If I were to mention anything about chasing lights in the north, most people would immediately assume that I must be referring to the Northern Lights, or the Aurora Borealis – those highways of bright light that appear in the dark night sky.
While I’d love to see those one day, there’s another special type of light to look out for in this part of the world. And, on my recent trip to Finland, I got to experience this natural phenomenon for the very first time.
During the summer months in locations north of the Arctic Circle (and south of the Antarctic Circle), something rather peculiar happens: the sun doesn’t set. This is especially the case around the Summer Solstice, where you can get up to 24 full hours of daylight on a clear day.
The setting for my first midnight sun experience couldn’t have been more dramatic.
For four days we would be exploring Inari-Saariselka, a region in northern Lapland. To get there, I first caught my flight from London to Helsinki; from the capital, a second flight brought us to Ivalo Airport. The latter airport holds the impressive title of being both the northernmost airport in Finland as well as within the EU. As the plane started to make its descent into Ivalo, I could already recognise how unique this area was. All around – literally as far as I could strain my eyes – was a vast expanse of pine forest with almost no sign of manmade structures.
I’ve always loved the outdoors and, even before we got off that plane, I knew that I would fall in love with this part of Finland. Bags claimed, we drove towards our home for the next two days, Fell Centre Kiilopaa. The roads were lined with the same pine trees I had spotted from up above and, along the way, we made two stops in order to meet some famous Lappish residents: reindeer. We would have plenty of other reindeer encounters (keep reading for these) during our time in Finland but we made haste so that we could prepare for our first activity of the trip.
I can’t say that I’ve ever made a regular habit of setting off on hikes at 10PM, but we had an excellent reason to do so on this particular evening. Fell Centre Kiilopaa is ideally located to explore the many walking trails within Urho Kekkonen National Park, which spans a massive 2,550 square kilometres. The walking trails fit within a huge range, with everything from half- or full-day walks to multi-day excursions staying in overnight huts. Our goal that night was to climb nearby Kiilopaa Fell in order to witness the full effect of the midnight sun.
Even though we started our walk at 10PM, the images imply that we were climbing in broad daylight. And it felt like we were! I knew that I’d spent my whole day on planes, but the sunlight tricked my body out of feeling tired. So, instead, we walked.
To get to the top of the Fell, it’s about a 1.9km walk straight up following the wooden planks and stairs. But you’re allowed to get up in any way you choose. We first followed along a sandy path within a pine forest. Now and then, the path would be overtaken by watery streams, which paid little regard to the fact that walkers are constantly trying to traverse them. The smell of the pine forest was intensely fragrant, and immediately reminded me of the forest walks I used to take with my family when we were living in Cape Town.
As we hit the bottom of the Fell, it was if some unspoken rule was in play, as the pine forest that had surrounded us very quickly stopped. Instead, a new ground-hugging vegetation took over and I felt like the rest of my hike was partly occupied by examining as much of this arctic plantlife as possible.
To protect themselves in their exposed location, with the plants battling all sorts of weather elements, the vegetation has adapted by growing close to the ground. Thick branches holding green leaves clutch at the soil and rocks, while bursts of colour can be found in the tiny arctic flowers and mosses displaying all manner of hues grow here in abundance. On all of the rocks and boulders, I could see a rainbow of lichens splashing out against an otherwise monotonous stony canvas.
Up ahead, our final destination was now clear, with the steps leading to the top of the Fell. At the start of the walk, to all appearances it looked like we were walking in normal afternoon light. As we started making our ascent, however, the light took on a golden quality, which only intensified during the rest of our time on Kiilopaa Fell.
Our group started on the wooden planks and steps before taking a detour around the side of the Fell. Along the way, we learned more about the area, the typical plants and wildlife you can find in Urho Kekkonen National Park and that the Sami people, the indigenous people of Lapland, make part of their livelihoods from reindeer herding.
It was as we left the path and explored the side of the Fell that the most magical moment of our hike occurred. My new friend Tara and I were taking photos of the pine-filled landscape below us when we noticed movement on the hillside. A small herd of reindeer was coming down the Fell, perfectly silhouetted on the hillside by the sun’s golden glow. It was too perfect. We turned to each other and simultaneously said, “no way!”
The next few moments saw everyone fumbling with all of their devices, trying to get the shot before the reindeer made their way down the Fell. Having just spoken about reindeer, it was surreal that they had made such a sudden appearance and rewarded us with a sight that can be described as being completely iconic of the Inari region.
I think I was still recovering from that moment as we made our way to the top of Kiilopaa Fell – the summit being signalled by a large mound of rocks. We didn’t have time to linger, though, as the breeze carried over the sound of singing, and we discovered that yet another surprise awaited us.
With the sun approaching its lowest point of the day, two Inari Sami women sang folk songs for us. Our visit to Kiilopaa coincided with a photography workshop, so a little crowd accumulated as the ladies shared their stories and songs from their culture. Their traditional red and navy clothing stood in bright contrast to the surroundings, and, while we were listening to them on top of that Fell, it felt like I couldn’t be further away from my daily life.
We learned that there are many subgroups within the Sami people, as well as different languages and traditions depending on which part of Lapland you live in. After the performance, we got the chance to ask questions and photograph the ladies in their outfits (along with their beautiful Samoyed dog, which I may or may not have wanted to steal).
We had some time to explore Kiilopaa Fell and watch the sun, which was dipping close to the horizon. From one side of the Fell, we were told that you can glimpse – in the far, far distance – hills located beyond the Russian border. Looking back at the images from that evening, even though I was there, I still struggle to comprehend that these really were taken at midnight.
I’ve gotten to travel to some incredible places in my life but experiencing the midnight sun in this spectacular location will always be a special moment. The views, the fresh air, the Sami performance and afterwards, another remarkable quality, stillness – the complete lack of auditory interference – all worked together to make this the purest and most memorable introduction to the phenomenon of midnight sun we could’ve ever hoped for.
Since midnight had come and gone (despite appearances), it was time to head back down the Fell, even if our bodies didn’t realise that it was past our bedtimes. Our climb up the Fell had been marked by golden hues but now the light quality had changed yet again. Instead, the sky was filled with a blush of pastel shades: pinks, purples, blues and yellows.
The stairs, much easier to traverse this way around, are the quickest route down Kiilopaa Fell. And it was quick – we were down at the bottom of the Fell all too soon and then back into the forest.
Back in my room that night, I, unsurprisingly, struggled to sleep. At all times, light sneaked around the edges of the curtains; I peered out of the window at about 3AM to what looked like daytime, but a daytime utterly devoid of people or activity. Instead of feeling frustrated about getting cheated out of sleep, I remember lying back in my bed and smiling at the novelty of it all – and the newly acquired knowledge that, for two months of the year, the sun forgets to set in Inari-Saariselka.
– Where I stayed in Kiilopaa –
While exploring Kiilopaa Fell and this part of Urho Kekkonen National Park, I stayed in Fell Centre Kiilopaa. I stayed in a twin room, but the centre features accommodation to suit all budgets, from hotel rooms to hostel beds to holiday apartments. The centre is perfectly placed for an outdoors-focused getaway and you can also rent gear, such as bicycles, here.
There’s a restaurant and small grocery store on site and, in true Finnish tradition, sauna facilities as well (including a stream that you can dip into in between sauna sessions).
Since this article is all about phenomena: If you’ve ever encountered that feeling of this planet being a ‘small world’ then I’m sure you’ll smile at this. I was hiking in a group of strangers in the middle of Finnish Lapland experiencing the midnight sun on top of a Fell – and I managed to run into someone I know! My friend Iain of Mallory on Travel and I bumped into each other at Kiilopaa, out of all places, reminding me, again, that you never know when you can see a familiar face while out exploring the world.
Is Lapland on your travel bucket list? Or have you ever witnessed midnight sun before (and where)? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
Note: I visited Kiilopaa Fell as part of a press trip organised by Visit Finland and Inari Saariselka, but, as always, all opinions and newly envisaged career as a reindeer watcher are entirely my own.
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