The light that never goes out

With 24 hour sunlight over the summer months, Finnish Lapland is a lot more than reindeer, snow and Santa Claus

When you think of Lapland, what usually comes to mind? If you’re anything like us then probably a typical Christmas scene – snow, gambolling reindeer, frosty log cabins and packs of huskies carrying sleds over the frozen ground. Well, for two thirds of the year, that’s pretty accurate. But have you ever wondered what happens over summertime in Santa’s hometown?

 World Traveller was invited to Ivalo in northern Finland to spend a week at the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort, famous for its glass igloos from which, over the long period of winter (October-April), the Northern Lights can be seen shimmering in all their glory. That sounded great – except our trip was due to take place in August. When you take away the snow and the magic of Christmas, what’s left? Plenty, as it turns out. Over the summer months, the sun never goes down in Ivalo – meaning there’s 24 hours of light a day and a phenomenon known as the Midnight Sun. Our group has one week to pray the cloudy weather allows us a glimpse of this celestial light show, and to see what else the Arctic Circle has to offer over the summer months when the snow has melted away, giving way to lush greenery and the scent of fresh pine.

From Dubai to the North

The journey from Dubai to Ivalo is a long one, but at least it’s comfortable. Turkish Airlines’ business class seats took us from DXB to Helsinki, where our Finnish adventure started. Helsinki is charmingly innocent for a city of its size – in Scandinavia only Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm are bigger – and our tour guide cheerfully pointed out high-ranking governmental buildings like the Finnish Houses of Parliament that “you can pretty much walk up to and tap on the windows.” The city’s also 80 per cent covered in trees; spruce, pine and silver birch are almost everywhere you look. Rambling around Helsinki’s port, chomping on fried vendace (small sardine-like fish that are fried and then eaten whole), it wasn’t long before we reached Sibelius Park. Named for Finland’s most famous composer, the park’s centrepiece is the Sibelius Monument, a truly impressive 24-tonne work that represents both the organ and the forest in which it sits. It plays its own tune, too – when the wind blows, the hollow stainless-steel pipes hum and low with the breeze, like breathing into a bottleneck.

It was then time to head north and explore the country. Several hours by minibus later, we disembarked at our next stop – Ivalo, northern Finland, home to Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort. Each member of our travelling party was given the keys to their own luxurious lodge, complete with mini-sauna in the bathroom, and given time to scrub up before dinner. We were told we’d be seeing reindeer on this trip, but we didn’t expect our first encounter to come on a plate. The Sámi people are indigenous to the region of northern Finland, Sweden, Norway and parts of Russia, and reindeer are a huge part of their lives. They herd them, raise them for fur and use them for meat, which was exactly what was waiting for us on our first night – ground Rudolph and mashed potatoes. Some of the group feigned full stomachs, but intrepid (and hungry), we were all too happy to take part in local tradition and try a plateful. And you know what, we were glad we did, as the meat was tender, flavourful and hearty. Sorry Santa, looks like you’ll need to raise a few more of the herd by Christmastime. Bedtime beckoned, only it didn’t feel like it, as it was midnight and still light. When you’re this close to the Arctic Circle, between May and October there is no night-time. Which is why we weren’t sleeping in Kakslauttanen’s famous glass igloos. Unless we’d brought some pretty thick eye masks, there’d be no sleep for any of us. And the worst part was, we couldn’t even see the famed Midnight Sun – a thick layer of cloud meant that everything was illuminated but it was hard to tell where from. We’d have to hope for a break in the clouds so we can see the sun shining through the night, but it wasn’t going to happen any time soon.

Reindeer during summer at Kakslauttanen
Reindeer during summer at Kakslauttanen

Timeless Adventure

The next morning (or so the clocks said, it’s hard to tell when it doesn’t get any darker or lighter), it was time to head even further north, into Norway’s mountains and up to the North Cape, often mis-labelled as the northernmost point of Europe, deep into the Arctic Circle and just 2,000 kilometres from the North Pole (in fact, Knivskjellodden, a rocky outpost slightly further into the sea than the North Cape, holds that title – but it’s not big enough for a gift shop). Here the views of the Midnight Sun would be spectacular – were it not for the clouds covering everything, and also keeping up a steady outpouring of sleety drizzle. The bus ride back south to Finland, however, was worth the trip – icy lakes and ponds are dotted around the green mountains, and plenty of herds of reindeer roam, only paying us heed when our tour guide stopped the coach in order to try and make friends – sending them bounding off into the distance.

When you’re this close to the Arctic Circle, between May and October there is no night-time

After another night in the cabins, and another blackout as far as the Midnight Sun was concerned, we were itching to get out and experience some more natural beauty, and that’s when the countryside really started to show off its magic. Aside from reindeer, the Finns get a huge amount of mileage – literally – out of another kind of animal: huskies. Kakslauttanen has its own husky farm, which in the winter is used to pull sleds over the snowy tundra, and in the summer to pull modified sleds with wheels over the hilly terrain. There’s less work for them to do in the summer, which means they need regular walking, which is where we came in. We were each paired with one of the beautiful dogs, told to hold on tight to the leash, and go. Our walking route was several miles on a hilly peak, with nothing but grass and pine trees for as far as the eye could see. Hanging onto a husky’s lead proved to be slightly difficult, as she pulled with the force of a tractor and was clearly keen to be moving a lot faster than myself, or indeed any of our group was. To boot, she was one of the ‘alpha’ animals of the pack, instinctively pushing to work harder and faster than her colleagues. Working Siberian huskies can run the equivalent of four marathons in a day, so this brisk trot through the wilderness wasn’t going to tire my charge out one bit – they’d go on a proper ramble with their trainers later on. For World Traveller, it was a case of getting to know these incredible dogs up close, and find out an interesting fact – huskies’ blue eyes come from cross breeding with wolves. Pure huskies have brown eyes, and it’s not uncommon to find dogs with one eye of each colour, due to mixed genetics.

The Gold Rush

Huskies safely stowed back in their kennels, (which we’d sped past on a quad bike tour earlier) we learned something else about Finland – it’s literally a goldmine. The Kulta Museo at Tankavaara details the fascinating history of gold in the region and the rush that started in the 1960s, when anybody with a pan and a hot tip could find the nearest stream and start searching for the precious metal. I even tried it out myself, and after half an hour’s careful shifting of soil had unearthed a few glinting flakes of gold. You don’t need much, either. Just one gram of the stuff (about the size of a pinhead) can be stretched over a distance of two kilometres, albeit it will be thinner than a spider web by that point and not much good for selling.

Our final adventure began with a truly spectacular motorboat ride up the Lemmenjoki River. With Sámi men helming our boats, we sped along the glassy river that cuts through the forest wilderness of Lemmenjoki National Park, the biggest in Finland. Our destination was the Ravadas waterfall, a beautiful and glittering cascade just perfect for sitting beside and enjoying some freshly brewed coffee, wild salmon stew and freshly picked blueberries. As a cultural treat, our Sámi guide, Nils-Heikki, performed a traditional joik. These guttural, ululating songs don’t use actual words, rather they are vocalisations designed to evoke specific feelings. Joiks can tell the story of a Sámi man’s past, the tale of the land, or, in the case of the young man singing for us, the story of a beautiful lady. Also, there was good news: The clouds were lifting, evening was falling and it was time to head off to the highest point we could find to witness the sunset and hopefully catch a glimpse of the Midnight Sun.

The excitement in the group was palpable as we made our way to the top of Kaunispää Fell, and up the wooden tower which gave incredible views of every valley, mountain and pine tree spread out far below us. And then we watched as the flaming red-gold sun descended towards the distant horizon and then, improbably, stopped short. It was the most surreal and beautiful sunset imaginable, a vivid difference from the Northern Lights found here throughout winter but no less memorable. And at least now we know there’s no way that Santa could get bored during the summer.