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:
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.
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.
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.
Though, I believe the term ‘gates’ is used rather flexibly, given there were no jetways, just a giant slab of concrete for the planes:
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:
Lots and lots of cloud cover:
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:
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:
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.
The teepee was the place to be!
3) Rudolf the Reindeer
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).
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.
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:
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.
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.
Some runs we did together, and then others we did separately. Just depended on the goal for the run:
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.
For those that want to look at maps, you can find all my runs uploaded to Strava here.
5) Hello Helsinki!
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.
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.
Of course, there were also many restaurants selling food too that looked like they were pretty established.
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:
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:
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.
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!