Depressed in the middle of winter season because there is no snow around? Hate living in the new world where this is allegedly becoming a norm? Leave that shit behind and follow us on a journey to the winter arctic. See how we have some serious fun on the serious snow.
Step 1. Convince at least 3 people to go with you.
It's cheaper and more laugh. Explain that even though it's many many thousands of miles away, it's not as dangerous and doesn't take as much courage as your friends think. Tell them you're not going to Russia but to one of the most civilized places on the planet. Where people have means and education to cope with the harsh climate in civilized ways, and to be open and helpful to the visitors who may not know everything about living in the Arctic.
Find somebody you could entrust the role of the first officer to. You are going to need a person who can help you make sure everybody on board is happy with the trip and feeling secure, so far from home. Getting lost or a breakdown in the middle of nowhere, although not life-threatening, needs a bit of straight thinking and co-operation sometimes. You you don't want to waste your trip on being rescued, and you don't wanna have to evacuate yourself home.
Step 2. Rent a car.
Use one of the budget car rental brokers like www.autoeurope.com or www.europcar.com. Book the cheapest car available and there is a fairly good chance they don't have such cars in the rental's branch once you arrive. If they don't, they'll give you what they have and in Scandinavia it's usually something better than Fiat Panda. This tactics however, is safer in the summer when it's easier to get around by any kind of scrap. In winter you may want to pay more and be sure you'll be comfortable on the road. Hire something that can carry at least four people, can be loaded to maximum and will still get you on top of a steep fjord.
Whatever the car will be it will have cool snow tyres with metal spikes on them – obligatory in winter in Norway, Sweden and Finland. It should also have electric heating system known in Europe as webasto – you can basically plug the car into a socket anywhere in the town and have it warm and starting with no problems in the morning. If your car doesn't have these two don't even get in it. We didn't know and we got a brand new VW Polo straight from the factory in Germany that didn't have any of them. They didn't even put winter oil or changed the other liquids. The car made it beyond the polar circle allright, but morning after it didn't show a sing of life anymore. It was minus 32 Celsius and it was gone.
Whatever you are renting remember it's gonna be your shelter from the northern blizzards and cold. Break the price between the friends and think about saving money elswhere.
Car is the most important on this trip.
Step 3. Food and booze.
The bigger car the more stuff you will able to load in it. It's an obvious thing, but I wouldn't worry about it so much this time. Just take something you can unpack and eat easy. Distances are big in Scandinavia and you might be having your lunch on the road every day. Unless you are rich you won't like paying 10 euros for a burger meal at the petrol station. Besides Finland, where we started and finished our loop, is much better than the terrifyingly expensive Norway – even if you run out of what you brought, you can still get something too cook for a proper dinner in a cheap chain supermarket.
Take thermos for tea or coffee. It will warm you up and will get you going.
I would rather focus on alcohol more than on food however. If you're flying from somewhere cheap defintely make sure you go shopping before. It's good to try local beers of course, but you can at least take some bottles for exchange, or as gifts for the people you may be staying with. Finns drink a lot of vodka. In summer as well as in the winter. They will always be happy to receive a decent 0,5 L bottle, which in their country costs five times more. You will make better friends this way!
Step 4. Warm clothes.
It can be so cold in Lapland that your beer will freeze before you're able to drink it up! There's not much you can do to change that but at least you can preven from freezing yourself.
Nowadays you can dress up and avoid sufferng for probably 5 times as little as you think. You'll need special boots, double gloves, thermal underwear, good hat, at least two layers of pants, and if you haven't got a proper good looking down jacket – a couple of extra layers for your upper body.
I know it may sound as if you have to spend a thousand before you even get on the plane but there are outdoor discount supermarkets out there. One of them is called Decathlon and it's probably the most popular in Europe. I don't know about America but this is what we have here and it's really really cheap. I bought my boots in Poland for 25 euros for example. And as far as I remember I didn't spend more than 150 back then. Some of the things are still with me but even if you buy them for this one particular occasion it will be worth it anyway. Not everything has to look good and you can still be surprised to discover things like thermal underwear or silk inner gloves.
Oh! and don't forget polarized sunglasses! Get good ones. It's much easier and much nicer to look at the snowy landscape all day.
Step 5. See how we roll:
This was where we loaded off most of our vodka and you can imagine that everybody in the house received at least one bottle.
Back then that house was a place where you could fully enjoy yourself without constraints. You wouldn't feel hampered by stupid hospitality manners, international customs or a language barrier. Everybody, boys as well as girls, had their vodka straight from the neck, and no-one was shy to get drunk like a pig. Purely out of pleasure of having the priviledge to be in such a good company.
Party the night away, and drink like you never have to wake up again! Get up at 9 a.m. and go pick up your car from the airport.
Sundays must be feeling the same everywhere in the world. You wake up to the grey reality and must wait them through until you go to work on Monday.
But this time we didn't have to worry about this depressive shit. Although last night's drinking and having to get up too early made our Sunday morning quite stressful and psychedelic, the thigns went rather smoothly for the rest of the day. Soon we left Turku behind. We were calm and quiet, and contemplated the events from the last night in our heads. We were riding across beautiful Finnish countryside of heaving fields and forests and it became warm and cosy inside the car. We turned the radio off and let the back seat go to sleep.
We just wanted to get as far as possible that day and find a good place to stay for the night. Following signs we went off the main road a couple of times. In and out the woods. Knocking from house to house when we saw a light between the trees. Eventually we found a nice big room for all of us, and could settle down and enjoy our first night in the middle of Finland. It felt great! Bags and gear everywhere around, everybody had their own bed, the whole crew together in one room – as if I was on a school trip again! We opened vodka and the women preperad a bit of what we were given in Turku in a traditional cottage fashion. Before we were gonna start with the drinking for good, we went outside on the snow to smoke it.
Unfortunately it somehow occured to my intoxicated mind that it would be better if I come back and lock the room behind us. I slammed the door and the same second understood that the keys was inside! A tragic turn of events that couldn't have been undone.
The lady from reception had gone home just after she checked us in, and was now unavailable over the phone. The guilt was mine of course but it was a tough moment for all of us: for each one individually, for the girls together to forgive me, and for the team as a whole to keep balance and the spirits high in this critical situation. And certainly marijuana wasn't of much help now.
In the end we had to face the reality and sleep wherever one could, in the living area separeted from the outside by single wall with a big window. Not really the best start we were having.
The fact that I locked the keys isn't particulary funny or interesting itself. What is more significant is that from this moment on the things very much began taking shape on their own. It started looking to us like some kind of a movie, where the best we could have done was to participate the directed scenes. The trip had begun to build itself as a whole all the way until it's apogee. And only when we achieved the goal – which was seeing the northern lights – had it been completed. Only then we had that moment of clarity when we could see and comprehend how big was the thing we had just done!
Every day after the incident with the keys we found ourselves in the most unexpected places. With the most breath-taking sights behind our windows, in completely new to us surroundings, and with unexpected people. We flew over the icy roads heading straight north, loaded with everything we needed to have with us. With high spirits, with sun on our faces and a sense of tension building up.
The morning we passed frozen Gulf of Bothnia and left behind Kemi and Tornio was steamy and sleepy, and it imperceptlibly devolved into a clear sunny forenoon. We were riding the highway along the Swedish border for a while, then we began getting deeper and deeper in to woods and far off the bigger cities. The day slowly changed it's shades into pink and violet as we entered wild Lapland. Our next stop was couchsurfing in Kittila, and this is far beyond polar circle and somewhere you can quite proud to get to.
On the Finnish side of the Scandinavian mountains the climate is continental. Very cold and very dry. This is the heart of Lapland. Quiet, white, and scarcely polpulated. It's much different from the coastal Norway, on the other side, where the fjords never freeze making the communication and transport available all year round.
We had a chance to look around from a good view point which in Finland is quite rare. You wanna take every opportunity when you are near some hills or any higher ground, because you get to see how great it all looks like from above, and how big and wild this land is.
The immediate worry we had the first morning in Kittila was replacing the car though. At minus 32 Celsius it wasn't giving any signs of life anymore. We had to call the rental branch, which by some miracle was at the national airport in the town. The friendly Finnish guys that I spoke with understood the matter immediately and in an hour they came with a truck and new, silver this time, VW Polo. We changed the car and were free to go. And nothing more happened until we dropped it off back to Turku.
In Kittila however we had two lovely nights in a 100% Ikea house. In evenings we were driving around the town and across the Swedish border. We were hunting for the northern lights and extreme low temperatures for the first time on our trip now.
Beer in small cans freezes at minus 30 if you drink it too slow.
The man we stayed at in Kittila had a space weather application on his Nokia and he told us there would be nothing big expected for as long as we were supposed to be staying around. It would be the best if we just kept going north. We left a few messages and our numbers on couchsurfing and kept going. We wanted to make the biggest leap so far – just to keep driving until we get "somewhere".
No village or petrol station for 150 kilometers. Snow that had fallen in October haven't melted an inch and covered everything around. Here is where the boreal forest starts and goes all the way, for thousands of miles, to the Pacific.
Some stretches of our route felt kind of scary when we were about to enter them. Like road 92 where we turned for Karasjok just after Inari. This little petrol station was the last on the way before Norway but even Karasjok wasn't our final destination that day. It looked it was gonna be a long drive. Somewhere before there we got a message and set course for Alta in Norway.
We came there all the way from Kttila that day. Over 400 kilometers across Scandinavian mountains in winter by our little car.
It was so far the best part of the trip. When we reached Alta and were invited inside the Norwegian house it felt as if we travelled half of the world to get there. From industrial Gulf of Bothnia, through Kittilia, Inari and Karasjok. Along a Barents Sea fjord, and through the blizzard in the highlands of Finnmarksvidda. Our little car had braved so many miles and our eyes had seen more than most people during their lifetime.
We stayed at real Norwegian house in the center of Alta. With the real Half-Norwegian, Part-Saami family. It was one of my best hospitality experiences I had in my life, and not only by couchsurfing but by all international contacts in general. We stayed for two nights hoping to finally see what we came for. We drove around the town long in the evenings, looking into the sky. The second night the lady went outside with her dog for a walk, and in the morning she told us that there was some lights, but we slept so lovely that she didn't want to wake us up.
We failed to see the northern lights in Alta as well. We had to move on and it was our last two nights at these altitudes ahead of us. We said goodbye to the lovely family and started off early in the morning to catch up with the distances.
This time it were Finnmark fjords that we had the priviledge to admire in the full February sun.
Between one hill and another we spotted a speeding husky sledge. It caught our eyes just as the womam who drove it was falling from it onto the snow. We turned around immediately and tried to chase the dogs on foot over the snow, but of course we could never catch up. Situation was saved by a tiny lady who drove a snow plough. She happened to be in the right place in right time, just where the sledge trail crossed the main road. It was an even better coincidence as it turned out that she was a fresh european husky sledge champion from just two weeks before!
Twilight in the acrtic lasts for hours. Shades changed slowly as the dark fell.
We drove on and we knew it was one of our last chances to see what we wanted to see. It looked like it was gonna be a clear night at least so we knew the chances were quite good.
But for now we were occupied with what was going on outside. And for me the views were rewarding enough.
Near town called Skibotn we stopped briefly for a cigarette and to stretch our bones. Just to look around the clear dark sky if there isn't anything going on. Dorota set up a tripod and she took long exposure picture of the fjord. We got back into the car and drove off. When we were looking at the pictures she just made, we saw a dimm green glown in the sky on them, barely visible, even in the darkness inside the car. We decided it could be it. That it could be happening any minute now. I looked through steamy windown and I though I saw a whithe clouds coming, and that would mean the weatheris worsening. I shown my cloud to Karolina and she told me to drop the window down. And what the cloud turned out to be was Aurora Borealis just being born right now!
We turned around and sped to the carpark where we were few minutes ago. We set up the tripod again and just in time when the show started.
It was yellow and green and it grew in our eyes and moved like a curtain on the wind. There is something very natural in this movement. Something very earthly but something coming from another world at the same time. It looked as if it was alive anyway. You could for a moment catch the nature of it and you could have sworn it may as well be making sounds as it moves. In the end it grown quite big even for the local standards and it stretched from mountain to mountain and reflected in the surface of the fjord. We having a very decent Aurora Borealis!
Cars passed on the road, and people never bothered to stop – as it has been something you get everyday. And I suppose it actually was.
We were extremely excited and we shouted and we were clapping hands out of control.
Our journey was completed now. The next turn we were taking was for our way back to Turku. We had 1300 km left to go. From the Norwegian fjords to Baltic Sea, and from there one-and-a-half hour flight back to Gdansk on the other side. I drove all the way back, with a short stop for a rest in Mounio. As we sped south we were escaping the wave of cold and we got a chance to experience minus 35 Celsius. When we got to Turku our Norwegian friend texted us that there was the whole sky just dancing and burning with lights, directly above the center of Alta right now! We came two days early for that show but never felt that we missed out anything.
The winter season in Lapland continued late into May but we had to came back to where we came from. Where the spring was expected in a month onwards, but that wasn't so bad either.