Finding happiness in Finnish Sápmi (Lapland)

Northern Finland may be known for its aurora sightings and huskies, but its cultural encounters are just as inspirational…

Elliot Wellsteed-Crook
23 November 2023

“I feel like a big kid,” I thought to myself as I hurtled the tundra on a husky-pulled sled in temperatures of -24°C. For the sixth year in a row, Finland has been voted the world’s happiest country (Gallup World Poll), and I could see why. I was based well within the Arctic Circle, close to Saariselkä but a long way from the Santa sightseers. This is a place to relax, go slow and enjoy the serenity of snowshoeing in the wilderness. I dipped into icy lakes and surfaced looking ten years younger, enjoyed reindeer rides and endless cups of blueberry tea, then headed back to my luxurious glass-igloo cabin in the evenings to see the northern lights dance nightly overhead.

There are more reindeer than people here (Elliot Wellsteed-Crook)

Nightly aurora displays made the winter evenings in Northern Finland a delight (Elliot Wellsteed-Crook)

Must see: I travelled with Not in the Guidebooks, a tour operator that offered the chance to meet the Sámi community, a people who are deeply proud of their culture. Instead of Lapland, they prefer to call the region by their own name, Sápmi. While sat in a cosy wood cabin, our Sámi guide explained that they had survived for thousands of years by hunting and fishing in what is now Northern Finland, Sweden, Norway and the Kola peninsula of Russia, and told of how they first began to travel in tandem with the reindeer, who migrated for mating and food. Over time, bad weather, taxes and modern geopolitical forces squeezed their territory. Instead of following the reindeer, the Sámi began to herd and domesticate these now semi-wild animals, as they no longer had space to roam. Today, Northern Finland has more reindeer than people and there are strict controls for sustainably managing the population, since there is only a limited amount of lichen for them to eat.

Husky power is the best way to travel (Elliot Wellsteed-Crook)

Getting to know the locals (Elliot Wellsteed-Crook)

I wish I had known: When you understand the physics behind the rippling lights of the aurora borealis, it makes the experience all the more magical. What you are seeing are electrically charged particles that have escaped the sun and travelled to our planet on solar winds; they are then shuttled by the Earth’s magnetic field between the two poles. The spectacular colours produced are a result of these particles colliding with molecules of nitrogen (blue, red and pink) or oxygen (green and red) in the atmosphere.

Top tip: You can detect and capture the dreamy displays of the northern lights better by using a night setting on your camera than you can with the naked eye, but be sure to occasionally put your camera or phone down and take it all in. Know that it is rare to see a natural display as vividly as it might appear on TV; the aurora often appears as an ethereal sprinkling of dust, but it makes the encounter no less magical.

About the trip: The author travelled with Not in the Guidebooks

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