Nothing matches the magical feeling of walking through a white forest between trees collapsing under the weight of the snow, as the wind gently caresses the branches and blows a few snowflakes into the forest air. The snow is airy like a fresh bed comforter and your leg sinks almost knee-deep every step you make. I take a deep breath and feel the frozen air fill my nose and lungs. My breath creates white steam, which comes out of my nose like a screen of fog concealing the Arctic background.
I lead a group of 20 adventurers who are willing to go all the way to make their dreams come true. We all share the same fantasy and are all in the same hunt for the Northern Lights – the most magical phenomenon on earth.
The expanses in Lapland are endless and we want to experience and get as many photos as we can in a short time. So we find the perfect solution: snowmobiles - loud and smoky beasts that will carry us for hundreds of kilometers and experiences. After an important safety briefing we get on the snowmobiles and slightly turn the throttle. The engine and our heartbeats start rushing as we hit the road!
As we begin a steep descent into the river an open expanse is revealed, inviting us to pick up speed. As the wind whispers I hear the horizon calling me. I feel like a Mongolian horseman as I turn the throttle all the way. The snowmobile roars, raises its nose and leaps forward with fury. I thought riding wasn’t physically exhausting, but the adrenaline and the firm grip of the handles require a considerable effort as we start exiting the river towards the big Lake Inarijärvi.
In the North Pole the sun doesn’t shine at all during the winter, and never sets during the summer. We are there in February, when the sun appears for a low orbit of the southern skies, setting as early as 4:30. But due to our angle in relation to the sun, the sunset takes over an hour, painting the sky in shades of red, orange and pink. Night begins to fall, and it’s so dark we can only see as far as the flashlights illuminate. During the entire ride I look up, but the sky is black and I sigh in disappointment. Maybe tomorrow.
Morning arrives and it’s still dark outside. We jump out of bed full of energy for a new day of adventures. Today we are crossing the border into Norway en route to the northern fjords. After a quick breakfast we are on our snowmobiles, heading out to the nearby river, setting course north towards the Norwegian border.
Riding conditions in Norway are totally different from what we’ve seen so far. The hills are covered in thick vegetation and the thick snow hinders our movement, making it much more exhausting.
A steep descent forces me to lean back and constantly hold the brakes as I glide to the bottom of the valley. The air here is different. You can smell the ocean, which suggests we’re approaching our target. We move on to the edge of the valley, climb up the ridge and then the full glory of the northern fjords is revealed to us. We have reached the northernmost point of our journey. We leave our snowmobiles on the side of the road and run towards the deep blue enclosed in pure white.
The fjord waters look unlike anything I have seen. The rocks at the bottom are totally frozen and the gentle gushes make it seem as if we’re in an entirely different world. I take off my gloves and dip my hands in the freezing water to feel the ice at the bottom. My earlier thought of going in for a swim is ruled out instantly. The mountains crashing into the sea and the nearby frozen waterfall are awe-inspiring. We sit down on the banks of the fjord, listen to the powerful quiet and try to grasp where we are. The stark difference between this place and the daily reality we just came from a few days ago is inconceivable.
We pull out the tripods from the back of the snowmobiles and photograph the fjord with a variety of lenses and filters in order to get the best out of this magical place. But we still feel that, no matter what we do, our attempts to capture the wonders of nature cannot portray the full beauty we are witnessing. Time is of the essence and we still have about 100 kilometers to travel back to our inn in Finland. We climb the mountains and peaks of the fjords until the waters of the Arctic Ocean disappear for the last time.
We arrive back at the inn. The smell of hot food coming out of the chimney tempts us to come inside for dinner. We are so hungry we start sprinting to our rooms to take off the snowsuits quickly and then sit down to eat the tasty food that was made for us.
After dinner we peek outside the window. The clear skies are a good sign. This means we have a good chance of seeing the aurora borealis. Our latitude, 69 degrees north, is at the peak of the strip where the northern lights appear. That it is the month of February during a year of strong solar activity significantly boosts our chances of witnessing it. We dress as warmly as possible, wearing almost all of the clothes we have, and go out to the Arctic night hoping to witness the marvel of nature. As we move away from the cabin, one of the participants yells: “Guys! I see green strips in the sky!” We all start racing towards a clearing in the woods, hoping to get an open view of the sky. We look up and can’t believe our eyes. The delicate strips appear, increasing into a powerful horizontal paintbrush movement above our heads. We hysterically open our tripods and try to capture whatever we can from this wonderful sight, while keeping our eyes on the sky.
I run around between everyone, helping one guy open his tripod and another to calibrate the image. A third member of the group calls me just to ask if the photo he took is good. The northern lights slowly wind and swirl from side to side like a royal sky snake. Some of the guys scream in uncontrollable excitement. Those of us who aren’t photographers lie back on the snow and look with our own eyes, saving the sight in the hard drive of our hearts. The lights come and go in waves for nearly an hour, and we stand humble before this phenomenon, which people have worshiped since the dawn of time. We totally understand why. No other phenomenon makes people go so crazy. When the lights disappear we lie on the soft snow that takes on our shape, look at the starry sky with the North Star right above us, and try to grasp what we have just experienced. Our hearts are still beating, and we still hear shouts of happiness from those looking at their camera monitors to review the amazing photos they have just taken.
The church bells on my iPhone alarm clock wake me up and I jump out of bed, ready for another day of riding, knowing it’s the last day of the journey. We must enjoy it to the fullest. After a quick breakfast we say goodbye to Eva for the last time and head back south through the huge Lake Inari towards the city of Inari, which is located at its southern tip. We pass through a few islands peeking out of the white plains of the frozen lake. I try to imagine the landscape in the summer when our road is actually a big blue lake with countless birds nesting in the trees on the islands, enjoying sunlight around the clock. The residents of Lapland are lucky. They don’t have to travel abroad to have a diverse life. Their geography changes completely every month. From a freezing winter full of solid lakes and rivers to a blooming spring and eventually a summer with eternal sunshine and the ecstasy of millions of animals, followed by an autumn of golden foliage before going back to the cold winter.
The familiar terrain from the beginning of the trail two days ago reminds us that our journey is almost over. The Ivalo hotel, where we met the wild beasts we rode for three days, is already visible on the hill and we make our final approach to the snowy parking lot behind it. I take my bag off the snowmobile’s cargo, stroke it for the last time, thanking it for an unforgettable experience, and turn the engine for the last time. The 800cc machine goes silent. The whole group convenes. I think I see everyone holding the same farewell ceremony that I did for my snowmobile. Maybe I’m not the only nut here. We say goodbye to the wonderful instructors who guided us through this extreme journey, get on the bus in total silence, take a last look at the wild landscape and wonder: Is this real or are we waking up from a dream?
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