When friends invited my husband Otto and I to celebrate New Year’s with them at a family cottage in Lapland, I was excited at first. After fourteen years of Helsinki living, I’d not once been north of Middle-Finland, mostly because the long, dreary winters push us south at every opportunity. But now, the generous offer of a place to stay and promise of spending rare time with Leena and Reima in Saariselkä, the village where they had gotten married, made a mini-vacation there sound enticing.
Yet, Otto and I hesitated. North of the Arctic Circle, where Saariselkä is located, the sun hibernates for much of January, during what the Finns call “Kaamos.” For us travelers, this meant it would mostly remain dark during our entire stay—and possibly bitter cold. Average temperatures at that time of year vary between -10 to -19C. I envisioned us with our friends, banished inside the cottage, sitting in our long johns and downing Lapin Kulta beers while playing Scrabble (in Finnish, no easy feat!) and Charades.
“Mennään!” I finally told Otto. “It’s only four days. We didn’t have a white Christmas, so let’s go see some snow.”
We agreed not to bring our skis and instead explore the village and environs in our snow boots. Maybe the aurora borealis would even make an appearance and brighten up the skies, if we were lucky.
On New Year’s Eve, Otto and I boarded the 1 hour 40 minute Finnair flight to Ivalo, Finland’s northernmost airport. Initially, the sun shone brightly above the clouds, but as soon as we flew over Rovaniemi (where Joulupukki, or Finnish Santa lives), the sky turned pitch black. I wondered aloud if this was Nature’s way of deterring tourists now that Christmas was over and Joulupukki was taking a much-needed nap.
Leena and Reima picked us up at the airport and took us to the spacious cottage, which had been constructed from kelo wood, a special kind of timber with a silver-gray tint that’s native to the Arctic. Our accommodation came with three bedrooms, a sauna, and a fireplace. Joo! Otto lit the fire and a bunch of candles while I unpacked, and soon we settled in for a cozy dinner with our friends.
As the countdown to midnight began, we all went out into the unseasonably warm (-5C) evening to walk our friends’ dogs in a nearby forest. We had no flashlight but didn’t need one, as the fireworks soon began and colorful sparks of pink, orange, and silver filled the skies. The silhouette affect on the surrounding wooden barns and snow laden firs created an image of eerie beauty. I stood, transfixed, and reached for my camera.
The next few days were spent walking along the snow-packed trails of Urho Kekkonen Park, which wove through miles of pristine forests and small clusters of charming kelo-wood homes. On day one, we discovered the Savottakahvila Café along the route and returned for homemade hernekeitto (pea soup) and a chance to thaw out in front of the enormous stone fireplace.
But the highlight of our trip was yet to come: a sleigh ride at Saariselkä Reindeer Farm, owned and operated by a local Sami family that offers reindeer “safaris” in an authentic setting. The staff outfitted us with thick snowsuits and tucked us into our private sleigh with a wool blanket. We spent the next hour and a half “dashing through the snow” (well, not exactly) and staring in awe at the blue-tinged landscape.
Sadly, our mini-vacation ended too soon, but not without one last surprise. On the way back to Ivalo Airport, Reima and Leena stopped at the wooden Saariselkä chapel where they’d gotten married many years before. Inside, Reima serenaded us with “Panis Angelicus,” the same piece he’d sung to his bride and their guests on their wedding day. As I listened to the César Franck melody and gazed at the panoramic windows behind the altar, I thought I might levitate through the glass and up to the majestic fir trees.
Although we never did see the aurora borealis due to the cloudy weather, Otto and I returned home deeply satisfied with the beautiful lighting, natural and man-made, we had seen in Lapland. As we start to consider 2020 summer vacation plans, exploring more of northern Finland is high on my list, but not his.
“The mosquitoes are as big as this,” he warned me, making a fist, “and extremely aggressive. Don’t you remember those Lapland Mosquito Air Force T-shirts they sell at the fish market?”
Squirm. No matter how much repellant I wear, those pesky creatures always have a way of finding me. But, after our wonderful midwinter trip, I was feeling optimistic.
“Maybe the weather will be so bright and sunny that there won’t be any mosquitoes in Lapland this summer,” I said.
“Katsotaan,” Otto said, his favorite go-to, non-commital Finnish word.
Let’s see, indeed. That gives me six months to change his mind.