Traveling Alone in the Arctic
The story of one of my most epic travel adventures ever
It was my first time in Europe, so I planned to spend a few weeks exploring new places alone. After all, I traveled 9,000 kilometers for this from halfway across the globe. Better make it worth the trip, I thought. To kick things off, I joined the Tallinn Marathon as Estonia celebrated its 100th anniversary of independence from the Russian Empire.
Shortly after the race, I quickly jumped to a ferry to Finland, where my journey to the north would begin. I rode the Viking Line and took my time to explore the ship as there was plenty to do here. Cafes, bars, deli, supermarkets, and casino slot machines could be found inside.
After two hours, I arrived at the place I first heard about in an old Koko Krunch TV commercial — Helsinki. While carrying a big backpack, I walked from the port to the train station. My legs were scurrying, but my eyes were busier, looking around and taking in this alien cityscape. It was almost sunset when I passed by the iconic Helsinki Cathedral.
The exterior of the train station was equally stunning. It would be a 12-hour train ride, but I booked a regular seat instead of a sleeper cabin to save money. Whenever I travel, I usually arrange long transports at night to save some accommodation expenses and maximize the daylight in my itinerary. During the trip, I would leave my seat from time to time to roam around the other cabins (à la Hogwarts Express) and eat at the restaurant.
My destination was a sleepy town in North Finland called Rovaniemi. I booked a bed in a hostel and discovered a room of five empty bunk beds. It was an off-season for the tourists who swarm this place during winter. As a result, the city was practically a ghost town when I came.
I did meet some people eventually. First, there was Sami, an environmental engineer who had been cycling for over three weeks all the way from Helsinki to raise awareness for World Cleanup Day. One bed in the room was later occupied by Daryll, a Singaporean currently studying in the United Kingdom.
At a bus stop, I stumbled upon a Lithuanian Erasmus student curious about Philippine tourism (Tourism was his major, it turned out). Then, while booking a Northern Lights tour, I spoke to Karen, a Filipina employed by the tour agency.
Because of its cold weather, Finland is well-known for its saunas. There are two saunas for every three Finns. That means almost every house and cottage have one. (Lakeside saunas would be quite an experience. Right after leaving the sauna room, you jump straight to the ice-cold lake to cool down.)
First on my list of places to visit was Santa Claus Village, the main attraction in this town. There was enormous space, but I could count the people on the fingers of one hand. Within minutes, I found myself heading to the Husky Park. During winter, you can even ride a sled while getting dragged on the snow by a pack of huskies!
After spending an hour petting the dogs, I set out for the reindeer park next. To be honest, before this trip, I did not know that reindeers are real. 😂 I shamefully admit that I thought they were some mythical creatures along with unicorns and dragons. “Hey, I am a guy from the tropics!” would be my only alibi.
I tried feeding the reindeers tree leaves and even attempted petting them. Those antlers are so damn fluffy. One amusing trivia I learned was the main difference between horns and antlers: unlike horns, animals with antlers shed and regrow them yearly. Male reindeers drop their antlers at the start of winter. This means that all of Santa Claus’ reindeers are female! Who run the world, you say? (Or, in this case, Santa’s gift delivery service?) 🦌🦌🦌🦌🦌🦌🦌🦌🦌🛷🎅
I walked towards the white line that marks the Arctic Circle. In places above this line, the sun never sets for at least one day in summer (called the midnight sun) and never rises for at least one day in winter (called polar nights). These phenomena were mind-blowing for someone who has spent his whole life in a tropical country with negligible time fluctuations of sunrise and sunset year-round.
From where I was standing, the North Pole was just 2,600 kilometers away. To give some perspective, that is about the same distance between Manila and Seoul. In hindsight, this place would probably be the closest to the North Pole I would ever get.
My main goal in traveling this far north was to see the Aurora Borealis in person. However, to ensure that I would catch the Northern Lights, I obsessed with checking forecasts in the preceding days to be able to pick the correct day to book a tour. Three conditions must align for a perfect Aurora viewing night: clear weather, minimal moonlight, and high geomagnetic activity.
Even with a “Low” Auroral activity forecast, I chose Monday because it would be the last non-rainy day of the week. And boy, was I lucky! I finally witnessed the Northern Lights with my own eyes. You can read about the details of that fateful night here.
I joined a half-day tour to get a glimpse of the Finnish outdoors. This northernmost region in Finland is called Lapland. Despite being mostly covered in forests, the country is also known as “the land of a thousand lakes.” In fact, it has much more: Finland boasts 188,000 lakes.
Our Welsh guide, Malc, told us that in Finland, there is a tradition in the great outdoors called “Everyman’s Right”:
Everyman’s Right (Jokamiehen oikeudet)
All people whether residing in Finland or just visiting have the right to enjoy nature anywhere in the Finnish countryside regardless of land ownership. The legal concept of “Everyman’s Right” in Finland extends immense freedom to roam but comes with some serious responsibilities. Primary of all is a mutual respect for nature, people and property. The outdoor enthusiast’s golden rule requires a desire to preserve and protect the unspoiled beauty and wonder of nature for future generations to enjoy. (Source)
Another thing Malc mentioned that piqued my interest was an unwritten rule when using the forest cabins: first in, first out!
Wilderness huts in Finland are open for anyone to use for one night for free. They are normally rustic log cabins which include only the essentials, a fireplace or wood stove, a table with benches, and bunks for sleeping. A fundamental rule is that the last one to arrive always has the right to stay in the open hut. Those already there must make room. (Source)
As a bonus, on our way back to the town, we spotted a herd of deers casually strolling through the woods.
Back in the hostel, I came across Laura, a tall Chinese-Australian girl in a black skirt and long striped socks. She was a solo backpacker who traveled from Perth and has been all around Europe for the past months. During our conversation, we realized that we were both planning to visit the zoo the following day, so we decided to go there together. And so I spent the next day exploring a desolate Arctic Zoo with a lady I barely knew.
I have been to a dozen zoos in different countries, but this was the most impressive that I have seen. By all means, it did not feel like a zoo to me but more of a wildlife reserve and sanctuary. The spaces where each animal was allowed to roam around were unbelievably vast, roomier than entire houses in many neighborhoods I know. There were even more animals than people here.
If there is one animal that the Arctic Region is best known for, it would be none other than the polar bear. Weighing half a ton, it is the largest living land carnivore on the planet. The polar bears in this zoo were playing around, visibly more agile than the last polar bear I’ve seen in a zoo in South Korea where the enclosure was temperature-controlled. “Maybe because the bears here are closer to their natural habitat,” I thought as I watched them bask in the autumn breeze. It would have been a spectacle to visit them during winter when everything would be covered in snow!
Up to this day, the excitement of a kid rushes through my body whenever I enter a zoo. So when I get to travel to another country, I make it a point to drop by the local zoo and museums, and if time permits, ride a bike exploring the city, run the local marathon, and hike a nearby mountain, too.
The following morning, I received a Telegram message from Laura telling me she had left the hostel to continue her journey. For my agenda, I decided to go to the Arctic Museum next. Unlike the zoo, where we took an hour-long bus ride, the museum was quite near, so I walked from the hostel. Walking around provides me a unique opportunity to observe how a foreign city breathes and witness the local community’s daily life.
This museum has glass walls and windows at the end of the hall where you can see the Northern Lights on good days. Inside are rooms separated by different exhibitions, all related to the Arctic, from its rich fauna to the legends about the Aurora Borealis to how climate change affects the region and its indigenous people (“Eskimo” is considered a derogatory word by some and is too general. The Arctic region is home to various groups of indigenous people: the Inuit people of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska; the Sámi people of Finland, Norway, and Sweden; and more.)
Standing beside the Arctic Museum was another museum called the Pilke House. This one was a science museum specifically for wood and forestry! After all, Finland is one of the world’s largest pulp, paper, and cardboard producers.
I was a bit culture-shocked after stepping inside this place. There was a hunting simulator with toy rifles pointed to a projected screen. There was a stuffed toy in the shape of a deer carcass on the floor, with entrails flailing from its belly. Hunting and logging trees are demonized from where I came from. I could not fathom how one country was capable of making them sustainable and regulated.
But after everything that I have learned in the past few days, perhaps Finland is doing better than most countries in this respect — because of how kids are exposed to the outdoors from a young age, because of how Finns and their culture are so interconnected to nature, their forests and their lakes, and because of how the government protects sustainability and regulation.
The next thing on my itinerary was to visit an old friend who now lives in Finland. He’s on the eastern side of the country near the Russian border. So I boarded the train again while another quiet Finnish town was waiting for me. From the north, we go to the east!
My friend Sid let me borrow his bike and showed me around. We were both members of a mountaineering club back in the Philippines, so naturally, we went to the woods first!
On our way back, we dropped by the town’s market, where locals sell fresh produce. It was my first time seeing and eating blackberries! They reminded me of One Piece devil fruits.
One of the highlights of the entire trip was meeting Sanni, a giant fluffy Bernese Mountain Dog. With big round eyes, beautiful thick hair, and a sweet demeanor, no one could resist her charm.
After spending a few nights in Joensuu, I took another train to Helsinki, then a ferry back to Tallinn, where the flight to my home country would depart from. I had a few more days to spare in Estonia, so I explored more museums. I wandered around a Maritime Museum, a Museum of Natural History, and an Open Air Museum. Uhm yeah, I do like museums.
When I return home after a long trip like this, I always get a strange nostalgic feeling, as if I had left a part of me in that foreign place. Then there is also this wistful feeling during the trip — when I talk to strangers I know I will never speak to again for the rest of my life. Fleeting encounters. Something that’s often taken for granted even in our own city. Day in, day out.