Hunting the northern lights – a lifetime dream

The Dream:

Ever since I was a little girl I’ve been dreaming about the northern lights. It all started as dreams usually do, in childhood: with a tale, one about a polar bear. For a very long time it seemed difficult and definitely too expensive for me to travel to places where this dream was reality and was taking place more than half of each year. I thought the aurora is something that only the polar bears and seals at the North Pole or Antarctica can enjoy.

Finding that you can see it even in Iceland and Northern Europe starting September till late March, in places where you don’t need a fortune to get to, set me on for this experience. I told myself: This must happen!

First Try:

Two years ago, in December, I had my first try in Iceland. I made the plans deeply convinced I was on my way to see my dream come true. Well, nature had other plans. The sky was cloudy for the entire time I spent there. A reality wake up for me: as spectacular as they are, as difficult they might be to catch. I wasn’t disappointed at all, I had an amazing time in Iceland. And I found out interesting facts about the aurora from locals: sometimes even they were not sure wether it was the lights or a funny cloud and that the best moments are when they dance in the sky in multiple shades, from green and yellow to purple, which is more rare. I found this saying about the lights dancing really impressive. I was even more determined to see it. Didn’t know when it was gonna happen or where, I just knew I will.

The Plan:

Getting back home I started looking for articles about this phenomena and the best places in the world to see the northern lights, watch videos, see photos, read about other people experiences. I thought maybe going farther to the North is a good plan. In February last year I came across this article in National Geographic about the best 7 places in the world where you could enjoy a perfect display of the aurora. This is how I first found out about Tromso, a small town in Northern Norway, close to the Arctic Circle. An idilic place among the fiords, surrounded by pristine lands and freezing waters of the Arctic Ocean, where orcas and mink wales come in large numbers, reindeers and moose run free and huskies can’t wait for a sledge chase among the valleys covered by snow.  Just search the hashtag Tromso on Instagram and you’ll see what I mean.

Tromso:

A year have passed, winter came again and here I was in Tromso! In the first evening, at 18:45PM, I was at the starting point for my 7 hours northern lights hunting tour, booked 7 hours before only, on my flight from Oslo, after obsessively checking the weather and the northern lights forecasts and a miraculous last minute change of predictions. The joy of this news kept me awake for long the previous night. It really seemed possible! The sky was so clear, I could see the stars from the city and I was soo excited hearing one of the guides exclaiming: what a great night will be tonight! Her excitement was contagious.

The experience:

And we started our northern lights hunt. It was a cold arctic night, -8 degrees C and windy. The guide checked on his phone the magnetic level of the Earth. Hmm? From 10 to 0 he said now it was 2. Oh, no! A new condition? He continued that the lights are unpredictable and this doesn’t necessarily mean a bad forecast. I remembered than about what Icelanders use to tel me: you shouldn’t go some place only for the northern lights because then you won’t see them. Instead, enjoy your time, the place, nature with all its beauty and if the lights show up, than perfect. But be patient, it’s nature’s will. I have already heard about people trying so hard to see the lights, like the Japanese couple traveling for one week to Iceland for the 3rd time and with no luck. Or the ones that after so many unsuccessful attempts have rented a cabin in the wild and every hour they  used the alarm to wake them up to check the sky and went out in the snow for that. But what people can do for their dreams, right? So I decided to enjoy it and get the chance to see some beautiful landscapes outside the city.

The tour is a very practical and safe idea, though not cheap at all. You can’t find any cheaper that 100 euro. But the guides worth all the money, this is their home, they know the region by heart, know the best places where you can have open sky and even in cloudy nights they can find spots with clear sky. Because in the Arctic weather changes fast, you can leave the city where the sky is cloudy and in 15 minutes drive you’ll have the clearest sky. Besides that you hear great stories and you get to know people from all over the world. And the main thing, you are away of any light pollution.

After about 30 minutes driving, we were in Kvaloya, the biggest island in Tromso area. We made a stop and our guide kept taking photos of the sky with the camera in order to check if there was any activity that our eyes could not see. Yes, this happens too with the northern lights. But nothing. It was the side of the road and the ground was covered with ice, was really slippery. We were advised to avoid the road in order to keep us safe and sound. In front was a small hill and above it I could see the dark water of the fiord stretching down and far away and the moon spreading silver rays in the white mountains.

The arctic night

Something was not ok… Even though I had 5 layers, thermal fabrics, snow boots and so on and left the house confident that I can fight bravely any temperatures, as I have already do the previous days since my arrival in Norway, in 10 minutes outside I was shivering as if I was wearing a t-shirt. The wind was cutting my face as if there were blades. I decided to bravely get in the van. 7 hours spent outside were definitely no option. And also I didn’t get that far to stay 7 hours in a van. But I have chosen this particular tour for three reasons: it was much longer that the most, the guide had a professional camera and was sharing photos after, for free (I tour I found was charging 36 euro for a photo taken by them), this was essential since you can’t have decent photos of the northern light with a phone, no matter how smart it is, and they were also providing us with thermal suits, also for free (some tours were renting them or not having at all). If at first I said no thank you, after the first stop I was then second person in the tour to try a thermal suit. And I’m glad I change my mind fast. After 10 minutes of struggling to put in on all my other clothes, including my winter puffer coat, I finally made it. I was big as a bear wearing this but who cares. At the next stop I tested it and I understand why they call it a warm suit.

The next stop was a beach, surrounded by mountains. Beautiful! In summer surfers were coming here, they told us. But waters in Tromso are only for those who enjoy a swim in frozen waters, even in summer. So definitely not for me. The driver and the guide were preparing a bonfire next to a small wooden cabin, with 3 walls only, facing the beach and build around a table. I was obviously heading down the hill, to the beach, my first beach this year. The wind was even stronger, I had to stop sometimes to stand against it, but the warm suit was doing its job as a pro, keeping me warm. The wet sand left behind by the tide was frozen, but it has kept the wavy shape that the waves gave it. It was dark, some clouds here and there. The moon not too bright. I was alone but could hear the group in the back. I was enjoying the view. A small river was meeting the ocean here but its surface was completely covered with thick ice. A crossed a small wooden bridge built upon it and looked down to the ice. Was white and all covered with frost crystals, some small some like immense flowers. A work of art that man hands can’t perfect. I looked at the stars wondering what’s gonna happen next.

I joined the group. We were from so many places: Andalusia in Spain, France, Hong Kong, Dubai, Germany. Our driver started its story firs. He was from Iceland, he said, “Hale to the Gods! It’s what my vikings ancestors believed in, and so do I” he continued. He told us about the founding fathers of the Norwegians, how their origins were in nowadays Iceland, about the Scandinavian dialects, the old language in the North which is the present Icelandic and about leaving its country after the economic crises in 2008 while his wife was expecting their first child. Life tides have taken him away for good, he then got a new life in Norway and a new family. He asked everyone where were they from and we talked about each place. We talked about movies, books, history and politics. Everyone claiming that the politicians in his country were the worst but the most vocal was the guy from China. We had hot chocolate, tea, coffee and fire roasted marshmallows while looking up to the sky. I approached our guide who was saving no effort to constantly take photos of the sky. It was already 10:30PM. One of a sudden he says: look, do you see it there? It’s a very light activity but there is. I concentrate to see something which I did not even know how it was suppose to look like exactly. And I answered: Yes, I see it. And after a second: Or I wanna see it.

We were preparing to leave again to another place. Sometimes they drive far away, close to the Finland boarder but at that time it was snowing there and the chances were higher around Tromso. One lady started feeling sick because of the cold. It’s when I realised this was not something to joke about. We took everything quickly and drove a few minutes back to meet the taxi that came to take her and the 2 others with her back to the city. We continued our ride on the small icy road where sometimes you have to stop the car to let the reindeers pass. The reindeers seemed to have other plans for that night.

We had our seatbelt on in case of sudden brakes. I was keeping my head close to the cold window so I could see better outside as we were passing by beautiful landscapes. On the left was the mountain, in the right the dark fiord. Our guide kept opening the window letting the cold inside the van so he could observe the sky or take photos in search of the lights. I got something, he said, look! And he showed us on its camera the image of the sky covered by some light green hazy clouds. It was only visible on the camera, not for our eyes and it didn’t look at all like those amazing photos you see on the web.

He said something to the driver. The van was passing fast by the fiord in the cold still night, it was past 11PM now. The road was white and I was wondering wether that was ice. I was enjoying the basket full of biscuits and chocolate candies next to me and I was just looking for another caramel candy when the guide said loudly STOP, stop it right there! The van stopped on the side of the road and I heard the ice breaking under the wheels. It’s the lights! Are just starting now! Quickly everyone, out! NOW!

I got off instantly looking up to the sky. I made a few steps to get away of the van so I can see the entire sky and I turned. I felt how my eyes got instantly wide opened and an immense smile covered my entire face. In the dark frozen night, on the sky full of stars, in three different places, there were big green lines. I now realised the place looked fantastic, a valley where you could see the entire sky and there was no light except one, from a little isolated red cottage. In a few seconds the lines became greener and started to move slowly. I could hear a loud general whisper: Wooooww!!! They were now changing their shape and growing as they were coming closer, above us. I than realised I was actually watching the northern lights, I was there, in the Arctic and my dream was coming true. It was pure happiness in that moment. And I understood now what people meant when they were saying that the lights are dancing. They are indeed. Soon they conquered the entire sky, which became their scene and we were the spectators. It was fantastic how they were moving, as if they were alive. Like lines of smoke and then like curtains of lights very well defined coming down to earth and fading as they were getting closer. We kept our eyes to the sky, there was no time and space, only lights. The lights were then fading and appearing in other areas of the sky, some starting to dance, others just stayed there, still, but visible. This lasted for maybe 20-30 minutes, I don’t know. They called it an episode, the guide said this might be all for that night or only the beginning, it could be an episode or it can last for hours. Usually they start from 6PM till 3AM.

We were in a large valley all surrounded by mountains not very high and almost equal,  in the right there was a huge lake, the dark fiord, with small islands at the shore, all covered with bog reed. A part not wider that 10m was getting even more inland, it looked like a small river but was still as a lake. It was the ocean. Was easy the tell, the lakes were all frozen, covered with snow and those who were not were the ocean, because of the salty waters.

We started taking photos, the guide took patiently photos for each of us with its camera. Those I took with my phone were really bad. You had to wait still for 8 seconds to have your photo taken, knowing that behind you the northern lights were dancing and all the others were exclaiming: look at that, amazing! But photo memories need sacrifice. Anyway, in best moments of the aurora no one was taking photos, you couldn’t take your eyes from the sky.

Our driver prepare another bonfire. This time many of us got involved in the preparation. The bond between us was made, we knew each other not my name but by country of origin, we have shared a lifetime experience and it was enough. The lights were still on the sky, but not as active as before. No wind was blowing. We gathered by the fire, made roasted sausages and talked about politics, again. As our driver friend said: Here, tonight, by this fire, we’re all the same. Sitting by that fire, in that frozen night, looking at those flames, surrounded by those mountains covered with snow and than looking up at the sky and see the northern lights. What a moment! We were all happy and talkative as we were old friends.

It was 1AM. We were all gathered around the fire, lost in our conversation when someone said: look up, it’s starting again! We all raised our heads to the sky and we knew immediately that what we saw was not just a still green line as those from the last two hours were. We all stood up in a second, being ready. It was right above us this time, it was just getting its shape, becoming bigger and bigger and faster than the previous ones. Was moving incredibly, impossible to anticipate its next shape. In the same time in other 3 different places on the sky new lines appeared, also growing faster. The one above us was getting now the shape of a spiral, extending its edges and once they got further from the centre they were transformed into walls of lights coming down to us and changing their colour from light green to deep green, yellow, than light pink and finally into purple. I heard our driver saying: this is why I love my job! For moments like this! This is an amazing activity! Than he disappeared, in search of a perfect stop to take its photos.

The sky was completely covered by moving lights. All were connected now and forming a 360 aurora display. I didn’t know where to turn my head to, wherever I looked the sky was on fire. Was the live description of what I heard: It’s in the darkest nights when northern lights dance the sky. And so they were. It has nothing to do with any video or photo of the northern lights you could ever see. Reality beats every possible recordings or descriptions of this phenomena. Those shapes moving, the vertical rays of colours coming down and disappearing the moment you think they are coming at you, all these can’t be described. We all stood quiet and still admiring the best show that nature does on Earth.

If you whistle to the lights and raise your hands up to them, they will come down to take you, says one of the stories in the North. It’s no wonder so many legends were born around the northern lights.

The next day, everybody I heard was talking about the amazing aurora they saw the night before. Where they saw it, what was it like, what colours, what photos they took, how they took them and that the one at 1AM was fantastic. I know now what an amazing northern lights activity looks like, that a 360 display is rare and spirals also form in rare occasions. And most of all I knew I wanna see it again.

The second night the sky was cloudy and predictions were low. It started to snow. The third night the sky was cloudy in the city but predictions were good. We drove on an island and in 15 minutes drive we got the clearest sky possible. There was some activity but little compared to the first night. Still a truly breathtaking view: a huge valley surrounded my high mountains. We were right in the middle. The 20 cm new layer of snow from the previous night made everything look unreal. It was a few nights before the super moon, so it was so bright, its light was reflecting in the snow and you could even hand write a letter in that light. Green lights were crossing the sky full of stars from one side to the other. All was still and extremely cold, around -11C. A true night in the Arctic.

 

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Hunting the northern lights – a lifetime dream”

  1. I am very happy that you got to see the aurora borealis! I’m hoping to see them around the equinox Sep 23rd this year near Tromso too, have already booked. Most believe that auroras are best seen in Winter, yet most solar winds/flares and auroras occur at equinoxes( Spring and Autumn) around March 21-early April, and Late September, early October! I hope I get to see them too, as they are a life long dream for me too. Thank you for sharing your story :).

    Like

    1. Wow, you’re going to Tromoso! I love that place… You definitely have all the chances to see the aurora in September, the weather is much better compared to winter. I wish your dream will come true and you’ll have a great time! 🙂

      Like

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