Day 1: Chasing the Aurora
“No pencil can draw it, no colours can paint it, and no words can describe it in all its magnificence”.
Karl Weyprecht, an Austrian arctic explorer, could not have put it better about the Northern Lights. The phenomenon is among the most impressive natural wonders ever observed by humans. Photographic images of the Northern Lights are inspiring thousands of converts to make a pilgrimage up north – in the hope of catching a sole glimpse of this unearthly sight in person.
The Northern Lights certainly like to surprise. They can appear in a variety of shapes and forms or fail to appear altogether. Sometimes they set the sky ablaze, reflecting in every surrounding patch of sea and snow. Or glow over the horizon in a multidimensional curved wave. Or scatter boundless skies with a myriad of shimmering coronas. One night may bring an ever-changing, many-coloured display of red, green, blue and purple – all growing organically into each other – while another will feature a single eerie shade of pale. The unpredictability of the Northern Lights is one of their focal attractions – and one of the main reasons they have lured seasonal visitors and regular “hunters” for centuries.
Countless legends surround the mystery of the Northern Lights. In Norse mythology, the “strange flickering light” was shed by the armour of warlike virgins (“valkyries”) riding their horses. For some Inuit communities, the changing patterns of the lights reflected the spirits of the dead playing ball with a walrus skull. Russian folklore associates the lights with a fire dragon (“Огненный Змей”) which came to seduce women while their husbands were gone. And in Finland, the Finnish name of the phenomenon (“revontulet”, or “fox fires”) says it all. According to an olden saga from Lapland, the Northern Lights were the sparks from the tails of fire-made foxes brushing up the crystals of the snow into the sky.
Legends aside, scientists had to ruin it all to come up with an explanation infinitely less romantic. It turns out that the good old star called Sun is to blame. Swarms of charged particles the sun produces (so-called solar winds) apparently sweep past the earth’s magnetic poles at the planet’s northern- and southernmost extremes. Due to complex interactions (which I will refrain from explaining), some of those particles drift down. It is when they collide with certain gases in the atmosphere that magic happens, and the gases begin to glow. Out come the Northern Lights, or “Aurora borealis” (“Dawn of the North”), as they are fashionably called in the scientific lingo.
For the record, the Northern Lights only refer to the phenomenon around the northernmost tip of the earth. The southern equivalent is called, predictably, the Southern Lights (“Aurora australis”) and is visible at high southern latitudes of Antarctica, South America and Australasia – admittedly not the world’s most accessible regions, even compared to the Arctic.
It was last September when I seriously considered a Northern Lights pilgrimage for the first time. My love for all things Norway is hardly news to anyone. I had long wanted to explore the country’s northern regions – and when else than at their most dramatic, in the midst of winter? It looked like the city of Tromsø sat bang in the middle of an imaginary magnetic oval full of famously charged solar particles. It was therefore a perfect spot for Northern Lights watching; Tromsø was where I headed my steps.
Tromsø, the world’s northernmost city
Like the city of Tromsø, Lagnes airport serving it lies on the island of Tromsøya and offers approaching aircraft spectacular views over the surrounding scenery. As my plane was landing in the early hours of the morning, every patch of snow-covered mountainous terrain seemed to reflect the subtle pink tone of the rising sun. Add to that bare trees dotting the hills, deep blue fjords and perfect wooden houses, so synonymous with the region – and you will get almost an idyllic image. The image of wintery Norway.
Tromsø is the largest city in the Nordic countries north of the Arctic Circle and boasts the world’s northernmost university, botanical garden, brewery and Burger King (mentioned in no particular order). The city is home to around 50 thousand people, of whom 10 thousand are students – the reason Tromsø has been lovingly nicknamed “Studentbyen”, or “Student City”. The latter fact is particularly undeniable in the wee hours of the weekend, when all 10 thousand of them simultaneously emerge out of their study rooms and into Tromsø’s lengthy winter nights.
The city’s picturesque location on an island surrounded by snowy mountain peaks left me temporarily speechless. I ran down to the sea and stood there for a while, gushing wind nearly tearing the hood off my head. The views around were breath-taking beyond words. Around 10am, the sun had technically risen but continued to loom low over the horizon, closed off by the mountains of mainland in the east. Tromsø lies 400 km inside the Arctic Circle and enjoys uninterrupted daylight during the first half of the summer – also known as the Midnight Sun. Unfortunately (or rather fortunately for us Northern Lights chasers), Tromsø’s extreme location means that the sun sits below the horizon for two months from late November; that period is referred to as a Polar Night.
I had chosen to visit Tromsø in early February for a number of reasons. First, as much of a mindless traveller I am often known to be, a hardcore Polar Night experience sounded a little impractical for daytime photography. Second, Northern Lights are best viewed on a canvas of clear skies, undisturbed by bright moonlight. It so happened that the new moon phase fell around the first weekend of February. Finally and most crucially, the 6th of February is the National Day of the Saami peoples populating the northern Nordic territories. The Saami culture being the first known culture of the region, Tromsø traditionally takes the lead in various cultural festivities to mark the day. I could not have timed my visit better: early February was perfect.
I walked around Tromsø for a few of hours. The place looked well organised, clean and convenient to live in. Even the temperatures at around minus 10 C were much higher than I expected. Tromsø has a real friend in Gulf Stream; despite its outer northern latitudes, the city enjoys a moderate insular climate, with short but pleasant summers and not particularly cold winters. The lowest recorded temperature in Tromsø was minus 20 C in February 1985 – admittedly mild given the city’s arctic location.
“An explorer, not a tourist!”
Finally came the hour of my Northern Lights chase. As instructed, I was waiting outside the Radisson Blu hotel at 18:30, when a gray Peugeot rolled into the driveway. The car seemed to fit the description I had been given earlier perfectly; there could be no mistake. It was Kjetil Skogli himself!
Kjetil Skogli is a figure well known in Norway – and recently also abroad – thanks to his passion as a self-confessed Northern Lights enthusiast and photographer (view Kjetil’s website and blog). He is best known in the UK for featuring in the BBC’s 2008 programme on the Northern Lights with Joanna Lumley. The show was a huge success and attracted an estimated 6.6 millions of viewers in the UK alone.
A famous British actress and a former Bond girl, Joanna had dreamt of seeing the Northern Lights ever since she was a child. In the programme, she meets Kjetil in Tromsø on her way north – from Trondheim to Svalbard – in search for the aurora. And it is with Kjetil’s help that Joanna finally sees the spectacular lights display for the first time in her life (view Part 5 of the BBC programme featuring Kjetil). The result is evident: well known even before the BBC programme, Kjetil now enjoys remarkable popularity and takes a steady flow of visitors on regular Northern Lights tours.
As we drove towards the Kvaløya island to the west of Tromsø, I bombarded Kjetil with questions. I had imagined meeting the famous Northern Lights guru for so long that the next question seemed to make its way out before Kjetil had any chance to answer the one still hanging in the air. How did he feel being famous, then?
Famous? Kjetil smiled and shook his head. Was he really that famous? Yes, he appeared in the highly acclaimed BBC programme. Yes, he helped Joanna Lumley to fulfil her childhood dream. Yes, people from all over the world contacted him for tips on seeing the Northern Lights. And yes, he had taken Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen on a tour similar to ours at the close of 2010. But he wouldn’t say he was famous. Life was – what’s the word? – normal. Very normal.
And how often did he see Northern Lights? – I refused to leave Kjetil alone, but he only smiled as he kept his eyes on the dim road ahead. He’d see the lights as often as nine times out of 10. Given, of course, the mandatory clear skies and some petrol to drive around looking for such. He’d normally head northeast of Tromsø. And what about across the border to Finland, I asked, remembering Kjetil’s earlier request to bring along our passports. Oh no; he hadn’t been to Finland for a while. But the border to its narrow Saami speaking strip sandwiched between Sweden and Norway was barely a couple of hours away by car.
Questions were popping up in my head like popcorn in the microwave, but we seemed to be approaching our first destination. Kjetil drove to a secluded spot just off the road – offering a view over a silhouetted mountain range – and parked there, “for a few hours” or so. Chasing the Northern Lights means plenty of patience: it mainly boils down to waiting long hours in the dark, zipped up to (and over) your ears in winter gear. Waiting – and then waiting a little more.
Knowing the whimsical nature of the aurora, I had mentally prepared to see nothing that night. But we were lucky; the first display came quickly. The night sky over the faraway hills unexpectedly revealed a mysterious halo glowing with green and constantly changing shape. Then the glistening emerald bands suddenly stretched over the hilltops, twisting and writhing above our speechless tripods. I held my breath; it momentarily seemed that such extraordinary beauty must invariably be accompanied by an equally eerie sound. But snowy masses around us lay still; not a distant echo interrupted their silent admiration of the incredible sight overhead.
The appearance of the lights was so remarkable that, after an initial stupor, I broke into a little emotional dance in front of my camera. Jumping and dancing are typically not recommended when photographing the aurora, as the shaking of the ground may blur the photos. But I simply could not help it; my excitement was beyond comprehension. And oh, the subzero temperatures around our photo spot – in the biting wind, too – would make even a dead dance, too.
Visibly relieved (the pressure to see the lights was off), Kjetil grew somewhat less enthusiastic about our exposed viewing spot. And the Northern Lights – albeit so uniquely impressive in our amateur eyes – were, according to Kjetil, usual in both shape and shade. “It is when the sky is painted blue”, he said “that you call rock’n’roll”. And so we went off again – looking, presumably, for something more rock’n’roll than “just” a few green shapes hanging in the sky.
We deepened into the Kvaløya island as the wind threw masses of snow viciously on the road and onto our windscreen. The night was still young and there was little sight of the aurora. We finally settled in a spot yet undiscovered by the wind (or fellow lights chasers, for that matter) and pointed our cameras upwards for the second time.
Several weaker aurora displays loomed by before the skies switched off completely. Kjetil set up a camp fire, which all of us – by then brutally frozen – immediately surrounded. The sight of fire on the snow was truly mesmerising, even if it had killed our eyes’ every remaining ability to pick out a glimpse of Northern Lights in the darkening sky. But did we really need any more? We had seen our Northern Lights already. And, without speaking for others, I silently promised myself to return next year. Return for some blue shade of aurora – some true rock’n’roll!
Finally the clocks crossed midnight – six hours since the start of our chase – and we unanimously agreed to retreat to Tromsø. The return journey through intensifying wind took a while and all of us fell asleep in the car – except, of course, Kjetil. “I never sleep longer than six hours per night, anyway”, he told me.
A superhuman, no less.
Day 2: Celebrating with the Saami
I woke up the next morning feeling strange. At 8am, the city of Tromsø looked semi-dark outside my window. Did we really see the Northern Lights? I glanced at my mobile. My mother’s message was asking the same question. I smiled and confirmed; “Yes, we have”.
It was the 6th of February – the National Day of the Saami people, as well as the day concluding the Saami Week in Tromsø. Various cultural events had taken place in town that week, including the food and souvenir market on the central square, Stortorget. The most important event had been lovingly saved for Sunday though – an annual Nordic Championship in reindeer racing (“reinkappkjøring”). I truly had something to look forward to.
The Saami (Sami, Sámi) are indigenous peoples inhabiting a region called Sápmi, which runs through parts of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. The Saami are Europe’s northernmost peoples whose ancestral lands span an area roughly equivalent to Sweden in size. There are an estimated 60-80 thousand Saami, of whom the majority (about 40 thousand) live in Norway. Ten distinct languages used by the Saami are known as the Saami languages and fall into the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic language family; they are thus related to other Finno-Ugric languages: Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian.
So the Saami and Lapps living in Lapland are the same people, I hear you say. Well, not exactly. While Swedish and Finnish provinces of Lapland technically fall within Sápmi, one should not confuse the name “Saami” with various versions of the word “Lapps”. The two terms are often used interchangeably by foreigners but “Lapps” is today often regarded as an outdated, inaccurate and even pejorative term by the native Saami.
Their traditional occupation remaining reindeer herding, the nowadays Saami – especially those residing in urban areas – are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from the non-Saami they live side by side with. Most urban Saami use modern technology, live in regular homes and generally abandon the semi-nomadic lifestyle to attend universities or take up professions more commonly practiced in the countries they live in. However, despite certain assimilation, many Saami remain proud of their heritage and pay regular tribute to cultural traditions.
Following the fate of other peoples separated by national borders, the Saami were not always all friends and smiles. On 6 February 1917, however, the Saami congress was held in Trondheim, marking the first time when Norwegian and Swedish Saami came together to work towards solving common problems. Since 1993, Norway, Sweden and Finland have recognised 6 February as the Saami National Day. The anniversary of which I, too, happened to catch in Tromsø!
The reindeer race
Let me fast-forward my Sunday morning in Tromsø. After walking around the southern end of the Tromsøya island to watch the lingering arctic sunrise, I crossed over to the mainland and took a cable car up the mountain. Locally known as Fjellheisen, the tramway runs from the Tromsdalen suburb on the mainland to the upper station at Storsteinen. The journey to 420m above sea level could not have been longer than five minutes, but the views truly made it last a lifetime.
On the way back to town, I stopped at the Tromsdalen Church better known as the Arctic Cathedral (“Ishavskatedralen”). Its unofficial name being a bit of a misnomer (the church is a parish church, not strictly speaking a cathedral), it remains the most famous landmark of Tromsø. Especially well known is the church’s beautiful glass mosaic completed by Victor Sparre in 1972 and depicting Christ descending from Heaven (“Kristi gjenkomst”).
Tromsø’s Storgata had become almost unrecognisable overnight: in preparation for the reindeer race, snow had been thickly layered along the middle, and pavements fenced off for the viewers. Several official representatives of the Saami community opened the event with a speech. The native Saami in the crowd could easily be recognised by their peculiar costumes; known as “gákti”, they are worn on ceremonial occasions and while herding reindeer. The Saami flag – the combination of four national colours and a moon-sun motif – was playing in the wind next to the Norwegian and Finnish flags. Since there was no sight of a Swedish one, I concluded that no reindeer from Sweden were among the 11 taking part in the race.
Finally the Saami anthem had been sung, the symbolic ribbon cut and the race began. I thanked the skies for having recently taken up Norwegian and being able to catch the profuse commentary streaming out of the speakers. Everything was happening so fast that the commentary was absolutely necessary!
Before the race, I was trying to guess what it would be like. Would the reindeer run on their own, like dogs in a dog race? Would jockeys ride them like horses? Would they be pulling a sled full of cheering Saami? The commentator’s introduction of participants and reindeer – constantly using the Norwegian word “kjøre” (“to drive”) confused me completely. I was running out of ideas when the answer zoomed right in front of my eyes: the reindeer were pulling the skiers behind them. I was later told that this style of racing was called skijoring and could also be done with horses and dogs.
Reindeer are fast creatures – some are known to reach the speed of 60 km/h – and I felt almost in awe of the skiers “driving” them past me at such remarkable speed. The Saami people are probably all born wearing skis and holding a reindeer!
Also noteworthy was the fact that the reindeer “drivers” took a secondary role in the race. The name of the reindeer was announced first, followed by the animal’s origin (large Saami settlements of Karasjok and Kautokeino decidedly topping the lot), the name of the owner (typically a Saami), and only then the actual “driver” (“kusk” in Norwegian). Also the winning positions of the race were eventually assigned to reindeer, not their “kusker”. It was a reindeer race in the true sense of the word!
Fierce competition ultimately boiled down to a battle between the Finnish reindeer called Russku and the Norwegian Siella. The latter seemed to have won the finals when disappointment came: the photo finish overruled the result in favour of Ruskku. Its owner, Asko Lensmann from Finland, was not present at the race but apparently cashed in as much as 12,000 NOK for the victory. As it happens, the “driver”, Jon Inge Eira, took a low profile for the reindeer’s prize – yet his face was shining with satisfaction as he listened to the result update.
The event was over – and so was my getaway to Norway. As I sat on the plane heading back to Oslo, the memories of the weekend past flashed through my mind. The Arctic sunrise reflecting in every crystal of the resting snow. The picture-perfect city of Tromsø gently lit by the low hanging winter sun. Timeless Northern Lights changing shape magnificently in the starry sky. Winter panorama dramatically unfolding as the Fjellheisen cable car slid smoothly aside the mountain. The Saami joik music accompanying a spectacular reindeer race. The lingering mornings. The lengthy nights. The flicker of Aurora borealis overhead.
The incredible Arctic. I will be back!
(View full Flickr photo set for Tromsø)
Stay tuned for my imminent visits to Norway: Svalbard (May), Trondheim to Kirkenes via the Lofoten islands (described here in Part I and Part II) (July) and Stavanger / Lysefjord (September).