We saw the Northern Lights.
And what made the experience so special was the unpredictability of the fickle phenomenon. Unlike most sights there is no certainty with the aurora borealis. There may be meteorological forecasts to predict the likelihood of seeing these mysterious lights, because their appearance is contingent on the levels of magnetic disturbance (scientifically, it is a combination of the solar wind burst, solar wind-magnetosphere interaction processes, and certain magnetospheric phenomena) and the absence of cloud cover, though one could never be certain. Luck is of the essence, especially when Finland’s winter has been pretty unusual, if both factors were to converge.
We were lucky – very.
When we landed at Ivalo airport on Saturday we figured that our chances were extremely slim. On our bus ride to our hotel it was snowing heavily, and the sun was tucked behind the thick clouds. I recall Clement or Wei Leong remarking amidst different activities that it was okay even if we did not get to see the lights, but I think we knew that the trip would not be complete without it. After all we had travelled over 1,100 kilometres from Helsinki, almost 300 kilometres from Rovaniemi, known by tourists as the official hometown of Santa Claus.
The moments before the sighting were pretty incredible. It was the second night. We had returned from a 100-kilometre journey further up North to see a herd of reindeer, and on our way back the sky was pitch-black. There were no stars. I told myself that all we needed was a single star to shine through. That little glimmer of hope. Strong gusts of wind were blowing, and before she left our guide had suggested that we should stay up for a little bit.
Back in the hotel room we were a little deflated. I checked a few forecasts on the Internet, and my Twitter account was buzzing with reports of sightings in the other countries. There were signs of moderate electromagnetic activity. Not strong, but good enough for a sighting.
While I fiddled with my phone I went into a fifteen-minute routine of shuffling to the hotel balcony and back to the room. The first time, nothing. The second time, “hold on, is that a star in the sky…” Excitement builds a little. The third time, there were a few more stars. And in the horizon where the clouds began to part a little there were green streaks around its edges. I paused. Rubbed my eyes a little. Dashed back to the room to grab the duo, who promptly confirmed what I had witnessed. We got dressed, armed ourselves with the tripod and camera, and headed straight for the lake where a small crowd had already gathered.
And there it was. The light show lasted for a good fifteen minutes. I was delirious.
As my travel companions fiddled with the camera and rattled a string of photography jargon I just looked up to take everything in. It was unforgettable. Etched in my mind are those luminous, fascinating flashes of green.
Earlier, our interactions with the reindeers were a little more meaningful, because a day-trip to the national museum Siida had given us a better understanding of the Sami people and community. The exhibitions – the video footages and interviews in particular – were informative. Reindeer-herding is central to the livelihood of the community, because the animal is a source for food, for shelter, and for clothing. The herder we met is one of the few thousand Sami people actively involved in the trade, and an interesting custom we confirmed is that each reindeer is marked at the ear with a specific pattern. This mark is unique to the herder, but it bears resemblance to the patterns of preceding and succeeding generations. For instance, a senior herder would have marked his reindeers with a diagonal cut by the side, and his son or daughter would supplement that diagonal cut with a circular hole above it.
Nowadays however, the ear-markings are coupled by painted numbers on the hides of the reindeers.
Visiting the reindeers is a popular activity in Lapland – a general term used for the northernmost regions of Finland – though visitors often see, pat, and photograph these creatures in zoological facilities instead. Adventure companies offering dog sled rides to travellers are ubiquitous too. Our host at the Wild Spirit Park was knowledgeable and hospitable, and his family of Nordic animals was raised and groomed beautifully.
In all we spent three days in Ivalo and Inari, most of the time taking in the spectacular winter sights and braving the freezing winds. We trekked through a pine and birch forest with its snow-capped trees; we walked three kilometres with our bags and a bulky luggage to the aforementioned animal safari, and hitched a free ride back to the city, moments after I had proclaimed to Wei Leong that “no one would ever stop on a highway to pick three random dudes up”; and we trudged over the frozen Lake Inari, overwhelmed by its vast expanse. We also watched the Finland ice hockey team trounce the United States in a local pub, while munching on a pizza, kebabs, and a smoked reindeer burger. All was good.
When I went to bed on the second night I was grinning like a three-year-old who had just had his first snow encounter. But beyond that feeling of joy it was a profound sense of gratefulness and thankfulness: grateful that I was sharing these experiences in great company, and thankful that I had the opportunity to travel at a young age. I suppose staying abroad for a couple of months and traipsing from city to city has made me more appreciative of my privileges.
It was not the most wondrous display of the aurora borealis. It could have been brighter. It could have lasted for a longer time. It could have covered half the sky. There could have been less cloud cover. There could have been more stars. There could have been more flashes. An analogy of life? Perhaps. Yet in those fifteen minutes under the lights and stars it was – for me – all about the moment.
And so, on the imaginary bucket list: See the Northern Lights.
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