Ghost riders in the sky

Northern Lights seen over Lake Inari, Finland
Northern Lights seen over Lake Inari, Finland
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Tempted by promises of the best display in 50 years Sarah Marshall travels to Finland in search of the Northern Lights.

There are numerous scientific explanations for the enigmatic aurora borealis, more commonly known as the Northern Lights, but Lapland’s Sami people have their own understanding.

“My grandma would tell stories about a fox racing across the hills to reach home,” says Markku, a Finnish photographer who chases the lights on nightly safaris. “He moved so quickly, it looked like his tail was on fire, blazing across the sky.”

According to NASA, the Northern Lights are currently at their most powerful in 50 years, with activity at a peak until March next year. Markku, whose family run the cosy Wilderness Hotel in northern Finnish village Nellim, which sits above the Arctic Circle, claims his hometown is one of the best places to observe the Earth’s greatest light display.

He boasts of seeing the aurora 240 days a year – 24-hour daylight hampers the remaining 125 – and says at times the lights have been so powerful they’ve caused electricity to stop working in the village.

Low horizons and a lack of light pollution certainly provide favourable conditions for the lights, while the nearby pine forest-fringed Lake Inari is an attractive setting for budding photographers.

Markku was just 12 when he returned home from a disco and witnessed a burning whirlpool overhead. It moved so quickly, he feared it might actually gobble him up. Such activity, known as a corona, is an aurora-hunter’s holy grail, often occurring after a night of intense activity. Sightings are rare but, as Markku enthusiastically points out, not impossible.

Seduced by swirling images and colourful stories, we head out, driving along icy roads into the forest. Rows of tall, thin pine trees stretch into infinity, standing to attention like obedient sentinels guarding the nearby Russian border.

We stop and set up our camera tripods on a bridge crossing Lake Inari, which is only just beginning to freeze. If the lights do turn up, we’ll be treated to a dazzling display of reflections.

But there’s still one vital element missing – stars. To see the lights, we need a clear sky.

We sit and wait, as the temperature drops below zero. But after two hours, all we have for our trouble is a faint glimmer picked up by our camera sensors. Disappointed, we head to a campfire to warm up.

Ever the optimist, Markku tries to reassure us. “Don’t worry, I have a 100 per cent success rate with guests. I’m not about to break that now,” he promises.

In reality, there’s no guarantee for seeing the aurora. A number of websites chart solar activity and offer predictions, and there’s even a phone app that allegedly sends alerts when the lights are playing ball. None are particularly reliable.

Trips aren’t cheap and it’s a long way to travel, but one way to get the most out of a holiday is to combine nightly aurora safaris with daytime activities.

Options at the Wilderness Hotel include forest walks and boat rides to one of the 3,000 islands in Lake Inari, or snowmobiling and ice fishing in winter.

Lotta, a laid-back tomboy with a devious sense of humour, leads us on a trek through the forest, collecting lingonberries to make a sauce for tonight’s dinner: reindeer meat with creamy mashed potato.

After reaching the top of a hill, we search for wood to build a campfire and barbecue sausages. Lotta pulls out an axe and starts to chop a trunk already blown over by the wind.

The sense of space is overwhelming; there are only 150 residents in Nellim, most earning their trade as reindeer herders. But don’t ever ask a local how many reindeer they own; it’s a social faux pas tantamount to quizzing a city worker about the size of his pay packet.

There’s no village centre as such, although a simple, wooden Orthodox church buried in the woods provides a meeting point for the community. At Tankavaara, where prospectors first struck gold in 1870, the Goldpanning Finnish Open (where prospectors from all over the world compete) still takes place here every summer, but during winter tourists can hone their gold-hunting skills indoors at the museum.

We have lunch at the Goldprospector’s Restaurant, where Europe’s northernmost jazz festival, Kaamosjazz, is held every November. Owner Petti, a former prospector, has decorated the quirky space with record sleeves and a collection of 1,500 empty beer cans.

It’s our final night at the Wilderness Hotel, and Markku is determined to find the show we were all expecting. Wearing insulated body suits and snow boots borrowed from the hotel, we set off determined to stay out all night if we have to. But we don’t have to wait long for a star; the sky is peppered with silver flecks, some falling like burning embers. At midnight, a band of green light sweeps gently across the horizon like a blade of grass swaying in the wind.

By 4am, my feet are frozen numb and a layer of thin ice has formed on the back of my jacket. But my patience is finally rewarded. Dancing across the horizon like a neon ribbon trailed by a rhythmic gymnast, the aurora has woken up. Playful, flirtatious and unpredictable, she’s much more seductive than I imagined. I could stay here for hours. Markku spends every night searching for the lights and claims he’s never seen the same show twice.

The lights have been a triumph but the appeal of Nellim is actually far greater. This is a true wilderness, where space and silence are luxuries to be cherished. Along with a handful of humans, only reindeer, bears, wolves and lynx reside here – along with a fox, still racing nightly across the sky.

Getting there

Sarah Marshall was a guest of The Aurora Zone (01670 785 012, on its Autumn Lights over Lake Inari small-group tour, which runs from October to November. In 2013, the tour costs from £1,345 pp (based on two sharing) including flights, transfers, three nights’ full board, expert guiding and activities as described. The company also offers a Winter Lights over Lake Inari tour, with regular departures and good availability until March 2013. It costs from £1,425 per person with the same inclusions, plus warm winter clothing and boots.