Trip to see the Northern Lights: Finland's greatest show

It's 8pm on a winter day beside the Arctic Circle and I'm wearing enough layers of clothing to fill a small department store. The sun set six hours ago, and hard snow crunches beneath my snowshoes as I march out into the forest of Finland's Oulanka National Park.

I feel a bit like a hunter, but what I'm pursuing is a natural phenomenon: the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights. I've come at a time of year when the sun is in the sky for less than four hours of the day. Seeing a night-sky marvel such as the Northern Lights should be simplicity itself in this environment, but nature is fickle.

For the past three nights there has only been cloud in the sky. The light through the short days is like perpetual dawn and twilight, with tobacco-coloured skies casting the world into sepia tones. It's been a waiting game to witness one of nature's greatest dances.

On this fourth night, the weather and aurora forecasts look promising. The day has been clear, and the promise of lights is real. And so we're now hiking through the snow-smothered pine forest towards a chain of frozen lakes in hope of a celestial spectacle.

At the head of our group is local Exodus guide Henri Suopanki, for whom the Northern Lights are about as common as traffic lights, though familiarity has not dulled his sense of wonder.

"They're always slightly different, so if I see them I still stop to look at them for some time," he says. "You can't predict how long they'll last, or how big they'll grow, so sometimes there's a faint glow in the sky for two hours and then all of a sudden it's like there's an explosion – the whole sky is on fire. Sometimes there's just a five-minute really good display, and usually there's this green wave for half-an-hour then it fades away."

Through the forest, we set out on Karhunkierros – the Bear's Ring – Finland's most famous hiking trail, which passes the door of Oulanka Base Camp, where we are staying. The only light comes from our head torches, moving like a line of glow-worms.

"Turn 180 degrees, take five steps and turn out your head torches," Henri instructs at our first stop. Pure darkness descends in possibly one of the darkest winter places on earth. "From here we'll be walking without the torches. Soon your eyes will adjust and every sense will be heightened."

Through knee-high snow we continue, dropping to the shores of a lake and across its frozen surface – the miracle of walking on water as we seek to view this miracle of the sky.

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Atop the lake there are no heavenly lights – cloud has beaten us here again – and yet there's still a sense of something magical. The tracks of an Arctic hare are dotted across the lake surface, and the snow seems to absorb every particle of the faint moonlight, creating an effect akin to white ocean phosphorescence. Henri pauses, and briefly the only sound is the faint trickle of water flowing beneath the ice on which we stand.

"There's the scientific explanation for the Northern Lights, and the correct explanation," Henri says. "It's still in Finnish folklore that there's this magical fox and it has a big tail and every time that tail whooshes in the snow, it goes into the sky and lights up, and that's what causes the Northern Lights."

Science prefers the more prosaic explanation of electrically charged particles colliding with gases as they enter the earth's atmosphere.

As we hike back to Oulanka Base Camp, it's been another evening without a night light, but hope remains for we have three more nights at Oulanka Base Camp. It's not until the final night, however, that Henri wanders into the lodge at 10pm with a knowing look on his face.

"Don't get too excited, but there are very faint Northern Lights outside right now." Very unexcitedly, everybody sprints for the door.

At first there is just the palest glow in the sky – little more than a haze – but as I wander onto the lake below the lodge, suddenly oblivious to the minus-15-degree chill, a great band of green light briefly loops across the sky.

For more than an hour the sky swirls in a green dream – not so much a dance, as often portrayed, but one moment the lights are in one place and the next in another, like spotlights roaming the sky. The hunt is over.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/finland

visitfinland.com

FLY

Finnair flies daily to Helsinki from Sydney and Melbourne, connecting through Singapore or Hong Kong. From Helsinki, Finnair flies to Kuusamo, 50 kilometres from Oulanka Base Camp. Phone 1300 132 944, see finnair.com

WALK

Exodus Travels runs an eight-day Finnish Wilderness Week trip, based at Oulanka National Park. Trips include an evening "Oulanka by Night" snowshoe walk to experience the Northern Lights. See exodustravels.com/au

Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Exodus Travels.

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