Seeing the lights on a very northern trip

Aurora borealis over Lake Inari, Finland.
Aurora borealis over Lake Inari, Finland.
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There are numerous scientific explanations for the enigmatic aurora borealis, more commonly known as the Northern Lights, but Lapland’s Sami people have their own understanding.

‘My grandma would tell me stories about a fox racing across the hills to reach home,’ says Markku, a Finnish photographer who chases the lights on nightly safaris. ‘He moved so quickly, it looked like his tail was on fire, blazing across the sky.’

According to NASA, the Northern Lights are curr-

ently at their most powerful in 50 years, with activity peaking until March 2013.

Markku, whose family run the cosy Wilderness Hotel in northern Finnish village Nellim, which sits above the Arctic Circle, claims his home town is one of the best places to observe Earth’s greatest light display.

He boasts of seeing the aurora 240 days a year – 24-hour daylight hampers the remaining 125 .

Low horizons and a lack of light pollution certainly provide favourable conditions for the lights, while the nearby pine forest-fringed Lake Inari is an attractive setting for photographers.

Intrigued, I book a four-day stay at the hotel through The Aurora Zone, who specialise in small-group Northern Lights holidays.

Markku briefs us before our first expedition and whets our appetite with stories of sightings.

Seduced by swirling images and colourful stories, we head out, driving along icy roads into the forest. We stop and set up our camera tripods on a bridge crossing Lake Inari, which is only just beginning to freeze. If the lights do turn up, we’ll be treated to a dazzling display of reflections.

But there’s still one vital element missing – a star. To see the lights, we need a clear sky.

In reality, there’s no guarantee of seeing the aurora. Trips aren’t cheap and it’s a long way to travel, but one way to get the most out of a holiday is to combine nightly aurora safaris with daytime activities.

Options at the Wilderness Hotel include forest walks and boat rides to one of the 3000 islands in Lake Inari, or snowmobiling and ice fishing in winter.

Lotta, a laid-back tomboy with a devious sense of humour, leads us on a trek through the forest, collecting lingonberries to make a sauce for tonight’s dinner: reindeer meat with creamy mashed potato.

The sun hangs low, casting long shadows across the forest floor. A sprinkling of snow covers the tundra like icing sugar, and jagged ice crystals are already starting to form on the lake.

At night it’s time to search for the lights again. This time the sky is peppered with silver flecks, some falling like burning embers.

At midnight, a band of green light sweeps gently across the horizon like a blade of grass swaying in the wind.

Over the next few hours, the lights grow in intensity. By 4am, my feet are frozen numb and a layer of thin ice has formed on the back of my jacket. But my patience is finally rewarded.

Dancing across the horizon like a neon ribbon trailed by a rhythmic gymnast, the aurora has woken up.

The lights have been a triumph but the appeal of Nellim is actually far greater. This is a true wilderness, where space and silence are luxuries to be cherished.


Sarah Marshall was a guest of The Aurora Zone (01670 785 012, on its ‘Autumn Lights over Lake Inari’ small-group tour, which runs from October to November. In 2013, the tour costs from £1,345 pp (based on two sharing) including flights, transfers, three nights’ full board, expert guiding and activities as described. The company also offers a ‘Winter Lights over Lake Inari’ tour, with regular departures and good availability until March 2013. It costs from £1,425 per person.