you can fish and smoke the salmon yourself. There is a wide range of fun things to do for families with children. You can also get to know the resident farm animals which include an alpaca and a peacock!

Photo: Julius Koskela

15. Pulsan Asema is an instagram hit

? Pulsan Aseman tie 21, Pulsa
ℹ Homepage

Pulsan Asema (Pulsa Station) is an old station building that has been converted into a cafe, interior design boutique and bed and breakfast. The station’s interior decor is very photogenic. You can see the passion that has gone into creating this place. It’s certainly deserving of its media and social media attention, but go see it for yourself!

Photo: Julius Koskela

16. Konditoria Huovila – if there was a cafe in Moominland…

? Fredrikinkatu 1, Hamina
ℹ Homepage (in Finnish)

While wandering the picturesque streets of Hamina, step into Konditoria (Patisserie) Huovila. Its colourful cakes, the cinnamon buns overflowing on the counter and light fresh interior bring to mind the coloured Moomin books from childhood. Now in its third generation of ownership, this cafe is a part of Hamina’s street views. Make sure you at least taste the crown pastries!

Photo: Julius Koskela

17. Discover Ylämaa’s spectrolite in Korupirtti

? Kivikyläntie 7, Ylämaa
ℹ Homepage (in Finnish)

Spectrolite is a dark stone that shimmers blue and gold when held at certain angles in the light. Korupirtti (Jewellery Hut) with its services is a good base for gemstone miners. Next to the hut is the mining museum and it’s also possible to go see the mine itself.

Photo: Julius Koskela

18. Mustila Arboretum fairytale forest and Mustila wine

? Mustilan Puistotie 21, Elimäki
ℹ Homepage

Finnish berries and fruit are known to be superfoods, but did you know that you can make wine from them? Mustila’s wine shop and wonderful garden store is near Kouvola. As well as stopping at the shop, you can go for a work in a real fairytale forest, Mustila’s Arboretum.

Photo: Milla von Konow

19. Viini Verla – a winery in a world heritage site

? Salonsaarentie 127, Verla
ℹ Homepage

The idyllic Verla Mill village is a world heritage site. The old groundwood and board factory’s picturesque mill buildings feel like a journey back in time, within beautiful and photogenic surroundings. When visiting, make sure you stop at Verla Winery (Viini Verla). In addition to their wine and sparkling wines, they make a variety of berry liqueurs and table wines as well as stronger alcoholic drinks.

Photo: Milla von Konow

The magical landscape of Koli is the most Finnish view ever

People say that what you can see from the top of Ukko-Koli hill is the most famous view in Finland.

You can find this breathtaking place in the easternmost part of Finland, in Koli national park in Lieksa.

Many artists used to come here at the end of 1800’s and early 1900’s to immortalize this spectacular natural landscape. Nowadays widely known and highly esteemed Finnish artist Eero Järnefelt (1863–1937) spent a lot of time in Koli, wandering around and searching for new spots to sit down and create new paintings. And, boy, did he find them! He was a master to describe Koli’s surrounding by paints.

This is where Eero Järnefelt made a painting called Metsälampi (Forest pond).

Today tourists from all over the world come to visit Koli to see these places that are well-known from Järnefelt’s works. Yesterday’s art became today’s advertisement.

You can climb up Ukko-Koli hill, which is the most visited place in Koli. On the highest point you can admire Lake Pielinen right there under your nose. All those green islands and endless blue water under the blue sky and white clouds… That has to be the most Finnish view there is.

There is also an observation tower called Räsävaara nearby Koli village. If you dare to climb up, the view from up there is really stunning!

From the tower you are able to see all around Koli: the Koli hill queue, Lake Pielinen and other smaller lakes and ponds. I think that this really is Finland’s most beautiful national landscape!

MAP.

Read more about Koli here and Koli National Park here.

Winter fairy tale land – Koli

You don’t have to go all the way to Lapland to find beautiful winter landscapes. In North-Karelia you can find the most highest place of South-Finland. In the fell Koli you can find it’s peaks Ukko-Koli, Akka-Koli and Paha-Koli. People believe that these peaks got their name’s from powerful ancient gods.

You can use snowshoes or ski’s to get to the top of Koli. There is also a hotel and Koli National Park‘s nature center in the top. After hiking in the hills you can get a cup of coffee for example in the nature center Ukko’s cafeteria.

When the sky is clear, you can see lake Pielinen from the Koli hills. When the sky is misty, you just have to enjoy the magical spruce forests with snow and hard rime that accumulates on tree branches.

Old forests look magical in winter time. Village under the hills can be without snow on the trees, but when you climb up to the fell, usually you can find beautiful trees with snow and ice on them.

Finnish artists, photographers and nature-lovers have been inspired with this heritage landscape for centuries. Usually people say, that you should go to the Koli, when the sky is clear and sunny. I think you should definitely visit Koli in a foggy day also.

When almost everything is white, you start to realize, that it’s not really white. It’s blue, it’s purple, it’s orange and colors are changing sometimes really fast. Some camera’s go crazy and it’s difficult to capture the real color of the forests. But who know’s, what’s real and what’s unreal?

Some part’s of the trails are without winter maintenance, but usually paths are walked open by people, so you can even go walking there just with your winter shoes. Don’t hesitate to ask advice’s from nature center’s helpful workers.

Protected: Tentsile in Nuuksio

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