Arctic Animals

Places to visit animals include Konttaniemen Porotila, a reindeer farm 8km north of Rovaniemi. Husky Point at Sinettä offers guided kennel visits and sled rides in both summer and winter. Arctic Circle Husky Park is near Santa’s grotto and allows you to meet dogs and go on sled trips. The zoo at Ranua is an easy day trip from Rovaniemi.

The Northern Lights

The aurora borealis (Northern Lights), an utterly haunting and exhilarating sight, is often visible to observers above the Arctic Circle, which is where a large portion of Lapland lies. The phenomenon is particularly striking during the dark winter; in summer the sun more or less renders it invisible.

The aurora appears as curtains of greenish-white light stretching east to west across the sky for thousands of kilometres. At its lower edge, the aurora typically shades to a crimson-red glow. Hues of blue and violet can also be seen. The lights seem to dance and swirl in the night sky.

These auroral storms, however eerie, are quite natural. They’re created when charged particles (protons and electrons) from the sun bombard the earth. These are deflected towards the North and South Poles by the earth’s magnetic field. There they hit the earth’s outer atmosphere, 100km to 1000km above ground, causing highly charged electrons to collide with molecules of nitrogen and oxygen. The excess energy from these collisions creates the colourful lights.

The ancient inhabitants of Lapland believed the aurora borealis was caused by a giant fox swishing its tail above the Arctic tundra. One of the Finnish words for the aurora is revontulet (fires of the fox).

To see the lights, you’d best have a dark, clear night with high auroral activity. October, November and March are often optimal for this. Then it’s a question of waiting patiently outside, preferably between the hours of 9pm and 2am, and seeing if things kick off. If you've got a vehicle, don't bother paying for an aurora-watching trip. There are several useful websites for predicting auroral activity:

Geophysical Institute (www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast) Change the map view to Europe to view activity levels.

University of Oulu (http://cc.oulu.fi/~thu/Aurora/forecast.html) Finland-based page with links so you can make your own prediction.

Service Aurora (www.aurora-service.eu) Daily and hourly forecasts and text-message notification service; also runs excellent multiday aurora-watching tours.