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Chasing the Northern Lights

Text and photos: Rayann Elzein

I am going on my eight consecutive winter chasing the elusive Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, all around Inari, in the very north of Finnish Lapland. Sure, I have also seen the Aurora in Norway and even Greenland, but every single winter I am drawn back to Inari for photography and to help people enjoy this magnificent show of nature. I am often asked “why do you always go back to Inari?” or “why don’t you try somewhere else?”. I always wanted to experience the northern lights, but at first the only thing I knew was that I had to go somewhere north. But where north? So after a long process and weeks of research I set my mind on Inari.

Inari is right under the Aurora oval

The Aurora Borealis appears under a huge doughnut shaped ring that is centred on earth’s magnetic north pole. Without getting too much into the science, this means that if you travel to a location right under the “doughnut”, or Aurora oval, you maximise your chances to see the northern lights, even when the activity is very low.

Inari is located at 68°50’N – 265 km (165 mi) north of the Arctic Circle. This positions Inari right under the ring, almost guaranteeing to see some northern lights on a clear night. This probability based on scientific facts is the most important criteria in my decision to visit Inari and return there so often.

An excellent road network

When you want to see the northern lights, you go “Aurora chasing” with a guide or your own car. In reality, it would be more accurate to say that you are chasing the good weather as you cannot see the Aurora if you are under clouds. Although I am no meteorologist, my personal opinion is that there are often clear nights around Inari. However, if this does not happen during your stay, don’t worry: there are several roads radiating from Inari to all directions. You might even end up on the shore of a fjord in Norway! This makes it very easy to chase the good weather.

Some words of caution: when you are driving yourself, be careful in difficult weather. You also have to be careful of reindeer and elk that are frequently standing or sleeping right in the middle of the road. If you don’t have experience with winter driving, or just want to relax and not worry about anything, then hiring one of the several professional guides is a safer idea.

Much more than just Aurora

There are many places in the world that are located under the Aurora ring but only few of them are inhabited and accessible. Despite being located so far north of the Arctic Circle, Inari-Saariselkä offers a full range of state-of-the-art tourism facilities: comfortable hotels, excellent restaurants, safari companies with a broad range of services. The entire area is also culturally rich, as the home of the Sami people. You can learn a lot about this at the Siida museum. And for a total immersion, an excursion with a reindeer herder will teach you more than any museum (you can even pet the reindeer!)

How to photograph the Aurora

With these few recommendations and just a bit of practice, it is actually quite easy to take some good Aurora photos. A camera with manual mode and a tripod are all that you need. The basic settings that you can use are the following:

  • Sensitivity: +/- 1600 iso
  • Aperture: the largest possible aperture (the smallest number on your lens, i.e. f/2.8-3.5-4)
  • Shutter speed: this one depends on the brightness of the Aurora. Start at 10 seconds and move up or down depending on what you see on your camera screen.

Focussing is the hardest thing to do at night. If you don’t manage to focus on stars, ask someone to stand about 30 meters from you with a flash light, and use auto focus on this light. Then switch to manual focus (MF) and don’t touch this setting anymore.

Tip: practice with your cameras before going out for Aurora, so that you know where all the settings are.

Aurora chasing

A frequent question is how often it is possible to see the Aurora. On a clear night, it is almost always possible to catch at least a glimpse of the northern lights. It might not always be some intense colourful outbursts, but if you are lucky you will see some light dancing in the sky. That’s why I always go out at night if there’s even the slightest chance to find clear sky.

My Aurora chasing usually begins in the early afternoon, when I browse through several weather forecast websites, and exchange text messages with other Aurora chasers all around the region. With this information I make an action plan and will usually start driving around 7 PM. I have often witnessed Aurora in the very early evening, so I like to be in position as soon as it’s dark! During the polar night, this can even be much earlier, like 3 PM or 4 PM.

Once in position, the waiting game begins (unless the Aurora appeared unexpectedly much earlier while still on my way!). Clouds might disturb the view to the stars, so I check the weather forecast once more, and call my friends again to have the latest update of their location. If needed, I will drive again.

The Aurora starts dancing in the sky. I am in my element now. I know how it moves, I anticipate its movements, I can be ready to take the best possible pictures. Sometimes it surprises me, actually quite often, and this is why I never get bored. I always return, and participate in the dance. You might even hear me scream “wow” or something in French. I take photos of my happy guests under the Aurora. I can never decide when to start driving back, because I know that another outburst can always happen. But I know that the Aurora will be there again tomorrow, and we finally drive back to the hotel, with beautiful images in our memory cards, and amazing memories in our minds.

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Inari-Saariselkä – Far in the North

A day in a mushers life in Lapland

What´s the best part about owning huskies? All the mushing fun you can have with them of course! And this is exactly what we do almost every day.

My huskies are pure breed Siberian huskies, a well known sleddog breed that originated from an old tribe in Siberia. They have a very beautiful appearance and they love to pull!

We live in the perfect spot in Luosto. We can start our sledding adventures from our backyard, from where we can reach lot of trails.

Sadly I don’t have enough huskies (in my opinion), so usually my friends huskies come along with me when mushing. Or we make two teams and have a fun time together exploring the trails with our huskies.

During the drive I just enjoy the amazing view that the backcountry of Luosto has to offer, look at how the dogs are working and all of us love every minute of it!

One of my dogs is not of age to run the whole trail yet, which means that I sometimes need to get creative. When it’s unsafe for him to run, he comes to sit in the sledge (which goes with a lot of protest sometimes). Otherwise he is just running freely along with the team. When sitting in the sledge he can still learn and see what it’s like to be a sled dog.

Everyday on the trail we learn something new and see the nature in different circumstances. Sometimes we get sunshine, sometimes heavy snow and a lot of days freezing cold. But never will we complain. We just enjoy our time together when we are doing what we are born to do!

And besides working we just have a lot of fun together exploring the rest of the world! We are lucky to live in the most beautiful part of it.

Short hiking route in Jyppyrä hill offers a complete view towards the great fells of Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park

➡ 1 km nature trail
⚫⚫⚪ Moderate: steep hill side
🔥 Shelter with a campfire spot
📌 Lapland Visitor Center address: Peuratie 15, Enontekiö

In the village Hetta in Enontekiö there is a nice walking route up the hill Jyppyrä for a day trip if you are in the area. The route starts from the yard of the Fell Lapland Visitor Centre which is located just a few minutes walk from the center of Hetta.

In winter this route is beautiful and an easy choice if the snow is too soft and deep for other places. You can also rent snow shoes from the visitor center and try out this fun activity!

The route is not too long, around one kilometer, but it is really steep, so you have to make some effort. But the view up the hill is really worth it. You will be able to see all the way towards the great fells of Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park and the snowy trees look amazing!

Up on the highest point there is a traditional open shelter with a campfire spot, and it is possible to grill food there. At the entrance there is a lookout, but if you climb a little bit more and go behind the kota-shelter, you will get an even better view.

The day is short in Lapland during the winter, but the colors of the polar night are amazing. And what could be better than to climb high to watch a beautiful sunset?

The best winter days are ahead now that the spring comes with the sunny days!

Spending the New Year’s Eve in Lapland – Happy New Year 2019!

We have already passed the winter solstice and days are getting longer, but the polar night is still going on in Lapland. There’s only around four hours of day light depending on which part of Lapland you are, and the colours of the Polar Night are magical in the winter wonderland throughout the short day.

Together with a group of friends we rented a cottage in Enontekiö, which is located in the North-West of Lapland near the Ylläs-Pallastunturi National Park. In this area it is pitch black during the night, and with a clear sky all the stars and the Milky Way are visible. We also had a lot of powder snow and just quiet backwoods around.

This was propably one of the best New Year’s Eves at least in my opinion, since everything was so calm and quiet and not a single fire work was seen. Only the nature’s own fire works; the northern lights. It was pretty awesome to end the year 2018 seeing auroras in the wilderness. For me it was the first time to capture them on camera! Although I live in Finland, and even not in the southern part where there are more human made lights, I’ve seen the northern lights only a couple of time in my life.

On the New Year’s Eve we grilled sausages by the camp fire on a Finnish laavu (lean-to) shelter, I was skiing cross country and on the evening we had sauna in our cottage and just had relaxing time before the polar lights!

On my behalf I wish you all a happy new year 2019! May it be great and filled with outdoor experiences spent in the nature!

Christmas in Finnish Lapland

After 3 months of being on student exchange, the time had come for me to embark on a long-awaited Christmas adventure to snowy Finnish Lapland. This experience is literally the polar opposite of what it’s like in my home country, sunny Australia. I was especially looking forward to the untouched nature and of course the elusive northern lights.

On the long bus journey, we stopped over at Santa’s village in Rovaniemi and walked across the arctic circle. It can’t get any more Christmas vibe than this!

After over 12 hours of being on a bus, my group finally arrived at the pine-tree filled winter wonderland that was Saariselkä. We were staying in a rustic wooden log cabin complete with a fireplace and sauna.

Picturesque log cabins are where you can expect to stay at in Lapland.

There was fluffy snow up to the knees everywhere. Being above the arctic circle, this time of year is the polar night, where the Sun does not rise for several weeks. However, there were about 3 to 4 hours each day with twilight conditions. Being an avid aurora-chaser, it makes for an ideal opportunity to catch a glimpse of the northern lights – if only the clouds stay away at night.

The local area around where I was staying… so pristine and natural.

Beyond searching for the elusive northern lights, this place was an amazing location for a wide variety of activities that I tried, including husky-sledding, snow-shoeing, skiing, sauna, ice-swimming and of course nature photography. It was especially great to meet some husky puppies. But more than anything, it’s a place to wind down and take in the quiet and fresh air of the nature on short walks. It was indeed one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been.

I actually have a very funny story to tell about my phone whilst husky-sledding. After my turn on the sled was complete, I realised my new Finnish Nokia smartphone had fallen out of my pocket (duh!) and into the snow somewhere in the arctic wilderness.

Husky-sledding in the arctic.

After lunch, the tour guide and my friends decided to make a search party. Walking through the snowy wilderness in the fading light conditions at 2pm, there seemed to be little hope, but the untouched and silent nature was just surreal. Suddenly, at the very end of the journey we found just a tiny bit of the phone sticking out of the snow. It was basically a block of ice.

But it was still on! And to my great surprise — still at 75 percent battery. The next thing to do is typically Finnish — to take the phone to the sauna so the ice can melt.

And this plan worked! Because afterwards it was working perfectly fine.

Lapland with its photogenic forests.

On the first night, I was most eager to see the northern lights. There were good geomagnetic conditions for aurora, so it was promising. That’s until I stepped out of the warmth of the cabin to see that the sky was mostly full of cloud. Nevertheless, I went outside as there was a few gaps where I could see a star or two. After walking around the village and shooting photos without luck for over an hour in -10 degrees, it was time to head to bed.

Then I awoke suddenly to find my cabin-buddies announcing that the northern lights would be visible soon! Half-asleep, I looked out the window to see nothing. I thought the window was facing north, but it was actually facing south, a mistake that would bite me this night.

I managed to find my compass which pointed me north, and by the time I got outside, there was only a very faint polar light show, with cloud rolling in again. The others who reacted faster saw a much better show this night.

Finnish Lapland is one of the best places in the world to see the enchanting northern lights. Photocredit: Jonna Saari.

The next night, in even colder and windier conditions, more luck was on my side, but only for a good twenty minutes. The skies cleared briefly just at the right moment to see a band of aurora flickering overhead and down to the horizon. I managed to get this photo before it clouded over again.

No matter how many times I have seen the lights, or how impressive they have been, it is always immensely exciting!

A brief show of the northern lights in the forested fells of Lapland in the midst of the long polar night.

The next night had even better auroral conditions, but it was cloudy and snowing heavily so there was no point of going outside. The following (and final night) there was a few hours of clear skies in the early evening, but the auroral conditions were so weak that only those on the aurora tours managed to see them, and only briefly. Though I did hear of a couple who got engaged as soon as they saw them! That’s definitely a Christmas to remember for them. And for us, it was for sure an adventure to look back on!

The blue twilight hour falls relatively early in the afternoon at this time of year in Lapland.

Our flag is white and blue, and so is our nature – happy Independence Day Finland!

On December 6 Finland celebrates 101 years of independence. Happy birthday Finland! On the flag of Finland there’s a blue Nordic cross on a white background. To show you how blue and white our nature can be, here are some photos that I have taken over the years in Lapland. Enjoy! 

Reindeer in Utsjoki, Lapland. This photo was taken on March 2015.

A woman drinking water from a stream in Muonio, Lapland. December 2015.

Pallas fells photographed during polar night in Muonio, Lapland. December 2015.

A café and some snowy trees on the top of Levi fell in Kittilä. January 2016.

Watching auroras in Kittilä. December 2016.

A birch forest in Utsjoki, Lapland. February 2017.

Perfect silence. Sompio Strict Nature Reserve, Sodankylä, Lapland. December 2018.

Black dog in a white forest. March 2017.

A view from the top of Kaunispää Fell in Inari, Lapland. March 2017.

Snowy birch in Sodankylä. March 2017.

 

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.

If you find my pictures interesting, I would appreciate it if you could follow my stories on Instagram @anttiphotography. Thank you!

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.

 

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.

Admiring the beauty of autumn from the highest point in the national park of Pyhä-Luosto

➡️ 14 km
🔥 3
📌 Location
⚫⚫⚫ Challenging

Since the weather was perfect to go on a bit more challenging hike, I decided to pay a visit to Noitatunturi fell located in Pyhä. This hike has been on my mind for quite some time now, but since the weather has to be good (dry, no snow etc.) I still hadn’t had the chance to actually go, until now! Of course my huskies, my partner and a friend were excited to join me, so off we went!

We started our hike from the parking area of hotel Pyhätunturi and headed in the direction of the Isokuru lapp hut. From there we made our way down by using the staircase and started following ‘the trail to Noitatunturi fell‘ which is marked with the colour green.

The trail is quite demanding since there are a lot of rocks and steep climbs to get to the top of the fell, but the trip is totally worth it, especially because of the constantly changing scenery. At the beginning of the trail the autumn colours were still doing their best to develop. Once we were a little bit further along the trail, the autumn colours were starting to fill the scenery and they made us even more excited to make our journey to the top.

Since this was a very tough trail for us, it was even harder for my huskies, especially for my puppy. Even though he is not that small anymore (6 months old), he is still not allowed to walk these kind of heavy trails. Luckily he is trained to sit in a backpack, but this is probably going to be the last time we’ll use the backpack for him (you might understand this when you see the picture below).

After some hard work we finally arrived to the top, which meant that the toughest part of the trail was now behind us. We took some time to enjoy the spectacular view and took a little break for a drink and some fresh berries.

We continued our hike by making our way down the fell towards the Isokuru gorge. This part of the national park of Pyhä-Luosto is probably the most popular place to visit, which I totally understand since it is absolutely stunning. But the Isokuru gorge is not only pretty on the eyes – it is a big part of the cultural history. For instance Pyhänkasteenputous Waterfall, which is located in the gorge, is a holy place for the Sami people.

Want to know more about Pyhä’s history? Then go check out this article!

Making your way through the gorge is really easy nowadays, since there is a well maintained wooden pathway and staircases. There is also a trail that will lead you through the gorge without having to climb Noitatunturi, ‘Karhunjuomalampi trail‘.

At the end of the gorge there is a staircase leading back to Isokuru lapp hut, from where we made our way back to the car again.

Now matter how tired and sore our feet were afterwards, we wouldn’t have wanted to miss the great memories of hiking this trail with it’s amazing scenery. Not sure if our dogs were thinking the same, only thing I do know is that they felt the same tiredness as we did, they almost slept through the whole following day. Luckily we have some great pictures to remember Noitatunturi dressed in the most stunning autumn colours, before they will be buried underneath the snow again.