“Photography is the story I fail to put into words.” – Destin Sparks
We gazed upon a picture of the Finnish sky painted with the most vibrant oranges and reds. It captured that fleeting moment perfectly, perhaps because sunsets last for hours during the Arctic Summer. In fact, the sun hadn’t set in over 40 days. We saw the puffy clouds that harassed us all day with spurts of rain floating quietly in the sky, cloaked in deep purple shadows of their creation. The crisp reflection of the heavens shimmered on a lake’s glassy surface. It looked like nothing would move, could move, except a woman in a flowing dress swinging on the Ylläs Swing. It was precisely how we wanted to capture the midnight sun in Finland, except it wasn’t our picture. Alas, these words are the story we failed to put into photography.
Jenn and I traveled to Finland as part of their Ambassadors of the Midnight Sun program. We connected through Chicago to a direct Finnair flight to Helsinki. From there, we hopped a regional flight north of the Arctic Circle to the Kittila Airport, where we met up with a group of 20 other travel writers.
We were exhausted after 24 hours of traveling across eight time zones, but we barely had time to photograph our room and drop our bags before it was time to rejoin the group for dinner. It was after 9:00 p.m., but you would never have guessed it because the sun was still high in the sky.
You Never Forget Your First Reindeer
You have to dine with a blogger to fully understand the saying “the camera eats first”. Dinner was painfully slow as the creators posed their food for the ‘Gram and clicked wine glasses together for Boomerang. They photographed stemware in every imaginable location – the porch, the bar, by the window… everywhere except in their hand, cleansing their palate between courses.
I was good and hungry by the time my reindeer steak arrived. My mouth was literally watering as I held up the remote light so Jenn’s food pictures would be properly illuminated. When I finally got to eat, it was delicious, and the variety of smoked fish and potatoes was mind-boggling. The Pihvipirtti Steakhouse served baked potatoes, country-style wedge fries, and old-style garlic potatoes with your choice of tatti mushroom sauce, game sauce, peppered sauce, Béarnaise mousse, garlic Mousse, and seasoned Butter À la Steakhouse. My undergraduate course in Combinatorial Mathematics told me there were 18 possible potato and sauce pairings, and I wanted to try them all. Luckily, I only needed a taste of each variety of salted fish from the cold buffet, even though they were all rumored to be traditional Finnish favorites.
Hunger abated; I waddled out of the steakhouse and into the deserted Levi streets. It was 11:00 p.m., but the sun was just as far above the horizon as when we entered. My jetlag brain couldn’t understand why the sun was out and nobody was around. As we walked back to the hotel, Diana, a Dutch outdoor adventure blogger, suggested we hike up the Levi Fell. Easy for her to say since she woke up that morning in her own bed.
I was having a hard enough time even understanding what the hell a fell even was. My brain kept thinking of the Frankish root, fel, which means vile or evil, like a felon. This far north, the word evolved from Old Norse, fjall, which coming from Alabama, I would assume is a double-conjunction of fajitas and y’all. Luckily, we were standing at the base of a ski area, so all Diana had to do was point to the hill.
This was my chance to see the midnight sun, and I wasn’t going to chicken out to a girl. Like when you’re on a sleepover as a kid and somebody says you must stay up until midnight telling ghost stories. My potatoey food baby wasn’t ready for bed either. Jenn was more prodigious with her dining choices and was perfectly willing to sit this one out. She even volunteered to swap phones with me so I could take the perfect pseudo sunset shot. If only she were as fastidious with charging said phone. The battery conked out as I attempted to film a story of me ‘discovering’ a mound of snow under a white tarp in the first ten minutes of the hike.
Diana was kind enough to share her photography, but I couldn’t help thinking of how Jenn could have captured the sunburst shining through the trees. Also, the world missed out on my unrecorded guilt-ridden Instagram story of meeting my first semi-wild reindeer only hours after eating my first reindeer. Maybe it’s for the best. I don’t do contrition well, even with a full night’s sleep.
Santa, Sauna Boats, and Sunset
The next day we began our full slate of things to do in Lapland during the summer. We started by riding the gondolas to Santa’s Cabin, one of the most Instagrammable spots in all of Finland. If I had two wishes for Santa that day, they would have been for a downhill bike to ride Levi Bike Park and a set of discs to play Santa’s Cabin Disc Golf Course. I’d have to be careful about what I wish for. I assumed that hitting Santa’s Cabin would not only be out of bounds, but you’d get coal in your stocking for at least seven years.
We hiked the summit trail, rode the summer slide, soaked in the hotel sauna, and walked to another steakhouse with amazing reindeer steaks. I wondered what the man in red would say about the amount of reindeer we were consuming. I figure if Santa didn’t want us to eat Rudolf, he wouldn’t have made him out of meat, but we’ve already established my baseline for contrition. We did everything except take a nap, but that wasn’t going to stop us from taking a midnight sauna boat tour.
Cruising on a lake in a pontoon boat with an authentic wood burning Finnish sauna was a magnificent way to experience the midnight sun, even though I was the only person who entered the sauna or the lake. Instagram really should have a trope for shirtless old men with dad bods…they are missing out. After I splashed around, Jenn pulled out her DSLR camera to get ready for the sunset that never came. It dipped lower than the day before but never reached the horizon. We were so close, and the pictures were legitimately good, but they weren’t that perpetual golden hour hue we were hunting.
No sooner did the sun begin to climb again than our crew served us a snack of coffee and crepes. Fresh crepes with locally sourced loganberry jelly go with anything, but strong Finnish coffee doesn’t pair well with midnight snacking, even if the sun is technically up and rising again. The Finns are the happiest people on Earth, which can’t be from their sleep cycles. Some people theorize that it’s from their abundant open-air living, but I think it’s because they drink more coffee than anybody else.
Arriving in Ylläs
My jetlag was deep enough to be existential by day three in Finland. Luckily, since they serve coffee with every meal, I could get a stout cup or three with breakfast. Perhaps last night’s cat naps were enough to ward off the rumored hallucinations that come from prolonged sleep deprivation, but it was hard to establish any kind of baseline. Day and night don’t have the same definitions up here, plus nothing else tracked. On this day, we had the opportunity to hand-feed arctic foxes, watch massive herds of reindeer emerge from the forest, and eat street tacos north of the Arctic Circle (Do you want some fj’all? No thanks, I’m sticking with tacos). On any typical day, thinking you’ve done any one of these things would be definitive evidence of free-form hallucination.
For the afternoon, our massive herd of influencers split in half. Jenn, Diana, and I were joined by Cassam from West London and two Spanish Instagrammers, Marta and Diana. To keep things easy for this story, we’ll call Dutch Diana simply Diana and we’ll always refer to Marta and Diana together as the Spaniards, because they were never apart.
I don’t know where everybody else was off to, but we were heading to Ylläs, the tallest ski area in Finland. We discovered that Ylläs Fell was high enough to get swallowed up by a fast-moving storm when we were at the top. The weather was so bad that our Spanish Instagrammers wouldn’t even pose for the obligatory photo op on the swing perched atop Ylläs summit.
As the storm raged, we drank coffee in the summit café with our host from Visit Ylläs, Eetu. He shared his childhood memories of skiing from backcountry hut to backcountry hut in Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park, presumably drinking coffee at every stop. He is one of those quiet alpha males who know they could hike you into the ground without breaking a sweat but never needed to prove it. He’s also a masterful photographer, so we listened when he suggested we take a midnight hike to a high pass to potentially watch the sunset blazing over the ‘Seven Fells of Ylläs’.
The rest of the day felt eerily normal, with saunas, reindeer for dinner, and copious amounts of coffee. Soon we were in what I presume was the one and only oversized taxi in Ylläs because we had the same car and driver on every ride – even now, leaving at 11:00 pm for parts unknown. Eetu had talked Cassam, Diana, Jenn, and me into the trip while the Spaniards stayed in for the evening.
Sunset Over the Seven Fells
Our first stop on the Seven Fells hike was a lake in Pallas-Yllästunturi that, according to the sign, has the cleanest air on Earth. The photography was good, but the sun was still too high. You need the light to pass through a lot of that sparkling clean air to pick up any color. One good forest fire out west, and you could have stunning sunsets in the middle of the day.
We weren’t as optimistic when our driver dropped us off at the park amphitheater to hike 6 km back to the hotel in a light rain. We broke out the raincoats and started hiking up the fell. The path was graciously wide and forgiving at first as it snaked along an alpine stream and past those backcountry cafes from Eetu’s youth. All in all, it was a pleasant hike, even with the rain, until we came to ‘the shortcut.’
Eetu gave us a choice – stay on the main trail or take a more challenging and beautiful shortcut. We looked at the two-foot wide path leading up the streambed and figured it couldn’t be that bad – famous last words. The rain kept coming, and the route quickly disappeared into a mossy rock garden. Then, Eetu looked up the steep canyon walls and said – “This is where we go up.”
The steady rain had loosened enough rocks on the hillside that every step was treacherous. We only got 20 feet up before we bailed out and decided to keep slogging along the stream. Cassam, bless his heart, made it almost all the way up to the ridgeline before he got stuck, and Eetu rushed up the hill to his rescue.
Eetu said he would rejoin us at the top of the canyon as he left. Diana, Jenn, and I continued up from the canyon floor and were the first to arrive. After several minutes and a rousing game of Marco Polo, Eetu and Cassam emerged from a thick blanket of fog on the ridgeline. We could hardly see our camera at arm’s length for the group selfie, let alone sunset over the seven fells. Luckily, Eetu knew exactly where we were going, and we were soon on the main trail again and heading back to the hotel. We made it back at around 2 a.m., pulled the all important black-out curtains, put our wet clothes in the ski dryer, and crawled into bed.
Midnight Sun at Arctic Skylight Lodge
The weather cleared overnight for our final day in Lapland. We took advantage of the clear weather for pack rafting on the lake we saw the night before. It was a good day, even though we didn’t get a chance to go mountain biking. I’m not sure I could have hung anyway. I was feeling pretty shagged out by the time we left for dinner and a midnight sun sauna at the lake.
I thought about bagging out, but I’m glad I didn’t. The reindeer pizza was excellent, and it was fascinating watching influencers in the wild. There were so many mosquitos at the lake that Jenn had her hoodie pulled up over her face like Kenny from Southpark. It was all I could do to run down to the water for my ubiquitous sauna and lake jump. However, the Spanish Instagrammers staged a full photoshoot in their swimsuits on the dock and never acknowledged a single mosquito bite. Like Bill Murray said to the sadistic dentist in Little Shop of Horrors – “It’s your professionalism that I respect.” To be fair my #dadbod shots never took off, but their lakeside swimsuit shoot with oversized hats received thousands of likes. Perhaps there’s a reason they each have over 100k followers.
The light that night made every bite worthwhile. The clouds glowed orange while they reflected on the lake. We took turns photographing from the shore, then walking gently out onto the floating dock so we wouldn’t disturb the glassy surface.
We left feeling content in our photographic journey, but our well rested Spanish friends weren’t ready to quit. They talked Eetu into driving them up Ylläs Fell for a midnight photoshoot. I told Jenn I couldn’t do it and insisted that I get to bed. We piled into our now familiar taxi and watched the Spaniards enter Eetu’s Subaru. Jenn was obviously disappointed with my choice when we saw a magnificent rainbow out the taxi window. I said she should call Eetu and join the trip, but I needed to go to bed. She picked up the phone, then decided against it. We thought we had captured enough beautiful pictures of the midnight sun.
Eetu and the girls never made it to the Ylläs Summit. They saw the rainbow and the magical light we did and stopped off at the Ylläs Swing for the ultimate midnight sun photoshoot, where Eetu captured the title shot for this story. After that, they headed up the fell, but Eetu’s car broke down on the dirt road halfway to the summit. Our friends got the prized midnight sun picture and an impromptu night hike. They were happier about one than the other, I’m sure.
With the late night and morning rush to get back to the airport, we didn’t realize the adventure that unfolded until the pictures started coming out on the group chat in the Helsinki Airport. We passed a sign for the HEL airport renovation project that read – Redesigning HEL. Between sleep deprivation and photo envy, that about summed it up. I tried to stay upbeat and think about how incredible the trip was and the wonderful people we met, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but think Santa was punishing me for something. Maybe he’ll forgive me if I leave a cup of coffee out with his cookies. After all, he is Finnish.
Disclosure: A big thank you to Eetu Leikas and Diana for letting us use your gorgeous images! Also to Levi Finland and Levi Ski Resort and Ylläs for hosting us and setting up a fantastic itinerary! For more travel inspiration check out Levi’s Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube accounts; Levi Ski Resort’s Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube accounts; and Ylläs’ Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube accounts.
As always, the views and opinions expressed are entirely our own, and we only recommend brands and destinations that we 100% stand behind.
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