Written by: Doug Franks
My wife and I have seven nieces and seven nephews, and years ago we decided to do something special for each one’s eighteenth birthday: we would take them anywhere in the world they chose. To see a bit of the world was the best present we could ever give them and over the years I profited from this tradition as much as did the kids.
We bonded tightly and I got to visit some outrageously beautiful cities and countries, from the Eternal City to the City of Light, from the Outback and the glowworm caves of Oz, to Arthur’s Avalon and the Rastafarian rhythms of Jamaica.
Finally, after twenty years of toting the kids around the globe, it was the last of the brood’s turn.
“So, Garet, where do you want to go?” I asked my youngest nephew. He had been deliberating the possibilities for over a year. Germany and Thailand were nose and nose, but in the end a dark horse stole the finish.
“Scandinavia!” he exclaimed.
Norway and Sweden were at the top of my bucket list, so my soul smiled and did a little jig. I had visions of stunning glacial fjords and sipping chilled vodka beneath the midnight sun, cavorting with tall, beautiful Valkyries and skiing through Arctic silence. We would take in a brooding Bergman retrospective and sip steaming coffee in the hip district of Södermalm and…
“Finland,” he said, interrupting my fantasy.
My tongue stumbled for the words, “Oh well, sure, I guess that’s Scandinavia to some people.” Finland, I mumbled to myself, is Sweden’s ugly stepsister. Who goes to Finland?
“Yes,” he replied, “the Sami live there, and I want to see the Aurora Borealis.”
We flew from Helsinki to the Ivalo Airport, north of the Arctic Circle, where it was a frosty -2 °C and shrouded in white. Our booking with the Muotkan Maja Wilderness Lodge promised days filled with cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, husky sledding, and nights hunting the capricious and elusive Lights. We were met by the Muotkan van driver, bundled up like a plump Eskimo, and my wife began fretting that we had not brought enough layers, mittens, and her favorite goose down pillow.
The short ride to the lodge brought us even farther away from civilization along a road winding through shadowed spruce thickets, pines, and a battalion of birch and then past open bedrock and marshy hollows. I cracked the window and breathed in the forest. “So clean,” I whispered to myself, “and primeval.”
“This is way beyond beauty,” Garet said, and my ever witty wife added, “And dark, and I have miles to go before I sleep.” The day had indeed stretched too long and we were all doing the head bob.
I awoke as ice crackled beneath the van’s tires and a final turn pulled us into the lodge. We were met by the beautiful smile of our gracious host Niina, who quickly steered us to the hearth and glowing log fire. The flames seemed to suck the last of the cold from our bones and soon we were snug as a den of wolf pups. Niina brought hot cocoa, thick, buttered bread, and an indescribably delicious seafood chowder. Last I remember was the clean smell of pine and snuggling beside my wife beneath the warm waves of a quilt blanket.
By the third day any reservations about Finland had vanished. I may have seen more than my fair share of the world, but nowhere else have I felt so buoyant and carefree. Days passed as if we were playing hooky. Mornings found us skiing through vast, silent forests or mushing a team of huskies with shouts of yippee ki ya! We followed deer tracks to tall, candle-shaped spruce groves and laughed at snow clumped trees that looked like disheveled gnomes. That’s what I remember most: it was as if we had suddenly remembered how to really laugh! Afternoons were for warm berry juice and dozing beside the fire, playing board games or lounging in the smoke sauna. Yet the prize still eluded us. Cloudy skies had dashed any chance of seeing the Lights. But on our last night Niina assured us that conditions were perfect. The sky was clear and crisp. “All the better,” she winked, “to woo the fairy lights.”
After dinner our guide Otto gave us the science behind the Aurora phenomenon. Well, sort of: “It’s kinda sexy. Swift, energetic particles from solar flares mix with various gases in our upper atmosphere. The greens come from an excitation of oxygen, the reds and blues from excited nitrogen atoms. But I still think the best explanation is magic.”
Later, snowmobiles drew our sledges through the woods and past crystalline fells to the high ground of the Aurora Camp. There were twenty in our party, stomping their feet warm, breath suspended in air. While most huddled in the warming hut, Garet and I scanned the sky for omens amidst thin clouds and the silent stars. Otto began to whistle a low, eerie tune, then paused to explain: “The Indigenous Peoples, the Sami, say that you can conjure the lights with a whistle, but be careful or they may whisk you away.”
I chuckled, but Garet began whistling. Moments later, seemingly out of nowhere, a bit of color materialized like an iridescent ghost, then more swirls and waves began to take shape, at first over a fell, then another emerged from behind a cloud, an undulating, shifting alchemy of color. Over in another corner of the universe a snake of blue and deeper hues of green coiled and spun, and above tree line burnt siennas and amber shimmered, then morphed into a shower of sparks that seemed to leap right through us. The whole sky was over-brimming with wonder.
My wife whispered to me, “I never.”
“Me neither, love, never in my life.” The Sami do say the lights sing and my heart sang as I watched Garet tap his foot to the greatest show on earth. And as the lights faded I turned to him. “I never expected this. Thanks for picking Finland.”
He just smiled. “Sure.”