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Seeking the Northern Lights in Finland

"YOU SHOULD VISIT FINLAND IN SUMMER," says the Lonely Planet guidebook. Thanks for the tip, but the whole point of my "Northern Lights" package, set up by Norvista, Finnair's tour company, was to see winter at its most wintry—to spend six days frolicking in the Finnish part of Lapland, the region that spreads across the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, and a slice of Russia, at a latitude that's above Iceland, most of Alaska, and the Arctic Circle.

So let's just get it out of the way: Yes, Lapland is cold in winter. But not as cold as you'd expect. The Gulf Stream, the dryness of the air, and the lack of wind conspire to make it more than bearable (technological advances in long underwear also help). And yes, there is daylight, except in December.

After arriving in Helsinki, nine of us hopped on a plane headed for the village of Kittilä. With each mile north, the landscape outside the window looked more like an Ansel Adams photograph: the sky gray, the ground white, the trees black.

Of Finland in general, my guidebook had painted a strange picture.

  • Finns drink a lot of alcohol—and an average of nine cups of coffee a day.
  • Finns like to party, though it can be hard to tell if they're having fun.
  • Finns adore the tango.
  • Finns don't talk much, and don't like people who do.

From Kittilä we drove to Levi, a nearby ski resort, where we checked into the Hotel Sirkantähti. Our rooms were small, functional, and nondescript in a ski-resort way, but each was equipped with a tiny sauna not unlike a toaster oven.

Out back was a faux Lapp hut, tepee-shaped but made of wood, with a fire burning in the center. Hannele, our guide for the week, was inside, ready for our Lapp initiation ceremony. After some gorgeous singing, Hannele announced that she and the spirits she had summoned would teach us to feel at home in Lapland. First we bonded, as young reindeer do with their mothers, by taking a nip from a leather bag—filled, I later learned, with reindeer milk, of course. To inure us to the cold, she rubbed ice on our faces. Finally, so that we would recognize one another when we came back in 500 years (some sort of reincarnation myth), she drew "antlers" on our foreheads with ash. It was done; we were Lapps.

On our second night we tried snowmobiling. Outfitted like astronauts in our coveralls, boots, helmets, and goggles, we received a minimum of instruction: how to accelerate, how to brake. I found myself last in line, which was fine until I stopped to look back—beyond the glow of the taillights there was nothing but blackness. I worried that in Lapland, as in space, no one can hear you scream.

Finally we arrived at another hut, done up like a Laplander's version of a bachelor pad: furs covered the benches around the perimeter, coffee brewed over the fire. We ate smoked salmon on dark bread, and ran outside to look at the stars, more than I had ever seen. Then the northern lights came up. They formed a luminous arc resembling a cloud that changed shape, shooting pale-yellow vertical plumes. Expecting fireworks, I was disappointed, and then disappointed by my disappointment. After all, if one of nature's greatest shows doesn't excite you, you might as well call it quits.

Next up was reindeer sledding. Reindeer are small, stocky, and stupid. Mine was also competitive: once again I was the last to go, but I soon roared by everyone, even those who had started 10 minutes earlier. I will never forget (or repeat) the hour I spent shivering and staring at reindeer butt. The temperature was down to minus 20 degrees Celsius. All I could do was thank God it wasn't 50 below. Back in the herders' cabin we thawed out over reindeer soup—chunks of meat in broth—that was the last thing I wanted to eat, or even smell. I started to push it away when one of our hosts sat down beside me. Not wanting to be rude, I took a spoonful. Rude, I decided, was better than sick.

The northern lights appeared again as we were heading back. They were quicker, brighter, altogether more spectacular than the night before. I was won over. We were especially lucky: the last five groups to come on the tour hadn't seen them at all.

Later that night, four of us took a taxi into Kittilä for the weekly "ladies' dance." Women stalked the floor; without missing a step, they would point at the men they wanted, and the men would jump to attention. No one tangoed, but it was real dancing, no prom shuffle. Breaking the rules, one man asked a woman in our group to dance—his only other English, she discovered, was "Something exciting is happening here."

She could have told him to go jump in a lake, but we might have run into him again there. The next day, the braver among us were going to, yes, risk an ice-cold dip. Esa, a reindeer herder, greeted us. First we took a long sauna to get our bodies good and hot. Then we put on socks (so our feet wouldn't stick to the ice) and bathing suits (because we're American). Slowly, allowing our bodies to cool down, we walked 40 yards to a hole in the lake. One at a time, we climbed down the little ladder. The water came up to my waist. Damn right it was cold. Hannele said to get all the way in, and though I suspected she was just being sadistic I did as I was told. Because the water was warmer than the air, it felt relatively good. Subsequent photos show me looking like a very pink shrimp chilling on ice.

For dinner, Esa took us to visit his mother-in-law, Lapland's Martha Stewart. The food was served on slices of tree trunk; the butter was carved into a log-cabin shape. Besides a whole smoked fish, we each had a "sailboat"—a scooped-out roll filled with potato salad and caviar, topped with a "sail" of smoked reindeer. After dinner Esa took us to a reindeer-farming museum, where, among other less terrifying things, we learned that it's one man's job to geld the reindeer with his teeth.

Back at the hotel, the nightclub was hopping. Lonely Planet was right: the Finns do love to drink. All I can remember from the rest of the evening is that I danced—twice—to the Finnish version of the theme from Ghostbusters.

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