Chasing the Northern Lights

UPDATE: On December 2013, we went back to Tromso and for a second time, saw the northern lights.  I took much better photographs that will be posted to the blog soon together with photography tips.  Until then, this post should still get you started.  Happy planning!
The plan involved one night, one chance, and one chase to see the northern lights. The gasps of awe I heard from the crowd is something I will never forget in this lifetime.

It’s April and it’s still very, very cold.  As I type this, it’s still -2°C in Amsterdam.  The idea of Spring and the pleasant pictures that come with it (e.g. tulips, gingham picnic mats, bike rides with but a light jacket) are all very hard to imagine right now.

But whilst the whole of the northern hemisphere is wishing/hoping/yearning for Spring’s warmth, I can bet that somewhere in the Arctic Circle is a small group of people  who are also wishing/hoping/yearning for the exact opposite—they’re praying for the bitter cold.  Most likely, they’re crossing their frostbitten fingers for -20ºC or lower because this brutal (brutal!) temperature usually comes with very clear nighttime skies.  And what’s so special with clear nighttime skies in the Arctic Cirlce?  Answer: Mother Nature’s most spectacular show—the aurora borealis.

THE CHASE PLAN

Our weekend trip to see the northern lights may have been the most planned weekend trip my husband and I ever took.  We did pretty extensive research online—we looked at blogs, documentaries,tour reviews, weather trends, lunar cycles, and even solar activity forecasts.  Yes, pretty intense.  At the end of it, we had a shortlist of considerations:

moonWHEN TO CHASE:
October through March are the best months to see the northern lights.  Basically, longer nights give you more chances to see the lights. However, October, November, and sometimes even December have been known to be ‘wet’ months in the Arctic.  During this time, chances are higher that the sky and the lights will be covered up by rain clouds.  Rain clouds = bad.  Hence, we narrowed down our time frame to January to March.  The next thing we looked at is the moon phasing.  There are two schools of thought on this: some prefer having the light of the moon to illuminate the foreground and have the sky look bluer in photos than appearing black.  Others avoid the full moon (and the days immediately before and after) as they prefer darker skies to make the auroras really stand out.  We opted for the latter.  After careful scrutiny, we narrowed down our options to one weekend in February.

mapWHERE TO CHASE:
In Europe, popular chase sites are Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland.  Based on our research, Tromsø (Norway) stood out as a very highly recommended place for spotting the northern lights.  It sits 350km above the Arctic Circle and right smack in the middle of a very precise zone in the North Pole where the northern lights usually appear. As icing on top, the city is actually quite pretty so we added some sight-seeing to the itinerary.

busHOW TO CHASE:
We knew that we’ll need to rely on local experts to successfully chase the auroras.  There are a plethora of outfits in Tromso that offer activities that range from boat cruises, bus trips, campouts, and even dog sleds.  The Tromso Tourism website lists out a ton of options but there are even more out there.  We chose Arctic Guide Service because what they offered is exactly what we needed—a chase mission:

“Our experienced staff guarantee an exciting Northern Lights chase every single evening regardless of whether we have one, or one hundred passengers. Every Minibus or Bus has one professional driver and one authorized guide on board. This crew is on one specific mission: to take you wherever the chances are best to admire the magnificent Aurora.”

ONE NIGHT, ONE CHANCE, ONE CHASE

As Project Managers by trade, my husband and I are trained to avoid and mitigate risks in the projects that we manage.  Yet after weeks of planning, what we manage to come up with is a plan that had risk written all over it:  we planned one night, one chance, and one chase to see the aurora borealis.

ams-osl-tosHere’s our single-minded, laser-focused, slightly aggressive plan:
→ Fly from Amsterdam to Oslo on Saturday morning, connect from Oslo to Tromso, and arrive at 1PM
→ Spend Saturday night—one night only—chasing the northern lights
→ Fly back to Amsterdam on Sunday afternoon after seeing a bit of Tromso
It’s a risky plan, but we were brimming with excitement and positivity to even think of the what-ifs.

TO THE NORTH POLE!

0600Saturday, 06:00 AM:  AMS – OSL
We’re almost never up this early on a Saturday morning.  But we found ourselves at the Schiphol lounge waiting for our 7AM KLM flight to Oslo.

0900Saturday, 09:00 AM:  Arrival at Oslo
We arrived at Oslo Lufthavn to get take a domestic SAS flight to the North Pole.  (It’s so cool typing that!)

1030Saturday, 10:30AM:  Oslo – Tromso
A small domestic plane flew us for close to two hours further north into Tromso and the Arctic Circle.

SAS flight to take us to Tromso

SAS flight to take us to Tromso

FACE-TO-FACE WITH OUR BIGGEST FEAR

1300Saturday, 01:00PM: Tromso touchdown
We stepped out of the airport at around 1PM and we immediately came face-to-face with our biggest fear: rain clouds.  The risk alarm in our heads went off with a deafening sound.  Perhaps it’s global warming or the heavens playing a joke on us and our cocky plan.  We left a fully frozen Amsterdam at -8ºC.  That same weekend, Berlin was at -14ºC.  Yet there we were, right smack in the middle of the Arctic Circle, at a balmy 4ºC with rain showers.  Our hearts sank a bit when we found out that the rain clouds will be a mainstay all weekend. But we stayed positive and carried on with the plan.

After a short cab ride, we arrived at our hotel, Rica Ishavshotel, and the spectacular view of the water, the Arctic Cathedral, and the surrounding mountains.  The view, although stunning, also very clearly showed us the clouds:

Tromso, Norway

Tromso, Norway

1400Saturday, 02:00PM: Gearing up for the cold
Checked in and unpacked, we headed straight to Arctic Polare Sjogata  where we fitted and rented arctic gear for the chase.  Our expectation is to be out in the cold for hours, so we knew we needed to bundle up.

One set of full arctic gear will include:

  • down jacket
  • thermal pants
  • winter boots
  • gloves
  • hat/hood

One day rental costs NOK 349 or around 46 EUR.  As Canadians, we are proud owners of pretty decent winter gear.  However, we knew that for the chase, we will be out in the cold for several hours in temperatures up to -20ºC.  As much as we trusted our Toronto parkas in Canadian winters, we opted to gear up a bit more for the Arctic Circle.

Gearing up for the aurora borealis chase

Norwegian winter shoes for the aurora borealis chase

A TASTE OF TROMSO

160016h00: Carbo-loading at Pastafabrikken
We’ve been on the move since 6AM and had barely anything to eat for the past 10 hours.  And with an eight-hour chase ahead of us, we knew we needed energy.  We probably got carried away a little (read: a lot) by the spirit of the chase, i.e., chase = running = marathon = carbo-loading — you get the picture.  Or perhaps we were just really hungry.  We ended up ordering one pizza and pasta each costing about 40 EUR each person.  (Yes, Norway is very expensive.)  Luckily, Pastafabrikken‘s food is absolutely delicious so not a single morsel went to waste:

Pastafabrikken in Tromso, Norway

Great food at Pastafabrikken in Tromso, Norway

170017h00: A glimpse of Tromso
With some time to spare before the chase, we ended up walking around and getting a glimpse of Tromso:

A glimps of Tromso, Norway

Beautiful Tromso

Colourful houses around the sound in Tromso, Norway

Colourful houses around the sound in Tromso, Norway

060018h00: T-minus 30 minutes
Half hour before the pick up time (which is at the lobby of our hotel), we geared up.  More importantly, I made sure I had everything I need to capture the show: my camera, tripod, and spare batteries.  With below zero temperatures, batteries get drained very fast so I bought several spares to make sure I don’t miss the action.

Gearing up for the aurora borealis chase

Gear for the aurora borealis chase

CHASE IS ON

183018h30: Lobby pickup
We were two buses full for the chase that evening.  It was still 4ºC and cloudy when we boarded the bus so we were slightly worried.  Worse, we overheard groups of people who are in their second night of the chase having seen absolutely nothing the night before.  The tour guides said that they know of a few spots that may have a clearing and we will try to get to them.  For two and a half hours, the bus drove further inland.  And for two and a half hours, I prayed.

090021h00:  Clearing by the lake
After hours of driving, we came to a stop.  The offloading of people from the coach was incredibly slow and I soon found out why.  It was pitch black outside since there were no light posts anywhere.  And it was noticeably colder.  Since it had rained all day, the water that has accumulated on the ground had turned to ice.  Both coach buses and every single person in the ‘tour’ were standing on one giant sheet of black ice.  People were slipping and falling everywhere.  I remember struggling between trying to see in the darkness and staying on my feet.  Overwhelmed, I took a moment to stand still and calm myself.  That’s also when I looked up and saw a night sky full of stars and realized that things are turning up; we’re in a spot with no rain clouds and our chances of seeing the auroras are looking better than ever.

Our guides asked us to make our way down closer to the shore of the lake. This involved going down a steep slope covered in ice. And once by the shore, we realized that there was no sand or ground where we can safely stand; we had to ‘feel’ our way through ragged rocks. Somehow, I found an area with some flat rocks where I could stand and setup my tripod and camera. And then the waiting began.

Waiting for the northern lights by the lake shore

The group waiting for the northern lights by the shore

230023h00: The main act
For two hours we stood by the lake shore.  With clear skies and sub-zero temperatures, we were positive that we’re going to see the lights.  But the wait was agonizing!  The anticipation grew almost unbearable when our guides started to point to the skies yet we could not see anything.  Apparently, the auroras were already directly on top of us but could only be seen behind some clouds by the cameras and not by the naked eye.  So we waited some more, praying that the lights will get strong enough so we can see them with our own eyes.

Then a shooting star whizzed by.  I can bet that a lot of us wished for the same thing.  I closed my eyes and whispered a wish to see the northern lights.  A second after, a streak of green lights appeared across the night sky.  The gasps of awe from the crowd around the icy lake is something I will never forget in this lifetime.  For two hours the northern lights took the stage and performed the most graceful, most beautiful dance in the evening sky. (Note: Apologies for the grainy photos – much better photos to follow from our December 2013 chase, like this one.)

The aurora borealis dancing from upper left to lower right

The aurora borealis dancing from upper left to lower right

Grainy photo of my husband and I watching the northern lights

Grainy photo of my husband and I watching the northern lights

My husband pointing at the northern lights

My husband pointing at the northern lights

030003h00: Mission accomplished
After a quick trip to the Finnish border known as reindeer country since there were no inhabitants apart from reindeers, we headed back to the hotel.  It was close to 3AM when we got back.  We had nothing but a small cup of hot chocolate in the eight-hour chase.  We arrived back at the hotel hungry, exhausted, bruised, cold, and absolutely happy.

Chasing the northern lights in Norway - aurora borealis

If seeing the aurora borealis is in your bucket list, please do not hesitate to share or leave a comment.  And if you need my help in planning, send me a message in Facebook!

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9 responses to “Chasing the Northern Lights

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  3. Thanks for the great read and tips! Must’ve been an amazing experience indeed. Definitely on our to-do as well, perhaps next time we’re on the Northern hemisphere at the right time.

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