Updated: Mar 6
Every once in awhile, this strange thing happens. You arrive somewhere — whether by boat, horseback, bus, or in this case, snowshoe — and it feels like deja vu. Sort of like stepping into a memory.
Today, I sat in the snow, I took off my gloves, I let my snowshoes splay out in front of me. I listened to the silence around me as I sat on the side of a snow-blanketed trail in the Finnish Arctic, deep within a frozen forest (called Riisitunturi) I remembered seeing on the glossy pages of National Geographic magazines. For so long I'd ached to see this otherworldly, ice-bound place myself. I'd poured over photographs of it, imagining what it sound like, smell like, how the -15°F wind would feel on the backs of my bare hands.
I looked around.
I think I've dreamed of this place long before I ever arrived.
For awhile now, I've been in the Arctic.
Specifically in Lapland, Finland, far north of the Arctic Circle.
I'm the photography guide for an expedition team; a group of aspiring photographers and adventurous travelers that I've grown immensely close with as we've endured some of the harshest weather conditions I've ever personally experienced, as well as the misadventures that comes with exploring a place so unpredictable and ever-changing.
When I arrived in Helsinki in early January to greet everyone, I knew immediately on that first night that there was something very different and very special about this group of people. (On our first night together, we sat around a pitcher of lukewarm water in a dim, empty hotel lobby and swapped stories until 2:00 in the morning).
Our experiences in the Arctic have only cemented my initial feeling about this smattering of people. Long hours spent in our dusty green van as we headed hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle only emphasized the crucial need for laughter, optimism, and joy in a place such as the Arctic in midwinter. As we settled into our cabins and turned them into our cozy expedition bases — filled with the smell of cardamom buns baking in the oven and woodsmoke from the fireplaces — we fell into routines that have quickly become dear to me. Such as:
Waking in the morning to a breakfast being made by my wonderful co-leader and expedition chef, Kylie Chenn; whether cinnamon buns made from scratch, Finnish crepes stuffed with fresh lingonberries, or homemade braided breads spiced with cardamom
The chaotic 30-minute process of putting on every small-yet-crucial bit of gear we need to just step outside for any amount of time
Climbing the nearest high hill to see the sun come up, hovering like a heavy orange bruise over the pink horizon, and then watching it set less than an hour later
Afternoons around the campfire dug in the snow, under a roof of dense pine trees, sipping instant coffee from a dixie cup
Playing a guessing game of "what's the temperature right now?" (Spoiler: it dropped down to 40*F in one region)
Each evening closed with tea and photo critiques under the warm lights and log beams of our cabin, a sauna in the backroom, and card games at the dining room table as we waited for the magnificent Northern Lights to appear against the black sky... which didn't happen, despite long hours in the middle of night spent standing in frigid open clearings of tundra with our necks craned up at empty, gray clouds.
This is, however, until our final night in the Arctic; AKA, the night where I'm writing, sitting on the sofa in our remote cabin on the edge of a dark lake, and a ribbon of mauve and emerald colors above.
When the lights finally appeared - spotted by one of my guests when he went outside to smoke a cigarette - we all collectively ran out of the cabin into the -30*F weather, wearing whatever we had on - flannel PJ bottoms, half-zipped jackets, untied boots; but with camera in tow.
Above, the northern lights rippled across the sky, their colors so bright that they nearly reflected on the touched snow blanketing the frozen lake. A dark, black night come to life, in shimmering ribbons of unimaginable color.
That's how it went here.
We snowshoed through frozen forests and across tundras painted pink by midday twilight. We lost count of the herds of reindeer we passed. We drank lingonberry tea, we had purple-stained lips from daily steaming bowls of borscht, we huddled around laptop screens and discussed white balance and framing, and eventually, we'll head back to Helsinki to board a boat that will take us across the Baltic to the shores of Estonia.
Even with that next chapter ahead of us, for now, I can't stop thinking about these moments in Finland.
All these bits and pieces, all the moments of ice-cold joy, seemed to come together today as I sat in the snow with my gloves off, and my snowshoes splayed, and the epic silence around me. While finally seeing the Northern Lights tonight was a gift beyond anything I could ever put into words, it was this morning on the trail that brought it all together. I felt an onrush of memories of myself years ago, looking at the photographs of this one particular frozen corner of Finland. This place, those images, that seemed to stay in the back of my mind and had been, perhaps, driving me, even if only slightly, to where I sat today. On that very trail, the one I'd been working towards. The one I walked onto and recognized from my dreams.