Sunday, 10 July 2016

The chase to see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) from Tromsø, Norway

Just a taste of what we saw on the first night - in retrospect the bad viewing night.

The highlight of my Northern Hemisphere Christmas trip, besides spending Christmas with our very good London friends, was to see the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis.

I'm going to cut to the chase on this post, giving you the goods at the end of the rainbow - the actual trip before I give you the background and planning and detail. You're welcome.

The Start

We used Chasing Lights as our tour company, booking two chases on successive evenings. 

We were picked up at our hotel around 6pm, having been asked to be ready from 5:30pm.  There were 12 people in our group - so that was the two of us, and our 2 London partners-in-crime and 8 others - mostly under 40. Tour staff on both nights consisted of a guide, and a driver/factotum

Once settled into the tour bus and on the road, the process of the tour was explained as well as a general description of the Aurora Borealis as a scientific phenomenon. In essence, we would be driven to a light pollution free and available site to view the the phenomenon, that was within range (roughly 3 hours driving). Being able to enjoy the view by ourselves was also an important consideration not to mention un-interrupted cloudless views on publicly or privately owned land that they had permission to visit. As I understand, both of our viewing points were within national parks.

Now that 'sun' you see in the sky, is actually the moon. Those white spots you can see, are the stars.  This is really what we would consider 'pitch black night sky' with a good moon. I show this to give you an indication of the long exposure and other manipulation required to provide realistic images to show you the Aurora.

The photos

I'm going to get the elephant out of the room - actually a couple of pachyderms.

The first is that nearly all of the image here were taken on our two chases, but not by us. Part of the package is that the photos the tour guide takes are made available to the tour guests. There is a very good reason for this, as the professional images are waaaay better than anything we took. That's partly due to lack of skill, and partly due to the non-professional nature of our photographic equipment.

Image my partner Mickaele took on his Cannon EOS D60 - with some auto correction in photoshop. Note the lens artefact in the middle of the shot.

Image our guide took of roughly the same phenomena at roughly the same place at the same time with her Sony ILCE 75, with whatever photoshop settings they use to enhance their images.

The other element, the processing of images they do, more truly matching your memories of the events. Believe me, none of the photos here - however over saturated, exposed and enhanced come anything near the experience of being there and seeing this natural miracle yourself.  But I'm not going to pull any punches. You have to suffer to enjoy it . . .

This is from the 2nd night, and that burst of light that looks like the final bit of a sunset is actually the lights from a nearby town. You can see how something like that light source can interfere with sighting and images of the Aurora.

The driving and the waiting, and the waiting and the driving

The other large beast in the room is the extreme boredom of driving to see these lights and waiting for them to appear. Especially on the 2nd night - when the novelty has worn off. Each of our chases lasted around 8 or more hours door to door. On the first night we drove just shy of 3 hours out of Tromsø, waited and viewed for about 3 to 4 hours as the lights waxed and waned and then drove back. Our return time was about 2:30am, so we were dead tired.

Mise en scène for our first night of chasing the lights. Van in the background, fire on the right, hot chocolate, freeze dried meals and thermoses of hot water in the orange bags centre. Oh and a bit of northern lights in the sky.


Having seen the lights on the first night - we ummm'd and ahhh'd about stepping out to see them again. Three things contributed to our decision: we had pre-paid a fortune, we were taking a bottle of rum with us, and it was possible the lights might be even better the 2nd night.

We were sooooo glad we did.

Men in suits - actually its hard to confirm the sex. Those blue and black things are the thermal suits - kind of padded condoms. They are fuzzy, because the image exposure is more than a few seconds, as opposed to fractions of.

The Lights

I do not have enough superlatives to describe the sight of Aurora Borealis.

It is beyond imagination.

The curtain dance. Chase 2 I think.

OK, most of the time it is not as vibrant as you see in the professional clips. But they have been processed and enhanced, and speeded up, and a film crew has spent months at multiple locations to find the ultimate version.

Oh, that's definitely working now. The celestial switch has been turned to 'ON'.

You are going to spend one or two night looking at them, so they will not be as filmic. What they will be is exciting.

Our viewing party
On our first night, they appeared just above the mountain horizon. They came and went, moving a little, but seemed a little distant ain indistinct. They were still exciting. They had the slow and careful animation that you think only comes out of the old Disney studios, but this is mother nature doing it.

That little bombardment of particles from the sun is making that mainly green light dance and wave, and shimmy and waltz across the sky. It is delicate and bold all at the same time. Etherial, but intensely real all together. No picture here, or even by the best national geographic photographer can duplicate the joy of actually experiencing this natural phenomenon.

Multiple curtains. If only you could have seen them sway.
If we had only seen them the first night - and the tour company accents the fact that you may not - we would be more than satisfied.

Until we saw them the 2nd night.

Now, this is apparently rare - those red/pink tinges apparently are not seen often, so you can forgive me having enhanced them a little when processing this image.
The 2nd night was phenomenal. Unlike the first night where the lights had just been atop the visible mountains (image that heads this story), on the 2nd night they filled the sky, were practically continuous and gave us the full wavy curtain effect.

Aurora dancing behind the trees.

They were so overhead and continuous that the easiest way to view them was laying down on reindeer skins on the snow and just looking straight up. In fact they went on sooo long, that after 3 hours, we were almost bored. Almost.

And that just kept on going right overhead.

Food and refreshments

The tours are very well planned. You get appropriate toilet and refreshment stops along the way, and while viewing, you get a round of hot chocolate, a bonfire to sit around (and for some to warm their feet by, and a hot (reconstituted) meal. BYO alcohol is highly recommended by us. It warms you up.

The re-constituted/freeze dried meals, are made from Norwegian grown ingredients and manufactured in Tromsø. The hot chocolate is very welcome, warming and delicious.

Snow covered pines, with northern lights background.

Clothing and warmth

Being Australian, we were totally afraid of how cold it might be, and had been warned to prepare for -20ºC  (-4ºF) temperatures. Chasing Lights provided a suggested list of clothing. We followed it almost to the letter (mittens over gloves - or preferably - the ones that combine the two). We also had backup advice from our friends who had been the previous year. They re-inforced the list, but accented the essential nature of chemical foot and hand warmers - and they were right.

We bought a whole bunch of cold weather gear from Katmandu in Australia, as well as (cheapish) snow boots in London (Mountain Warehouse in North End Rd, Fulham). In fact we had to devote separate cases to our cold weather gear.

All that on the left is cold weather and arctic clothing with some overflow on the right. I squeezed in a few pairs of shoes (OK five pairs, but some were sandals) on the right.

We thought we were prepared, and the coldest it got while we were on the chase was only -10ºC.

We were not prepared.

Promised by the tour company were 'thermal suits'. They did not sound figure flattering and we were not the only ones who were over confident about their cold weather preparations.

Having initially refused the suits, we were asking for them within the first 10 minutes of our first night chase. Not for in the van - but for as soon as we found our viewing location. Standing around for long periods looking at the sky is not conducive to warmth. Let me just say that everyone ended up with a thermal suit on, and although we looed like a collective of blue Michelin men, no one cared.

Yep - they're still going.

All the people who didn't have snow boots (we felt smugly superior) did borrow the tour company's within the first half hour - including our two English friends who are supposed to know about this sort of stuff.

Chemical warmers - not an option - a necessity!

Not only that, but in less than an hour, nearly everyone had chemical hand warmers in their mittens, and foot warmers in their boots.

Until this trip, I had never conceived of the pain of having continuously cold feet. Despite one pair of standard wool socks and two pairs of thick merino wool socks encased in snow boots, my feet were getting colder and colder, until I inserted the foot warmers. Even then my feet didn't get warm - they just didn't get any colder.  Don't even think about doing this trip in winter without them. Not the re-usable ones - forget them, they take too long to 'recharge' go with the disposable ones, and make sure you have at least a pair for hands and feet for every day you are in this arctic weather.

Tromsø with the town cathedral with copper spire.

Why Tromsø?

Our choice of Tromsø was based on lots of research, and the recommendations of some close friends who had joined the chase a year before in Christmas 2014.

Our chase site had to be in Europe - since that was where we would be and a sighting had to be as certain as we could make it.  We looked at a bunch of options, including Orkney Islands, Greenland, Iceland, and various other spots in Scandinavia.

On a combination of travel and flight convenience, cost, infrastructure for the chase, time available (you can go on 5 to 9 night cruises) and our good friends recommendation, Tromsø it was.

Still there, still dancing

Chasing Lights - our tour guide company

We couldn't really fault this company. The communication via email was prompt, responsive, and thorough. They provided every detail we requested, all sorts of options including with accommodation, and without. We chose to book our accommodation separately, as we could get a better room for slightly less than Chasing Lights were quoting. They offered us other tours - like dog sledding (apparently a literal shit fight) and wildlife tours, which we declined, and they were not pushy about it. The only thing they did encourage us to do, was book more than one night, and I think they were right about that. Cloud cover could severely impede viewing the lights - which is one reason to go chasing more than one night.

They were not the cheapest, but they were the most professional, running a number of tours each night. They could communicate with the other tour parties in their company to find out what they could see, and where they were. This meant that we did not bump into other chasers either night, and had our freshly snow covered viewing area all to ourselves.

The other thing they provided - was everything you needed from the warm clothes and hand warmers through to camera tripods and expert photographic advice. Some of the smaller operators - although good - don't offer this sort of comprehensive service.

The guide told us they had an extensive network of sky camera's that helped them identify where activity was concentrated, and what viewing area might be best.

Our guide provided expert knowledge and assistance with photography, and the driver on both nights assisted us with putting on, and getting out of those quilted condoms. I did not realise how clumsy all that clothing could make you. Much appreciated.

Seeing the northern lights is not a cheap activity. We spent a lot of money on warm clothing, despite borrowing some items from a friend who had visited the antarctic. Flights and hotel accommodation were not cheap either - although they could be done more cheaply than we did.

Our two nights chase cost us €185 per person, per night. This included pickup and drop off, thermal suits and boots, and hand and foot warmers (although they did run out one night), camera tripod, meal and chocolate drink, photography advice, and digital photos - including portraits of us against the northern lights.

Whether you choose Tromsø, or some other vantage point - do go and experience the Northern Lights. You will not forget them.

More stories from this trip



No comments:

Post a Comment