In Search Of The Northern Lights

Thursday, May 30, 2013


We huddled in the dark in front of the laptop. Webcams pointed out across the vast frozen lake would pick up any sign of the aurora borealis before the human eye. Outside the temperature was several degrees below freezing and the snow was knee-deep. It was our sixth attempt at seeing the northern lights, and over the years we had blazed a trail of failure right across the Arctic Circle. Our hopes that night, from bitter experience, were not high.

Northern lights hunting has really taken off recently, ever since a BBC documentary starring Joanna Lumley aired a few years ago. At the very end, the lights finally reveal themselves to a tearful Lumley, fulfilling a lifelong dream. But it had never quite worked that way for us, and whenever anyone heard we were extending our fruitless search for another year, their response was never encouraging: “Everyone sees them, don’t they? Joanna Lumley did!”

Our first attempt was back in 2006, smack in the middle of a solar minimum. The lights are dependent upon sun spot activity throwing charged particles out into space. The aurora is caused by these particles ionising in the Earth’s atmosphere, releasing the incredible colors. The sun goes through cycles of more and less activity, and flares releasing the particles are both more likely and more intense during a solar maximum. The chances are best around an equinox, and the impact most impressive in areas with no light pollution and during a new moon.

We knew our chances were initially slim, but there was more to our quest than just the lights themselves. The Arctic Circle is a beguiling place. Just traveling in such a harsh environment and seeing how the locals unblinkingly get on with their lives while my hometown grinds to a halt under a smattering of snow is humbling. In the depths of winter the sun never rises, giving the few hours of daylight the constant orange glow of sunset around the horizon. The landscape is stunning, as pine tree after pine tree stretches into the distance. Other than enjoying long walks in the snow-bound forests of the far north, there are plenty of other activities to try.

On a beautifully clear night, we travelled by dog sled, shooting silently through the snow-laden trees in Europe’s last great wilderness. The huskies love to run, so much so that when we stopped they howled and strained at their harnesses, desperate to carry on. We braved temperatures of minus-30, and gazed up at the myriad patchwork of thousands upon thousands of stars through the clear night air. But there was no aurora, and unbelievably, for the next five years, this would remain the solitary clear night we would experience in the Arctic.

Although far less peaceful than a moonlight husky ride, snowmobiling remains one of the most exciting things I have ever done. Opening up the throttle, I experienced the thrill of speeding across a snow-covered frozen lake at 55 mph. While in a more athletic mood, I took a lesson in cross-country skiing, and spent the best part of three hours falling over. It is also possible to snowshoe and ice fish there. And in rally-mad Finland, you can even take an icy driving lesson.

But there are also more sedate pleasures, such as stretching out for a soak in Iceland’s thermal springs, and sipping beer in the most northerly brewery in the world. Ice hockey is an obsession, and while in Lulea we caught a Swedish Premier Division ice hockey match, whooping and cheering each crunching tackle with the locals. The Arctic Cathedral in Tromso and Reykjavik’s Cathedral are iconic buildings of both their countries and the region. UNESCO heritage-listed Gammelstad is a perfectly preserved traditional church town that is fascinating to wander around, and Iceland’s geysers and other natural wonders are incredible, even in pouring rain.

At Jukasjarvi we visited the world-famous ice hotel. The entire hotel is constructed from scratch each year and is always different. Each suite is decorated with hugely impressive ice sculptures and carvings, and you can even drink from an ice cup in the on-site ice bar. It costs hundreds of euros to sleep in an army-issue sleeping bag on a bed made of ice piled with reindeer skins, but its also possible to visit for a fraction of the price. But during all these other activities, we would always look up at a night sky shrouded in aurora-concealing cloud.

So there is far more to the Arctic Circle than just hunting the northern lights, but last year, as we embarked upon our sixth attempt, we still thought it was time we finally had some luck. However, based in the Swedish village of Porjus, the initial signs were not promising. We sat around an open fire holed up in a traditional Sami house during a blizzard, eating a traditional reindeer dish. And we sulked. Then, just before sunset, the clouds started to clear.

This time, we had technology on our side. From the comfort of our front room, we spotted a tell-tale glow on the web cam. We rushed to throw on layer upon layer of clothing, pulled on our snow boots and piled outside. The secluded lakeside location was perfect, as there was very little light pollution. As we watched, a pink-tinged hanging curtain of green light stretched out across the sky. Even if it hadn’t been the culmination of six years’ waiting, it was still breathtaking.

Eat that, Joanna Lumley.

For over an hour we stood in the cold, watching the green lights spread out across the sky and flutter in the solar wind. Unbelievably, a Singaporean wedding couple showed up, intent on taking their wedding photos under the lights. To see the bride stood there in only her wedding dress, knee-deep in snow, we decided that she would make a good wife.

No one could believe that we had tried and failed to see the lights five times previously, and of course it was great PR that our success finally occurred in little Porjus. So much so, that while we waited for our small, twin-propeller plane to fly us south again, a journalist showed up to interview us for the local paper.

The lights are a stunning sight, but seeing them only once is not enough, and come this equinox you will again find me straining to spot the green smudge on the horizon that just might herald their arrival.

By Alex Jones

[Northern Lights by Image Editor/Flickr]



imageAlex has globe-trotted through over seventy countries in the last decade in search of exciting and interesting challenges. En route, he has caught a train from Bristol to China, sailed 2,500 miles of the Amazon, and been crowned World Tuktuk Racing Champion in India. Alex is a firm believer that even if you are constrained by the commitments of real life, it doesn’t mean you can’t still have an adventure. After all, he’s an accountant.

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