From far away, the cold, soft light of the moon cuts across the lake to rest on fresh, fluffed snow. The lake I knew only by name, Torassieppi, disguised as it was beneath winter’s thick, glass ice and glutinous chewy snow. A snort and a puff of ice-crystal air revealed the breath of reindeer, while their wool-bundled passengers found oxygen through mittens and many, many gloves.
Here in the Arctic Circle, Finnish Lapland’s white landscape plays tricks with a monochrome mind.
The view at night, awash in white and reflecting a full moon, takes time to adjust to. Snow-clumped branches switch trees into statues; the all-in-one snow-suits stifle the four senses. The cold takes care of the fifth.
Voices sound altered, sound effects magnified. Taste disappears and tears turn lashes into long strands of white.
It doesn’t help orientation to realise that things don’t look like the photos.
Take this magnificent image from the talented and friendly photographe Antti Pietikäinen from Harriniva who met me pre-sleigh. I’m in the photo, bundled up at the back, but don’t spend too long trying to find me. Those white clouds above the sleigh, that glinting curve along the antlers, that glittering snow upon the lake, that’s all real, real, real. But it takes stillness and lights from snowmobiles to allow the camera to pick them out.
The result? The image doesn’t quite reflect reality.
This set me thinking, as the sleigh slipped ahead and I sat alone with my thoughts and the studs of reindeer hoofs on snow.
To an extent, all travel photos distort the truth. We take pains to line up images in thirds, to crop out dustbins and dusters, to focus on people who reflect the most beauty, the most character, the most tradition. Or even simply those who manage to keep their eyes open long enough for us to take the shot.
And we don’t only do it with travel photography, we do it with photos of ourselves.
When all else is said and done, we like our photos, and ourselves, to look good.
And is this wrong? No, after one circuit of a sparkling set frozen lake, I am sure, beneath the moonlight, that it is not.
Our eyes and our cameras handle light in different ways. Our eyes not only exceed the limits of our pixelated displays, catching photons from over 16 308 light years away, but the way our neurons process light relies on patterns, both geometric and emotional.
When we gaze with happiness at the real life view of the Eiffel Tower, we don’t notice the dustbins, though of course they are there. When the huge wash of data available in real life gets compressed, by necessity, into a photograph, we “see” different things.
We don’t have the romance, the floral breeze, the tired feet. We just have the photograph and the dustbins stand out. Their presence interferes with a stranger’s interpretation of the thrill and the passion of that first glance in Paris.
And so it is here.
The sky in that photograph looks blue.
On the sleigh, when the snowmobile lights have gone, everything fades into black and slightly less black. (Er, I think they call that grey – Ed.) That’s just how our eyes work. Our low-light photoreceptor rods cannot pick up colour.
It is hard to see the reindeer. It is hard to see my phone. But when I tilt my head back, the starlight stirs my soul.
Here, in the frozen sky, are more patterns and pictures than I have ever known. The Great Bear, Little Bear, Care Bear, Square Bear.
Fine, so I don’t exactly know them by name. I don’t need to to be able to stare at them in wonder To gaze back into history when fellow men fixed their lives by the navigation of these stars. When sailors set off into blackness, guided only by this celestial map, when chieftains sacrificed villagers or the bereaved sought their ancestors, all in these scattered flecks of spattered suns.
And how now, with our telescopes, our skyrockets, our sophisticated software, we still know so little about these shy spots that flicker in the sky.
My reindeer is unmoved. Which is to say, she keeps moving at her slow and steady pace as ice frosts around my eyes.
Scuffling then silence signals the end of the procession; it’s time for hot tea (or, in this part of the world, hot lingonberry juice served in kuppilkas.)
A smoky fire is crackling and we bobble through the snow towards it, limbs clumsy beneath the layers.
At the back of the queue, I get one final chance to tilt my head to the sky before the firelight blinds me.
And that’s when I know that it’s right to tweak “truth” with our cameras.
For the beauty of this great photograph cannot match what I see here.
But it’s all I have to use.
Just these images. Just these words. Just this chance to let you know that above the Arctic Circle blazes a starlit sky.
I travelled to Finland as a keynote speaker for the MATKA Nordic Bloggers Experience. I travelled on to Lapland as a guest of Visit Finland and Harriniva. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like: neurons, reindeer, frozen noses, the lot. Otherwise…well, what’s the point?!
Abigail King is an award-winning writer and author who swapped a successful career as a hospital doctor for a life on the road. With over 60 countries under her belt, she's worked for Lonely Planet, the BBC, National Geographic Traveller and more. She is passionate about sustainable tourism and was invited to speak on the subject at the EU-China High Level summit at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.Here she writes about food, travel and history and she invites you to pull up a chair and relax. Let's travel more and think more. Welcome!
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