What I learned in the Arctic

What I learned in the Arctic

The Arctic is not a singular landmass, nor is it a fixed point. It comprises the area above the most northern of the world’s five major lines of latitude, known as the Arctic Circle. The exact area changes a little, depending on the Earth’s exact axis tilt, but broadly, the northernmost parts of Canada, Russia, Finland, Norway and Sweden, and parts of the USA (Alaska), Iceland (the tiny offshore island of Grímsey) and Denmark (Greenland, which is kind of cheating but whatever) lie above the Arctic Circle and make up the Arctic.

I’m sure that across these numerous countries and territories spanning huge swathes of the Earth’s surface, there is enormous diversity. I have no doubt that the native populations differ in their customs, language and history, the wildlife is varied and the geography is far more assorted that merely snowy and cold. This means that I obviously can’t speak to the whole of the Arctic. I can only speak about part of the Finnish Arctic, close to Ivalo, some thousand miles north of Helsinki, across the magic line that demarcates the Arctic Circle.

I won’t go into too many details about the temperature, as I’ve managed to mention it in almost every Instagram post, tweet and blog that I’ve shared from my time in Finland. But, suffice to say, it was extremely cold. The -15C we arrived to would soon pale in comparison to the bone-chilling -35C we ended the trip with. Only four million people live north of the Arctic Circle, as the extreme temperatures make it difficult to survive. Some thousands more curious tourists flock there every year to get a glimpse of this wintry spectacle, and then, I’m almost certain, head straight back to where they came from.

The cold reaches your extremities in a few minutes. Your hair and eyelashes become almost immediately encrusted with a coating of ice. As you walk, the snot freezes inside your nose. It takes enough clothes to cover a whole family and some hydraulic machinery to put on enough layers to stay warm, though we did discover why the Scandinavians invented the sauna.

In warmer climes, saunas are merely the finale to a workout, a nice opportunity to smell cedar and warm up after some light sweating on the treadmill. In the Arctic, it is a vital part of keeping warm. It was astonishing how well the sauna raised your core temperature and kept you warm for hours, even after only half an hour in the heat. While lying on warm boards in the dry heat is relaxing, it’s as much a survival mechanism as a spa treatment when you’re that far north.

For a month of each year, the sun does not rise above the horizon. The whole day is in darkness. In the summer, the days are long, reaching twenty-four straight hours of daylight and treating those who are still there after the harsh winter to the midnight sun. This trip definitely made me want to head back in the summer months, to witness this spectacular solar phenomenon and hike in the sprawling forests when they aren’t buried in snow drifts and a light sweater is all you need to stay warm. In the summer, it reaches around 20C.

As we were just visiting, as opposed to residing there permanently, we didn’t find the three hours of daylight too oppressive, largely because we were outside for almost all of it. While working in London, despite there being roughly seven hours of daylight on the shortest day of the year, I usually wouldn’t see more than half an hour of light each day. Spending three to four hours outside in light each day is far more than I would get at home! However, only eight days prior to when we arrived, there was still twenty-four hours of darkness. To go from twenty-four hours of dark to twenty-four hours of light in only a few months, the Arctic gains over an hour of light each week.

Almost everyone we met was just in Lapland for the winter season. Much like a ski season, but with more darkness and thicker gloves, people come from all over the world to work in the winter economy up in the Arctic. Horse-riding, husky sledding, snowmobile tours, resorts full of igloos and cabins that are only open through winter – most of these activities are less in demand, if not physically impossible, once the snow has melted. Many of the other people we met live near Helsinki and spend the winters working the winter season up in Lapland. Though, with winter being an approximate seven months, it might be more appropriate to say they live in Ivalo and summer in Helsinki. Many of our guides said that, unsurprisingly, the long winters did get hard and shared their hard-earned tips for keeping warm.

We heard about the ‘Reindeer men,’ who are limited to five hundred reindeer each to avoid any big business sprouting, a regulation that most of these sole traders ignore. In Sweden and Norway, only members of the Sámi group are legally allowed to be involved in Reindeer herding on a full-time basis, for cultural, political and traditional reasons. In Finland, some ethnic Finns do work in the Reindeer industry, but it is still typically the Sámis’ domain. The Sámi are an indigenous population of the Arctic, though they span Sweden, Norway, Finland and parts of Russia. We saw many of the Sámi huts, known in Finnish as a kota, spread around where we were staying, though it wasn’t clear if the Sámi had been involved in the creation of these specific structures or if it was merely an imitation.

The food was notably Finnish. Reindeer and elk were always on the menu, as was King Crab, which I discovered are only found in the Arctic sea. Rye bread was served with abandon. There were berries in everything. We had lingonberry jam at breakfast, hot bilberry juice to warm up after the so-far-below-freezing temperatures and cloudberry cocktails at dinner. It was ambiguous as to whether the main berry was a blueberry or a bilberry, which led us down a Google rabbit hole so boring that I can only strongly recommend you don’t follow. Basically, in Europe, a blueberry and bilberry might be the same, or they might not, but actual blueberries arr native to the US and different from what we in the UK would think of as a blueberry. Apparently. There’s the almost certainly inaccurate fact you didn’t know you didn’t want.

There was also amazing salmon and fresh fish soup. Actually, all the soup was delicious, likely because it’s so frequently made that the recipes have been perfected. Imbibing hot liquids is a key part of staying warm, so there were regular infusions of hot juice, soup, tea and hot chocolate laced with brandy to keep up your core temperature. This was more effective inside a heated building than in a kota after being outside for hours, but I appreciated the effort regardless. Fishing is one of the main Sámi, and Finnish, industries, due to the Arctic Ocean’s proximity.

The landscape was beautiful. The trees in the forest were all covered in thick snow and there were almost no buildings, lights or vehicles. Because the sun had only just started to rise above the horizon at all, it didn’t reach the height of the arc and meant that, for the hours of daylight, the east was in a constant state of sunrise and sunset. The tops of the trees spent most of the time with their tips tinged with pink light, though we didn’t feel the sun on us at any point, because it didn’t get high enough in the sky for that.

We went for a forest trek on some beautiful Finnish horses, led by an extremely kind and talented guide, so we were able to get away from even the little noise generated near the cabins. It was so peaceful riding through the trees, though also a little sinister – if you got lost or trapped outside in those temperatures, you would almost certainly die. It’s all fun and bilberry juice until the hypothermia sets in. I also had the joy of trying to take photographs as the horse jostled along and the -32C temperatures attempted to claim my fingers. Yes, I could just have put the camera away. But it’s hard to get out into the middle of the woods in the Finnish winter without animal or vehicle assistance and I didn’t want to waste an opportunity I will not have again for years, if ever. Memories fade but I can look at these pictures forever.

In the summer, much of Ivalo is marshy. In the winter, these marshes freeze over to form wide expanses of open space. We went out, at night, to look for the Aurora and ended up standing in one of these enormous clearings looking up at the full moon and the stars. No Aurora this time, but that honestly could not have mattered less. We were able to see an incredible full moon that evening and the super blood wolf moon lunar eclipse (say that three times fast) the next morning. We heard from our guide that the period in ‘autumn,’ when it is dark more often than not but before the snow has blanketed the area, is often the most challenging. The combination of the full moon, clear sky and full snow cover meant that, even in the dead of night, the area was bright and sparkling.

Like, well, everywhere, the Arctic’s delicate ecosystem is under threat from the warming climate. According to Greenpeace, the Arctic is more impacted by climate change than anywhere in the world. The past thirty years have seen areas of Arctic sea ice the size of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, combined, melt away. The Arctic is particularly relevant to climate change efforts, as the Arctic helps regulate the entire planet’s temperature. The more sea ice that melts, the warmer the atmosphere gets. 

There are also plentiful oil reserves under the Arctic waters, meaning that there is heavy competition from oil companies across the world for the right to drill, which would obviously not be a positive move for either the Arctic or the environment as a whole. Activism has so far prevented Shell and the US government from drilling for oil, but that is far from a permanent decision. Drilling in the Arctic Ocean would likely have catastrophic consequences for the people, nature and wildlife of the Arctic, making it imperative that drilling remains off the table. Many people we spoke to up in Ivalo said that, anecdotally, they felt that the temperature was warmer than it used to be (though our visit did not show that!). 

The Arctic is one of the most extreme environments on Earth. You can certainly get even further north and a lot more rural than we were, but even in Ivalo, you could see many of the hallmarks of the polar landscape. Snow, fox trails, wild reindeer, minimal daylight and super low temperatures characterised our time in Finnish Lapland. I love going to places so different from not only where I live, but anywhere I’ve seen before. The planet is amazing. Let’s hope it stays that way. 

Seeing the world typically increases your drive to protect and conserve it. To this end, I donated to the WWF to aid their Arctic conservation efforts (I was struggling to find an organisation that focused closely on the Arctic) and carbon-offset my flights, something I’ll do for every flight I take in 2019, at carbonfund.org.

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