In focus: photographer Sam Walker shares an inside look at Arctic Finland

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I’ve always wanted to travel to the Arctic Circle,  so when I was given the opportunity to photograph Flash Pack’s Finland’s Secret Island adventure, I jumped at the chance. The trip takes place at a family-run retreat set on its own private island in the middle of the Lapland wilderness. It’s a phenomenal setting, with frozen lakes, ice-white tundras and thickets of pine tree woodland stretching as far as the eye can see. 

I arrived one day before the group. It’s quite hard to set up landscape images while an adventure is in full swing, so I always aim for some time beforehand to familiarise myself with the scenery and start to capture the essence of the trip.

From the moment the flight touched down on a snow-fringed runway, it felt like I’d entered a new world. I arrived at Rovaniemi the gateway to Finnish Lapland at around 10pm, planning to go straight to bed.

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Witnessing the Northern Lights was a jaw-dropping experience

But as our taxi approached the hotel, the sky began to light up in the emerald glow of the Northern Lights. Despite the Finnish part of Arctic Circle being one of the best places to see this epic lightshow, it doesn’t always happen. 

As soon as the lights started to flutter across the sky, I rushed to drop my bags in my room and get back outside with my camera and tripod. I didn’t even pause to put my boots on, ending up knee-deep in snow.

Yet I hardly noticed the cold. I was blown away by the spectacle unfolding in front of me. It was my first time seeing the Northern Lights – what a jaw-dropping experience.

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The Arctic Circle is a photographer’s dream

A sequence of vast green swirls danced across the sky. The display was so powerful. I half expected it to make some sound but it’s completely silent, which only adds to the otherworldly atmosphere it creates. To be welcomed to Finland with such a wonderful light show was something I’ll never forget.

The first night, I had the island to myself. I stayed up photographing the Northern Lights into the early hours, capturing stills and time lapses. I only had few hours of sleep before heading out again to capture the equally stunning sunrise.

The Arctic Circle is a photographer’s dream; it’s breathtaking in almost every setting. Night-time is utterly evocative. In the few hours of winter daylight, you might be also be contending with heavy snow, which is challenging to shoot in. Issues such as a foggy len and having to keep removing your gloves to clean it happen often. But it’s all worth it thanks to the dramatic images the scenery lends itself to.

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The hotel is very special and completely unique

One of my favourite times of day was sunrise. There are beautiful carpets of mist that rise up, hovering above the snow, and the early morning sun casts deep shadows across the trees. It’s just stunning. 

In one image I took directly in front of the woods, you can see the circled enclosure where the group gathers around a fire pit at night with pretty lanterns. And in another, Kyle Miller, the Pack Leader and manager of Hotel Vartiosaari, is holding an ice auger, which he used to drill through the ice to clear a pond for cold water bathing.

The hotel is very special and completely unique. It’s run by one family who have chosen to open it and the island up to guests. It’s only possible to access via a bridge that spans the Kemijoki River and the accommodation is spread across 11 cosy woodland cabins. 

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Everyone fully immersed themselves in the itinerary

There’s also had a private chef on hand, who creates incredible à la carte menus from seasonal ingredients he’d foraged or sourced from the surrounding land, such as cloudberries, reindeer meat and trout. For drinks, we were treated to a Finnish mulled wine known as glögi, served out of giant wooden cups.

I’ve photographed many Flash Pack adventures and the group vibe has always been exceptionally good. Finland was no exception. The trip was only four days but the fact that we were in such a unique place, sharing so many action-packed experiences together, meant everyone bonded quickly.

Everyone got on well and fully immersed themselves in the itinerary, keen to make the most of the time. On arrival, the group were given identical snowsuits that were wonderfully warm inside. In mine, I felt like I was invincible to the elements.

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I used my drone to capture spectacular images from above

The husky adventure on day two was a highlight. The dogs were friendly and they seemed to really love what they do, hurling themselves across the snow and pulling sleighs in teams of four or five.

I had a really lucky moment when the handler was about to share some food with a young husky. The dog was super-focused and alert on his reward, which made it easier to capture the gaze of his ethereal ice-blue eyes.

I also used my drone to capture some spectacular images from above with me in one of the dog sleds below. It was brilliant fun looping through the woodlands and darting around frozen lakes. Some of the group even had a turn at steering the huskies. The final image was almost like a painting, showcasing the beautiful line of trees and highlighting the vastness of the area.

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A kota is a traditional wooden hut belonging to the local Sami people

The snowmobile safari at twilight was another standout moment. People were nervous but hugely excited to hop onboard. It set off from the town of Rovaniemi and went deep into the Arctic wilderness. 

I rode pillion with Kyle, going a little faster than the others. We zipped back and forth as I attempted to capture the group riding together. I love this documentary-style photography in nature. There’s little opportunity to ask someone to do something again, so you have to be ready at any given moment.

A kota is a traditional wooden hut belonging to the local Sami people. When I spotted one cloaked in thick snow and woodland, I had to capture it before we went inside to warm up. The group gathered around the fire and cooked sausages over the open flames. They were also taught a few survival skills, too, such as learning how to start a fire by getting a spark off flint.

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On the final day, the group braved a spot of ice bathing

The cross-country skiing experience was also great. I set out with the group amid heavy snow. You’re effectively gliding overland, rather than downhill, meaning you have to do a Moonwalk-style movement to thrust yourself forward. It was quite tricky to take photos while also navigating the skis and movement.

On the final day, the group braved the elements with a spot of ice bathing. They began by warming in the sauna and then ventured outdoors in dressing gowns for the ice-cold plunge via a cage that is submerged into the river. Everyone ended up giving it a go, cheering each other on in solidarity. It was a heartwarming moment to capture.

Finland’s Secret Island is one of the shortest Flash Pack trips I’ve been on but it’s also one of my favourites. The entire experience was idyllic and filled with impressive, out-of-this-world moments.

Sam Walker is a professional photographer who recently shot Flash Pack’s Finland’s Secret Island adventure

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Images: Sam Walker for Flash Pack

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