TRAVEL DIARIES . LONG HAUL |
To see the Northern Lights, you have to head up north above the Arctic Circle.
Tromsø, located in Northern Norway is one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights, the city is right in the middle of the Northern Lights Oval – the area with the highest probability of seeing the Northern Lights.
Northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland, Siberia, Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, and Iceland are the only places in the world where you can see Northern Lights but many of these places are too remote and uninhabited, and almost impossible or very difficult to visit.
So yes, my friend Sandra nailed it when she chose Tromsø for our northern light expedition!
She also nailed it in regards to timing as you can only see the Lights from mid-September until mid-April.
The “best months” for visibility are September through March with best visibility in October and March.
the curtain of light
what I learned about the phenomenon
The Northern Lights occur when solar wind packed with charged particles come into Earth’s atmosphere.
The charged particles, mainly electrons, and protons get precipitated into the upper atmosphere where their energy is lost causing the coloured lights.
These lights appear like a "curtain of light" which can be static or move incredibly fast, almost like curtains blowing in the wind.
They come in many different colours, from red, blue, yellow and pink or ultraviolet.
But green is definitely the most common colour!
getting ready for the chase
First: have an afternoon nap. You'll be up for a long night!
Northern Lights appear in the evenings, generally between 7pm and 2am.
But you never know for sure when or where they will show up, which makes the Northern Light hunting even more exciting. When you finally see it, you feel blessed and privileged and treasure that moment even more!
Also in order to see the Northern Lights in its full glory and at its strongest, you have to go out of town to more remote areas with as little artificial lighting as possible. Darkness is your friend when it comes to admiring the Northern Lights and the sky has to be clear and not covered with clouds.
The darker it is, the better, so full moon is not usually the best.
2. Gear up!
Since you will be standing and waiting for hours in the freezing cold with very little activity, it is important to dress up properly. Here are the ultimate tips for the best Aurora watching outfit!
A windproof jacket and trousers are a must.
Your inner layer should also be insulated. A thick fleece or wool sweater and insulated pants should be fine.
A comfortable, long-sleeved base layer, shirt, and leggings are recommended. This will add a lot to the insulation.
A windproof hat, gloves, and a scarf are also necessary.
A pair of warm wool socks and waterproof boots are especially important if you will be standing in the snow.
Reusable pocket warmers on hand for the long waiting periods.
3. Book a tour
We were clueless on how to go on that sort of expedition on our own so we booked the Northern Lights 7-Hour Tour with Polar Adventure.
Polar Adventures provides world-class Arctic tours and our tour was guided by professional guides and experienced aurora hunters. It was a small-group tour that took us to the mountains, fjords, and valleys outside of Tromso by minibus. Our guides were young and passionate Northern Lights fanatics and photographers and they also offered photos with the tour, which is one of the reasons why we selected them.
The actual tour depends on the weather and the Northern Lights forecast.
They had these real time satellite images devices that showed where the Northern Lights were currently active and they decided at the last minute what area they would be driving us to so we could have the best chances of seeing the dancing lights. They told us that sometimes they even drive to Northern Finland or Sweden to find the Northern Lights!
The starting point was at the Radisson Blu Hotel in the center of Tromsø and the departure time was if I remember well, around 7-8pm. We were expecting coming back in the early hours in the morning around 2am.
After briefly meeting our group who was composed of people from very different countries, we set off for what was would be our first ever Northern Lights chase.
Let's the adventure begins!
My friend Sandra and I were keeping looking outside the window of the minibus, thinking maybe we would see something, but quickly realised that that’s the exact reason why it’s called a "chase".
The guide tried to make a point telling us that we would "hopefully" see them but that it was not guaranteed and that sometimes, it just doesn't happen!
You don’t always see the Northern Lights, and even if you do, sometimes they aren’t very bright. You can’t predict them, despite the websites that claim to be able to, and you can’t just walk outside and look up in the sky.
At most, you can guess where you might have the best chances of seeing them, and it depends on weather, climate, and location.
After one hour drive in direction to the North, away from the city lights that cause “light pollution” we arrived to a fjord called Skarsfjord (I think!)
To this day, I am still unsure where exactly we ended up to be honest. But the last picture I managed to take with my iphone before it died was located around Karvik and I know for sure that we drove a little longer up north.
So Skarsfjord is most likely to be the spot!
It was cold, the clock was ticking towards midnight, and we were all standing, frozen, in the middle of nowhere in a white wilderness. It was so cold that the snow squeaked under our feet as we walked, and when we breathe out it looked as if we were smoking – the temperature had just dropped to a rather chilly -17 degree Celsius (1 degree Fahrenheit).
We were far away from the city with its lights and houses, surrounded by complete darkness and silence.
There were absolutely nothing around, only snow and darkness. Not a trace of life!
We were so far from civilisation that I got worried for a minute thinking at what would be happening if the minibus broke down. We had no reception on our phones and the batteries were dying at such an unbelievable speed because of the cold.
I rarely felt this close to nature before, very much excited and hopeful…..and then it happened.
Needlessly to say how lucky we all felt! We were such in owe.
If you are wondering if these photographs have been made by me. I am sorry to disappoint!
Unfortunately these are the professional photographer's shots!
It turned out that photographing the Northern Lights is not as easy as you would believe and my own pictures are absolute rubbish.
The only way you can get a decent photo beside having the correct DSLR camera, is by using a tripod and I was so cold and it was so dark that I just couldn't handle all the tripod manipulation or even playing with my DSLR settings. So I just gave up and trusted that the guides would send us some photographs as a memory, and I decided to enjoy the moment with my own eyes and not through the camera.
The moment was so special! And there is no camera that can capture the feeling of being in that incredible atmosphere or seeing the lights firsthand. A picture is just a tool to help you remember the experience of a lifetime but the real memory of it never leaves your mind.
Here are a few tips on how to Photograph the Lights
I wished someone told us how difficult it is to take pictures and also that iPhones are absolutely useless for that kind of pictures. I would have prepared myself a little bit better and practice with my DSLR
So here are the tips- (You're welcome!)
A tripod: The shots will need an exposure of at least a few seconds, making a tripod a must. Getting the perfect picture of the lights with a handheld camera is impossible.
Manual settings: Your camera should be switched to manual mode and the diaphragm adjusted to the largest setting available. The lower the diaphragm number, the better. We recommend 1.4, 2.0, or 2.8.
A high ISO performance: You camera must go up to 3000-5000 without producing much graininess. In older/cheaper cameras, an ISO of over 400-600 can make your pictures grainy while expensive professional cameras can handle much higher ISO settings.
Manual focus: Camera lenses should also be fitted with a focus indicator as autofocus is not suitable for photographing the Northern Lights.
Long exposures: In the beginning, the shutter speed should be adjusted to four seconds. You might need a shorter time but generally will need around 4-15 seconds. We do not recommend going over 20 seconds as this will create a “star trail” in the sky.
Extra batteries: Cold temperatures and long exposures can cause your batteries to drain very quickly.
Wide-angle lenses: These lenses are recommended for picture taking as they let in as much light as possible while allowing as much of the scene into the frame as possible.
A headlamp: Before trying to take a picture with anyone in it, try to light them up using a headlamp or some other light source. Remember that during a long exposure, they will have to stand completely still so as not to result in a blurry image.
Shutter release: Finally, a remote shutter release or a self-timer function on your camera can be very useful for this kind of picture.
Campfire Under the Northern Lights
About an hour into it, they gave us hot chocolate which largely helped with the defrosting of our numb finger tips and while the rest of us were busy being admiring the lights, the guides were digging a fire pit in the snow, making a cozy bonfire for us to sit around. A lovely and warm gesture!
My fingers and toes were definitely frozen, so I put my boots so close to the fire that I almost got them to melt! It was kind of ironic seeing fire on ice, and even more mind boggling to see it under the Northern Lights. Once everyone was situated around the fire, they announced our “dinner menu” which consisted of hot dogs and a delicious veggie soup.
2:00am - Time to get back to our norwegian home! The drive back to Tromsø was very quiet. I suspect that most of us were falling asleep, dreaming of what we just experienced. The guides were very thoughtful and they decided they will drive us all individually to our respective home or hotel instead than bringing us back to the meeting point in the city centre.
Another beautiful day rich of experiences and memories is now ending.
Tomorrow will bring us some more....
THE GIRL NEXT DOOR