As beautiful as Finland is during the summer months, it is in winter that the country is truly enveloped in a magical charm. The forests of spruce, pine, and beech become laden with snow, lakes freeze over, everywhere a pristine white blanket covers the land, and the air is cold, fresh, and pure. Staying indoors and waiting for the thaw isn't an option for the Finns, and so they find a multitude of ways of enjoying the winter.
Skiing, whether cross-country or downhill, is always popular, and there are opportunities from the Baltic coast in the south right up the northernmost hills of Lapland to enjoy this sport. Snowboarding, tobogganing, and snowshoe trekking are also great ways of getting out and about in the snow, but for those who prefer to conserve their energies there are plenty of snowmobiles available to rent, or even the chance to take a reindeer or husky-pulled sleigh ride.
Of course, one of the main reasons people come to Finland in winter is to visit Santa in his village and meet the man himself. Other unique attractions include the incredibly beautiful Snow Castle in Kemi, taking a dip into the frozen waters of the Gulf of Bothnia from the reconverted ice-breaker Sampo, the village of Lainio which features a Snow Village that includes a SnowHotel with around 30 individually decorated suites, an IceBar, an Igloo Disco, and an abundance of ice sculptures. And the Northern Lights!
Another recreation that is growing in popularity is snowshoe trekking. With snowshoes on you can explore a wide variety of terrain in the most ecological and environmentally friendly of manners. Snowshoes are very easy to use, no real experience is needed - just a few minutes of practise until you get used to them, and with warm clothing you're ready to explore. The best way to get started is to use any of the numerous snowshoe trails that dot the country, usually in the company of a skilled guide. If you are considering a hike with a group of your own, then make sure you have a good map and that you plan your hike in advance.
Of course, one of the advantages of snowshoes is that you don't need to keep to existing trails, you can explore areas of deep snow, and hilly terrain, no matter what the conditions are like. In the past snowshoes had the appearance of elongated tennis rackets, but modern snowshoes more closely resemble very small, broad skis, and are made with lightweight aluminium frames with a decking of cold-resistant rubber or plastic. Finns get the most out this exercise by combining it with ski poles, which is called Nordic Snowshoeing. In all resorts you'll be able to hire all the equipment necessary, and hire skilled guides if you choose to.
By far the most popular form of fishing in Finland, ice-fishing falls within the remit of public rights of access, which means that is free for everyone and no licence is required. Virtually every Finn has spent some time ice-fishing, usually fishing for their national fish, the perch. Perhaps its popularity is based on the serenity and peace that comes with the contemplation of a small hole in the ice, coupled with its simplicity. Ice-fishing requires little in the way of equipment; warm clothing is a must, of course, an ice auger (a special drill for boring the hole), a stool to sit on, a small rod, and a jigging lure with bait. The clothing you wear is crucial for your enjoyment of ice-fishing: heavy socks and insulated boots, overalls specifically designed to keep your body heat contained, proper headgear, and a good pair of gloves. The auger is also important, usually a 4-6 inch auger, although a larger one is needed if fishing for pike. The ice will be much thicker in Lapland, so an extension to the auger may be needed, and if you're ice-fishing a long way from human habitation its a good idea to bring a spare.
For most people in the west, reindeer mean just one thing: Santa Claus and his team as led by Rudolph, but for the indigenous Lapps, or Sámi, the reindeer is an essential part of their lives and culture. Reindeer have provided the people of Lapland with food, clothing, home furnishings, and transport for generations. Today, the reindeer are not so essential when it comes to transport, but reindeer sleigh rides continue to grow in popularity with tourists, providing the visitor with an opportunity to enjoy and appreciate a part of Lappish culture.
Throughout Lapland there are many reindeer safaris and excursions to be enjoyed, and the visitor can choose from a range of options that best suit them, from short rides to longer excursions. Most excursions will include a visit to a local reindeer farm where you can learn more about the animals and gain an insight into the unique and ancient lifestyle of the people who continue to depend on them for their livliehood. Visitors can choose to control the sleigh themselves, or to sit back and relax and allow an experienced driver to take control. During the course of a reindeer sleigh ride you will have the opportunity to savour the 'sooty pot' coffee so popular with the Lapps, or enjoy a typical Lapp lunch in one of their tepees.
One of the great attractions of Finland is the chance to experience the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, and every year thousands of visitors come here to see them. Although the best place to see them is the Kilpisjärvi region, in Lapland, the Aurora Borealis can also be seen as far south as Helsinki. In fact there are about 20 days in a year when the lights can be seen in Southern Finland, the main problem being the high levels of light pollution and the difficulty in finding dimly lit areas. As one would expect, this is not an issue in Lapland, where the lack of city lights ensures that there are some 200 nightly occurences every year.
The best times of the year for viewing this incredible spectacle are obviously during the dark winter months, and other peak seasons are September through October, and February through March. In the Kilpisjärvi region, on clear nights during the dark period of the year, the auroras can be seen 3 nights out of every 4 on average. Further north, at Utsjoki for example, there is a decrease of 10%, and likewise as you travel further south the incidence also decreases. In the Sodankylä region you can see the auroras every second night on average, and in the Oulu-Kuusamo region every fourth night.
The best time of the night to see the Northern Lights is usually between 9pm and 11.30pm when they peak. This is due to the magnetic midnight and the fact that the disturbances in the Earth's magnetic field are at a maximum at this time. After midnight the incidence of the lights begins to diminish, and by 4am to 5am the probablity of occurrence falls below 50%.
So what are these ghostly lights in the sky? Finns refer to them as 'revontulet' which means foxes fire, and refers to a Sami, or Lapp, legend that the aurora was caused by a fox running along the snow-covered fells striking its tail on the snowdrifts and sending trails of sparks into the sky. Other northern peoples believed the aurora came from the blood of the dead, blood that ran when the spirits played ball or rode horses in the afterlife. Yet another legend would have it that the auroras are really Thor throwing thunderbolts at Väinämöinen, the hero of the great Finnish epic, The Kalevala. In fact, from Siberia to Scotland and across the great plains of America, every culture that has experienced these wondrous lights has developed their own mythology to describe it, and there are nearly as many myths surrounding the Aurora Borealis as there are for the Sun and the Moon.
Science has provided us with an explanation no less beautiful. The Northern Lights are largely caused by solar flares, which create the solar storms and solar winds that buffet our planet. As electrons are blown by the solar winds they collide with molecules in the ionosphere, creating electromagnetic radiation whose spectrum ranges from infrared to ultraviolet. The visible spectrum is mostly white and green light produced by oxygen molecules in a state of excitement, and pink light which is emitted from nitrogen.
Ice skating is a hugely popular pastime in Finland, and so it should be: a study published by the University of Oxford suggests that the earliest ice-skating happened in Southern Finland some 4,000 years ago! Today, you can skate just about anywhere in Finland, on lakes or across frozen rivers, you can even skate across the Gulf of Bothnia to Sweden should you feel so inclined. And of course, there are skating opportunities available in every town and city, with countless indoor and outdoor rinks to choose from.
In Kuopio every winter the finest skaters in the world gather for the annual Finland Ice Marathon, which has been held every year since 1984. Alongside the professional skaters, thousands of recreational skaters take part, and there is also a varied programme of entertainment on Lake Kallavesi for the large audience it attracts. Although it usually perfectly safe to skate alone, you can get the most out of your skating experience by going on a guided skating trip. Skating equipment is available for rent almost everywhere. The season usually runs from November through April, depending on weather conditions, but the best time is from January through March.
Operating from off the coast of the Lapland city of Kemi in the Gulf of Bothnia, the Sampo once served as an icebreaker in Arctic waters for 30 years. Today this impressive vessel acts as a cruise ship for hardy ice adventurers. From the middle of December until the end of April visitors can sail on the Sampo in the frozen waters of the Arctic and experience the frozen Arctic landscape, the winter darkness, the crackling frost and the clear starry skies, often lit by the shimmering light of the Aurora Borealis. Excursions begin with a trip out to the Sampo on a snowmobile across the frozen sea, and includes the chance to swim in a waterproof thermal suit among in the sea among the broken lumps of ice.
In the snowy wilderness of Lapland, snowmobiles are a way of life for the people living there, merely a means of getting from A to B, but for the visitor to this winter wonderland there can hardly be a more exciting way of exploring the beauty of these natural wild lands. Across the wide open expanses of of Lapland and Northern Finland there is a carefully managed network of intersecting trails, through forests and across frozen lakes and rivers, where you can cover up to 100km per day.
Snowmobiles are very easy to operate, but even if you are a nervous novice you'll find highly skilled guides who will teach you all you need to know to manage these fun machines safely. Throughout the north there are numerous different safaris to avail of, and you can choose one that best suits your level of experience, from short trips for the beginner, to longer expeditions for those who have plenty of experience. In every case, the safari organiser will provide the best of equipment and clothing to ensure your wellbeing and safety, leaving you to simply enjoy the sights and excitement as you explore the untouched wilderness around you.