Picture this: a cozy log cabin, a fire crackling in the corner, incredible views of snow-capped trees bathed in glittering sunlight from the window and eight adventurous new friends.
Admittedly, I was quite nervous when I booked a trip to Finnish Lapland with some exchange students I had only just met. However, I knew that travelling into the depths of northern Scandinavia was a ‘must-do’ during my time on exchange in Sweden. Our destination in Finland, Saariselkä, was about 300km north into the Arctic Circle with a population of 350 people. I honestly had no idea what to expect. I pictured mountains of snow piled up relentlessly and, most importantly, a complete lack of civilisation. The night before our flight to Helsinki, I was genuinely worried.
Looking back, however, it took the fifteen-hour bus ride north from Helsinki and the beauty that we discovered at the end for me to truly fall in love with what Northern Europe has to offer.
Saariselkä was anything but the desolate plain that I had imagined. The town was a lively blend of the spirited native Saami people and wandering Finns alike. One day, we stumbled across a coffee shop and began talking to the owner. He told my friends and I his story: once a high-up diplomat in the Finnish public service, the man had left his corporate life behind and relocated to Lapland to make elaborate hot chocolates and serve reindeer soup in a tiny wooden cabin. This man truly captured the spirit of Saariselkä; a town full of people content with their lives in a stunning, untamed winter wilderness.
We only had a few short days in Lapland and hence tried to pack every precious hour full of as many things as we possibly could. We went husky sledding, snow shoeing, reindeer sledding, met the one true Santa Claus, cross-country skiing, and on a day-trip to the Arctic Ocean in Norway where we (regretfully) went swimming in -15°C weather.
The highlight for me, however, was having the opportunity to see the Northern Lights. Watching shades of green dance through the sky was one of the most mysterious, surreal moments I have yet experienced. Hailing from Melbourne, I never imagined myself seeing the Aurora Borealis on the other side of the globe, let alone by the age of 19. I was further away from home than I thought possible, but made some memorable and unbelievable experiences.
There were many other highlights, including spending time with friends in our cabin Lymys which, disturbingly often, ended up in running between the sauna and the snow. There were even some rough times, such as when a Husky jumped on my arm and I managed to lose my phone in metres of powder snow, and when we got lost walking home at night when it was -30°C. Looking back, I am so grateful that we made the somewhat intimidating decision to travel so far north. Every moment in Finland added up to a surreal week of memories that I will always cherish.