It’s on every list of must-see places, so Stephen McClarence goes in search of the Northern Lights.
Two or three times a week for the past 20 years, my wife has fixed me with a death stare and said: “Steve, when are we going to see the Northern Lights?” I’ve tried to fob her off. They don’t really exist, I say. They’re a photographic hoax. A trick of the light. That’s right, she says, a trick of the light. That’s Why I Want To See Them. The death stare intensifies.
Well, the moment has finally come. At the tail-end of winter, we’re off to see them; we hope. The small print on the “documentation” says they can’t be guaranteed. God doesn’t always flick the switch. All the same, in the dim grey light of a West Yorkshire dawn, we turn up at Leeds Bradford Airport to fly to Kiruna, a Swedish town 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Much further north and you zip over the North Pole and start heading south to Alaska.
We land, board a coach and, with a soundtrack of Elvis cover versions on the PA, drive through Lapland, the region stretching across north Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. For two hours we speed north-east for mile after dead-straight mile through a flat landscape of snow and spindly trees. Every now and then we glimpse a wood-board house, but it’s not clear why, as there don’t seem to be any people here.
Eventually we reach Karesuando, a village straddling the Muonio river, with one half in Sweden and the other in Finland. Sweden is one hour ahead of GMT; Finland is two. This guarantees great merriment on New Year’s Eve, when revellers see in the New Year on the Finnish side, stagger across the bridge, and do it all over again an hour later on the Swedish side. Two New Years for the price of one crate of beer.
We check into the Davvi Arctic Lodge, a resort on the Finnish side. “You should have been here last night,” says another guest. “The Northern Lights were awesome.” Her turn for a death stare.
The Arctic Lodge, staffed almost entirely by non-Finns, has warm, comfortable cabins, some with their own saunas, and with the option of IKEA-like “Arctic wilderness luxury” and “sumptuous Scandinavian chic”. It has friendly staff (notably Mandy Angus, an experienced and inexhaustibly cheerful guide, originally from Huddersfield) and food that ranges from the hearty (potato and cheese soup) to the basic (tasteless spaghetti). The chefs have creative ways with sweetcorn, and how nice to be reacquainted with tinned fruit cocktail after 30 years, and to discover that chocolate brownies are a “Special of the Arctic”.
The lodge’s packages include such activities as husky and snowmobile safaris and trips to reindeer camps.
Optional extras are not cheap. Two hours of ice-fishing (“Once you have drilled a hole in the ice, you may even be able to catch your lunch!”) costs £85 per person; an Igloo Interlude, a night in an igloo, costs £120; and a nine-hour excursion to a moose park and the celebrated Ice Hotel will set you back £200.
Northern Lights update: At 9pm, we zip ourselves into Mr Blobby-style snow suits (winter temperatures plummet to -30C) and climb the hill behind the lodge to join the crowds anxiously scanning the sky.
“Amazing last night! A six-out-of-ten-er.”
“I once saw an eight.”
“It’s a long cloud.”
Time for bed.
Next morning, we’re driven through a landscape of runic trees to a dog camp, where Clare, my wife, joins a husky safari across a snow-covered frozen lake. The dog teams yelp and howl behind their sledges, desperate to get going, and one or two show a keen sexual interest in each other. As the final yelp fades in the distance, I follow the dogs’ path, crunching through snow that dazzles like diamonds in the bright sun. When I stand still and listen, there is nothing to hear: under a pure blue sky streaked with cirrus clouds, the stillness and solitude seem absolute.
After lunch, Quincy Connell, an invaluable outdoor guide who morphs into Santa when necessary, drives us to the small town of Hetta. Here, an absorbing museum celebrates the culture of the Sami, Europe’s last indigenous people. There are 70,000 of these nomadic reindeer herders – formerly called Lapps – and the exhibitions weave their “culture of wandering” into the natural world, and the seasons, that inspire it. They have 400 words to describe reindeer – their sizes, colours, antler spreads and fur textures – but their way of life is inevitably changing. Some now use snowmobiles to herd their animals.
Afterwards, we browse round the local supermarket. They’re big on braised reindeer and sauted elk meat here. Some houses have wire cages on their roofs, where people hang meat to keep it frozen. Others have reindeer pelts splayed on their outside walls, as though Rudolph forgot to stop. Splat!
Come 9pm and we climb the hill again. Fellow guests are staring fixedly at the sky, willing the Northern Lights to appear. According to Finnish legend, the Lights are “fox fires”, created as an Arctic fox sweeps the snows with its brush and sends sparks shooting up into the sky.
Suddenly: Oooh, Aaah, Look at that, Yesss, Yesssss... the Northern Lights appear, like a pale green chiffon scarf swirling and shimmering through the stars. For an hour, they weave and dance, constantly changing shape and intensity, in an exhilarating gala performance.
On the flight home, Clare turns to me: “Steve, when are we going to see the Northern Lights again?”
Transun (01865 265200, www.transun.co.uk) offers two, three, four and seven-night Northern Lights trips from £699 per person. They include international flights, half-board accommodation, transfers, loan of a snow suit and boots, snowmobile and husky safaris and a visit to a reindeer camp. Departures from mid-November include flights from Humberside, Leeds Bradford and Manchester airports.