Chasing the Northern Lights: Arctic Adventure at GTE

Written by and photos by Quin Kieu, GTE Fall 2022

GTE was my first time leaving the USA. My family does not go on vacation or travel due to financial reasons so leaving for France was a significant life event. To list off a few firsts, it was my first time getting on airplane, a train, solo traveling, and connecting with strangers. I have experienced many sights and met many great people on my travels. I want to tell you about one adventure.

During my spring break, my travel plans turned out to be completely opposite compared to my GTE peers. About half of the cohort flew to Italy and a quarter took a train to Spain. Upon applying to study abroad, I had already set my mind on traveling to the Arctic Circle and experiencing the Aurora Borealis. Originally a solo trip, I was glad that my new friend Jan, whom I met at GTE, decided to tag along and navigate the unbarred wilderness with me.

We set off in the early morning at 5 AM to catch a flight from Paris, France to Helsinki, Finland. A fourteen hour night train then took us deep into the northernmost region of Finland as we arrived in the small town of Kolari. During this train ride, I had a vivid dream where I saw the northern lights. I knew this was a good sign, but Jan was hesitant to get his hopes up. We were both aware that auroras do not always occur and that the vibrant light shows seen in pictures and videos are rare.

The first thing I noticed immediately upon stepping off the train was how the mucus in my nose instantly became frozen. The air temperature was a freezing -15°F during the daytime. At night, it dropped much lower and the biting wind would cut through my five pairs of pants. Being as I was born and raised in South Carolina, I had never experienced temperatures anywhere remotely close to this and was extremely out of my element. Despite these challenges, the country of Finland turned out to be extremely beautiful. The air was crisp and clean. It was extremely quiet and serene outside. The tap water was pure and tasted better than American bottled water. The sky and sunsets would be the most beautiful gradient of pastel baby blue and orange.

During my time there, the northern lights remained my top priority. With vigor, extraordinary amounts of optimism, and a belly full of reindeer meat – a Finnish staple – Jan and I managed to rent a charming Volvo station wagon and set off into the night. This far out into the wilderness, there was no Hertz or similar car rental company. Our workhorse was fortunately obtained when the hotelkeeper called up her friend on the phone and introduced us. An under the table deal of sorts, we were just happy to have a mode of transport. We then later discovered that the check engine light was on but had simply been covered over with tape. We gritted our teeth and prayed that our Volvo, nicknamed Freya after the Norse goddess, would lead us safely.

We ventured deep into the wilderness, away from civilization, and were graced with the auroras. I have never seen a more beautiful sight in my life. The dynamic display of nature and the serpentine folds glimmered for us to see. Words and pictures do not fully encompass or describe the experience. I gained a unique reverence for nature following this encounter.

The next morning, the hotelkeeper told us that we were incredibly lucky and should buy a lottery ticket – which I attempted to do but would not know how to redeem it if I did win. They told us of the many travelers who come back over a span of years and do not see any auroras, let alone the active and spirited ones that we experienced on our first night here.

After spending two nights in Kolari, Jan and I traveled to Rovaniemi, the official town of Santa Claus. Here, we made friends with a Finnish border guard in our hostel. He was incredibly humble and was once in the army. Having missed a bus to go husky sledding, he graciously drove us an hour and helped us out during our time in Finland.

My time in the Arctic Circle was only half of spring break but was already the best trip I have had in my life. Finland holds a special place in my heart – I plan on returning as my Finnish friend has invited me back for summer adventure.