Northern lights – hunting for a Merry Dancers
Aurora Borealis – our dream. One of those breathtaking moments we wanted to see together. The incredible play of light, glow dancing over the heads, goosebumps running through the body at the sight of the first one. And a second one. And each and every… An amazing feeling which still accompanies me when I look through the pictures. This moment when a massive green wave flooded the sky from behind of a hill and me, stunned in this scene was awaiting for emerging of an otherworldly object responsible for this astonishing performance. Instead of expected UFO, more and more dancing waves of green, white and purple rays appeared. Like the slow motion cascades of volcanic lava thrown into space, the northern lights tried to hypnotize us.
We visited Tromsø because of two reasons. To hunt for northern lights and experience perpetual night. It was also the furthest point to the north we have managed to get to so far. As in the Arctic Circle in this time of year “sunrise or sunset” almost does not exist, we were sure that at least one of the desires will be fulfiled at 100%.
Will we be lucky enough to achieve the second, more important goal? It was unknown to us. In theory, Tromsø is statistically one of the best places due to atmospheric conditions, weather and location. When planning a trip, there is no way to predict all factors responsible for the appearance of the northern lights. No weather forecast can guarantee clear sky at least a few hours during our visit or air humidity on the acceptable level. One more condition is on a day when everything down on earth will meet the criteria, the sun will be in the mood to unleash solar storm without which the northern lights cannot arise. The only things we can foresee is a date we will arrive at the north, the lunar phase which also affects the visibility of northern lights and a huge desire to see this phenomenon.
We go to Tromsø for almost a week. We plan to stay and sleep… at the campsite in nearby Tromsdalen. 😀 No, we are not crazy enough to sleep in a tent at such a low temperature. 😉 Besides, we do not have the right equipment to do so. We rent a small traditional Scandinavian camping house, hoping it will welcome us with a little bit of warmth. The first night verifies our perception of a “warmth”. The next morning we shyly ask reception staff for an additional heater. Luckily for us, they are prepared for “chilly people” we are and we get another radiator. Both work 24 hours a day and somehow they manage to keep the temperature high enough for us. We also have additional blankets taken from other remaining beds, as cottages are prepared for more visitors than two of us.
Most of the time we spend visiting Tromsø and waiting for good weather. Usually, we get up a little bit later than we would like to, as permanent darkness disturbs our time perception. Every day walk to the centre of the city takes us through a long bridge connecting the island and the continental part of Norway. Before blackness envelops the earth again, the sky is greyish like it was just after the dusk. Thanks to it we have approximately three hours of “light” to contemplate the beautiful landscape.
During one of those walks, we meet a reindeer. Maybe nothing unusual for the Northerners but for us, typical city slickers from lower parts of the globe, looking at this animal in the wild is a small surprise. Monika wonders who should afraid more, we or the reindeer. We do not know how this beautiful animal can react to a human presence. However, each step towards the reindeer causes his skittish retreat and eventually, he disappears between houses. We manage to see it once again but we do not try to get close to him anymore.
Tromsø itself seems to be a peaceful city. However, it gives the opportunity to spend free time in a variety of ways. For art enthusiasts, there is a theatre, a philharmonic hall and a cinema. There is also a huge and modern library. Nature lovers can face the marine animals of the north in the city’s aquarium or try whale safari. Gourmets can discover countless restaurants offering seafood dishes. We decide to visit the city by foot and see a few places without a rush. From the old town decorated on the occasion of the upcoming Christmas to the park located on the top of the hill and designed for people who practice cross-country skiing. Walking several kilometres a day, together with the cold air, we breathe in the mood of a sleepy town.
I feel very positive about the lack of overprotection towards children. One of the situations catches my attention: a group of 8-10 years old children playing on a hill, sliding off it in fresh snow. Without sledges or even mats. Normally, on their bottom, school bags or just rolling down. Some of them slide off the slope even on their tummies with their arms spread wide. The snow getting under their clothes elicits laugh at cold-red faces. All this happens under the watchful eye of the guardians, possibly teachers. One person stands at the top, helping the climbers get back to the peak. Two others wait at the bottom, catching few scorching kids so they do not fall out on the nearby road. Everything with understanding and joy. The child is a child and here they can use their childhood normally.
The day when the northern lights revealed its beauty, I will remember mainly for two reasons. First and the most important- we made it! It is not about ticking another attraction from the bucket list, but we truly experienced an unearthly game of colours. The second, definitely less important reason (but looks it caused me trauma since I remember and write about it 😉 ) is my inattention, which caused a loss of a small quick release plate for a camera and a tripod. It is a very important element without which the stand becomes useless. I received it for my birthday from friends. It was a present initiated by Monika, mainly for this trip and my first attempts to make better quality night pictures. Not to mention immortalising the sky phenomenon we were going to encounter.
We waited patiently for this day. The short-term weather forecast promised us good weather from forenoon to midnight, when the sky would again be shrouded in a cloud duvet. While the daylight greyness was running outside, we went in search for an entrance to the path that leads to the nearby mountain. It offers a beautiful view of the surrounding panorama. More importantly, it gives an open space where we can look for the northern lights in almost every direction, away from the lights of the city. After finding the beginning of the track, we headed back to the campsite to prepare for the night watch. Taking another photo of the area, I noticed that the mentioned quick release plate was lost. Searching through the bag and the entire route we have travelled since the last moment when I remembered that the plate was still attached to the camera, did not bring relief. It was lost. On our way home, pissed off at myself, I was wondering how to solve the problem.
After return to the campsite, we started to prepare a hot meal and warm up before the night escapade. Covered with the blanket I gave myself more time to recover, while Monika went towards the kitchen in another building. It did not take even a few minutes when she excited ran back inside shouting: “Łukasz, I believe I just saw the northern lights!” Not fully trusting, I jumped off my bed and went out to look at the sky. After all, we were in a well-lit place, where the set of lanterns prevent to see even stars. With such illumination, it is easy to mistake it with the cloud running through the sky. I peered into the sky looking for some changes. Nothing… Suddenly a gleam of light appeared, even for a moment, it seemed to have a greenish tone. That was it! We have put our jackets on quickly and armed with a camera and a rucksack, which I spontaneously decided to use as a provisional tripod, we ran to the nearby cross-country ski track.
Moving away from the lights, we saw more and more clearly the spectacle played over our heads. We were like a stunned audience looking forward to the next scenes in the emotional show. The ballet of the luminous stream pouring out, enchanted us with more and more clever figures. The rays used to appear suddenly. Sometimes they moved lazily across the sky, sometimes quickly, almost inconspicuously flew over our heads. Some has twined up together with their shimmering colours. Beautiful moments for which I wanted time to stop.
The only way to keep these moments not only in our memory was to catch them in the photographs. Without a tripod, the task was difficult but not impossible. Taking photos from a hand leaned against a tree gave only part of the success. The solution turned out to be the mentioned rucksack, which we hammered into the snow with a strong hit. Express adjustment of exposure, ISO, aperture, self-timer, placing the camera in a recessed backpack, pressing the shutter button and waiting. Waiting that we spent in the ecstasy of the show. The click of the shutter brought us out of the trance, a quick preview of the photo, correction of the settings and the photographic process started again.
After about an hour we moved back to the campsite to finally fill our stomachs, add a few layers of warm clothes and set out for the path we had found earlier. The higher we climbed, the easier it was to watch the sky. Wading in deep snow, one of us paved the way through while the other looked up at the sky every now and then to announce joyfully “THERE IT IS!”. Used to strokes, the backpack formed a small cradle, in which the camera landed again. And so until the sky got covered with the unavoidable layer of clouds. But before that happened, we had managed to experience the art that nature has prepared for us a few more times.
During our stay, it was the only day when we were able to observe the Aurora Borealis with our own eyes from the earth. But not the only moment during this trip. As the departure of our plane was planned at 4 p.m. local time, it was dark outside. After getting in the air above the clouds, the clear sky again appeared to our eyes. At some point, the captain of the plane suggested to people sitting on the right to look out of the window. And turned the lights off. In the distance, the northern lights waved to us, seeming to say goodbye. Or with its beautiful dance, it wanted to invite us back again.
What is Aurora Borealis?
During the explosions and flares on the Sun, a huge amount of particles – protons and electrons are thrown into space. They reach the upper layer of the Earth’s atmosphere which they collide with. Then they release energy, and this one appears in the form of Aurora Borealis.
Its colour depends on the type of atom involved in the collision. It is true that our atmosphere consists mainly of nitrogen and oxygen, but their proportions change at different heights. Hence the red lights occur at an altitude of over 250 km, the most popular green between 160 km and 250 km, purple between 100 and 160 km, and blue up to a 100 km.
The northern lights also translate different shapes from the rarest and least visible for the eye rays, through arcs, strips, coronas, to the most common draperies.
Various myths and beliefs have been created about it for years. The ancient Chinese believed that it was the dragon’s fiery breath. For the medieval European soldiers, red lights meant the outbreak of war. Currently, the Japanese believe that the child conceived during the northern lights will be a genius. Others still think that if they wave at the northern lights, they will be carried away.
How to hunt for the Northern Lights?
– The northern lights occur all year round at the North (and South) Pole. But because of the brightness of midnight sun, we are not always able to see it. The sky must be dark, so the best time to hunt the aurora is winter – between September and March. December and January are considered as the best months to observe due to the darkness of the northern hemisphere.
– Monitor the local weather forecast. It may be in the local language, but you do not need to know it to understand the diagrams presented by meteorologists. Use websites showing the level of solar activity, the probability of Aurora, etc. Among others, we used meteo.org.pl and aurora-forecast website. During our hunt, we also used a mobile app “NorwayLights“.
– The sky should be clear, the air dry and we should get our viewing spot away from the city’s polluted air and lighting (not only the city lights but also the moon), which makes the Aurora look pale.
– You will probably get cold, so take really warm clothes with you. The best are few layers, windproof jacket, hat, gloves, very warm socks and waterproof shoes. And a flask with hot tea that will warm you up while waiting. It would be a shame to be forced to retreat only because of the cold when the northern lights finally will appear and you will not be able to take your eyes off it.
– Be patient. Hunting for the northern lights reminds Hoodman-blind play. The Norwegians call her “tricky lady” for a reason. But if you see it, you will understand that it was worth waiting.
– If you do not have time to wait, you may want to use the services of a local tourist company. This does not guarantee full success, but certainly, the chances increase. The agencies follow forecasts to estimate when and where the Aurora is most likely to show up. They can send their vehicles at a long distance to satisfy the customer. Moreover, some companies enrich awaiting time by offering safari with reindeer or dog sledges and snowmobile rides which are already attractive on its own. And in case of failure, some may offer re-hunting on the following evening at no extra charge.
For more photos, have a look at the gallery.