Utsjoki means Arctic plateaus sculpted by ice age glaciers, dancing auroras in the starry sky, and unforgettable gastronomic experiences. Is Utsjoki on your #LaplandBucketList?
Utsjoki sits at the northern reaches of Finland, on the edge of the polar tundra. Here, stunted birch trees reach their gnarled branches toward an infinite blue sky. The Midnight Sun swirls around in the summer, and in winter, the Northern Lights are more likely than not. Here are some unforgettable Utsjoki experiences for your #LaplandBucketList.
1. Step back in time
For a moment, you sit on a wooden bench older than the country you’re in. Behind you, Lake Mantojärvi whispers in your ear. In front of you, ancient log cabins squat in the earth, their colors faded and worn by decades of sun. You step inside the small huts, and the antique furniture and decorations transport you to a time before phones, before cars. When you emerge, the row of church cabins look up to the old stone Utsjoki Church, 160 years young, like parishioners patiently waiting for service to begin.
2. Travel Finland’s most beautiful road
The road twists and turns under the thin, strange light of the Midnight Sun. And around every bend, there is another jaw-dropping vista of the Teno River Valley. Hills rise and fall, and in the Norwegian distance, you glimpse patches of snow atop mountains. In July. As you pull in overlook to take yet another indescribable photo, an owl takes flight from a nearby tree, drifting in silence over the river far below. You make a mental note to add that to the list of animals you’ve already seen along Route 970.
3. Don’t forget dessert
Your stomach rumbles in anticipation. The menu looked so good, you could barely restrain yourself to a single starter or entree. When the waiter brings the salted salmon and black bread, you smile and nod, but inside, you just want her to leave. Your dilemma is a familiar one: snap a quick photo or six, or gobble up the savory appetizer. You look around to see if anyone else in Guossi has noticed your quandry, but they are all as engrossed with their meals as you are. When the waiter brings you a filet of reindeer—sourced from a local farm—on a bed of baked potatoes, carrots and rutabaga and topped with hand-picked herbs from the nearby wilderness, you put your phone down. Hashtags can wait—your hunger cannot.
4. Pull your dinner from a frozen lake
The day began with a snowmobile ride through the darkness. Your guide brought you from the tiny village of Nuorgam to the vast frozen Pulmankijärvi lake. Now, as the sky lightens to the hue of plums and peaches, you lie on a reindeer hide, staring through the clear ice to the dark waters below. Nothing has nibbled on your line yet, but fishing is a patient man’s game. To the north, the sky is still dark enough, says your guide, that you might be blessed with some Northern Lights this afternoon. While an appearance by the auroras would be nice, you’d much prefer a nice burbot or an arctic char.
5. Make A Frozen Pilgrimage
You have heard the words Arctic and Tundra before. But now that your eyelashes are freezing shut, you understand them. With every gust of wind, gooseflesh marches down your neck and back. But the sight of the the Sulaoja Spring is worth it. This is no mere frozen pond. Like most of the Finns you’ve met, it stubbornly refuses to freeze, no matter how low the temperature drops. You understand how the Sámi once held this place in spiritual regard, this small lake that will not freeze.
6. Experience Life on an Arctic Farmstead
The wind carries the chill of autumn, though it’s still August. But it’s a perfect companion to your afternoon on the Välimaa Sámi Farm. Situated halfway between the villages of Utsjoki and Nuorgam, overlooking the Teno River and the Norwegian mountains in the distance, the farm is like stepping two hundred years back in time. With one exception—you’re the only one here. The silence is like balm to all the constant notifications of humanity. As you wander the smoky log cabins and grassy farmstead, you imagine yourself wearing the simple clothes, sweat from a hard day’s work evaporating quickly in the brisk wind.
7. Tell Your Own Big Fish Story
They don’t believe you about the Midnight Sun, how it circles the sky, not even coming close to the horizons. They don’t believe that the Teno River could carry you to the Arctic Ocean. That your guide was a Sámi yet spoke English. That you ate reindeer jerky and boiled coffee over a campfire. And they especially don’t believe your big fish story. You’ve never caught anything like that in your life, they say. But when you show them the photo, you on the stony shore, green Norwegian mountains in the background, a 42 lb. salmon hanging from your fist, they are, for the first time, speechless.
8. Eat like a Sámi at Fállegoahti
Outside the wooden hut, snow falls. Inside the kota, the campfire crackles. Dinner was gamy wild mushroom soup, sauteed reindeer, mashed potatoes, with a dessert of strange squeaky cheese covered in wild berry jam. While you ate, your Sámi guide gave you stories of herding reindeer and snowmobile rides, the meaning of the colors and cut of his traditional outfit, a taste of northern culture and more. As the evening progresses, he begins to sing a low chant, evoking the gentle fells, Northern Lights, snowscapes, and the cold and harsh, warm and wonderful life in the Arctic.
9. Explore a tundra river canyon
Your boyfriend warned you, but you didn’t listen. After hiking for hours along the Kevo Canyon trail, you arrived near the center point, the rushing, raging Fiellu waterfall. “Don’t go down there. You’re just gonna get wet.” But you went down there, and the mist of the waterfall has penetrated every layer of clothing you have on. But your damp clothing presents not a challenge, but an opportunity. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and you have plenty of Off! bug spray. You strip off your pants and shirt, hang them from a nearby tree and find a great spot for sunbathing.
10. Follow in the footsteps of Ailo
Standing on the stones atop Utsjoki Ailigas, you look down on the village of Utsjoki, a collection of buildings and the iconic Sámi Bridge spanning the Teno River. Everything else is wilderness. The fells roll on in the distance, first green, then blue, then white-capped and misty. You came here, because this is where they filmed Ailo’s Journey, and you had to see it for yourself. And now that you’re here, you realize it’s even more epic than 70mm film can capture.
11. See the view atop the world
First, you drove Route 970 to Karigasniemi, marvelling at the Teno River Valley views. Then you took a boat ride and marveled at the fells hugging the riverside. And now you’re atop Nuvvus Ailigas, staring down at the road and the river, and possibly the most beautiful sunset you’ve ever seen. The round mountains of Norway are black silhouettes in a golden sky, the sun nestling for the evening. You wish this moment would never end, and that’s when your guide tells you that sunset lasts for about 4 hours this time of year. #CloseEnough
12. Watch Skyfire Dance Among the Stars
You have snacks, a small chair, a thermos full of coffee and your best friend to keep you company. She babbles on about how amazing it is you can get cell reception, even in the North Pole, and she misses the magic. The first flicker of green fire on the northern horizon. You know that Ailigas means holy fell in Sámi, and as the auroras paint the night sky, you understand why. You let her babble on and on, her words whipped away by the wind, as you feel the Northern Lights, the dark sky, the October chill, etch themselves in your memory, in your soul.