How I Chased The Northern Lights
Slowly but surely, it had acquired the urgency of an obsession. Two decades after visiting the Canadian Arctic city of Yellow Knife, it continued to fester in my bucket list of must-sees. A spectacle so spellbinding, it has acquired a rich mythology from ancient times, when aboriginals, tribals, Vikings and others turned their gaze upwards to behold the marvel in the sky. There, among the twinkling stars of the blackest polar night, a sudden dazzling swathe of incandescent green, blue and purple shades would paint the sky with the spirits of their ancestors or mythical beasts bearing auguries from the universe. That tantalising vision in Yellow Knife had simmered quietly for years as work and life brought other destinations to the fore — until this year when it finally took shape in a determined bid to catch the Northern Lights.
We planned to combine our pursuit of the Lights with a stay at the legendary Snowhotel in Kirkenes, in Norway’s Finnmark region. Carved entirely from ice, the hotel has only 24 rooms — and all were taken. There were ice hotels available in Sweden and Finland but we decided to stick to Norway where several towns fall within the technicolor embrace of the Aurora Borealis Oval, the zone around the poles where they are normally visible. The Southern Lights or Aurora australis, enjoyed mostly by appreciative penguins in remote Antarctica, are a mirror image of the borealis on any given night, presenting a magical, celestial pas de deux at both ends of the planet which can only be seen from space.
Till such time as space tourism becomes the norm, we settle on the Arctic city of Tromsø as the base for our quest, given its rich cultural and gastronomic traditions, not to mention its two unique polar museums. It’s important to find plenty to do during the day — and night — if seasonally bad weather switches off the heavenly lights. Depending on the right natural conditions to make a dream come true is always dodgy and the many prayers that hovered on my lips did not appease the weather gods. Having checked our baggage and ourselves in at Oslo’s Gardermoen airport (there was only one airline staff to help, with ‘manual check-in’ becoming a thing of the past) we boarded the flight to Tromsø. The forecast warned of a coastal storm but all seemed to be going well when, half way to our destination, the captain regretfully announced weather conditions were too severe for a safe landing. We returned dejected to Oslo.
This second disappointment was momentarily crushing, but we still had a hotel booking for three more days at our hotel and decided to rebook our flight for the following evening. With fingers crossed, we landed safely in heavy snowfall at Tromsø’s Langnes airport. It was 7 p.m. and the thick flakes made the possibility of finding the Lights that night dim, as did the serpentine taxi queues at departure. I noticed a number of Japanese visitors in the queue and concealed a smile, remembering my friend’s words in
Yellow Knife all those years ago: “The Japanese believe that children conceived under the Northern Lights are exceptionally lucky, talented and bring good fortune. So every winter we have a number of Japanese tourists being treated for frost exposure as a post-coital ritual.”
We check into the deceptively named Comfort Hotel and wonder at the raves on Tripadvisor: the double room is so small there’s barely space for two suitcases leave alone a cupboard and we have to sleep at opposite ends of the bed to avoid nocturnal injuries. We console ourselves with a delicious king crab dinner at a seaside cafe that night, since all the restaurants are occupied by delegates from the 27th International Film Festival. So crowded are the movie halls, we see an audience watching a film on a giant screen in the open-air town square, thickly bundled up against the sub-zero night temperatures.
The next morning we head to Northern Shots to plan our evening search. Arguably the best tour operators in Tromsø, they offer 50 per cent rebate on a second ride if they fail to catch them the first time around. Francesco Galbiati, the amiable Italian tour guide reassures us that the persistent snow showers don’t necessarily mean we will miss them, which depend on a variety of factors, including solar activity. It’s the heated, electrically-charged particles from the sun that produce auroras when they travel through space, traversing two planets before colliding with the earth’s magnetic poles. The year 2014 saw abnormal solar activity resulting in a blaze of Northern and Southern Lights spreading beyond their normal latitudes in the sky. Explaining the best option for finding them in bad weather conditions, Francesco warns, “We normally drive away from the wet Tromsø coast to calmer weather and clearer skies inland. It can be a long ride up to the Finnish border.”
At 6 p.m. that evening, we board the bus that will take a group of us across the frost-molded landscapes of the north. The bare trees look like majestic Swarovski sculptures as each twig and branch shimmers in the headlights and the lakes are a frozen expanse. It’s a white wonderland revealed in mysterious tableaux by the coach. But the snow is still falling thick and fast and the sky is heavily blanketed in darkness as we make our first stop along the shores of a fjord. The prospect looks disappointing. Standing out in the freezing cold watching other tour operators come and go, I suddenly see a large moose caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. The majestic animal — reduced to burgers and stews as a local delicacy — crosses safely, and we resume our journey. “The locations where we head out are decided daily, based on a thorough evaluation of the local weather forecasts (possibly the latest updates) and, of course, always keeping an eye on the different websites where we monitor the solar and geomagnetic activity,” Francesco explains. “The forecasts, directly issued by the Tromsø meteorological institute, are usually accurate enough for us to be able to choose between areas as close as 10 kilometres from one another.”
Now, Francesco gives us a quick lesson in capturing the notoriously evasive phenomenon on camera and I’m hugely chagrined to learn my Samsung phone won’t do the job. Neither will the compact camera I bought my husband for Christmas. I’m devastated, berating myself, thinking we’ve come all this way without the right equipment to capture the magic, should it happen. Francesco, however, has with him the right professional gear and is happy to bail us out.
We continue driving for another hour and the stars slowly begin to shimmer in the sky. The atmosphere is clearing — the first good sign that evening. Francesco confirms we may have better luck near the Finland border and reassures those without passports that they won’t be deported “since we won’t be passing customs”. It’s 10 p.m. and we’ve been driving for hours. I’m tired but my eyes remain peeled to the night sky. I say a prayer, and then another…time passes and then, suddenly, I see a big white-grey oval patch hanging in the sky. Could this be the Northern Lights? Others in the coach start calling out and the driver stops. “We are so lucky!” screams a Japanese girl, who believes it’s a benediction from heaven.
We stumble out into the glacial night and my initial disappointment begins to fade as the aurora slowly spreads in three long arcs across the sky and hues of blue begin to appear. The colours are not as resplendent to the naked eye as they are on camera but they are there and they begin to enchant as they weave in and out of ever-changing formations. The sky overhead now fills with a dancing curtain of light and distinct red hues begin to appear. Someone explains that different atmospheric gases cause the different colours: “Typically, when the particles collide with oxygen, yellow and green are produced. Interactions with nitrogen produce red, violet and occasionally blue.” I stare up into the night sky forgetting the chemistry lesson as a spiritual wonder begins to take hold of my heart. I am dwarfed by the knowledge that this light has travelled all the way from the sun to enchant us here on earth. It’s easy now to understand that the local Sami tribals of Scandinavia believed that these were the spirits of their ancestors while the Finnish word for the Northern Lights, revontulet, translates literally as ‘fire fox’, a mystical creature revered for bringing good fortune. In the Baltics, they are believed to mark a celestial wedding between the gods and are harbingers of good luck. To me it is simply the greatest natural phenomenon on earth.
Those of us with useless cameras line up so the guide can frame us against this vast celestial display. This includes a group of rowdy boys who strip quickly to their naked waists and sink into the snow in comical macho poses. It’s now nearly half an hour since the auroras appeared and the snow is slowly reclaiming the night. The celestial lights are dimming and the last photos are clicked. Our happy group is warming up with hot cocoa excitedly comparing photos. The Japanese girl caught them on her Samsung phone making me feel rather stupid for not making the most of what I had. Soon we are back on board leaving the Finnish border for the long ride back to Tromsø.
The lights go off in the coach as we settle down to our happy thoughts and I thank whoever was listening to my prayers for fulfilling my dream. For that moment in time when the world was more than I thought it could ever be.