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Call of the Wild

Tan Chung Lee on 07 Jul 2015

The Straits Times


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Husky-sledding by day and chasing the Northern Lights by night make Lapland a winter wonderland for Tan Chung Lee


IT WAS close to midnight when I arrived in Ivalo in northern Lapland from Helsinki in Finland, no thanks to a flight delay, and got a taxi for the 30-minute drive to Muotkan Maja Wilderness Lodge, my base for the next six nights.


During the journey, I felt as though I was entering a magical winter wonderland. There was snow everywhere, and all around was taiga forest, consisting mostly of pine, spruce and birch trees.

Muotkan Maja enjoys a perfect location in the pristine Saariselka Wilderness Zone within Finland’s sprawling Urho Kekkonen National Park, which borders Russia.

Lying north of the Arctic Circle and far away from any urban setting, it has minimal light pollution — favourable conditions for seeing the Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights, often dubbed the greatest show on earth when they are viewed at their spectacular best.

The Aurora occurs when discharged particles from the sun pass through the earth’s magnetic field and collide with atoms and molecules such as nitrogen and oxygen, producing light as they enter the earth’s atmosphere.

The greater the solar activity, the more dramatic the lights, and my visit in March had been timed to coincide with the peaking of solar activity.

I hoped that my planning would pay off. But it did not seem to be heading that way, though, when I checked in at Muotkan Maja.

For one, because of my flight delay, I had missed out on the Aurora Camp that was to have been the first of four nightly stake-outs to try to catch the lights.

And when I emerged from the main hotel building to walk along a snow-covered path to my cabin in a neighbouring lodge, there was not a single star to be seen.

A cloudy sky is anathema to Aurora viewing and I was told the weather forecast was more cloudy skies in the next couple of days.

Still, there were five more nights to go, and the hearty soup and warm welcome from the cheerful hotel manager Minka in her red traditional Sami dress and bonnet made up for the late arrival.

Snow safari

For every visitor to Muotkan Maja, the goal was to observe the Northern Lights.

Since this was only possible at night — the darker, the better — the days had to be filled with other activities. There were plenty of these, all imbued with a bit of local Sami culture and a touch of adventure.

You can go snowmobiling in the fells and across frozen lakes, snow-shoeing in the forest to look for wild animal footprints and cross-country skiing in immaculate surroundings with nary a soul in sight.

One of the highlights was the gruelling 45km round trip by snowmobile to a Sami herder’s reindeer farm to learn about the Sami way of life.

There are fewer than 6,000 indigenous Sami left in their native Lapland, and Saariselka is at the heart of Sami culture. Herding reindeer is central to the Sami, who rely on them for meat, clothing and transport.

We had a taste of their hauling capabilities when we were each given a chance to ride in a sleigh pulled by a lone reindeer.

The animals might look big and ungainly but to my surprise, the reindeer pulling my sleigh shot off at such lightning speed that there were times when I thought the sleigh might tip over.

It was a case of deja vu when I did husky sledding the next day.

Although I was not new to the activity, having driven a team of huskies over a distance of 30km in Lapland many years ago, I still experienced the same adrenalin-pumping thrills.

Huskies have been pulling sleds in the Arctic areas for centuries and were an important means of transport until the introduction of snowmobiles.

Today, these adorable-looking dogs with their thick fur coats are bred mostly for recreational and race sledding. Incredibly strong and energetic, they are capable of pulling sleds for up to 40km a day.

My safari would be covering half this distance, and I had a pack of four huskies pulling my sled.

They knew exactly where to go. All I had to do was to steer the sled to avoid trees and sharp corners.

If I needed the dogs to slow down, when going downhill, for instance, I just had to put one foot on a wooden bar; two feet on this bar would bring the dogs to a complete stop.

We rushed through tracts of pine forest, across frozen lakes and sometimes an open, pure white landscape where only stillness reigned.

All too soon, the safari came to an end and I had to bid farewell to my furry friends.

Looking for the light

If the days were all about fun-filled activities, the nights were an exercise in patience and the hunt for the Aurora.

The first night, I joined four other guests in a mini-van travelling to various high points in Saariselka where hopefully the Northern Lights would appear. But it was too cloudy to glimpse anything.

The second night, I boarded a 45-seater coach that went to various hotels in Saariselka’s village centre to pick up other passengers, most of whom were Japanese.

We spent the next six hours covering 100km, scouring for the Northern Lights. Again, there was nothing to be seen, and it was 2am when I returned to Muotkan Maja.

The last two nights of my stay were spent in an Aurora Camp set within the surrounds of Muotkan Maja. Getting there involved a 20-minute snowmobile-powered sleigh ride.

The “camp” is actually a cosy wooden hut in the open with clear views of the sky. It had an inviting central fire-pit where we roasted sausages while looking out through the windows for the Northern Lights to appear.

I also went snow-shoeing while keeping my eyes peeled for the lights.

We were there from 9.30pm to 12.30am but the sky remained a stubbornly blank, dark canvas.

Our guide then decided to call a halt to the waiting game. Just as we were ready to pile into our sleighs to get back to the lodge, a green ribbon of light swished across the sky.

“The Aurora!” someone shouted.

For the next two hours, I witnessed one of the world’s great displays. From one swirl, the lights came on stronger with wave upon wave of green ribbons. Then they started to rain down like a voluminous shower of green lights, following which they spread across the sky like a thick curtain.

Later on, I saw them dancing, by which time they were in a spectrum of colours — red, blue, purple, in addition to green. The Aurora was mesmerising.

As if that was not enough, the Northern Lights made an appearance again the following night, even before we could leave the lodge for the Aurora Camp. It was a spectacular show — right on our doorstep — and it made Lapland a truly magical winter wonderland.


Getting there

- I flew on Finnair from London to Ivalo via Helsinki. 

Traveller’s tips

- February/March and September/October are considered the best months for Northern Lights sightings. February and March offer the whole gamut of fun-filled winter activities.

- Choose a location to stay as far away as possible from urban centres with light pollution. Try to stay for at least a week to increase your chances of catching the lights and pick dates without a full moon. The Aurora usually occurs between 9pm and 2am.

- It is important not to be obsessed with seeing the Northern Lights. While the chances are good, as much as 75 per cent in Saariselka, sightings are never guaranteed. So it is best to treat your stay as a winter holiday and when the lights appear, they are a bonus.

- Muotkan Maja provides all the necessary warm clothing needed for outdoor activities and Aurora viewing as winter temperatures often dip to minus 20 deg C. But do bring your own thermals and warm clothing for wearing beneath the overalls, and thick socks to go with the boots.

- Accommodation is on a full-board basis with all activities included. Guests stay in heated ensuite cabins in various lodges. As a supplement, you can stay in an “Aurora Bubble” — a glass-domed cabin in the grounds of the hotel with just enough space inside for a cosy bed for two. You can lie back all night and look at the sky through the dome to catch the lights in total comfort.

- There are many Aurora hunting tours on the Internet. I booked with Discover the World (www.discover-the-world.co.uk).


Source: SG Travellers © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

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