Chasing the Northern Lights – Touring around Tromso
As you may have gathered by now, seeing the northern lights has long been an ambition of mine – a bucket list experience – and I’m just back from a six-day trip in and around Tromso which was just fabulous. While this blog allows me to go Wild about Scotland please indulge me to take a slight detour across the North Sea to go Wild about Norway.
This is the first of two posts about my trip, where I was centred in Tromso. For the second post I’ll cover the few days I spent inland at the spectacular Lyngen Alps.
Where to start ? I’m still absolutely buzzing from this trip …
Well first off, if you’re serious about seeing the northern lights you need to plan in advance – well in advance. Your chances of actually seeing the lights on any given evening actually come down to weather (a cloud-free sky), solar activity (charged electrons from the sun entering the Earth’s atmosphere) and your ability to get away from light pollution (street lights, roads). So while I booked this trip a full six months ago (and even then, the best aurora tours were largely already booked up), there were certainly no guarantees that I was actually going to see anything during my short trip.
Of course, the best way to increase the chances of success are to book with an experienced guide and I was fortunate to spend two evenings in the company of Kjetil Skogli. Kjetil is probably the best-known ‘aurora chaser’, since he was the guide that finally allowed Joanna Lumley to see the northern lights in the excellent BBC documentary of 2008. He takes seven people out several evenings a week - and goes wherever he needs to and however long is necessary – to make sure that everyone has the best chance possible of seeing the lights. [Top tip: book now for 2013/14. This year's tours are already fully booked and many people are now suggesting that solar activity may well peak next winter].
The weather on the first full day I spent in Tromso wasn’t looking promising. At all. It rained all day and the frozen pavements quickly turned into a slushy mess. Since the whole of the Tromso coastline was covered in cloud, Kjetil’s solution was to travel to a different weather system. This entailed a 2 hour-plus drive westwards, climbing past Skibotn to the high plateau across the Finnish border to Lake Kilpisjarvi where the stars finally began to twinkle. No sooner had Kjetil pulled over into a layby and explained that we should “start to get ready” than the lights were magically switched on.
And magical it was ! We were treated to slowly changing wisps, arcs, bands and shafts of greenish lights dancing across the sky. The setting was perfect: a cloudless sky, shining stars and a near-full moon behind us lighting up the mountains. It was just breathtaking (although I was soon to learn that this was a ‘minor’ lightshow, rating perhaps just 2 or 3 out of 10).
Incidentally, many people advise against organising a trip to see the northern lights when there is a full moon. Given that the full moon had occurred just two days prior to my arrival in Tromso I can honestly say that this is just utter nonsense. If anything, the full moon is an asset, lighting the foreground in photos (as you can plainly see). It’s also the case that a full moon quickly wanes, and tends to hang low in the sky. Of the three nights I saw the northern lights the moon was only visible on this first night; at other times it was obscured behind mountains. So please don’t listen to anyone who tries to suggest that you can’t see the northern lights around a full moon.
Tromso is a small city but in a marvellous setting on an island, connected by large, arched bridges on either side. It wasn’t until my last day in Tromso did the sun shine … revealing spectacular views of the snow-capped, jagged mountains nearby. Having explored the city on my first day (it doesn’t take long !) I hired some cross-country skis on day two and took a bus up to the ski trails on the top of the island to give it a go. Now, I like downhill skiing, where lifts or cable cars conveniently whizz you back up the mountain, but I’m afraid to say I found cross-country skiing far too much like hard work. It’s probably a technique thing but it didn’t come naturally to me. Apparently Norwegian children learn to ski just after they’ve started to walk (ie way before they start school), and so I guess plenty practice also helps.
It was also cloudy in Tromso at the start of my second night’s tour with Kjetil Skogli. This time, he knew that the weather was clearing from the west so we headed out to the coast to Dafjord, just about an hour out of the city this time. Once again, he pulled up in a layby sheltered from the cold wind and he casually pointed out that the lights had already come out. (We hadn’t noticed ! He told me that “city people can’t see well at night – you need to train your eyes to be able to see without artificial light“).
If I had thought that the previous night was breathtaking, it was nothing to the light show we saw on this second night (perhaps an 8 or 9 out of 10). There was clearly much more solar activity which meant stronger lights (darker green and some red lights, both caused by oxygen in the upper atmosphere up to 100km above our heads) and more quickly changing patterns. Great shafts of light pointing down to the trees on the horizon slowly morphed into broad bands, sometimes two or even three in number, across the sky. At times we saw curtains of lights moving and shimmering, prompting many “oohhs” and “ahhs.”
Most jaw-dropping of all were the three coronas we saw. A corona is where the electrically-charged particles entering the atmosphere are channelled along the Earth’s magnetic fields and then ‘burst’ directly overhead. This leads to swirling patterns of lights changing very quickly, where you can see the ‘contours’ and twists of the magnetic fields illuminated by the charged electrons. We were already heading back to Tromso at 1am when the third of these coronas burst into the night sky. You could literally see patterns in every direction you looked; Kjetil estimated that the lights stretched 1000km across the Arctic north at this stage. In his typically downbeat style he said that what we’d seen was “special”.
I had booked two tours to maximise my chances of seeing the aurora from Tromso but was gobsmacked to have had such wonderful experiences two nights running. This ‘made’ my trip to Tromso but I also enjoyed my time in the city. It has a typically Scandinavian, easy-going feel to it, with friendly people and attractive, coloured wooden buildings. With easy access to the airport (just 10 minutes from the city centre) and to the surrounding fjords, coast and mountains, it’s definitely a place worth visiting.
At this point, though, I was looking forward to spending the next three days travelling west from Tromso to stay in the Lyngen Alps, the subject of my next post.