Chasing the Northern Lights in Tromso

I’ve spoken previously about my northern lights obsession and having recently attempted to see them I think it’s a good idea to share my experience of hunting for ‘the tricky lady’.

After we had booked our flights and accommodation at the lovely writers home (see my last post) the next thing on my mind to plan was – how do we see these lights?

I’ve read of the need for dark clear skies, an absent moon, no light pollution and other more questionable instructions (read aurora folklore) about how to get the best chances of a good display. For years now I’ve followed astronomers on twitter as well as the NOAA and other scientific space weather alerting authorities. I’ve read up on the science and downloaded a trusty iPhone app or three to tell me whether the ‘Kp’ number is high enough or if there’s been a ‘CME’.  I’d go as far to say I’m an enthusiast. I thought I knew as much as any enthusiast could know about the aurora and how to hunt it down, given half the chance.

I knew it would be tricky, I knew I could end up disappointed – but I was as about as prepared as anyone could be. Maybe too prepared, maybe too eager. Maybe I wanted them too much? Or maybe I was just unlucky…

Let me tell you all about it.

When planning the trip we concentrated on the things we could control first, starting by choosing our date carefully. I thought the beginning of March would be good – far away enough from December to enjoy some daylight and a half decent time of year for clear skies. My app told me March was the best month we’d have until September and we were not going to wait until then! We wanted a bit of snowscape, a bit of sun and some stunning green lights. Is that really too much to ask?

Next we decided to book a Northern Lights trip with a tour company. As it was our first time to the country, we didn’t want to hire a car and we were happy to let the experts guide us. Plus a friend of mine had been to Tromso a year earlier and had had a successful light show with the same company, so we chose the same one. Lyngsford Adventure!

With these things in place really all we needed was some activity and good weather -the two things we couldn’t control. A couple of weeks before our trip, there was a huge solar storm which meant that most of the UK had a stunning northern lights show, quite a rarity and the pictures were jaw-dropping. We didn’t see them because of course, we live in the South! (damn it). I felt ever more optimistic and excited that we were in for a treat, as the sunspot that caused this big light show would be facing the earth again in time for our trip, ready to cause some serious aurora. I checked the weather for weeks before and saw lots and lots of clear sky symbols. Great.

You’ve probably guessed by now, or if you’ve read my previous post, that we didn’t really get the big show we were expecting. The weather wasn’t in our favour. When we arrived in Tromso, the first thing our taxi driver said to us was ‘you here to see the lights?’. Feeling like your typical tourist we answered ‘Yes! What do you think our chances are?’ … She just laughed and said ‘ahhhh, not great.’

We already sort knew this (but tried to ignore) because my trusty weather app told me that we were in for a week of torrential rain, mist and heavy snow. In the first couple of days, we were optimistic. We walked around the island at night to see if we could find a clear patch of sky, knowing we had a trip booked in a few days time we were quite relaxed about it at first. We asked the question again at the local tourist info centre, who told our chances would be better in-land (though not great) where the weather was more stable. This was good because our trip with Lynsgford Adventure would take us near the Finnish border. As the weather got worse as the week went on, we grew less confident and I shed a few tears (lame I know) and decided to book a trip with who basically take you around the region on a minibus to find the lights, rather than waiting for them to come to you. They analyse weather reports, to try and find the best spots and head to them to find patches of clear sky etc.. and as our trip with Lyngsford Adventure was to be on a coach to a camp in the mountains to view them from one spot, we thought this would give us a better chance of seeing them.

So that evening, we got our camera gear and our really warm clothes and walked into town to the minibus pick up point. Our trip was delayed by 2 hours because conditions would not be reasonable until later, as in that the weather would not have a chance of clearing before then so there wasn’t much point in heading out. We had a very expensive drink in a pub and rang our parents for a catch up while we waited to board. We boarded the coach at 8.15pm and it was full! This was a surprise as we hadn’t expected many people to go, as it was about £70 for the trip and the chances were not good (we were told a 20% chance). But I guess like us, some people had travelled really far and further for this opportunity and they were not going to pass up any chance.

The coach left the island and the journey was really good, looking out of the window leaving the island for the first time was magical – seeing all the mountains and houses in the moonlight. It was pretty cloudy but with the occasional break. The guides spent the whole journey chatting about Tromso and the lights and they walked down the bus to give those who wanted it, some photography tips for capturing the lights. I was really impressed with this, I didn’t ask for help (photography degree yanooo) but I watched them helping others with whatever camera they’d brought with them and they were really friendly and helpful and the advice was really good. They were really entertaining too – they had a hard job really, making sure a bus full of 50 people who had all paid £70 for a minimal chance of seeing the northern lights felt like they were getting their monies worth, lights or no lights. It was a bit of a adventure.

Tromso, Norway, Northern Lights, Travel, Adventure When we got to our first stop off point, on a quiet deserted road in the middle of some mountains, it felt quite adventurous for someone like me who hasn’t adventured as much as one would like, and who has some serious anxiety issues. It was both eerie and beautiful. I took these photographs – despite the absence of lights to shoot, it was pretty pretty out there and it wasn’t as cold as i’d expected but standing around you did begin to get a bit chilly. I’ll talk about what I wore to keep warm in a post soon.

The next stop took us to the island of Sommaroy. This was exciting as i’d heard of this island and it was tiny! The little one way bridges we hopped over to each island were crazy. In the darkness, only a few lights shone here and there from remote little houses nestled at the waters edge. It was a such a dreamscape and I was in love with it.We got out and walked to the top of the little hill to look out over the North Sea, nothing between us and England. You could see the shadows of distant mountains to your right and nothing in front, just sea and sky. The clouds were a little bit broken here and there, but it still wasn’t looking particularly great. We had some hot chocolate and cookies provided by the tour guides and then I took some more long exposure snaps from the top of the hill ad then eventually one by one, we all got back on the bus to try another spot.

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Suddenly, the guide came on to the bus and said ‘if you look outside now, there is some northern lights activity you can see’. Our hearts jumped into our mouths and there was a big rush as everyone zipped on their layers and grabbed their tripods to shuffle off the bus. I set up my camera quickly and looked up, so excited that this would be the moment i’d been waiting for so long for, but I couldn’t see anything. It seemed that no one could.

Then I noticed a cloud looked like it was glowing ever so slightly. Not any colour but something definitely was happening and I felt that little feeling in my chest that you get when adrenaline kicks in and the excitement builds. I grabbed my camera and pointed it upwards for a long exposure, as I knew that would confirm it. And it did. The Northern Lights were above us. Yet we couldn’t really see them.

Tromso, Norway, Northern Lights, Travel, Adventure

It took awhile for people to realise what they were looking at, this was not what we had expected. This experience has taught me that the Northern Lights look nothing like they do in the pictures, in real life. Well my ones didn’t anyway. I kept snapping away every time I saw the faint glow and checking my lcd. My camera confirmed that they were there above the clouds and they were green. If only there were gaps in the clouds! It was so frustrating, why couldn’t we just blow the clouds away..

I felt disappointed, like if I couldn’t see them in all their glory, then I didn’t want to see them at all. Even now I struggle to say I’ve seen them, because I feel like a fraud because they didn’t look like the photos. Maybe if the stupid clouds had moved things would have been different. Still, I couldn’t deny that it was pretty exciting! I don’t mean to sound ungrateful but i’ve waited a long time for this. Ideally I wouldn’t have got my camera out at all until i’d seen long meandering ribbons across the sky, but it was like a science experiment, using the camera as our eyes.

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We were told to get back on the bus as the guides’ friend had phoned through to say there was a better spot across the bridge. So there we went and all bumbled off the bus again by the side of the road overlooking the fjord. And again! The glowing was a bit more prominent this time, still shrouded by cloud but at one point it got really bright it was almost green and it looked sort of curtain shaped like in the pictures! I got excited even though my stubbornness was telling me that this wasn’t my time to see them, they were not good enough – sometimes I annoy myself

I snapped away. There was something nice about everyone’s excited little outbursts every time they caught a glow. Some people had got back on the bus, deciding with all the tiredness and cold the mediocre show wasn’t worth it. Steve was super excited and it rubbed off on me, even though it wasn’t the spirit soaring show i’d hoped for, it was interesting. It was science and I was enjoying using my camera as a tool to find the lights that I couldn’t see with my eyes. And anyway, these were our lights.After this we tried a couple of other spots but none were really as good as the second and third spots. We saw one great glow in the clouds back at our first spot but then I think we all realised that we’d seen the best we were going to get. We got off the bus back in Tromso, slightly satisfied, slightly disappointed and very tired. We came home to soup made by Ida which tasted great in bed at 3am when I was starving. Steve fell straight to sleep.

As the rest of the week went on we got closer to our second chance with Lynsgford Adventure. I contacted them to ask which night out of our last 2 nights was looking the most promising and they said the last night, so we moved our trip back one day. There had been a lot of avalanches in the area that week due to the torrential rain and a warmer than normal winter mixed with the snow, making it unstable on the mountains. It was a worry as we’d be going in land for our trip and we’d heard of a trip getting stranded due to a road blocked by a avalanche and they had to stay in a hotel near the border. We couldn’t really afford for that to happen on our last night with a plane to catch the next day.

The night came and we found ourselves boarding a bus again, the night seemed fairly clear and then suddenly we’d crossed to the other island and the heavens opened with the heaviest snow i’ve ever seen in my life. Hope faded but the journey into the mountains wasn’t too bad, despite my anxiety which is always triggered by bad weather conditions when travelling. I had to try and sleep to take my mind off this coach going deeper into remote wilderness along icy high-up roads with steep drops at the side of us. I must say, i’m so impressed with the coach driver. What a hero! Driving a bus full of 50 people deep into the Norwegian mountains in super heavy snow like it was nothing. We arrived in camp and it was so dark we could barely see in front of us for snow falling.

We changed into our snow suits and boots, though it wasn’t that cold really, maybe minus 2? Not the minus 15 i’d prepared for. Our guide Olga introduced herself and I instantly liked her, she was super friendly and cheerful with a really kind face. We followed her out into the snow and began our trek out of camp.

The snow continued to fall but no one could deny it was a lovely experience, being out in the night, surrounded by spruce trees, snow and mountains – no matter that you could barely see them for all the flakes falling around us. We chatted as we walked or stopped occasionally and listened to the silence. It was surprisingly hard work pushing through the snow, I got so warm I tried to peel off my snowsuit and ended up being covered in snowflakes in a matter of minutes and all I managed to achieve was wet hair and clothes, which wasn’t so fun.

It became increasingly obvious that the snow would not be letting up and there was no wind to clear the clouds away for our northern lights adventure. It was disappointing but Olga tried to make the walk as interesting as possible, telling us stories about growing up in this wilderness and the kinds of animals you could encounter. You had to make the most of the experience you were being given really. We walked back, listening to the sounds of the snow mobiles and husky dogs baying in the darkness and made our way in to the Sami tent or ‘Lavvu’ for warm drinks and soup.

We sat with a couple who were also from England, a pretty blonde girl and her tall fiancé who was currently stationed in Norway with the RAF. We chatted to them about army training and Norway and how we liked the soup – which was fish soup and quite tasty with some tasty pitta style bread and sweet bread with brown cheese for afters. We got back on a bus feeling sad that this was our last chance and it was ending without luck and knowing we’d be flying home in the morning, but it was still a nice way to spend our last night.

I’m pretty sure this post is about as long as my dissertation. Sorry! But I hope if anyone is reading this, who is planning a Northern Lights adventure, it will prepare you for the worst, give you some tips and ideas and give you enough optimism that even if you don’t see those darn lights, you’ll enjoy the ride anyway.

Tell me about your experiences of Aurora hunting below!

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