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Rovaniemi: Santa’s official hometown where the sky glows

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In the olden days, the indigenous people were afraid of the northern lights. Today, are a major tourist attraction

In the olden days, the indigenous people were afraid of the northern lights. Today, are a major tourist attraction

“Are you ready, Teletubbies?,” Salla and Adeline, our cheerful Finnish friends, asked. We laughed, looking nowhere as cute as the Teletubbies as we tried to zip up our heavy suits over layers of winter wear.

We were in the official hometown of Santa Claus, Rovaniemi, the largest town in Lapland, which has a population of about 60,000 people. It had been a disappointingly cloudy day. Our chances of seeing the magical northern lights, the highlight of our trip to Finland, seemed to be diminishing with every grey cloud. But when we sat in the wooden cabin at Apukka Resort to wear our boots that night, we felt cautiously cheerful. The sky had become clear and the night was dark and still. This promised to be an illuminating adventure of a lifetime.

Apukka Resort Glass Igloos summer in Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland; Photos: @Visit Rovaniemi 

Earlier, when we had trooped into the cabin after dinner, we were confident of braving the cold. But our guide, Santtu, at Apukka, shook his head firmly. “You have to wear this,” he said, thrusting into our arms heavy black-and-red suits, thick water-proof boots, and a small torch to strap to our heads for our journey to the middle of Joutolampi lake. Dressed like astronauts but waddling like penguins, we reached the rickety jetty where a boat awaited us.

Santtu first showed us how to get into the boat and then taught us how to row. (We were rowing? No one told us!) A bright light at the jetty was our only guiding light. We clambered into the boats clutching our phones. With some clumsy rowing, we somehow moved away from the jetty.

In the olden days, the indigenous people were afraid of the northern lights. “They thought the spirits had come, and locked themselves up at home,” Santtu said. Over the years, fear of the phenomenon gave way to curiosity and later, excitement. The northern lights today are a major tourist attraction. They are known as Aurora Borealis in Finnish, which translates to ‘fox fires’. The myth, according to the Samis — the indigenous people of the northern part of the Scandinavian Peninsula — goes, that the lights were caused by the fire fox who ran so quickly across the snow that his tail caused sparks that flew into the night sky.

Under the Aurora Borealis in Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland; Photo: Juho Uutela

Under the Aurora Borealis in Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland; Photo: Juho Uutela

Scientifically, the story begins with the sun and travels all the way to Earth. The sun blasts out small, electrified particles, called solar winds, which take two-three days to travel to the Earth’s atmosphere. Some of these particles get trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field. When the particles bump into oxygen, the reaction makes green and red light. When they bump into nitrogen, the result is blue or purple light. Santtu explained that the sighting of the northern lights depends on many factors: solar activity, winds, location, season, time, and a sky full of luck.

We stopped after rowing for about ten minutes and scanned the unpolluted heavens. The sky hung over us like a thick blanket, filled with a thousand twinkling stars. Slowly, a part of it turned a pale shade of green. We shrieked and whipped out our phones.

To spot objects in the sky, it is important to first spot the North Star, Santtu said. We squinted at the constellations. The North Star shone at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. Venus was behind us, unmistakably bright in the horizon. And in front, as if in competition to be the show-stopper, the crescent-shaped moon glittered. It seemed to be at an arm’s distance and appeared to be resting on a row of trees. “I have never seen the moon so close,” one woman in the group exclaimed, while the rest of us removed our gloves and clicked photos. While our cameras could capture only silver specks in the sky, they caught the green luminosity far better than our eyes did.

Snowland igloo restaurant northern lights Rovaniemi Lapland Finland ; Photos: @Visit Rovaniemi 

Snowland igloo restaurant northern lights Rovaniemi Lapland Finland ; Photos: @Visit Rovaniemi 

The northern lights were playful, emerging and fading in minutes. They appeared in various shades of green — pale, minty, emerald, lime. Streaks of pink and purple also raced occasionally through the sky. The lights appeared in ribbon-like shapes, in strokes and hazy formations. Sometimes they embraced a whole slice of the sky; sometimes they appeared no bigger than large clouds. With its star cast, the sky put up a spectacular performance that night, commanding respect, awe and admiration from its small, humbled audience.

We told Santtu that we had heard of the lights making noises. He had heard stories too, of faint sizzling or crackling sounds, but he had never heard them.

The moon, meanwhile, was heading rapidly towards Venus in the west. Soon, the lights faded and the sky turned cold and stern. Santtu said it was time to go back. Wispy curls of smoke had emerged from the lake, the first frost of the season. He laughed as we picked up our oars, and switched on the motor that he had hidden from us. Back on land, we warmed our blue hands over a bonfire, sipped steamy blueberry tea and scrolled through our photos, still in allure of the aurora.

Basic information

How to get there?

The Finnair flight from Helsinki to Rovaniemi is 1 hour 25 minutes.

What’s the best time to visit?

The northern lights are best viewed on clear nights between late August and early April. But winter can be harsh from December to March, so keep that in mind while packing your warm clothes.

What are the best clothes to carry?

July and August are warm months but winters can be extremely cold. Garments designed to repel wind and frost are ideal. Sturdy shoes and thermal socks, and gloves and mittens, are important. But don’t worry — there are many places from where you can rent Arctic clothing.

Vaccination:

No special vaccination is required to travel to Finland.

What else can you do in Rovaniemi?

You can visit the Arkitum science centre and museum to learn about Arctic life; visit Culture House Korundi, a spacious, sun-filled home of Finnish contemporary art; float in a lake wearing a rescue suit and stare at star-filled skies (you don’t need to know how to swim!); go on a husky trail with our sweetest furry friends; and visit Santa Claus village, where you can meet Santa and also some friendly reindeer.

(Source: Visit Rovaniemi)

Fun facts about the northern lights

• The height of the displays can be 1,000 km although most are between 80-120 km.

• The earliest account of the lights appears to be from a Babylonian clay tablet, from the observations made by the official astronomers of King Nebuchadnezzar II, 568/567 BC.

• Altitude affects the colours of the light. Blue violet/reds occur below 100 km, with bright green strongest between 100 km and 240 km. Above 240 km, you can see ruby reds.

• You can also see the aurora from an aircraft and from space.

• The aurora can be seen in the southern hemisphere too, where it is called Aurora Australis.

• Earth is not the only planet with auroras. If a planet has an atmosphere and a magnetic field, it probably has auroras. NASA spacecrafts have captured magnificent auroras in Jupiter and Saturn

(Source: Library of Congress; NASA)



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