It wasn’t supposed to be this night. This place. Not if I had had it my way.
One of the ‘must-dos’ on my global walkabout was to see the Aurora Borealis (or northern lights as it’s more commonly referred to as) in Tromsø, Norway. While I knew going in that it is never a guarantee to be able to see the lights, I put myself in the best position possible to do so. Despite these efforts, a series of unfortunate events led to me being down to my final day in town with a cloudy night in the forecast – and I had yet to experience nature’s spectacular light show.
While bad weather did factor in often, including that final night, I did not account for an airline strike and being sick in bed for several days as part of my plans. Before I knew it, I had one last chance. It was St. Patrick’s Day, and this Irish-American hadn’t the faintest idea of what good fortune awaited.
Tromsø is probably the best place in the world to go and see the northern lights given its location well north of the Arctic Circle, surrounding inland areas protected from the sea, and it’s fairly mild climate thanks to the Gulf Stream. Knowing weather could be factor, I had booked 10 days to give myself plenty of time to see the lights, as well as enjoy the “Paris of the north.”
When I finally stood on the roadside of the E8 (the “Northern Lights Route”) on my last night, deep inside the border of Finland, I was shivering. And yet despite the frigid air, I was humbly in awe of not only the amazing, breathtaking and, even for this part of the world, rare light show that nature was putting on all around us, but also for the circumstances that led to coming here on this night, with this group, to this location.
It’s like Steve Jobs talked about in connecting the dots, you just can’t see it at the time looking forward. You just have to trust your gut or the universe or whatever you want to call it and believe that things will work out fine.
Well I patiently followed my gut, and was richly rewarded more than I could have imagined. Here’s how it all went down, connecting each of the dots along the way:
The First Dot – Moving Dates Around in My Itinerary
This story began in late October from my room I rented on AirBnB in Brisbane, Australia. This is where I originally used some of my frequent flier miles to book my exit flight out of Australia. My itinerary had me departing via Sydney to Tromsø on March 11 – just within the range before my visa would require me to leave the country. After a December trip to New Zealand, I figured I might be moving this date up, most likely to visit Chiang Mai, Thailand before heading to Norway. In between, however, I fell in love with Melbourne and decided to pass on Thailand, for this trip anyway, in order to spend more time in this great city.
It wasn’t until early February, however, when I heard that one of my favorite Norwegian singers, Marion Ravn, would be having a concert in Oslo on Feb 27, that I went ahead and made a change. It’s rare and unlikely she would be touring the USA anytime soon (not to mention not all of her albums get released in America) and I was already planning to go to Oslo anyway, so I felt I should be there for the show.
Having decided to stay in Melbourne rather than travel to Thailand, moving my original Sydney-Tromsø flight to depart Melbourne and arrive in Oslo on Feb 26 instead was an easy process. I now felt satisfied this was the right time to exit Australia, even though it was difficult to say goodbye. I figured I would want to spend 10 days each in Oslo – a city I had been to briefly a couple years ago and wanted to spend a more meaningful amount of time getting to know – as well as Tromsø before moving on to see some of the rest of Norway. Ten days should give me plenty of chances to see the northern lights, I thought. This now meant I would be spending March 8-18 in Tromsø, instead of March 11-21.
Dot Two – Norwegian Air Pilots Go On Strike!
The day before I was to leave Oslo for Tromsø (March 7), I received a text while visiting the Holmenkollen ski jump facility that my flight the next day on Norwegian Air had been canceled. Later I discovered that there was a pilots strike going on and there were no realistic alternatives to leave Sunday the 8th as planned. I re-booked for Monday and planned to arrive in Tromsø that night. One potential northern lights night lost.
I soon realized that the strike wasn’t going to end anytime soon, and sure enough on Sunday night, I found out Monday’s flight also got canceled. I re-booked for Tuesday although I knew by now that this likely would get canceled as well. I now wanted to get to Tromsø as soon as possible so I scrambled around Monday morning and ended up booking on Finnair to fly to Tromsø that night. I arrived safely, but there was a snowstorm so there would be no northern lights on Monday – second night lost.
Dots Three & Four – A Simple Conversation High Up in the Arctic Air
Tuesday was my first full day in Tromsø and I still had eight days left – so no worries. I did my customary first-day walk around to get to know the city, being careful to avoid not slipping on the skating rink hills that had become the city side streets. The highlight of the day was the Fjellheisen cable car up the mountain that provided a wonderful panoramic view of Tromsøya (Tromsø island) and the surrounding mountains and fjord.
This was another fateful twist in the story for two reasons. One, it was noticeably colder up on the mountain than it was on the island below, and I may have spent too much time outside. The second reason was a couple from San Francisco that I met on the way up the mountain. We chatted a bit in between taking photos outside and sipping on hot drinks inside the cafe and they had mentioned that they had already seen the northern lights having gone with a tour group the night before.
Allow me to back up a bit. Now I’m traveling on a backpacker budget for the most part, and I had heard that these sorts of excursions were expensive (what isn’t expensive in Norway, right?). Therefore, when I found a listing on AirBnB that mentioned, both in the description and in reviews, being able to see the lights quite regularly from the lake down the street from the house, I jumped on that opportunity! I figured that in staying 10 days there I probably wouldn’t need to spend money on a light-chasing tour. Well planned I thought!
Out of curiosity, I decided to ask the couple which tour they went on and how much it was. They told me the name was Chasing Lights and said it came out to around $200 USD, a lot more reasonable than I was expecting. I had been under the impression it was several hundreds of dollars for these types of tours based on glancing through various websites and travel forums. Apparently I didn’t examine carefully enough – or I had been looking at some of the more elaborate tour packages.
This tour drove them out all the way to Finland since the weather was not favorable in the Tromsø area that night. It seemed like the guides went wherever they needed to go to find the lights so I decided to put this in the back of my mind just in case I didn’t see anything back at the house over the first 4-5 days or so. Surely I would see something before needing to make a panic tour purchase though!
Heck, Tuesday was a beautiful day as evidenced by the wonderful views from atop Fjellheisen. Maybe if I stay long enough into the evening, I thought. I did manage to get some great night photos, however soon the snow came in, and came in to stay for the night. No lights on day three.
Dot Five – Down for the Count
I didn’t expect much over the next few days as the forecast called for more bad weather. The weekend looked better though so not to worry. I went into the city Wednesday afternoon, ate lunch, and then settled into a coffee shop for a few hours to get out of the cold air and catch up on some emails. Something at lunch didn’t really feel right though. I finished what I had to do at the coffee shop, picked up some groceries down the street and went home.
I figured I was OK and that I just needed to lay down for a while. I had had a tough time adjusting back to European time after 31 hours of flying from Melbourne, so even though I had been in Norway for a couple weeks already, I think my usually strong immune defenses were vulnerable. Add in the change in climates, being outside in the miserable weather a lot, the lunch not feeling right, as well as two people in the house I was staying already feeling sick when I got there… well my body had had enough apparently.
The next few days I stayed in bed much of the time – unable to do anything else really. The timing felt OK to me though. I was in no rush, the weather was awful, the house and room were very comfortable. If I was to get sick at any point in my trip, this was probably the best time and place I could have chosen. The forecast looked better toward the end of my stay, and my body clearly needed to settle and rest for a bit. The northern lights will wait. Still plenty of time.
Dots Six and Seven – The Lights Make an Appearance, but…
One night while I was sick the weather must have cleared up a bit as I heard the next morning there had in fact been an aurora sighting at the house. I was unaware, and just as well I thought as I was unable to muster the energy to get out of bed anyway. In fact, it wasn’t until Monday that I felt myself again and able to go about and move around.
I now had two days left, but fortunately Monday was predicted to be clear the entire day and night! Surely no need to panic and book a tour! Around 9 pm, I bundled myself up, made a cup of tea and went out to the veranda to watch the skies for signs of the elusive aurora.
Sure enough, it was clear outside and I could see plenty of stars. After an hour and a half, and nothing seen, I went back inside to warm up and take a break. I decided to lay down and rest for a few and then the next thing I knew it was 4 am! Ooops, I guess I was still pretty worn out from being sick! Nine days gone, no light sightings for me…
Dot Eight – Time to Scramble and Book a Tour Quick!!
I took a quick look at the weather when I awoke Tuesday morning, and it didn’t look promising. It was time to book a tour.
I did a search for the company the couple I met had told me about, Chasing Lights. It turns out they were the top-rated tour on TripAdvisor. “Great, surely they won’t have any space at the last minute,” I thought to myself. I decide to contact them anyway just in case.
I fill in the web form around 8:30 am, and then go upstairs to have some breakfast, hoping my message will be waiting whenever the office opens for the day. Surprisingly, I get a response within 15 minutes:
“Hi Kevin, Thank you for getting in touch! We do have exactly 1 seat left for our Northern Lights chase tonight.”
“Wow, that’s very lucky,” I thought. It was fate, I must go now. I respond back, exchange payment and go on about my day until the minibus picks me up around 6 p.m.
In the famous words of Biz Markie, “I didn’t know I was in for such an event.”
By this point, I had really left things up to chance. Sure there were some circumstances beyond my control that left me in this spot, but I was really hoping that I had not booked 10 days in Tromsø and failed to see the northern lights. That would have been quite a travesty. The thought of regretting not spending the money to book a tour earlier in the trip was in the back of my mind.
I was the first to be picked up and once everyone was on the bus, tour guides and photographers Thomas and Anna gave us their background story about the company and the about the lights. With it came the expected, ‘while there is no guarantee we will see the lights on any given night (85% chance is what they state on their website), we will do our best to go where there are clear skies,’ speech. The plan was to drive into Finland (much like the couple I had met had gone) and we would probably be getting back in the wee hours of the morning. My flight wasn’t until 11:35 the next morning, so I was more than OK with this.
I knew there was no guarantees and that only booking one night’s tour was risky. Nothing I could do about it now though, I realized. I was on the tour and the rest was up to mother nature.
We crossed into Finland and soon we had almost outrun the cloud cover. We could see the clouds were being illuminated – a sign that there was aurora activity above (the lights are in space so the clouds lay between us and the phenomenon). We managed to find an area to park the minibus off the side of the road, and sure enough, there it was. My first glimpse of the elusive northern lights! This was a quick stop as the clouds continued to follow us from Norway. We would have to go even deeper into Finland to ensure a night of clear skies.
About 30 minutes later we set up camp for the night. Thomas started a fire, Anna made us tea and hot chocolate, I put on one of the heavy duty suits and boots the tour provided to keep warm, and everyone else got out their cameras and tripods. I fumble around with the settings of my simple point-and-shoot camera, but not much luck. It doesn’t stop me from being in awe of the magnificent light show all around. We would be sent all the photos that Thomas took as part of the tour package anyway, so I decide to just focus on observing the lights and staying warm!
This was a pretty cool experience I thought. Not quite like the magical dancing lights you hear about or see in certain Disney movies, but that was probably very rare. It was mesmerizing nonetheless. Others were commenting about all the different colors that were showing up in their photos (the naked eye can’t pick these up, but the cameras with their long exposure can). We had a good show, saw some good lights, and I felt satisfied with my trip up to Tromsø now that I had seen nature’s famous light show.
That is until around after midnight. Anna helped me with my camera settings and let me borrow one of the company’s tripods. This made a world of difference, and it came just in time. If I thought what I had seen up until this point was cool…
I felt like I was back in Sydney for New Years Eve. There was the first fireworks show, and then another, which would culminate with a spectacular grand finale. It seemed as though mother nature was simply waiting for midnight before she kicked her natural fireworks extravaganza into high gear!
This time, it WAS like the magical dancing lights you hear about or see in certain Disney movies!! And being up in this latitude, the show was all around us. To the north, to the south, and directly above us. I was in awe, humbled by nature’s masterpiece.
I started to have fun guessing which direction I should focus my next set of photos on. Once one set of lights dissipated, another would show up behind us, and then above, and then behind again. There were lots of collective “oohs” and “aahs,” and back-and-forth dancing of the tripods on the ground as the lights moved to their own rhythm above.
When the tour guides who see these lights almost every night seem impressed, then you know it’s a special night. I remarked to Anna at one point how it seemed as though there was stage lighting on the horizon shining upwards toward the sky – seemingly shifting locations at random. “Very poetic,” she told me. Probably the first time someone had ever referred to something I said as being poetic! If there was ever a time and place for poetry, this was it.
Time for Reflection
On the way back, Thomas had a smirk on his face as he told us how he and Anna knew before we left that this would be a special night, but they had decided not to spoil the surprise for us.
You see, there was a very good reason the show was as strong as it was. Earth was being bombarded by one of the strongest solar storms in years, and it just happened to reach our fair planet on St. Patrick’s Day. I heard that the lights that night would have been visible upon the northern horizon even in southern Europe and as far south as Pennsylvania back in the US. As for the usual northern lights hot spots, well it was an aurora party!
There is a rating system for northern lights called the KP Index. It is a range from 0-9, with the higher the number basically referring to how far south the lights may be visible. The index can be zero and Tromsø would still have a good chance to see the lights due to its high northern latitude. This night it was an “8” – the highest it had been in six years we were told. In fact, the last time there had been a KP of “9” was in 2003.
Thomas wasn’t the only one with a smirk on his face on the way back to Tromsø. I couldn’t help smile and laugh at my “dumb luck” as I reflected upon all the dots on my journey that led to this point. All those decisions made well in advance, along with the circumstances that kept me away from the lights until that final night Tromsø.
The plan was seemingly perfect, too good to be true when looking back. This sort of coincidence no longer surprises me though. I’ve seen time and time again how life has a way of surprising like this when you go with the flow and live in the moment.
Then again, I could be wrong. Maybe it was simply the Luck of the Irish.
A few of my favorite photos taken by Chasing Lights
My Northern Lights Photos
The photos below I took with my point and shoot camera. I have very limited photography knowledge and used “auto” adjustments in Photoshop to attempt to clean these up.
Chasing Lights photos used with permission. For more information about their tour packages, visit: chasinglights.co.
Note: I was not paid by Chasing Lights, nor anyone else associated with this story. This is simply a personal account of my experience.