Travel Tales: In search of the Northern Lights – Chasing the mystical Aurora Borealis

If you ask 20 random people about the top spot on their travel bucket list, you will probably get at least 10 identical answers: seeing the Northern Lights.

They occur when charged particles emitted from the sun collide with the magnetic field of the Earth. The resulting disturbances in the magnetosphere and interactions with the oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the upper atmosphere paint the night skies in a spectacular kaleidoscope of greens, pinks and purples. They are called the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) the Northern hemisphere and Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) in the Southern hemisphere.

I’ve always been dreaming of experiencing this spectacular sky phenomenon that has fascinated people for centuries. Countless legends surround the mystic Lights: The Inuit, the indigenous people of the Arctic, for example, believed that the aurora embodied the spirits of the dead playing a ball game with the skull of a dead walrus. Some Northern mythologies say that the Lights were the spears, armor and helmets of the warrior women known as the Valkyries that led fallen soldiers to their final resting place at Valhalla. No matter what people believed the Lights to symbolize, they all agreed that seeing them with their own eyes is a kind of magic that will leave you enchanted forever.

When it comes to traveling, I’m definitely the sea & sun rather than the mountain & snow type. My home country is not one that’s usually very sun-kissed or reliable in regard to good weather. Some summers can be nightmarishly rainy and way too cold for the season, and winters usually come with plenty of snow and temperatures well below the freezing point. So when deciding on my next travel destination I am usually drawn to places close to the ocean where I can soak up the sunshine, dip my feet into warm waters and wander barefoot along sandy beaches all day long.

But this year my attempted escape from the winter turned out to become a deep-dive into winter. Inspired by a travel magazine that featured stunning aurora pictures and with a week off from work at my hands, I made the spontaneous decision to book a trip to Norway in early March and try to make my number one travel goal come true.

First little signs of spring were already showing in Salzburg when I set out to catch my flight to Tromsø, one of the northernmost towns in Norway and, according to my research, one of the best spots for aurora hunters. A couple of hours later I stepped into ankle-deep snow as I exited the Tromsø airport building. Tromsø welcomed me like a picture-perfect winter wonderland. The bright red-, yellow- and green-facaded houses lined up around the pretty town squares were laden with snow, with icicles longer than a leg hanging from their roofs. On the opposite side of the bay the triangular Arctic Cathedral was shining in the winter sun, and the Fjellheisen mountain was towering majestically above the scenery.

Fjords around TromsoView of Tromso from Fjellheisen

I spent the first day wandering around town marvelling at all the pretty sights. Whenever the arctic chill got too much I warmed myself up in one of the cozy cafès and went about my aurora tour research over coffee and cinnamon buns. When traveling I usually prefer self-organized experiences over tours, but in this case I didn’t want to leave too much to chance. Unsuprisingly, there were about a dozen different tour operators offering aurora excursions in and around Tromsø. I ended up choosing a small company operated by a lovely British/Danish couple, Hannah & Jeff. Even though it was only their first season of running their tour buisness Northern Soul Adventures, they had already collected some rave reviews from travelers who had done tours with them.

When they picked me and the other tour guests up in the city center of Tromsø on the evening of the tour I immediately knew I had made the right choice. Hannah and Jeff’s passion and love for what they do was palpable from the moment I jumped into their tour van, and it seemed to positively infect everyone else joining the trip. We drove a good hour across the fjords over to the Kvaløya peninsula where light pollution would be minimal and we would have an undisturbed view of the Lights – given that we were lucky and they would show. The snow-covered landscape shone bright against the midnight blue sky, and with the absence of artificial light our eyes soon adapted to the darkness and we could see a million stars sparkling above us. While Hannah updated us on the weather and aurora forecast for the night I could barely look away from the sky, trying to make out the faintest shade of green.

And suddenly the Lights were just there. They appeared out of nowhere, a huge band of waving ribbons flowing rhythmically across the sky. Jeff quickly stopped the van on the side of the road, and when we all jumped out the sky was blazing with colors. To its edges the ethereal green turned into pink, and all of it was magnificently reflected on the surface of the dark fjord water. I still have no words to adequately describe the view. I was so in awe that I didn’t even think of taking pictures; all I could do was look up and watch the magic above my head.

When the Lights grew fainter again we continued our drive through the white-clad landscape until we reached a spot with perfect view in all directions to set up our base. Hannah provided us with tea and hot chocolate while Jeff was scouping out a circle in the snow to light a fire in its center. Just as he was finished the Lights started dancing above us again, this time rising from behind a distant mountain ridge and flaring wide across the sky like a giant veil. When I turned around I saw another aurora spiraling upwards to merge with the first.

A guy from Brazil had set up his DSLR on a tripod and was taking one photo after the other, carefully adjusting the camera settings in between. I tried taking a couple of pictures with my phone, but with my hands trembling from the cold I could hardly hold the phone still. Even though I was wearing several layers of what I thought were my warmest clothes the icy cold became almost unbearable after half an hour, so the thermo overalls Jeff and Hannah had brought along were an absolute life-saver.

As we sat around the campfire, eating hot veggie soup and cookies, and chatting, laughing and exchanging stories underneath the green-painted sky, I couldn’t help but think that this was one of the best nights in my life. Not because I had managed to cross off the top spot on my bucket list and finally seen the Northern Lights but because I had experienced them in the company of such a special group of people. Sometimes, the best memories are made in cold arctic nights, and no matter how cold it is outside, the warmth they leave inside the heart stays with you forever.

Aurora borealisAurora borealis

Travel tips

How can you make sure you get the chance to see the mystical aurora? Here are some tips:

1. Be in the right place at the right time.
Auroras are most frequent in Northern countries such as Iceland, Alaska, Siberia, Greenland and Northern Scandinavia, especially in regions above the Arctic Circle (60 degrees latitude). The closer a place is to the North Pole, the more likely the occurance of Northern Lights, and the more favorable it is for aurora seekers. The Lights are best visible in clear and dark nights with high solar activity. Peak season is from September to March when the polar nights are long and dark and the sun hardly rises above the horizon.

2. Plan enough time for your trip.
While the solar activity is strong enough to produce auroras in many nights, even the brightest display of Lights will be hidden from sight when the sky is overcast and cloudy. Therefore, do not put all your eggs in one basket by reserving only one night for your aurora adventure. Going out in multiple nights will increase your chances of seeing the Lights. Some tour agencies will give you a discount if your first trip is unsuccessful and you decide to give it another try in the next night. There are even multi-day passes for dedicated aurora seekers who want to go out hunting the Lights every night.

3. Guided tour vs. self-drive
If you’re traveling on a shoestring and don’t want to spend your bucks on a tour guide, you can certainly go aurora spotting with a rented car. However, make sure you feel confident about driving on snowy and icy roads (which, if you’re not used to it, can be a difficult and potentially dangerous undertaking, especially if you’re going to remote areas with poor road maintenance). If you do decide to go chasing on your own, an aurora app can come in handy. There are numerous apps that monitor the solar activity (indicated by the so-called Kp index) and point you to the spots where the aurora probability and visibility are highest in the chosen region. It’s best to use one that also includes cloud and precipitation forecasts to increase your chances of seeing auroras. Keep in mind that they all have a degree of uncertainty as both the weather and the solar activity have only a limited predictability.

A guided tour will save you the hassle of driving and planning. And while no tour guide can give you a 100% guarantee that you will see the Lights, most of them will go out of their way to make the experience happen for you. Most guides are experienced enough to know where the chances to spot the Lights are highest and will take you to multiple places if needed. You may want to consider doing a tour that is called an “aurora chase” instead of a trip to a basecamp. The latter means that you will be taken to a stationary base in a region where the aurora is known to be visible in good weather conditions. A chase, in contrast, will not only take you to one spot, but actually drive you from one place to the other in order to increase the chances of seeing the Lights. Hence, a trip can take anything from 5 to 9 hours, so be prepared to stay up until the wee hours and adjust your activity program on the day before the tour accordingly. Another priceless advantage of going guided is that the tour price will include the provision of thermosuits and padded boots which are indispensable in the arctic frost. And lastly, guides will be able to share valuable knowledge about how to adjust your camera settings to get the best out of your aurora photographs. But remember: the best pictures are always captured with your own eyes… 🙂

© Pictures: Northern Soul Adventures // Coco & Lime

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