Dance of the Northern Lights- An epic week in the Arctic Circle

29th Oct 2016
Photo of Dance of the Northern Lights- An epic week in the Arctic Circle 1/1 by Shahzad Siddiqui
Northern Lights over a traditional Finnish Lavvu (Teepee)

Since longer than I can remember, I have always been fascinated with the northern lights. I have longed to see them dance across the sky. I finally made my dream come true in November 2016 with this trip.

The trip was a culmination of more than a year of research/planning and helped accomplish quite a few bucket list goals for me, like seeing the northern lights, crossing the arctic circle (going as far north as 70-72 degrees north), visiting Lapland (Finland) and Norway.

I have written a detailed post about the logistics of chasing & photographing the Northern Lights, how to get there, what kind of tours to book, do's and dont's etc; if you're interested in every little details of the experience.

The following is my experience of an epic week spent in the Arctic Circle. 

The Journey- After 32 hours of setting off from Bangalore, three flight changes and 9000 kms later, I landed in Ivalo- the gateway to Finnish Lapland in the heart of the Arctic Circle. A small village with a population of 3000 and a small airport that serves two flights a day and is open only during flight hours.

Tip: Book early as flights to Helsinki and Ivalo are not cheap even during the winters.

Day 1

After making 3 circles around the Ivalo airport due to bad weather, we finally landed on the tarmac 30 mins late. The arctic circle conspired to give us a taste of the weather immediately and we walked out of the plane to snowfall and zero degree temperature on Oct 30th (winter had not even started here).

The tiny Ivalo Airport- Gateway to Finnish Lapland & the Arctic Circle

Photo of Ivalo, Inari, Finland by Shahzad Siddiqui

We took a shared van from outside the airport and reached our hotel near the village center. Since it was the off season, there was no food at the hotel and the restaurant was closed. We checked in, dumped our bags and headed out to the village center, found a pub and had a few drinks and dinner. (The pub had a jukebox too- throwback to the golden olden days).

Tip: Winter in Lapland is off season and most hotels don't have functioning restaurants. Check before you book whether there are eating options at a walking distance

Day 2

I woke up at 4 am, still 'jet lagged'. We decided to explore the tiny village of Ivalo, visit the shops etc and wait for our Aurora Service contact to pick us up.

The small village of Ivalo

Photo of Ivalo, Inari, Finland by Shahzad Siddiqui

Aurora Services: I chose and booked this experience with Aurora Services Tours for a variety of factors which I have detailed in the other post. I would highly recommend this company if you are looking for a rustic authentic experience that maximizes your chances of seeing the Aurora once you get there.

Tyler from the Aurora service picked us up at the hotel at 1 pm and we set out for our log cabin deep in the Arctic woods, on the Finland - Norway border. We stopped by the Ivalo village supermarket to buy food supplies and groceries for the week. This is at your own expense and you have cater for yourselves in the cabin for the next five days. 

Tip: Don't go overboard. We ended up buying way too many groceries which we had to leave behind unused

We stopped further down the way to pick up snow suits, snow boots and cleats. The last 30 – 40 mins of the drive was in near zero visibility through fog, snow and ice. (This is provided buy Aurora Services)

We reached our cabin at 6.30 pm on Monday 31st Oct, temperature outside -5 degree Celsius. We hit the Lavvu (traditional Lapland Teepee made of Reindeer skin) in the woods for some much needed fire and warmth.

Still jet lagged and exhausted from the travel and cold, we hit the bed early.

Tip: If you choose Aurora Services, book early to avoid disappointment as they have limited availability and can get booked out months in advance.

The Log Cabin- Which man worth his salt has not dreamt of living in a remote log cabin in the wilderness, cut off from the world? We did just that for five days.

The Log Cabin in the Arctic Wilderness

Photo of Dance of the Northern Lights- An epic week in the Arctic Circle by Shahzad Siddiqui

Located in Karigasniemi, a tiny village of about 200 people at the foot of Mount Ailigas- the cabin is situated right on the banks of river Inarijoki which freezes over in winter and you can walk across it into Norway. The river Inarijoki joins the river Karasjhoka to form the Salmon fishing river of Tana.

The cabin we stayed in is a fisherman's cabin during the summers and vacant during the winters which is leased by Aurora Services for guests like us. The cabin was fully self sustainable where we cooked our own meals and it also included a traditional Finnish Sauna. Unlike the steam/sauna rooms in modern gyms, this one comprised of a heater where rocks are heated to a desired temperature and you walk in with a bucket of water and pour it on the rocks to get the steam going as desired.

Day 3

I woke up at 4.30 am again (body clock still not adjusted to time zones)  and decided to explore the area around the cabin. After a refreshing hike through the Arctic wilderness, I came back and put the sauna to good use spending an hour warming myself to the bones. It was -2 degrees and we had to go out for a scenic drive at around 10.30 am. We started the drive, exploring the Finland - Norway border and stunning scenery on our way to Utjoski, a town by Lapland standards with a population of 1200. We had lunch at a local restaurant in Utjoski and returned in the evening.

Mountain G

Photo of Lakselv, Norway by Shahzad Siddiqui

We heard good news from Tyler that he had seen a flash of the Northern Lights above our cottage. We ran out, but no luck. We decided to leave at 8.30 pm that evening to chase the lights. We headed towards Lakselv in Norway in search of clear skies. We finally found a dark spot, 20 mins out of town away from the town lights and camped there waiting for the lights in -8 to -10 degree Celsius, completely exposed to the elements. It was a bone chilling wait; the skies cleared eventually but the lights didn't play ball. We passed the time looking at the extremely clear skies- the number of stars in the night sky visible from here is multiplied by at least a thousand as compared to regular night skies around the world.

Skies so clear, we saw satellites whizzing by including the International Space Station and Iridium/Satellite flares. All you need to identify what's above you in the sky, is the correct app on your smart phone that you can point up and it tells you which exact satellite(s) are you looking at.

After 2 hours of  waiting in the extreme cold, we headed back slightly disappointed wondering if and when we will ever see the Northern Lights- guess the experience will have to wait another night.

Tip: Ensure you carry hand and feet warmers. They are disposable and very cheap and can be a life saver in this extreme environment.

Day 4

On day 4, I woke up bright and early as we had a three hour drive to Nesseby in Norway to fish for King Crab. We set out about 9.30 am and after multiple stops and coming across the most beautiful and remote church in the world set against the Norwegian Fjords, we reached our boat at Nesseby.

Photo of Nesseby, Norway by Shahzad Siddiqui

We went out in the beautiful Norwegian Fjord to see the fisherman haul a great catch of King Crabs, some weighing as much as 15 kgs. After catching the King Crabs, our fisherman and one man boat crew cut them up and dunked them in the boiler right there on our boat while he lined up some rods to try our hands at fishing. The day was memorable in more ways than one as I ended up landing the first catch of my life and then a few more. A few minutes later, lunch was served on the boat, fresh crabs caught and cooked on the boat.

We got off the boat at 3.30 pm and were caught in a quandary, whether to drive back 3 hours or wait at Nesseby considering the sky was clear there. We refueled the van at a local station and decide to wait it out.

At around 7 pm, we set out to find a remote area around Nesseby that was dark and away from artificial lights and set up camp. 

And then the first lucky breakthrough, there they are- finally, the Northern Lights. Although not what I expected from the pictures I had seen and accounts I had heard, we did finally see the lights. We enjoyed it for an hour or so before deciding to head back to our cottage as the activity was not very strong here and the lights were stationery and at the horizon rather than overhead. 

Northern Lights over Nesseby, Norway

Photo of Dance of the Northern Lights- An epic week in the Arctic Circle by Shahzad Siddiqui

We reached our cottage at around 11.15 am and 15 mins later my life changed- The Northern Lights magically appeared over the river, right above our cottage and all across the sky at 11.30 pm. In all its glory, all the colors, the lights danced across the starry sky and performed for us. We waited up near our Teepee watching this grand celestial show till 3 am.

Northern Lights over our cabin in the woods

Photo of Dance of the Northern Lights- An epic week in the Arctic Circle by Shahzad Siddiqui

Finally, I've seen the lights. Not just the lights but the lights in all it's colors and dancing across the arctic sky putting on a grand show!

Day 5

I woke up to -10 degree Celsius and did a double take looking at the thermometer outside my cabin. We were to visit the Sami museum in the morning to learn and understand the way of life of the Sami (local ethnic group of the region).

We reached the museum around 11 am and went about seeing the exhibitions and learning about the arctic region and the transformations through the year, the way of life of the Sami and how they adapt and survive in this beautiful yet harsh environment. We had lunch at the museum and headed to the husky farm.

This husky farm in the middle of nowhere is run by an eccentric 60 year old man with many intriguing, inspiring and downright hilarious tales. The farm has no running water and electricity- now that’s living off the grid. We met all the huskies (around 30 of them) and their leader Lobo (a 25% wolf breed) with two distinctly different color eyes- one brown and the other blue. We also met the Norwegian Fjord horses at the farm who were beyond friendly and intelligent.

Photo of Utsjoki, Finland by Shahzad Siddiqui

We returned back to the cottage at around 5.30 pm with plans to go out Aurora chasing in the night. I took this opportunity to use the sauna again and just sat in there picturing the lights I saw last night.

We headed out at around 8 pm chasing the lights again. This time we went to Karasjok (a small village in Norway, across the river from where we were staying). We camped there and walked on the frozen river and sure enough the lights showed up. We played around, took pictures with the Northern lights in the background and had a ball walking on the frozen river in complete darkness, not knowing which step could be our last (the ice was thin and the river hadn't completely frozen over yet).

Photo of Dance of the Northern Lights- An epic week in the Arctic Circle by Shahzad Siddiqui

We headed back to the cottage around and at around 11.15 pm the Nortehrn Lights erupted over our cottage once again (couldn't believe my luck). The aurora activity was stronger than ever before and as Tyler who has seen the lights from Iceland too, put it- "this is the show that people spent their lives chasing".

Photo of Dance of the Northern Lights- An epic week in the Arctic Circle by Shahzad Siddiqui

It's as if the marketing team of Northern Lights had come out to give us the grandest show possible. The colors, the dance, the moves and the entire night sky lit up like New Year fireworks. It was almost -15 degree Celsius but totally worth braving the cold.

Life Changing!

Day 6

We headed back to the airport at Ivalo Airport bright and early and from there, onto Helsinki, Paris and Amsterdam!

Tip: There are only 2 flights per day In and Out of Ivalo. Book the mid morning flight out of Ivalo as you should reach the airport in plenty of time. If you book the evening flight, the airport shuts in the afternoon and there is nothing else to do in the area but wait in the blistering cold.

Arctic Circle Fauna- During our trip, we saw Reindeer's, Foxes, Arctic Hares, Wolverines and a few birds of Prey.


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