Hunting the aurora in Arctic Norway

This winter saw the peak of the solar maximum period – and there are few better places to see the dazzling northern lights than Norway’s pristine Arctic extremes

8 mins

We didn’t dare move. Our eyes were fixed ahead in amazement as a single reindeer, almost camouflaged against the trees, emerged from the thicket by the path. Slowly it mooched in front of us – no more than five metres away. It looked directly at us, shook some snow off its gnarled antlers and then, with just as little fuss as it had arrived, vanished back into the forest.

It was an incredible sighting, but we didn’t linger. That night, in Kirkenes, Norway’s most north-easterly town, just shy of the Russian border, we were hunting an altogether different beast. The aurora borealis, northern lights, guovssahas, the tail of the Arctic fox... whichever moniker you chose – be it scientific, common, Sami or legend – they all refer to the same thing: the dazzling natural light show that has bewitched mankind for centuries.

During winter, the lights can appear at any time – but not every winter is equal. Every 11 years, increased activity on the sun’s surface results in a period of solar maximum, when the aurora is most dramatic. NASA reckons December 2013 is it. Here and now, however, we weren’t getting off to a good start.“You won’t see them,” my Norwegian guide Gøril had stated two hours earlier as we ate vanilla ice cream smothered in warm bilberry sauce. “It’s cloudy.”

Norwegians, I’d found, have a knack for being blunt. But where Gøril had matter-of-factness, I had British stubbornness. “I think I’d like to try...” I trailed, briefly distracted by the crackling fire... “At least for an hour.” She accepted, but made it clear she would not be joining me on my apparently fruitless quest.

On top of the world

I couldn’t blame her. It wasn’t like we’d been unlucky up to this point. Two days earlier I’d flown to meet her in Alta, a town around 400km west of Kirkenes. The northern lights had drawn me there, but as I was whisked from the airport to an ice-carved valley some 20km inland, I quickly found that the place offered so much more.

We arrived at Sorrisniva, a hotel on the banks of the River Alta. Here, every year since 2004, an igloo hotel is built, using 250 tonnes of ice and 6,000 cubic metres of snow. But there was no time to gawp at the workmanship: Sorrisniva’s Hans Wisløff had other plans. We would head to the top of the Finnmark mountains to get a good overview of the area before darkness came – at 4pm.

Suited, booted and feeling a tad like the Michelin man, I bagged a snowmobile and set off. We wound up narrow hillside paths, through trees and past fields until finally we left the funnel of tracks and burst out onto the unending white of the open plateau. As we raced on, the fire of adrenalin burned in my belly – the kind that only comes from heading deeper into wilderness. Then Hans signalled for us to stop.

Only once I lifted my visor did I appreciate the perfection of the scene. The sun was beginning to drop below the hills, turning the snow a deep purple. Other than our trail, there was no sign of human life.

“Up here you feel like you’re on top of the world,” said Hans. He pointed to the far distance. “One family lives up here. They are the only family in 20km; the next is 50km from them. Here, you really are alone.” By now the snow had turned to golden orange.

“Today we are lucky – it is mild,” Hans added. Gøril whispered to me that it was 12°C – but she meant -12°C (it’s a given here that you add a minus to any stated temperature). I felt my toes starting to numb in my boots. As if he knew, Hans jumped back onto his snowmobile and set off, disappearing into a plume of white spray, his vehicle churning up snow and spitting out lumps like cubes of butter.

Lights, action, camera!

Back at the igloo hotel, the temperature immediately rose – to -2°C. A grand atrium filled with diffused light provided a walkway to the bar where Hans poured us blue shots in glasses made of ice.

“Anti-freeze,” he declared as we downed them in one. The blue vodka instantly warmed my throat; I felt it ooze down into my stomach.

Hans showed us the snug (some ice-carved couches and a faux fire), the themed ice sculptures that change each year, the wedding chapel and the honeymoon suite. We were then shown our rooms. There were no cheesy reliefs or cartoon Santas. Each one felt like a proper igloo, with walls made of snow bricks and a bed covered in reindeer skins.

But with the sun now completely gone, this was no time for sleeping – prime aurora hour was approaching. In the warmth of the main building we fattened up on hot food while northern lights expert Trygve Nygård, from GLØD Adventures & Expeditions, filled us in. “The aurora are here all the time,” he explained, “but in order for us to be able to see them we need the right conditions.”

This mainly came down to cloud. If it’s cloudy, the best show in the world could be going on up there but we wouldn’t see it. However, after being shown some weather charts and having an in-depth discussion about magnetic fields and oxygen and nitrogen atoms colliding, things sounded promising. We piled into the van outside; the hunt was on.

For the first five minutes my eyes were fixated on the sky. I even got everyone momentarily excited when I mistook the green band at the top of the windscreen for the aurora. As we drove, Trygve told us that Alta is home to the very first northern lights observatory – which, somewhat ironically, is too far into the mountains to access in winter. But there was an alternative. The town’s Cathedral of the Northern Lights was readying for its grand opening, solidifying this old Sami trading-post as an important spot for aurora-hunters.

Ten minutes later, Trygve spied a slither of green in the sky. He stopped the van and we jumped out, eagerly looking up. A wisp faded in and out as though it might not have been there at all. We waited. Our patience paid off: a turquoise swirl – like a whirlwind – suddenly spread above our heads, and then morphed into a single line of phosphorescent green. Its tip became stronger, now resembling a relay runner streaking light behind. Ahead, another light appeared and momentarily met the first; the baton was passed and the new light continued, streaming green and faint red before disappearing.

Trygve was excited – and when a local gets excited about the lights you know they’re good. I took out my camera as more psychedelic coils appeared. I pressed the button. The aurora above appeared on my tiny screen: I’d made my catch of the day.

As we headed back to the hotel, I asked Trygve if he’s normally that lucky. “We have about an 85% success rate,” he said. “The furthest I’ve ever driven to find them is 150km. If things get really bad, I have a friend in the weather centre who can give me a time when there’ll be an opening in the cloud – but I’ve only had to use him twice.”

When we arrived back at Sorrisniva the rest of the group went inside. But I lingered, keen to watch the last strips of the aurora fade before retiring to my sleeping bag. I fell asleep that night to the comforting smell of reindeer fur, dreaming of those magical green lights.

A dog’s life

The following day we flew to Kirkenes. The town is so close to Russia that the two countries have an agreement that allows locals of both to cross the border without visas for short visits. The result is a market in Kirkenes main square where Russians sell Sami boots, fur ponchos and dolls, adding a shot of colour to the otherwise pallid scene. Shopping was a low priority however – we were going husky-sledging.

At the kennels of Sollia we met owner Eivind Nordhus. Eivind used to compete in Arctic husky races but now focuses on taking visitors out on natural wilderness experiences. “I won’t set up a short track on a lake, I want this to be as authentic as possible,” he explained as he harnessed up his team.

The dogs’ barks echoed in the cold air as they waited, eager to run. Once we set off, their howls were replaced by the sound of the pack padding through the snow and the hiss of the sledge. Every so often a single word, click or whistle from Eivind would tell the dogs what to do.

The further into the forest we went, the faster we seemed to go. Eventually we reached a clearing where a cluster of lavuu (Sami tents) awaited. I looked up to see the northern lights glistening in the sky, a ribbon of emerald slashing through the night like a shot of electric.

Thrill of the chase

Two nights in Norway and I’d been blessed with the aurora on both occasions. On my final day I hoped to make it a hat-trick. The muted-pink dawn broke late to reveal a cloudy morning. We headed to Langfjordvatn, a massive salt loch that leads out to the sea. Here, in the wintertime, locals fish for red king crab using giant baskets sunk beneath the ice. We took to snowmobiles with Hans Hatle from Barents Safari to see if anything had bitten.

As we reached a trapdoor on the lake, the wind picked up to 65km/h, lowering the -27°C temperature to -42°C. Hans and his assistant began hauling up the basket. When it popped up onto the ice, eight giant crabs lay inside.

“They taste sweet,” said Hans as he passed one around. “And their size means they make a good meal for several people, so were very important food for the Sami.” There were crabs being cooked for us back at our base so we placed these ones back in the water and headed across the frozen lake to the warmth of the heated tent.

That evening the cold from the crab safari had made everyone sleepy. After dinner at the Snowhotel on the edge of town many, like Gøril, chose an early night over the northern lights. But not me.

I headed out to the Langfjord Valley on a snowmobile with Kenneth Schwaiger of Radius Kirkenes. The reindeer sighting en route seemed like a lucky omen and soon we were tearing along the icy lake, watching the landscape race by in all its frozen glory. My heart was beating fast with the excitement of the chase and suddenly it didn’t matter whether or not I saw the aurora at all. The thrill of anticipation and the uncertainty of the adventure was as exciting as being successful.

Kenneth raised his hand for me to stop. I took off my helmet and saw a red light glowing in the sky. I looked over to him. “Russia,” he said. I felt as thrilled as if these were the northern lights.

Then, something magical happened. In the sky above us, a thin green line began to arch over the lake. I watched open-mouthed as it completed its rainbow and then thickened to cast a jade glow. There were no dramatic swirls like the first night, no harsh green slices like the second; instead the whole sky gradually turned green. For a few minutes we simply stood and watched, feeling like the luckiest souls in the world.

“They are out all the time, but I don’t usually look at them,” admitted Kenneth. “But, sometimes, when it’s very special like this, I must stop. I have to look. I’m amazed by them. They are so beautiful – and all by nature.”

Arctic Norway:

  • A frozen playground, over-sparkled by the best northern lights for a decade
  • Fly UK-Oslo (2hrs), then on to Alta or Kirkenes (2hrs). Explore by snowshoe, snowmobile or dog sled
  • Dec-Mar, for best snow and aurora
The author stayed at Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel, 20km from Alta, which opens each year from January to early April. Built afresh each year, it has 30 bedrooms, an ice chapel and an ice bar. An overnight stay, including sauna, breakfast and transfers to and from Alta, costs NOK2,150pp (£228).

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