Dream of Finland

Every once in awhile, this beautiful thing happens.

You arrive somewhere — whether by boat, or horseback, or bus, or snowshoe — and it feels like you've stepped into a memory. I know it sounds strange — bear with me — but it's the sensation of finding yourself standing before something, and it pulls on your heart, and it aches in your chest, and it makes your throat heavy, and for some reason you don't really understand, you think to yourself,
Ah, it's here. I finally found this place.

What I'm trying to say is that for the first time in awhile, that happened today.

I sat in the snow, I took off my gloves, I let my snowshoes splay behind me, I listened to the echoing stillness of the summit of a mountain in the Finnish Arctic; the very same mountain I'd ached to someday see since I was 12 years old and saw flitting images of it on the pages of National Geographic magazines.

I think I've dreamed of this place long before I ever arrived. 

For awhile now, I've been in the Arctic.

Specifically in Lapland, Finland; far north of the Arctic Circle. I'm the photography guide for an expedition team, which is a group of aspiring photographers and travelers that I've grown immensely close with as we've endured some of the harshest weather conditions I've ever personally experienced, as well as the travel misadventures that comes with exploring a place so unpredictable and ever-changing. When I arrived in Helsinki in early January to greet everyone, I knew immediately on that first night that there was something very different and very special about this group of people. (To sum it up: on our first night together, we sat around a water pitcher in a dim airport hotel and talked and laughed for three hours straight). I felt something was different.

Our experiences in the Arctic only made my initial intuition about this smattering of people only come to fruition. Long hours spent in our trusty little green van as we plunged hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle only emphasized the crucial need for laughter, optimism, and joy in a place such as the midwinter Arctic. As we settled into our cabins and turned them into our cozy expedition bases — filled with the smell of cardamom buns baking in the oven, or heated by the deep flames from the fireplace overtaking the chill on our skin— we fell into routines that have quickly become dear to me. Such as:

  • Waking in the morning to a breakfast being made by my incredible co-leader and chef, Kylie Chenn; whether cinnamon buns made from scratch, Finnish crepes stuffed with fresh lingonberries, or homemade braided breads spiced with cardamom
  • The chaotic 30-minute process of putting on every small yet crucial bit of gear we'd need to just step outside for any amount of time
  • Climbing the nearest high hill to see the sun come up, hover like a heavy orange bruise over the pink horizon, and then set less than one hour later
  • Afternoons around the campfire under a forest roof of dense pine trees, sipping instant coffee from a dixie cup and swapping stories as we warm our numb fingers and toes
  • Playing a guessing game of, "what's the temperature right now?" (Spoiler: it dropped down to 40*F in one region)

And each evening closed with tea and photo critiques under the warm lights and log beams of our cabin, a sauna in the backroom, and a 2-course meal made completely from scratch by Kylie, which we'd sit around the table and dine on, laughing and musing and asking question after question, as we waited for the magnificent Northern Lights to make their way into the enormous black sky... which never happened, despite long hours in the middle of night spent standing desperately in frigid open clearings of tundra with our necks craned upwards at empty, gray clouds.

This is, however, until our final night in the Arctic; AKA, the night as I write this, curled up on a couch in our remote cabin on the edge of a dark lake, and a ribbon of mauve and emerald colors above.

I was literally so overwhelmingly excited when our spotter said that they had appeared that I ran out of the cabin into the -30*F cold wearing just a light jacket and my yoga pants and untied boots but camera in tow. All the hours of practice and drill we went through to get our gear on as fast as possible flew out the window, and it couldn't have been more perfect.

And the Northern Lights danced, just as I remembered they did. They shimmered, just as I remembered. They rippled, they exploded, they rained, they burst, they rose, the soared. Just as I remembered.

And yes, we screamed. And we danced. And we hugged each other. 

And I cried.

I cried a whole, whole lot.

And that's how it went here.

Every day, with a new adventure, new reason for laughter. We snowshoed through frozen forests and across brilliant tundras, in places that felt more like another world than anywhere else on Earth. We lost count of the herds of wild reindeer we passed time and time again. We broke bread with locals, we said yes to every opportunity, we asked questions. We found ourselves immersed in moments so genuine and authentic that it was hard for me to believe that we were this lucky, lucky enough. We ice fished. We cuddled baby sled dogs. We ate more soups than I can even count, with names I can pronounce. My mouth was consistently dry from talking and lecturing and talking even more. And we succeeded. We came home each day, frozen and rosy-cheeked and flustered with excitement and that sweet exhaustion, smelling of campfire smoke and lingonberries.

Let me note here that the trip isn't over yet; just our time in the Arctic is coming to a close. Tomorrow we go back to Helsinki to board a boat heading into the frigid, dark Baltic to take us to the shores of Estonia, but as this next journey hangs over my head, and the fire in the fireplace is burning out and the cabin is settling in for the long night, I can't stop thinking about these moments in Finland.

All these bits and pieces, all the moments of absolute joy, seemed to all come together today as I sat in the snow with my gloves off, and my snowshoes splayed, and the epic silence around me. While finally seeing the Northern Lights tonight was a gift beyond anything I could ever put into words, it was this morning on that mountain that brought it all together; that moment when I felt an onrush of memories of myself years ago, looking at the photographs of this one particular frozen mountain in the high Arctic of Finland. This place, those images, that seemed to stay in the back of my mind and had been, perhaps, driving me, even if only slightly, to where I sat today. On that very mountain. The one I'd been working towards. The one I'd spent years waiting to discover.

The one I walked onto and recognized from my dreams.

more photos in the days to come.

if you're interested in joining an expedition with me, visit www.Acanela.com