Seeking the Northern Lights by Snowshoes

It’s perfectly quiet. Gareth and I, along with Herman, our Ylläs Adventures guide, are plodding along on snowshoes through the pitch black wilderness of the Pallas-Ylläs National Park. We are in search of the aurora borealis, and we may just be lucky tonight, because the sky is clear and the temperature is a crisp -20°C.

We walk in single file, the two guys in front, while I bring up the rear. It’s hard work and tonight I am wearing so many layers of clothing that Gareth had to strap the snowshoes on me because I couldn’t bend over enough to reach my toes. My breath is steaming as I walk, and yet I am not warm, and for a change, not cold either.

As we walk, Herman fills the silence with interesting anecdotes, survival tips and local knowledge. He points out hare and reindeer tracks in the deep snow. I ask about wolves and he replies that where the reindeer freely go, the predators follow too. I find myself looking over my shoulder nervously, imagining feral eyes spying on me from between the trees.

And then it’s time to climb up a steep hill, digging the grips on the snowshoes into the hard, slippery snow and pulling myself up with complaining leg muscles. I manage fine, but for every up there’s a down and this particular down ends in a gulley through which an icy cold stream is burbling. The guys have made it safely, slipping and sliding down using their snowshoes like snowboards, but I’m standing at the top, wondering how to go about it while retaining some form of dignity.

Herman tells me to keep my balance and lean back slightly on the snowshoes and just slide down. I set one foot on the decline and promptly fall flat on my bum as the shoe slips out from underneath me. I shrug and, with the two guys laughing uproariously, proceed to slide down the slope, leaving a distinct ass print all the way down the mountain.

But now I can’t stop my descent and, giggling all the way down, I end up crashing into the trunk of a tree at the bottom of the gulley. Gareth wipes tears of laughter from his eyes as I lie in the snow, flat on my back, in yet another ditch in need of someone to help me up.

From there we brave another slippery ascent to the top of the mountain where we take respite from the cold in a half-circle wooden shelter. Herman makes a fire and heats up coffee and red-berry juice while I anxiously scan the clear skies. Only when the guys are both off in the woods, making use of the “arctic toilet”, do I see something that makes my heart skip a beat. In the distance, back towards town, a faint greenish light glows. Could this be the elusive northern lights for which we had been searching all week long?

Gareth is the first to return to the shelter. I point towards the glow, but he says he doesn’t see anything. Then Herman comes back, takes a quick glance and says it is probably light from the village reflecting in the sky. I am disappointed. Tomorrow is our last day in Finland, and this is the only possible aurora we have seen so far. I decide to ignore the guys. That faint green light off in the distance, the one only I could see, was most definitely the aurora.

We pack up and head out again, this time managing the descent without incident. We follow a ski slope back towards the parking lot where we had left the car. As we walk, I look up at the skies, trying to catch another glimpse of the peculiar green light, but without success. What I do see, however, are strange stars. Northern hemisphere stars. Herman notices me lagging behind, my head raised up, scanning the skies. He stops and points out constellations to us – Orion we know, but the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia are new to us. With nothing but ambient light around us, those foreign stars shine brightly down on us from the blackness of space. It is incredibly beautiful.

And so ends another unforgettable experience in Lapland. For more posts in the Winter Escape 2012 series, click here.

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