Almost five years ago, Jordan and I experienced the northern lights for the first time while on vacation in Iceland. We were driving over a mountain pass in the late evening, and out of nowhere, the sky lit up in hues of green. Jordan quickly pulled the car on the side of the road and set up his camera. We watched as the northern lights danced in the sky, oscillating freely in the darkness. It was magical. We chased the northern lights again last fall on a long weekend in Iceland but were met with blizzard-like conditions each evening. So we planned another trip to hunt the northern lights again.
Our destination? Rovaniemi, Finland. Pronounced “row·vuh·nee·eh·mee,” it’s located on the Arctic Circle and also Santa’s homeland. Surely somewhere as magical as Santa’s homeland would have the northern lights, right? We planned to spend four days in Finland, giving us three nights of opportunity to have the northern lights illuminate the sky.
Getting to Rovaniemi is no easy feat. We could have paid an excessive amount to have a direct flight from Paris to Rovaniemi, or we could have paid a reasonable amount for a bit of inconvenience. While generally, we would pay for convenience, the price difference was too much to justify. Therefore, to get to Santa’s homeland, we would drive two hours to Geneva, fly from Geneva to Helsinki, and then take the final flight from Helsinki to Rovaniemi. Surprisingly enough, the plane was bigger to Rovaniemi than to Helsinki.
Before we left, I found a website online called Aurora Alert that showed the three-day prediction for the northern lights in certain cities. They had an app for Rovaniemi I also downloaded to receive a notification whenever the northern lights were visible.
After spending most of Thursday traveling, we arrived in Rovaniemi in time for dinner. One of Finland’s delicacies is reindeer, sorry Blitzen, as the Lapland region has more reindeer than they do people. We ordered a reindeer roast, an intense flavor with a delicate texture served with a vegetable puree and rich sauce. For dessert, I ordered the cloudberry crème brûlée, a Finnish twist on a classic French dessert.
We contemplated driving out to a less light-polluted area after dinner for the best chance to see the northern lights. But first, we checked the Aurora Alert app, and it said the probabilities of auroras Thursday evening were low. The weather also showed clouds most of the night. With the information at hand, we decided we should go to bed and get rested for the next day, as we had two excursions planned. We turned in for the night at 11:30 pm, and that was the last time I looked at my phone that evening.
When I woke up in the morning, I saw a notification from Aurora Alert on my phone. It read, “Northern lights visible in Rovaniemi.”
The time on the notification? 11:50 pm.
Kicking ourselves at the missed chance, we knew there were still two nights to go.
On Friday, we started our morning early for our first excursion, a morning filled with dogs! We would each be steering our team of huskies for a few hours through snowy forests and over frozen lakes.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more aware and wearier of using animals for any entertainment. I first started to get hesitations when I had the annual pass to the Denver Zoo. I could walk there from my apartment, and it was easy to go on long walks through the zoo to see the animals. When I lived in Colorado, the Denver Zoo had two polar bears, my favorite animal. I loved checking in on them, but one was constantly pacing back and forth like it was in distress. Instead of bringing me joy, it brought me sadness. The polar bears are no longer at the Denver Zoo.
Before we booked our dog sledding adventure, we researched to ensure the animals were well-loved. We felt confident in the company we booked through, Bearhill Husky tours. Our excursion would allow us to have three hours learning how to guide the sled through the snowy conditions. That sounds like a lot for the dogs. However, we learned the dogs want to run for up to six hours a day! Having a Brittany spaniel who has endless energy, I can believe it.
When we arrived at the location, countless barks met our ears. If the huskies could talk, I’m sure they were saying, “Hi strangers, let’s go run! Let’s run, let’s go explore; there are so many smells to smell!” Or something like that. Our same brittany spaniel also loves to “talk” to anyone who will listen. But this sound was multiplied by at least 50. She would be in good company in Rovaniemi!
The more popular tour the company provided was a one-hour husky sledding tour where one person would be driving, and the other person would sit in the sled. However, we would spend three hours on our tour. We were here for adventure! Unlike the other tour, ours was a small group with just us and two other guys who looked our age.
Now I’ll be honest, I don’t know what I thought dog sledding would be like, but I was certainly in for a surprise when our instructor was giving out instructions for the day.
The first rule in dog sledding? Don’t let go.
We would be standing behind the sled with each foot on one narrow rail, maybe two inches wide. We could use a metal foot break between the rails to slow down or stop the team. Our hands had to be firmly on the back of the sleigh the entire time. If we fell and let go of the sleigh, the dogs would continue running and wouldn’t stop. These guys love to run!
After receiving instructions on what to do and not to do, I wasn’t sure I was up for the challenge. But there was only one way to find out, right? Our instructor told us the first few minutes of the ride were the most important. The dogs had rested the day before, so they were refreshed and ready to run. Translation: the dogs have a lot of energy and want to run fast.
My team had four Siberian huskies, and Jordan had five Alaskan huskies. I positioned myself on the sleigh and tried to repeat the instructions in my head. Don’t let go. Don’t let go. Don’t let go. After a few minutes of pep talk in my head, the staff released the rope restraining the sleigh, and we were off!
The first couple of minutes were terrifying. I was hanging on for dear life while trying to balance one foot on a rail while trying to push down the break with the other. “Don’t let go. Don’t fall off. Don’t let go,” I kept repeating. A rush of adrenaline cascaded over me as I contemplated why in the world I thought this would be fun. Right after coming off the initial chute, we stopped to do a pulse check so our instructor could make sure everything was okay. He asked me how it was as I responded “terrifying” while clenching my hands tightly on the sleigh. The instructor seemed okay with that answer, and we continued.
It took me a little bit to get in sync with the sleigh and my team of dogs. But once I knew what to expect, the excursion turned from terrifying to terrific. It was so peaceful to see the dogs at work. The dogs were intentionally paired up with each other to balance strength with size so they would all run in sync. We occasionally stopped so the dogs could cool off by rolling in the snow or eating snow to stay hydrated. It was an unseasonably warm day of 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and our instructor told us it was almost too hot for the dogs.
Each time we stopped, the barking would start back. One of my dogs would turn and look at me like, “Come on, woman, let’s go run. Why are we stopped?” My team of dogs would also occasionally pull to make sure I had my foot on the metal break. I wasn’t strong enough to keep the break down with one foot, and the dogs would gain about two inches of distance with each pull. The inch gain was enough for the dogs to continue pulling, as they just wanted to run. I had to put both of my feet on the brake and push down on the sleigh to keep them from pulling!
Midway through the ride, we stopped to take a break as well. I needed it as I didn’t realize how physical dog sledding was. We plopped down in the deep snow and created lazy-boy-“snowfas” Our instructor gave us some warm berry juice to hydrate before continuing our ride.
My team of dogs was so good, but there was one point where they almost unintentionally flipped the sleigh. We were coming around a tight right turn, and one of the dogs decided it needed to go to the bathroom. It pulled up on the right snowbank, which pulled the sleigh up in that direction and off the trail. I felt out of control with the sleigh and thought it would tilt over, but thankfully I avoided falling. In the end, Jordan and I were the only ones to not fall off our sleighs!
After we finished our ride, it was time to tell the dogs how good they were and praise them with belly rubs and treats. We even got the opportunity to walk them back to their pens. Hilariously enough, as soon as Jordan let one dog out of its harness, it peed all over Jordan’s leg! Thankfully, he was wearing the tour company’s snowsuit. I think that was the dog’s way of saying, “Why are you taking me home? We still need to run!”
We went to Santa Claus Village after our dog sledding adventure. Here, you can visit Santa in his workshop 365 days out of the year.The workshop doubled as a long line during peak Santa meeting periods. We walked through his workshop but chose not to meet with Santa. Different doors gave a glimpse of other areas of Santa’s village along the walls. You could look through the tiny keyholes on the doors and see the elves in action taking care of the reindeer at the “Baby Reindeer Daycare” or baking a fresh batch of cookies in the “Elf Kitchen.” To be honest, Santa Claus Village was a little gimmicky for us but would be a great place to take kids.
We returned to the room to relax for a bit before going out on our second adventure for the day, a nighttime snowmobile ride! The guide picked us up at our hotel around 8:00 pm. On the agenda was a snowmobile ride, dinner over a campfire, and hopefully, the chance to see the northern lights. In the event we did see the northern lights, we paid extra to have the guide take photos so we could have quality pictures.
We bundled up into giant marshmallows for the second time that day and rode a short distance to the start of our snowmobile ride. During the ride, I received a notification on my phone that there was a moderate chance to see the auroras tonight. I immediately got my hopes up. After a short introduction on how to operate the snowmobile, we jumped on for a ride into the snowy darkness. We drove for about an hour before stopping in a wide-open area, perfect for watching the northern lights if they appeared.
The weather was overcast, but occasionally a few stars would pop out between clouds. I kept looking up to the sky every few minutes, afraid I would miss even a second of the northern lights if I looked away. Our guide started the campfire while we gazed at the sky before moving to the fire for warmth. We received sticks and sausages (pork and reindeer) to cook over the open fire for our dinner.
Jordan and I picked the absolute worst place to sit as the wind perfectly directed all the campfire smoke in our faces. Our eyes were watering and burning at the same time. As I kept having to look away due to smoke, Jordan recalled a story about how he and his brother used to wear swim goggles around the campfire to protect their eyes from the smoke. Note to self, bring goggles anytime there will be a campfire!
I kept rubbing my now bloodshot eyes and eventually walked away from the smoke altogether. The warmth was not worth it, and no one else was giving up their smoke-free spots. The guide decided this would be a good time for Jordan and me to take photos together. Uh, together? We thought they would be of the northern lights. Well, since it didn’t look like the northern lights would be making an appearance, the guide wanted to take photos of us since we had paid extra for that package. Ugh, great.
The following 10-15 minutes were hilariously awkward. I can only describe them as the glamour shots of the arctic. First, the guide made everyone move away from the fire to take photos of us next to it. Cue an obnoxious American comment here. We insisted that no one needed to move away from the warmth, but the guide was persistent. Next, the guide set up a snowmobile to take photos of us on it. At this point, I thoroughly regretted paying extra for the package. I did not want to take these photos! I could not wait for this to be over. Enjoy the result below!
We stayed out on snowmobiles until almost midnight but did not luck out with the northern lights. One night to go.
The next day, we had an all-day snowmobile excursion planned. I know what you’re thinking, “but you just did a snowmobile excursion less than twelve hours ago?“. This one promised adventure, and it delivered!
Remember how I bragged that we were the only two not to fall off the dog sleds the day before? Well, I was the only one to crash the snowmobile on this trip. I started driving this time, as Jordan drove the entire ride the evening before. My snowmobile was directly behind the guides, and there were four snowmobiles behind us. Immediately when I hit the gas, I could tell that these snowmobiles had way more power than the night before. These snowmobiles topped out at 60 kilometers per hour, equivalent to 36 miles per hour.
The speed may not seem like much in a car, but it felt like we were flying on the open snowmobile. The guide was driving at full speed, and I tried to keep up with him as not to slow down the others behind us. I felt out of control, but the rush of adrenaline in me told me to keep going. It was scary but exhilarating. A fire ignited inside of me that made me crave the adventure.
As background, my only experience driving snowmobiles was while on a smooth glacier in Iceland back in 2017. Finland was no glacier; the terrain was bumpy and unpredictable. The guide took us around narrow turns and deep snow. And it was in the deep snow where I lost control of the snowmobile. I navigated the snowmobile through more than three feet of snow at a low speed. It’s even possible that we crashed because I was going at too low of a speed.
I honestly don’t know how it happened, but the next thing I knew is the snowmobile was on its side, and so were we. For perspective, the engine key attached to my suit didn’t disengage from the snowmobile, so we weren’t thrown from the snowmobile. It was like we just tipped. At least we had a soft landing?
As I calmly stood to assess the situation, I saw Jordan’s leg trapped underneath the snowmobile. Maybe it was the adrenaline pumping through me, but I lifted that snowmobile with ease to free Jordan’s leg. One of the guys on the snowmobile behind us, a Russian that spoke no English, single-handedly turned our snowmobile back upright. Once I knew that Jordan was not hurt, that’s when shock set in. For reference, this was in the first couple of hours of the trip. We still had four hours to go! I had to get back on the snowmobile but did not drive again. I’m not sure if that’s the adventure we wanted, but it’s the adventure we got. My stomach still turns just thinking about it, but I promise we were okay.
Fun fact: I’ve now driven snowmobiles in Europe more than I have driven an actual car. And I don’t plan on driving either while living over here again.
After our snowmobile ride, we drove to a new hotel for the last night in Finland. We moved a little outside of the city center to stay in a glass igloo. It was a splurge but a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The igloo had a heated glass ceiling, and all beds faced north. If there were one night to see the northern lights, this would be it.
Next to our glass igloo was a snow hotel. Yes, the hotel was 100% made out of snow! Once it gets cold enough, the hotel is crafted carefully out of snow. The size and shape are always different from the years before, making it an attraction worth revisiting. We were allowed to wander through each of the rooms in the snow hotel when we arrived.
The snow hotel had various themed rooms, with intricate ice sculptures setting the stage. An underwater-themed room with a giant sea turtle ice sculpture or a wooly mammoth-themed room awaits visitors. The only things not made out of ice in the snow hotel were the mattresses and the many fur blankets resting on the beds. It sounds crazy, but people actually pay to sleep in these rooms.
Those who book the rooms do not have any amenities. They are required to put their luggage in a locker, and there are no toilets or showers in their room. There is nowhere to relax, and they have to wait until they go to bed to access their room. The snow hotel is not my definition of fun! In addition to the rooms, the hotel also had a chapel and an ice bar. Does anyone want to get married in an ice chapel? There was even an ice sculpture of the Mona Lisa that was honestly more impressive than the one in the Louvre!
We checked into our hotel at dusk, and clear skies welcomed us. All of the stars were visible! As we relaxed before dinner, we laid in our beds and pointed out different constellations. I had a good feeling we would see the northern lights tonight.
Dinner was only a short walk away from the glass igloos. We were freshly showered and in clean clothes and thought we had finally escaped the previous two days of campfires. Imagine our laughter when a giant fireplace greeted us in the middle of the restaurant. The salmon I would be eating that night was cooking over the fire. Our hair and clothes immediately were consumed once again by the smell of a campfire.
As we settled in at our table, one of the waiters walked out and addressed the room. She welcomed us to the restaurant and addressed our thoughts about smelling like a campfire as if reading our minds. The waiter said, “As we return home to our everyday lives, we would remember our memories of Finland when we open our suitcases and become engulfed with the smell of a campfire.” That is until we throw everything in the washer!
We returned to our glass igloo to turn in for the night after a delicious dinner. Unfortunately for us, there was not a star in the sky as the clouds had rolled in. I checked the Aurora Alert app, but the probability of seeing auroras tonight was low. Disappointed, we turned on the “aurora alert” button in our igloo to be notified if the sky lit up while we were sleeping. Every so often, I would wake up and peer up at the sky to make sure the auroras weren’t there.
And in the morning, I knew our chance to see the northern lights while visiting Finland was over. Seeing the northern lights is all up to chance. While we weren’t lucky this time, we will continue hunting the northern lights. The magic is worth it! We did get some beautiful views of the sunrise and sunset through.