Chasing the Northern Lights – The Lyngen Alps
My trip to Northern Norway had so far surpassed expectations by some distance. I’d come to try to see the northern lights at first hand; not the faint glows that tend to be seen just above the horizon away from the light pollution of Central Scotland (and that’s on a good night!), but the vivid, shimmering, strong lights of the Arctic north that dance right above your head. And they didn’t disappoint.
Having spent a few days in Tromso - described in my previous post - I picked up a hire car and travelled eastwards to the spectacular scenery of the Lyngen Alps. My plan was to head away from the city to darker skies as well as find opportunities to experience the kinds of arctic experiences increasingly being offered to visitors – skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing and dogsledding. Leaving the city in bright sunshine allows you to appreciate Tromso’s wonderful setting on an island with a backdrop of jagged, snow-capped peaks.
It’s about a 90 minute drive to the Lyngen Alps, and I took the most direct route which uses a 25 minute ferry from Breikiveidet to Svensby. Turning off the E8 to the smaller E91, the road changed from tarmac to a largely ice-covered surface. At this point it’s worth explaining that in winter the weather is just so severe that the notion of keeping roads clear of ice and snow is just impossible. Instead, by law, all vehicles in Norway must have winter tyres (there are stiff fines for those who don’t switch early enough when the first snows come in October), and many vehicles have tyres with metal studs embedded in them. And the grip these winter tyres give is pretty amazing; literally, most minor roads were just covered with ice. So, no such thing as poor road conditions, just inappropriate tyres !
East of Tromso the mountain scenery is just stunning. The sharp peaks set against the clear blue sky meant that my heart skipped a beat many, many times. And the view from Breivikeidet, giving the first view of the Lyngen Alps … wow !
When I booked this trip I did a lot of internet research to find somewhere to go near Tromso that would give a range of different opportunities and experiences. Tromso is increasingly positioning itself as the ‘Northern Lights Capital’ of Europe and there are many, many companies now offering various trips, tours and activities in and around the city, with the occasional cruise ship also paying a visit. By all accounts this has really only taken off in the last few years but even now I noticed ways in which the visitor experience could be further improved.
But all of this comes at a cost. Norway is not cheap by any means (that’s an understatement !) and it seemed that many small companies offering northern lights-related tours from Tromso are simply cashing in by offering ‘standardised’ trips from astronomical starting rates. Rather than pay through the nose for packaged experiences, why not do things independently I thought ? Organise my own transport, stay self-catering and organise my own activities where and when I wanted. See more and pay less.
I’d never heard of the Lyngen Alps before I booked this trip but now know that it ranks alongside Alaska and northern British Columbia as one of the best places to go in the world for ski mountaineering on powder snow. In fact, it turns out that hardcore skiers, fresh from a season in the (French/Swiss/Austrian) Alps then move up to the Lyngen Alps for the peak period of March and April when the snow is in the best condition and daylight hours getting longer.
I was staying at Magic Mountain Lodge in Lyngseidet, a small village on the eastern side of the Lyngen Alps (almost a peninsular lying in a north-south direction). I think it has only been operating fairly recently and offers a mix of full-board (great food !) and self-catering accommodation. It’s a very laid-back, homely and informal place – run by skiers for skiers. So here I was, the only ‘northern lights tourist’ staying in a ski lodge. They weren’t geared up for people like me at all, and I saw little evidence of anyone else in this area catering to people coming to see the northern lights. (So if you’re looking for a relatively ‘undiscovered’ place to escape the crowds of Tromso I recommend it).
I had already taken a drive up to Koppangen, just north of Lyngseidet along a minor road, to check out potential spots for viewing the northern lights on my first night there. So when I happened to see the lights already shining from the window of Magic Mountain Lodge at 7pm I quickly grabbed my things and headed out.
I saw two, fairly short but intense displays of the lights that night. I aimed to photograph the mountains being illuminated in the foreground together with lights reflected in the Lyngen Fjord, which partially worked before the clouds came in later in the evening. I caught the end of the first ‘show’ between 7-8pm and then another more intense but short ‘show’ around 9.30 to 10pm. Here, shimmering curtains and quickly moving shapes lit up the sky directly overhead. The patterns were so large that the camera was unable to take them all in. Tonights showing compared well with my previous two evenings – not as good as the previous night but with much more activity than on my first night.
One thing I noticed in Norway was the preponderence of street and house lights. I don’t know if it’s because the sun disappears below the horizon completely between early December and mid-January, and somehow artificial lights take on a symbolic importance, but everywhere I went I found it difficult to escape light pollution. Even in Koppangen – a tiny community spread out along a minor road in the back- of- beyond – street lights line the road. Every house has a selection of lamps in various windows and curtains are rarely drawn ! As you can tell from one or two of the photos, I had to duck behind a wooden boat shed to avoid the glare of nearby lights.
Next day I took a drive to the western side of the Lyngen Alps, along Ullsfjord to Jaegervatnet and Lenangsoyra, seeing absolutely spectacular scenery. The mountains here rise up to 1800m (6000ft) from sea level, towering above frozen lakes. The views are to die for.
The roads, however, can get a little hairy. With a thick covering of ice and snowdrifts either side, you need to take care to avoid ruts in the road. Sometimes water might flow at right angles across the road from a nearby house, melting the ice. This means that the channel across the road might be a few inches deep, creating quite a bump. At one point I encountered what can only be described as a pool of water perhaps 25 feet long which for some reason had not frozen. And it was a deep pool. (By this point in my trip of course I was becoming a little blase about the driving and I drove right into it).
Only when I felt I was driving my little hire car on an offroad course – splashing through deep water, getting bounced about in between ruts and then crashing into ice-covered road surface at the end of this pool with a sudden ‘thud’ – did I realise that maybe this was a little beyond my comfort zone. And since the road was a dead end at the end of the peninsular there was no option other than to drive back through it ! (Postscript: I later realised that this unplanned but unavoidable little adventure had ripped the plastic cover on the underside of the engine, which then proceeded to scrape along any raised sections of ice on the road for the remainder of my trip. The guy at the Airport car rental desk was very laid-back about it though..!).
In Winter and Spring you can see stockfish being dried. This is a traditional way to dry white fish (normally cod but also haddock and ling), which reduces the water content by 80% and concentrates the nutrients in the dried fish. After being left to air-dry in cold temperatures for several months the fish is then matured for another few months indoors. It’s eaten as a snack or exported as a delicacy.
I took the ’round trip’ back to Tromso, driving first south along Lyngen Fjord with spectacular mountain views and then north again on the E8 – the so-called ‘Northern Lights Route’. Towering mountains, waterfalls turned into cliffs of frozen ice and people ice fishing provided interest. I was fascinated to see people using their kick sleds to sit on while fishing, with evidence of a great many fishing holes on Balsfjord near Slsjelvnes.
I hope to return to Northern Norway, either during winter again or to experience the midnight sun in mid-summer. Maybe I’ll take the camper van all the way up north to Nordkapp sometime.