Unpredictable and incomparable, like magic curtains fluttering in the solar wind, the northern lights are a popular bucket-list experience that people often anticipate and dream about for years.
While you don’t need to go all the way north to see the brilliant cosmic display of the Aurora Borealis—I’ve seen them as far south as Milwaukee—it certainly helps. Better to hunt them where the skies are free from human-made light and air pollution, where the glowing waves rise up farther, over your head or spiraling to fill the sky completely.
One such perfect place is Utsjoki, situated 280 miles north of the Arctic Circle at the top of Lapland, the very northern end of Finland. Here the Teno—the salmon-rich Tenojoki River—marks the border between Finland and Norway, putting you even north of Santa’s Village (which is in the Lapland capital of Rovaniemi).
Birdwatchers come in spring, seeking puffins and migratory species. In late summer, when the midnight sun still lingers at the horizon, cloudberries are in season and hikers trek the fells—high hills with tundra-like terrain—while local anglers seek salmon. But as the skies darken with longer nights, the season of the Lights approaches.
Tiina Salonen and Mika Länsman have lived in Utsjoki for more than 15 years. Tiina moved here from Turku in the southwest, and her husband Mika’s heritage is right here with the indigenous Sámi people. In 2016, they founded Aurora Holidays, a small, local resort and touring company.
Their property lies not 10 minutes east of tiny Utsjoki, perched on the banks of the rushing Teno, facing Norway. The focus of their business is to “chase the northern lights,” a tricky endeavor, but one they seem to have mastered. No one can control the weather or the appearance of the main attraction, and yet, only one group in six years wasn’t able to see the lights, during an unusual, stubbornly cloudy week.
The first rule, Tiina tells me, is “Be patient. They can come and go suddenly.” One might go inside for a spell and miss the perfect moment. Dress warm and wait. But clouds can’t be argued with, and this is where the “chasing” comes in. The guides have a solid network of like-minded partners who share intel. If it’s cloudy outside your cabin door, but clear 45 minutes down the road, they hop in the van and go—thus, their nearly perfect record of getting guests under the big lights.
An enclosed gazebo that they’ve affectionately named “Steve” sits atop the fells just to the south, high above the resort and the river valley, granting a sweeping view to the horizon in all directions. Getting there requires a 40-minute hiking or snowshoe effort, although plans are to offer snowmobile-powered sled transport in the future. When the sky fills in all directions, the radiating skies seem to flicker just beyond your fingertips.
The Season of Lights
The northern lights are visible from late August even into the beginning of April. Prior to that, the night is too short or even nonexistent in July. But the Tiina and Mika don’t sell packages throughout the whole season.
“We’ve seen them as late as April, but we want guests to come when they have a real chance to see the lights. Mid-September to March,” Tiina says.
Most people think it needs to be cold, but fall is temperate and offers reflections off the unfrozen rivers and lakes, while the ground is still dark without snow. As winter approaches and ice develops, the polar nights get longer. From about Nov. 27 to Jan. 17, the sun never comes up over the horizon, and you can hunt the northern lights as early as 3 p.m. (They aren’t 24/7, however; during the Finnish day, the lights may appear over North America.)
Choosing Your Destination
Whether you head to Finland, Canada, Alaska, or Iceland, choose wisely.
“Don’t just look at the price here. Look for people who care,” says Tiina. “We are not doing this just for money. We could do it so much easier with less money. But we really try to make it happen, putting everything we can into the week to make it the best time ever.”
Lined up along the top of the river banks, Aurora Holidays’ four cabins (with two single beds in each of two bedrooms) come with modest kitchens, separate bathrooms and saunas, and a sort of foyer where one can shed the winter clothing before heading into the heated cabin. Two more apartments round out the offerings. A heated gazebo with an impressive wood-fired grill is nearly at the river’s edge.
The restaurant serves hearty, fixed-menu meals with local ingredients, including reindeer (Mika maintains a herd), Arctic Ocean cod, salmon from the river past your cabin, family farm beef, and free-range chickens. Packages include up to four people (but two more beds can be added for larger groups) plus meals, transports, and nightly lights chasing excursions.
“This is something you can do when things get back to normal,” says Tiina. “Even if you book now for next year, your refund is guaranteed.”
She remembers a group that brought music, playing Beethoven with the bands of glowing green undulating above.
“I’ve seen big lights, small lights, lights coming suddenly out of nowhere,” she says. “But what makes it great is when you see them with someone who has waited their whole life to see them. People get so happy.”
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler, craft beer enthusiast, and home cooking fan. He is the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and his new collection of short stories, “Stealing Away.” He is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and his website is TheMadTraveler.com.