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5 Random Things From A Week in The Arctic Circle

So the last week I’ve spent up in Finland and Norway, far from civilization – a place where reindeer far outnumber people, and darkness far outweighs light.  Here’s what it’s been like.

1) Getting there

Back a number of months ago The Girl and I, along with a few friends, decided that we wanted to go check out the Northern Lights.  After a boatload of research, we settled on a tour operator in Northern Finland.  Though, only just barely Northern Finland, a few hundred yards away was the border to Norway.  Either way, it was well into the Arctic Circle, and well away from everyone:

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Getting there took about as long as it would to fly non-stop to Tokyo.  We left for the airport at 8AM Monday morning, and got into the camp around 10:30PM.  That included a ~2.5 hour flight to Helsinki, then a few hour layover, then another ~2hr flight to Ivalo.  Then waiting for the group to group-up, then another ~2.5hr drive north on snow and ice to the camp.

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The camp was four small cabins on the Anarjohka River that divides Norway from Finland in that area.  Nothing fancy, we’d cook all our own food for the week based on what we got at the grocery store on the way up.  The guides were mostly just there to drive us around the countryside at night finding holes in the clouds, and in the event we found a hole in the cloud, then they’d assist in terms of explaining the auroras and/or finding better places to see them.

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Note that the airport in Ivalo has precisely two flights per day.  One in the morning, and one in the evening.  Interestingly though, it has 6 gates.

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Though, I believe the term ‘gates’ is used rather flexibly, given there were no jetways, just a giant slab of concrete for the planes:

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Still, it’s the thought that counts.

2) The Northern Lights

Our main goal of being up here was to see the Northern Lights.  While I’ve seen them once before from an airplane over Alaska, they were pretty faint.  So we went to the source this time.

The thing is, seeing northern lights basically comes down to two factors:

A) Is it cloudy?
B) Is there magnetic activity?

In our case, the answer to both questions was regretfully yes.  Almost the entire time.  While we had awesome magnetic activity…we lacked a clear sky.  Instead, we got 5 days of cloud cover:

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Lots and lots of cloud cover:

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The way the tours worked is that they’d drive around trying to find ‘holes’ in the clouds, from which you could then see the lights above it.  On average we’d drive about 5 hours each night in the van:

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It was a lot of driving around on icy roads.  No really, a crapton of time.

In our case, luck wasn’t really on our side.  For all of that time driving around, we got one pit stop worth where the clouds parted briefly in a small hole above our head, allowing us just a handful of shots:

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And that’s about it.  We’d often see the green hue of the lights through the clouds – but nothing that’d really come out well in photos unfortunately.

Still, the guide was great and super-knowledgeable, but ultimately there’s only so much you can do if the weather doesn’t cooperate.

Now that we somewhat understand how the ‘system works’, we might just pick a time in January or February and come back up and give it another whirl on our own.  Hopefully to a spot that’s a little bit easier to get to than Utgard.

Of course, it’s unlikely that if you went DIY style that your camp would have a teepee, which we did luck out on.

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The teepee was the place to be!

3) Rudolf the Reindeer

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Just down the road from us was a gigantic reindeer farm.  But in reality, you could see reindeer all over the place, occasionally on the road in front of us and often near the roads too.  The above sign is actually I think for a moose, but, same-same (sorta).

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A few minute walk from the cabins was a small house that had a single reindeer kept on their side yard in a fairly large chunk of enclosed land.  This reindeer was not exactly the most fearless, as we’d have to stand there a heck of a long time for it to become comfortable with us and wander closer.

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I’d run by it twice each run as well, for which it didn’t seem happy about.  Imagine if I had put bells on my shoes (again), it’d been even more unhappy.

Here’s another photo of reindeer, this one on the way back to the airport Friday night.  Not a great shot, just on my cell phone:

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Would have been cool to see them out in daylight more, but alas not a lot of luck there.

4) Lots of snow & ice running

The one thing we did get in though is a lot of snow and ice running.  There weren’t really any maintained hiking trails in the area, but they did keep a running path along the road cleaned up (removed excess snow).  So we ran all but one day there.

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Once the running path ended near the border though, it was just onto the roads.  So we pretty much tried to keep our running to the couple of daylight hours we had each day.

With our favorite spot definitely being the border between the two countries, as it spanned a river.  It was also lit by lights for the border control officer, so kinda nice for the twilight hours.

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Some runs we did together, and then others we did separately.  Just depended on the goal for the run:

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One of the best parts about running this past week has been all of the cold-weather optical HR testing I’ve been able to do.  A great place to do it!  Also been interesting looking at changes/shifts in various running metrics while on snow, like running power (Stryd), Running Dynamics (Garmin), and the metrics that RunScribe has.

Now, what was even better is that for some odd reason our cabin had a gigantic drying fridge in it (the other cabins didn’t, though they had LCD screens whereas we had a VHS deck with an equally old TV).  This fridge-sized drying machine basically just had racks in it to dry your stuff.  You flipped a switch and 2,500w of heating awesomeness dried (and warmed) pretty much anything in a matter of 30-45 minutes.

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For those that want to look at maps, you can find all my runs uploaded to Strava here.

5) Hello Helsinki!

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Late Friday night we drove back to Ivalo and then for the two-segment flight back to Helsinki down south.  This would take us out of the Arctic Circle, though not out of Finland.

We spent most of Saturday just wandering around and exploring the city.  I’ve been to Helsinki before (in much much colder times, and also warmer times), but never to see much of the city.  Luckily, Saturday was Restaurant Day, where the city comes alive with impromptu food stalls everywhere.

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As explained to me, the idea behind this was initially rooted in a form of protest against the complexities and bureaucracies in opening a restaurant.  So many would come out and sell something, anything at all.  We saw countless kids that had variants of baked good stands, to other people selling even more random things that were definitely cooked out of their home kitchen.

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Of course, there were also many restaurants selling food too that looked like they were pretty established.

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I had enquired on Twitter earlier in the day for recommendations on restaurants.  Many folks replied back with great options.  Regrettably, everything was booked up.  We had checked availability online earlier in the day, and found nuttin.  But then we called around 4-5PM as the places opened up and found zilch.  We probably called 30-40 restaurants.  We did however manage to snag a table at Ravintoli Emo, which had an awesome tasting course menu:

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Here’s a handful of photos from that.  While it was in theory a ‘surprise’ menu, in reality basically all the dishes except one seemed to come from the à la carte list above.

Still, great food – with the deer and dessert being our favorites.

On Sunday, The Girl and I headed on a bit of a running tour around Helsinki, mostly just following the water’s edge:

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I’ve always found it super-easy to run in Helsinki, since you can largely just run on the running paths that trace the shoreline.  So tons of options.

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Following that we headed off to the airport and about three hours later found ourselves back home in Paris.  Now ready for a crazy busy week ahead with tons of sports tech sales on the docket.

Thanks for reading!

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38 Comments

  1. Sagar

    Feeling cold just looking at these photos! Brrr!

  2. Long Run Nock

    Great you guys could get away. Did Lucy miss you?

  3. Hello Ray, nice summary of the “basic rules” ;-) See above for some of the pictures I took in the almost three years I live here…

    Greetings from Tromsø, Tichy

  4. George

    A Møøse once bit my sister…

    • Inga

      No realli! She was Karving her initials on the møøse with the sharpened end of an interspace tøøthbrush given her by Svenge – her brother-in-law – an Oslo dentist and star of many Norwegian møvies: “The Høt Hands of an Oslo Dentist”, “Fillings of Passion”, “The Huge Mølars of Horst Nordfink”

    • Robert

      møøse bites Kan be pretti nasti

    • Paul Adams

      Those responsible for sacking the people who have just been sacked have been sacked.

    • Phil B

      Funny my grandma got ruin over by a reindeer coming home from our house on Christmas eve.

  5. Rob

    Arrive in Ivalo in the middle of “Santa’s Lapland” season when direct charter flights from all over converge and you’ll see why there are 6 gates! Still a relatively laid back little airport though!

  6. Maddy

    Hmmmm, my favourite food photos, yummy! Ray, how are you able to stay healthy all the time? Very often you change clima from summer to freezing winter in the span of few hours and you almost always run outside, providing these nice photo running guides in different places around the world. Do you have some secret tips to not catch cold? Since I think your advice probably won’t be not eating cakes/chocolate/ice cream etc., I’m not afraid to ask! ;-)

  7. It sure sounds great to be able to travel the world so much!!

  8. AndiT

    Hi Ray,

    Were they giving those Asics long sleeves out with the swag bag at Florence marathon? It looks pretty sweet!

  9. SteveT

    Ray,

    Did the guides talk about Sami culture or was it primarily atmospherics on those long drives?

    Steve

    • Almost exclusively around the lights. The guide was a Brit, so he was more on the science side than culture side. That said, they did offer a museum tour – but it was sorta the same as the other paid activities: Long multi-hour drives to get there, and then come back. We’d sorta had our fill of driving each day.

  10. Paul S

    Lousy attitude :-). There’s no such thing as “excess” snow.

    Get yourself some cross country skis. It pains me to see all that snow and you staying on a plowed road.

    We’ve seen Northern Lights that good from our home in Pennsylvania, although it’s rare that they come this far south.

    • Oh, let’s be clear – I love snow! I was trying to think of a way to phrase that, that wasn’t confusing. Since they didn’t plow per se, as there was still there. And still folks cross-country skiing too.

      Wish I had some skis there, would have loved that.

  11. Nemo

    6 gates and 2 flights a day? Sounds like Saint John’s, you all should have felt right at home!!! :-) Thanks for the details on the trip. I’d love to see Northern Lights, but even with Newfie blood running in my veins I can’t stand the cold or dark!

  12. Andre

    Moose are much bigger then reindeer. Adult male moose can weight more than twice as much as an adult male reindeer.

  13. Gingerneil

    You mentioned yaktrax on a previous post… Just wondering which version you go for? I meant to her some last year buy didn’t get round to it. Determined not to forget this year!

  14. Jon

    Ray,, what was your gear, specifically jacket/hat/pant/glove combo while up in Arctic Circle?

    • Oscar P

      IMO the question should be for The Girl, who has obviously much better clothing gear and style than Ray does ;) (source: Just look at the photo in this post)

    • Ahh…don’t be hating on my awesome hat (which, btw, I actually won* and isn’t some custom thing).

      As for my clothes, all of them were just my usual stuff from my ‘Gear I use’ post: link to dcrainmaker.com

      For running, I tend to go pretty light-weight. So I had a simple Paris half-marathon tech t-shirt under that Florence long-sleeve shirt (not-tech). I had $1 gloves on, and then my regular running shoes and Yaktrax. The running tights were the ones listed above.

      Now we were lucky in that the weather was only in the 20’s*F range. Whereas, the day we left it plummeted down to the 0*-10*F range, so I would have swapped out the gloves probably for a thicker pair of just ski gloves that day (since that’s all I brought). I’m not sure what I would have done on the running tights side, probably just hoped for the best. I likely wouldn’t have changed my top. I find you don’t have to wear much when running – as long as you stay running. It’s when you stop things that ugly.

      *https://www.dcrainmaker.com/2010/03/seattle-rainman-triathlon-2010-race.html

  15. 3underscore

    Unlucky with the lights. While I am state side I have a number of friends who have been taking every opportunity to drive up north in Scotland when there is a good aurora forecast (there are some brilliant iPhone apps available to work with). Obviously not quite so plausible when you live in France or Connecticut, but might be useful if you go alone next time.

  16. Brynjulf

    Hi, the next time you want to get some northern lights, I strongly urge you to fly to Alta: http://www.northadventure.no

    Also somewhere to go to get in outstanding mountain bike racing; http://www.offroadfinnmark.no, and road bike racing during the midnight sun; http://www.onroadfinnmark.no

    • Funny, that’s almost exactly where we’d drive to each night. We’d often cross the border and go up to Lakselv (Norway).

      Interesting…direct flights to Oslo too make that a much shorter journey (skipping the car ride for 2-3hrs).

  17. Doug

    If you’re Aurora hunting you could watch the activity sites & the weather forecast then hop on a plane from CDG To Belfast Interntional. An hour will take you to the north Antrim coast or a bit longer will get you into Donegal.

    You can get some good shows looking out to sea… Probably not as good as Finland on a clear night though :)
    link to bbc.co.uk

  18. Chris

    The Ivalo airport reminds me of the Panzhihua, China airport at which I took this panoramic photo last week!

  19. Julian Wong

    Thanks for sharing Ray. Looked like a very interesting (and cold) trip indeed! The lights looked great.

    Any chance that Edge 520 review is coming?

  20. Theodore T.

    There’s a similar airport I go to once a year or so- I always think to myself that the attendants should say “we’re arriving at gate ‘the'”. Eh, funny to me at least.

  21. darrin kinney

    I love posts like this. I know you focus a lot on the tech posts you do, but really, the human element of people wanting to know what its like to live in your shoes,, that is priceless.

  22. Hi Ray,

    Good story and hope you come back for the northern lights later in the winter.

    Next time you are in Helsinki, please call us and we will take you running a bit further from the city center to paths you won’t find yourself. Or if you prefer trail running we have a national park about half an hour from Helsinki.

    We enjoy your blog a lot. Thanks!

    Iska / Helsinki Running Tours

  23. Timo Espo

    Hi!
    These numerous gates at Ivalo Airport are needed when plenty of charter flights arrive almost simultaneously, eg from GB at Christmastime :)

    For Northern Light spotting there are also glass panorama roof igloes avilable,
    where You can lay back on a reineer fur covered bed and observe the sky…

  24. Sven

    Hi,
    great pictures. Hope you could test a Garmin FR 630. I’m waiting “intensively” for your in depth review.
    Greetings
    Sven

  25. Howie

    Dude, that’s not a teepee… it’s a LAVU! Big difference in etiquette between the two. Same great cultural experience tho. When you’re ready to go back and get a Sami experience let me know and I’ll hook you up with my Sami friends. It’s the ONLY way to camp!