A Safari above the Arctic Circle

The calendar marked the 26th of February. The bus was arriving in front of Jönköping University and 44 students, as well as two group leaders were about to enter. The storage room was quickly crammed with ski clothing and of course as many snacks they could consume during the 24 hours bus ride ahead. The destination: Lapland. Reindeers, frozen lakes, extreme conditions and Santa Clause are likely to be associated with Lapland. For some students, Levi seems just like the other side of the world. Situated around 145 km above the Arctic Circle, Lapland sounds like a lonely corner in the North of Europe. The trip organized by Student Union in cooperation with TimeTravels was expected to meet these expectations but also to create an experience impossible to fully attune to beforehand.

The students opened their eyes after a night spent on the bus. Piles of snow form the guard rails of the road. Snow covers the trees like a fluffy blanket. They check their phones for the weather app: minus 18 degrees. It is 9:30 am, somewhere on a Finnish road. For most of the travellers, this is the coldest they’ve ever experienced. 

– I knew it was going to be minus degrees, but it was still colder than expected, says Claire Lovinfosse. She was prepared for the cold temperatures but not for how that would feel like. Still, just a few days later, she will find herself jumping into the Arctic Ocean.

The bus arrives in Levi, Lapland in the afternoon. After the grocery shopping for a few days, the travelers meet Tuomas Pellinen. Pale skin, rose cheeks, wearing warm beanie and always holding a laptop in his hand. That’s how he got on the bus and introduced himself, raising his voice in excitement every now and then. He has been working as a tourist guide for many years in his spare time. His goal is to share as much of the Finnish culture as possible. The anticipation is huge thinking of activities like the aurora hunt, snow mobiling through Finnish forests, reindeer and husky safaris. The students come to realize that this is a trip they will never forget. Levi is not only a place where people can make their winter-wonderland childhood dreams come true but also a popular ski resort where the Alpine Ski World Cup takes place. It is known for being one of the oldest tourist destinations in Finland.

Arrival at the first viewing point in Levi
Photo: Elena Crisan

In the cabins, most of the students spent their evenings cooking together, then gathering around the TV or warming up in the sauna. It doesn’t take more than one step out of the house to notice that the locals need to adjust to the conditions set by nature. They might ski to work, drive slower on the icy roads and plan more time for getting ready in the morning. Nature isn’t always hiking in a warm forest and diving under the mild waves of the Mediterranean Sea. For the people living above the Arctic Circle, where the temperatures can drop to – 20° C, integrating nature into their daily routine means sinking up to their knees in a pile of snow while trying to cross the street and the warmest they can get is by running directly to the sauna afterwards.

Olivia Gonzalez and Eleftheria Beteinaki were the group leaders appointed by Student Union’s Integration and Activity Committee (IAC). Their responsibility was to include and help the participants and to assist them during the application process. It can be a challenge to be a group leader to a diverse group with different cultural backgrounds and ways of doing things.

– This is one of the best groups I’ve ever had. I’ve learned a lot about myself by interacting with other participants, says Eleftheria. 

– These trips are a significant aspect of students’ overall experience and being a part of that is very rewarding, Olivia thinks. 

The activities offered by the travel agency were focused on learning how to adapt to the arctic environment but also to experience things only possible in a never-ending winter landscape. The snowshoe, snowmobile, reindeer and husky safaris gave an insight into Lappish more hidden spots in nature, where the participants were able to pet the animals and take pictures in the pristine snow. Other activities such as cross-country skiing and snowmobile safari lead the group on roads through sparkling snow and tall pine trees. 

– We were so lucky with the weather. There was clear sky every day, says Claire. 

The students enjoyed the idyllic scenery, especially when watching the snow layer melt from the tree’s branches. The ones who didn’t take part in the activities tried on the warm clothes they’ve packed and went for long walks to discover the area.

According to the 2019 Happiness Report, Finland is the happiest country in the world. What might seem like an uncomfortable lifestyle to some but is satisfaction for others. 

– There is a trend to get closer to nature. It’s not only that you eat carrots, but you grow the carrots, says Tuomas.

He decided to move to the countryside with his family to get closer to his idea of where humans are rooted. The trend described is about noticing the stillness in nature and the process of it changing. Even infrastructure seems to decelerate on the icy Finnish roads.

The Aurora Hunt was mentioned as the highlight of the trip by most participants. At the highest altitude point in Finland, a ski resort called Pallastunturi, the aurora borealis appeared on the clear sky like a beam of light. Proper photography gear captures the intense green color better than the human eye. The key is using high exposure and ISO value. Even though the group wasn’t lucky enough to see the Northern Light spectacle, they have observed the phenomenon. 

– To me it looked like the sun was about to rise, says Claire. 

– The aurora hunt is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was a peaceful moment for me, simple but special at the same time, Eleftheria described.

Aurora borealis
Photo: Tuomas Pellinen

It is Monday morning. Claire has already arrived back to Jönköping, her home for this semester. Happy to have cleaned the apartment beforehand, she rests and thinks about the time spent with her friends. 

– I’ve learned useful surviving skills in nature, how to make fire and that you can adapt to anything, says Claire. 

 Ben Ritter is also back to his apartment, filled with new memories. 

– It’s seldom that you can claim to have done something for the first time. In the last few days, I can say I’ve done many things for the first time, says Ben. 

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