113. See the Northern Lights

Seeing the Northern Lights was pretty much the only thing on my bucket list. Probably because it is so rare to be in a position to see them, and even then it isn’t a guarantee. As for the rest of the Bucket List? Well that seems to be a constantly growing list of things I say “sure, why the heck not?” to.

When I got a Scandinavia Eurail Pass, I thought maybe I could use some of the days on it to venture somewhere north and see the lights. As it turns out, Northern Finland, Tromsø in Norway and Iceland are the best places to see them. I picked Tromsø, and naively thought I could take the train there from Oslo. As it turns out, the train ride is like 28 hours or something ridiculous. Plan B: Norwegian Air. By that stage I was obsessed enough with the idea of seeing the Northern Lights to start seriously stretching my budget.

As it turns out, Norwegians treat domestic flights just the same as international ones, and airport security stole all my liquids, including expensive cosmetics and drinks that we’d bought for the weekend. Bastards.

More challenges to the Northern Lights adventure included discovering that you don’t just wait until nightfall and look up (much to my surprise). You generally have to join some sort of overpriced commercial tour and get out of the city. The one we picked was about $150, to jump in a minivan and “chase” the Northern Lights (coincidentally, it was called the “Chase the Northern Lights Tour”) there was hot chocolate and cake though, which was a slight comfort. The driver takes you to places where the sky is clear and sightings have been reported, which gives the highest chance of seeing the lights.

It is a real gamble whether or not you will see them, especially when there is flight booking involved. Joanna Lumley apparently spent 2 weeks in northern Norway trapsing around trying to see the lights and came up with nothing. In order to boost our chances we went for the whole weekend, giving two possible nights to see them.

By the time I arrived in Tromsø, after 5 days of seeing the weather forecast get steadily worse as it got closer to our arrival, I was resigned to the fact that we probably weren’t going to see them, but hey, at least we tried. I was also insanely jealous of my friends who had gone a few weeks earlier and have THE most amazing photos, as though they are photoshopped. Its like they put their faces on a postcard. We had actually considered that same weekend, but there was a full moon and we were attempting to make a scientific guess as to when we would best see the lights, so picked one a few weeks later. As it turns out there was a massive solar storm on that original weekend. Murphey’s Law.

On the tour we drove almost all the way to the Finnish border and as it turned out, we did get to see a faint snippet of Northern Lights activity afterall, and I was most proud of my bear-grylls photography skills, fashioning a tri-pod out of a rock and a tea cup, and fiddling with the settings on my $90 camera. It’s still a terrible photo, but they told my I’d never get anything on my little plastic Canon! Take that, cynics.

Also, the lights don’t actually look green in real life. More of a pale white-ish glow. Those postcards are very misleading! The giveaway is in the overexposed colours of everything else and the pale blue sky.

My friend Ryan had a much more fancy camera, and here are the photos he managed to take:

And finally – “stop taking photos of me you wierdo!” – I was clearly way too excited by the whole thing. We may have also been the only people on the tour to take beers along. I thought it was a brilliant idea, given the huge amount of standing around in the cold waiting for things to happen.