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Seeing the light

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There's never been a better time to search for the northern lights – but when visiting Lapland, take the opportunity to discover the local culture as well. By Sue Bryant


Our line of snowmobiles pulled up on a hilltop and we switched off our engines. Now that my eyes had adjusted to the blackness of the moonless night, I could see that the snow was glowing an eerie blue.


But I should have been looking up, not down. "Above you – the aurora," said Erik, our guide, with a dramatic flourish. Everybody gasped. A huge, white arc stretched right across the sky from the eastern horizon to the west, billowing gently, the red pinprick of Mars glowing through its curtain, Venus and Jupiter dazzling against the jet-black sky.


We sped on across the snowy landscape of Norway's far north, now fixated on the heavens rather than the tracks in front of us, great circles of green light pooling in the sky and disappearing, spiralling and suddenly shimmering in all directions. No photograph or film can ever capture the enormity of this phenomenon – it was like giant aeroplane trails covering the whole sky, criss-crossing, stretching hundreds of miles vertically as well as horizontally, constantly moving. And words can barely describe the feeling of seeing it for the first time after a lifetime of waiting.


aurora chasing


The coming winter, like last winter, is reckoned to be a prime time to see the lights, due to increased sunspot activity. October to March is the best time to visit and hand-in-hand with wintery pleasures like husky driving, reindeer sleigh rides and warming suppers around a blazing fire, aurora-chasing trips come neatly packaged by many Scandinavian specialist tour operators.


But all too often, these tours, enjoyable though they are, mean a whistlestop visit to northern Norway, Sweden or Finland, checking off a list of activities and gazing at the night sky while the local people, the Sami, who are so integral to this environment, remain silently in the background. At best, they are presented in their colourful blue and red costumes as a photo opportunity, tending their reindeer. Sometimes, the activities can feel slightly over-commercial. The 'reindeer driving' is around a circular track in the forest. Husky safaris are passive, sitting in the sled while a musher takes control. The more commercial visits to 'Santa's log cabin', although charming, are like a well-organised production line.


Fortunately, though, there are ways to enjoy the beauty of the Nordic winter, look for the lights and learn in a more immersive way about Sami culture.


The Sami, an indigenous race of reindeer hunters and later, herders, have been present in Lapland, or Samiland, for more than 10,000 years, their lives deeply entwined with the landscape, the snow, their reindeer and the phenomena in the sky (which they believe is the dancing spirits of their ancestors). Their region spans Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia and they number around 85,000 in population. Although they have had to endure oppression from early Christians (who burned Sami shamans at the stake), loss of their habitat and over the years, racism, the Sami today are integrated to an extent into the societies of Finland, Norway, Sweden and northern Russia, working either as reindeer herders or in service industries. They even have their own parliaments in Norway, Sweden and Finland. You're likely to see modern Sami driving snowmobiles nowadays, communicating using walkie-talkies and mobile phones, but their haunting songs, their brightly coloured costumes and deep affinity with their reindeer are essential elements of a vibrant and living culture.


So what's the best way to get to know these fascinating people? Familiarise yourself with reindeer, for a start. Nature Travels offers a four-day reindeer safari from Jukkasjärvi in Swedish Lapland on which you drive and care for your own reindeer under the watchful eye of a Sami herder. Accommodation is in Sami tents and herders' huts on remote mountain passes, eating around the fire at night, under the stars (01929 503080/www.naturetravels.co.uk).


supporting local businesses


Scandinavian Travel is another Lapland specialist that makes a point of working with local businesses in Finnish Lapland, many of them owned by Sami. For something different, try an Arctic Flavours culinary break in Kuusamo, staying in a log cabin (complete with sauna, of course) and sampling local, seasonal ingredients. Spend a day in a cookery masterclass with Chef de Cuisine Jarmo Pitkänen and visit a fishing village to see how the fresh catch is brought to your plate (020 7199 6012/www.ski-lapland.co.uk).


The company also offers short breaks that explore Finnish design and culture, on which you'll meet a Sami reindeer herder, learn about felt-making and traditional Sami clothing, visit the Finnish Sami parliament and join a guided northern lights walk at night.


Taber Holidays offers a six-night holiday to Mounio in Finnish Lapland that takes in all the usual activities, but in more depth (so a degree of fitness is required). You'll spend a day learning to be a reindeer herder, perfecting lassoing skills and driving the reindeer through the forest. There's also a two-day husky safari, overnighting in a wilderness hut, and a full-day snowmobile tour on special low-emission vehicles (tel. 01274 875 199/www.taberhols.co.uk).


If seeing the lights is your mission, somewhere high, dry and away from light pollution is best. Sunvil Discovery features light-spotting breaks at the Pine Tree Lodge, 150km inside the Arctic Circle, near the rural hamlet of Kangos. The lodge is owner-managed and has its own husky kennels on site. One of the best activities is a night time husky safari, watching the sky for the lights while a local guide tells stories about the mythology surrounding the aurora, and about life in the Arctic (tel. 020 8758 4722; www.sunvil.co.uk).


Or spot the lights from the sea; in Norway, the Hurtigruten cruise-ferries provide a constant service up and down the coast, year-round, which in winter presents a wonderful opportunity to gaze at the sky away from any light pollution, especially in the very far north, close to the Russian border. A bonus of these trips is that the food is spectacular; a real immersion into Norwegian regional cuisine. The menu might feature Aquavit-cured reindeer in Hammerfest, and venison medallions and raspberries with sour cream in Kirkenes. Near the North Cape, even in mid-winter, when the mountains are blanketed in snow, local fisherman bring vast king crab on board, which are served the same day on a magnificent seafood buffet (020 8846 2666/www.hurtigruten.co.uk).


watch out for wolf and lynx


For a holiday with very low environmental impact, Walks Worldwide's Call of the Wild trip to Finnish Lapland focuses on non-powered activities. You'll stay in a log cabin in the wilderness, in forest inhabited by wolf, lynx, wolverine, pine marten, elk and bear (although the bears will be hibernating). Activities include cross-country skiing, an overnight snowshoe expedition and learning to build an igloo (tel. 0845 301 4737/www.walksworldwide.com).


Discover Adventure, meanwhile, offers a six-day snowshoeing trip in March through the wilderness around Ostersund in central Sweden, following trails and pathways created by the Sami people more than 100 years ago and looking for reindeer, wolverines and Arctic fox. Contrary to popular belief, the Sami are not just found within the Arctic Circle and Ostersund has a sizeable community. Accommodation is in huts and tents and meals are based on local cuisine, so expect plenty of reindeer stew. This is a charity fundraising trip; for details of how it works, tel. 01722 718 444 or visit www.discoveradventure.com.


In Norway, Luxury Adventures offers a northern lights and Sami culture itinerary in Tromso, visiting the world's northernmost brewery and the fascinating Polar Museum (which provides an insight into Sami history) with a night at a Sami camp in the wilderness. Accommodation is in a lavvo, or tent, and there are chances to try lasso throwing, to meet a local family and learn about Sami handicrafts as well as taking a snowshoeing expedition after dark across the moonlit landscape. Hopefully, as a grand finale, the aurora will reveal itself in all its dazzling glory (www.lux.is).

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