Norway 2017: The Northern Lights are like women in fashion magazines

This post was originally going to be about the evils of booking.com (and I stand by that – never use them, they are evil) but now it’s not. Norway was simply too nice to waste an entire post on something as unpleasant as booking.com.

It wasn’t an auspicious start. I had to get up at 1am to drive to Gatwick for a flight at ten to six but then I had my entire row to myself and I slept most of the way, just waking up in time to take over thirty photos of the splendid Arctic scenery beneath me – mile after mile after mile after mile of white snowy mountains, frozen fjords and deep blue sky.

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Having arrived mid-morning in Tromsø, I left my luggage at my hostel and took advantage of the beautiful clear day to go up the cable car opposite the city, decide not to pay to go inside the Arctic Cathedral, get some food in and get my bearings in my favourite city in Norway before I went out in the evening to hunt for the Northern Lights.

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If you go to Arctic and you see the Northern Lights on your first try, congratulations and I hate you. I’ve been out ten times and seen something worth seeing three times – although I swear I’m missing something, because I thought I was up to at least eleven before this trip to Tromsø. But that still means my success rate is only at 30%. Tour companies don’t really want to tell you how low your chances are and I know how many people hit the jackpot on their one and only hunt but what I would say is that you spend a lot of time standing out in the cold staring at an empty sky.

When I’m in Tromsø, I like to go with a company called Tromsø Friluftsenter – who are not sponsoring me for this post, although if they were to… Anyway, I like them because:

  • They have a lavvu (traditional Sámi tent) at their base and their lavvu contains a lovely warm fire. I cannot over-emphasise how amazing a warm fire is when you’re standing outside for four hours at -12C.
  • They provide marshmallows for toasting over said fire. I do like my marshmallows melted between biscuits with a couple of chocolate buttons but I’ll take a plain melted marshmallow under the circumstances.
  • They provide tripods & advice to help you take better photos of whatever you see.
  • They provide sledges so you can play in the hills if you get bored or cold.
  • They take photos of you with the Northern Lights.
  • I have a two-for-two success rate with them!

On the downside, they explain what the Northern Lights are and how they work and it’s cobblers. Something about the solar wind being pulled down into the Earth by the magnetic field, which then stretches and stretches until it snaps and then pinging back like a bit of elastic into the middle of the Earth.

Tourism is growing by the minute in Tromsø but it’s still quite a new and young industry. Whereas in Iceland, tourism has shot from the number three industry back in about 2011 to the number one by an unbelievably long way now. I can’t find any exact figures but in the bar, we deduced that fishing and the university must be two of Tromsø’s biggest industries and a bird-watcher I met in the harbour claims that the hospital is the biggest employer but tourism is growing. Give it another five years and it’ll be off the scale, like in Iceland, and the locals will be begging for us all to go away again. When I went off on Wednesday night, there were 109 companies running a Northern Lights tour. We set off in two minibuses and the first minibus parked right in front of us but we never saw hide nor hair of anyone on it. Either they trekked miles along the coastline before we arrived or they were all killed on the way. We didn’t see them in the snow or in the lavvu.

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It started slow. The sky was clear but it was just black. We collected our tripods, set up our cameras and I took far too many pictures of the black sky – hoping my camera could see Northern Lights I couldn’t, or at least hoping for photos of stars, I guess. But pretty soon it gets boring wasting your camera battery on a black sky and losing feeling in fingers and toes so I went in and sat by the fire. I’ve said the lavvu is like a Sámi tent and it is… but it’s made of wood and has a huge metal chimney hanging from the middle. It’s definitely not something you could pack onto your sledge when you follow your reindeer to the next bit of pasture. However, it more or less looks like a lavvu, it’s called a lavvu and it’s very warm. Magnus, our driver, kept adding logs to the fire with his bare hands and it roared and crackled nicely.

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That’s me in the pink – although it’s not pink, it’s magenta.

The Lights began to show. We stood out in the snow and looked up at a faint band of white light across the sky, the sort of light that you can see better if you don’t look directly at it. We dutifully took photos and went back inside.

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The Lights got better. The hardiest souls in the group, or the ones with the biggest cameras, stayed outside most of the evening and there was always someone to run to the door of the lavvu and order everyone to come out if anything particularly spectacular happened. Now the Lights were beginning to split into two or three smaller groups and were becoming noticeably green. They got brighter. They got brighter. And suddenly they were putting on a show. There was another band across the sky, bright green at the top, purple at the bottom and it was twinkling! It was actually dancing across the sky, pencilling, like a long green curtain blowing in the solar wind. And at one end of it was a great curl and twist of light and at the other end, vertical curls and twists. Because my camera is a teeny-tiny pocket one with a special starry skies mode, it needs a really long exposure to pick anything up, thirty seconds minimum, and then it needs another thirty seconds to process it before you can take the next, so I’d be taking a photo of the sky and as I was doing it, someone was shouting “behind you! Look behind you!” so I’d look but I couldn’t actually move my camera until it had finished and the moment I’d started taking a photo of the Lights behind me, he was yelling again “Behind you!” so every photo is in a different direction.

And they’re not particularly good photos. I know the Lights show up better on camera than they do in real life but here are a few things to remember about photos of the Northern Lights.

They’re like women in fashion magazines. You can’t trust what you’re actually seeing. The way the photo has been taken has been set up to be flattering (extreme diets/makeup/clothes/pose vs absolutely optimal camera settings/optimal lens) and then when it’s actually been taken, it’s photoshopped to within an inch of its life.

I have to remind myself of that when I see my own photos. It seems weird that they looked so much better in real life than in the photos. True, some of them are brighter but they’re smaller and thinner and they don’t have the scale or the magic that the real thing did. My camera hasn’t picked up on any of the purple – in a year’s time, I won’t even remember that there was purple in there unless I re-read this blog.

The Lights went on like that for long enough for me to actually lose feeling in my toes. Not just start to. I hopped back to the lavvu through the thick snow (better snow than last year; not once did I fall over in it!) and tried to climb into the fire. Magnus had been advising us to take gloves off when we warmed our hands. I now took off my boots and when that didn’t really help, the socks came off too and I sat cradling my feet, trying not to let them actually touch the flames, trying to get some feeling back into them – feeling that wasn’t burning pain from the sudden warmth. I’ve been cold before – I’ve been really cold before. In Svalbard, my feet were so cold that Alex offered me a knife to solve the problem – but I’ve never known that kind of cold where all you can do is clutch your feet and whimper and gasp in agony. My boots are nice and warm and furry inside and I was wearing my best warm socks – and as Magnus had advised, and I’d worked out for myself years ago, I was only wearing one pair, because two pairs crushes your feet and makes them colder – but no socks are truly breathable and feet are horrible sweaty things and once your socks start to get damp, there’s no drying them out until you get home. So although the boots are warm, you’re wearing wet socks and it gets colder and colder.

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Fortunately, after that the Lights started to quiet down. They didn’t disappear – they were still going when we left – but they’d peaked and Lights that would have delighted us earlier were now disappointing after we’d seen what they could look like. We still popped out regularly, especially if someone thought they were being a little more dramatic, but no more were there fourteen people shrieking in excitement at the sky. I found if I set off a photo, I could run back to the lavvu and wave my cold hands at the fire before going back out to reset the camera for the next photo. Not that I used it much, only for the time I forgot my mittens in my excitement. My little liner gloves are better than nothing if you need to fiddle with the camera settings but you really notice the difference when you put the big mittens over the top.

Eventually we went home. I hate to say it but we were getting bored. We’d seen dramatic Lights and undramatic Lights weren’t holding our attention so much. Camera batteries were low or dead, the fire was getting low, we were all cold enough that it was getting harder to warm up. And it was late and I’d now been up for nearly twenty-three hours, give or take a nap on the plane. What really froze me was taking my tripod down. Aluminium that’s been standing out in the snow for a couple of hours is really cold and once I’d succeeded with hands that had long lost all dexterity, I’d somehow lost all warmth, not just in my hands. When I got back on the minibus, I couldn’t even take off my bag, let alone my gloves or coat and there was no way I could put on the seatbelt. All I could do was sit there and hope for either the sweet release of death or for the minibus heating to be quick and hot. Luckily, we sat there for quite a while waiting for Pierre and Magnus to bring all the stuff back up to the bus – including the freezing tripods – and that time was enough for me to thaw out just enough to comply with Norwegian road safety laws. Minus twelve is really cold and minus twelve with cold hands is the worst thing I’ve ever experienced.


If you want to read about my experience with Tromsø Friluftsenter under a beautiful full moon last year, you can read all about it here (and the photos of the Northern Lights are even better, despite the moon):

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Northern Lights: attempt 10