The sound of snowshoes crunching through the snow echoes through the silent wilderness. Click-click-click-click. With a sudden pang of uncertainty, I pause to check the fit of my gear. The wide plastic shoes attached to my feet, elongating my footprint and ensuring balance on the arctic terrain, feel foreign and awkward. But, determined to explore the wonders of Urho Kekkonen National Park, I set off towards the trailhead. In the midst of Northern Finland, where temperatures have plummeted to as low as -32°C, I am bundled up in every layer I own.
Urho Kekkonen National Park is the second largest and joint-second most Northerly national park in Finland, covering 2550 km2 at 250 km above the Arctic Circle. It's numerous fells (barren hill and valley systems characteristic of the high Sápmi/Lapland area) is a different sort of wilderness, treeless and empty. But during wintertime, at least, polar nights and heavy snowfall renders the landscape a pristine and ethereal carpet of white.
I am part of a pair heading to Rautulampi hut for an overnight trip. Although positioned a mere 12 km away from our start in Kiilopää fell centre, winter arctic conditions means there are layers of snow thick enough to swallow a person up from head to toe. For the most part, trails for snowshoes and skis are artifically created by snowploughs that squash snow into dense paths. Veering off these tracks rapidly saps your energy, as each step is followed by a drop to at least knee-height as the snow gives way beneath you. However, after having passed the only landmark along the trail, a bare-bones shelter called Niilanpää fell cabin located roughly halfway, the path started to become less maintained. Fortunately, the day's weather was mercifully mild, with the sun shining over the arid hills and the heat of snowshoeing keeping us comfortable. Though, we would soon learn that hiking in this type of environment can be a deadly game of weather roulette - if we started this section with the conditions we encountered the following day, we probably would have turned back home there and then.
This leg of the trail headed very steadily and shortly uphill. So brief were the ascents, for Finland is a hugely flat country, that our altitude would have changed imperceptibly if it was not for the drastic change in vegetation. The threshold separating liveable conditions from death was clearly left back at the shelter, as the presence of plant-life immediately dropped off. Every now and then, the ghost of a lost tree nestled within a nook of two valleys could be seen in the distance. Perhaps a lucky seed that drifted by the wind to find a microclimate that was somewhat hospitable, only to be left isolated. And with mobile life able to opportunistically forage during good weather, these stationary shrubs are often targets for reindeer.
Semi-captive reindeer are traditionally herded by indigenous Sámi communities across Northern Finland and the general Sápmi region (comprising also parts of Northern Norway, Sweden, and Eastern Russia). They are moved continuously over several seasons around designated pasture areas to feed and are eventually slaughtered for meat and fur. Work is often hands-off, mostly protecting herds from predators while keeping a healthy distance, and modern technology such as drones, helicopters, and snowmobiles can be employed to do this. About an hour from the hut, we met a pair of these reindeer, a mother and infant, stamping the snow beneath them with their hooves to forage.
Not long after and a painful snap signalled the breaking of the strap of one of my partner's snowshoes. We were almost at our destination and did not want to think about its consequences for the return journey tomorrow, so we put on a brave face and pushed the issue aside. We arrived at Rautulampi hut and our home for the night with the last of the sun, our hike snugly fitting within the dwindling window of daylight hours. The cabin was set within a valley by a frozen lake, cold and empty, with a firewood stove for heating and a cooker to melt ice for drinking water.
As darkness descended, we checked the aurora forecast and regrettably accepted that it had not changed from the morning: there was a low chance tonight. And, we would have thought that to be true, if it was not for my camera. Placed on a tripod with a long exposure time (something like 25 seconds), the rising click and falling clack of my shutter spat out an image onto the small digital screen showing a landscape crowned with notes of green, orange, and purple, painted across the uniform stars. But, only on the screen.
It was at that moment that I better understood the lies of photography, and how readily Instagram influencers and tourism adverts can trick you. Again and again, click-clack, and beautiful concoctions of colours were shown that I could not see myself. I believe that taking an image of something I cannot see and advertising it as anything but that is the epitome of bad photography ethics; what is the difference to me adding auroras onto my skylines in photoshop? I would like to experience something then take a photo of it, that's good photography philosophy 101. Sure, some types of photography push this boundary, such as ICM (intentional camera movement) photography where a slow shutter speed is used to paint an abstract scene, but this approach does not have nefarious motives, it never claims to be something more than it is. I am sure the northern lights can be viewed with your naked eyes, but I now distrust every photograph I see of them. One way or the other, they will be enhanced. But, with my own dubious photos of the northern lights taken and my fingers becoming numb, it was time to finish the internal ethical debate and retreat back to the hut for some sleep.
The next morning was occupied by two things, coldness and birds. While collecting ice outside, with the sun still shrouded beneath the horizon but spewing purple over the tundra, I heard a familiar alien sound that I caught on the wind yesterday. A guttural honking somewhere between a duck quack and a gibbon yell, and behind the calls small white partridges nibbling on exposed plant buds. These were willow ptarmigans (Lagopus lagopus) in their full winter regalia, perfectly camouflaged against the snow except for their deep black eyes and beak, and the occasional male sporting a bright red eyebrow. After watching them for a good hour, the sun now comfortably set in the sky, the chorus of their gentle biting creating a relaxing background track to the landscape, they decided to fly off to another patch, and we soon followed suit.
The return hike was not good. With only one set of snowshoes in operation, the going was slow and cold, and wasn't helped by the weather. Strong winds and thick cloud cover transformed the real feel temperature considerably. On a short food break between two hills that offered some windbreak, while holding a packet of biscuits, I felt the tingling pain in my fingers reach a whole new level. I simply could not feel or move them anymore. I still have a vivid memory of the primal fight-or-flight feeling that went through me, a creeping sensation of panic coming swiftly on the horizon. We had to keep moving, any stop would leach all our remaining heat. Fingers in gloves again, I was hitting, shaking, and flexing my hands the rest of the way, trying to aid any sort of blood flow that was slowing down.
No more breaks were taken until the Niilanpää fell cabin, the same mid-point shelter we stopped at before. I rushed the final 200 m to the cabin in my snowshoes, dropped my bag inside and tried to get the fire going. The wind blasting through the chimney stifled my attempts, and then realising my partner still had not arrived, I went back outside. I had not realised, but this last 200 m was hell without snowshoes. I found them crawling hand and knee over patches of snow that constantly gave way under them, the exhaustion and cold bringing them to tears. I took their bag and got them inside. As the plant-life signified, we had now crossed that environmental threshold onto the liveable side. Ice melting from eyelashes, hair, and beard, we sat shivering in the heatless cabin while we processed what had happened.
Once we could feel the cold clutching at our bones, we left towards the trees on what should have been the direct, well-mainted path to the end. Several kilometres in and we found our trajectory off, adding a sweet and utterly unwanted 5 km onto our day. To reposition ourselves onto the correct trail, we had to cut across the terrain along fat bike trails, meaning more of that slow, ground dropping-out beneath you, progress. I gave my snowshoes to my partner, they had had their fill of this torture already. The final leg passed by unencumbered, my focus fixed entirely on the warm hotel room waiting for me in the distance, until I myself was transported there, blinking away frost and turning the key in the door.
This was my second time in Sápmi, the first being a multi-day camping trip along Kungsleden trail in Sweden during the summer. With midnight sun and unprecedented heatwaves at the time creating temperatures of +30 °C, this could not have been a more different experience.