In Search of the Northern Lights

Last week I was able to hunt for the Northern Lights. I had seen them previously near to Tromsø in Northern Norway in December 2011 and more fortuitously near to Inverness in October 2012, but I was in search of a more spectacular display. While the previous views were an experience to remember, I wanted to be able to see the colours with my naked eye, not just in the resulting photographs.

After some searching, I had decided to opt for Northern Finland, as while I have liked Norway since living in Oslo and had a certain affinity for the country, Finland offered better weather, which can be the enemy of the Aurora hunter, with a much better chance of clear weather, than Tromsø could offer, due to its assault by the gulf stream weather systems. I also decided to travel with a company called Aurorahunters.

While Aurorahunters is a fairly new company, having been established just two years ago, they are fast growing in their reputation. The company is owned by Andy Keen, with support from Marti Rikkonen, a nature photographer with many years experience photographing the nature of Finland, including the Aurora Borealis. Operations are ably managed by Andy’s son Alex and they have the support of other seasoned aurora hunters.

One thing that struck me on the first night, was the enthusiasm that they all showed. It was obvious that they would do everything possible not just ta find the Aurora, but also the gaps in the cloud cover. And therein lay the problem. We arrived from our over night stop in Helsinki to see heavy cloud cover with constant snow. The plan was to hunt for the Aurora on three of our four nights and the decision was made by Andy to call it a night, which meant everything was resting on the only three nights remaining. Of course, that was also the best night for predicted Aurora, but there simply wasn’t any chance of finding a gap in the cloud cover.

Aurora near Suolisjärvi.

The second night also didn’t look promising at first glance, as it was snowing yet again in Inari. However, the weather forecasts were suggesting that clearer weather was coming from the east, across the Russian border, so our team headed northeast, towards the Norwegian border south of Kirkenes. After a few brief glimpses of activity, just south of the border and some tantalising glimpses of cloud-free skies, we continued north, eventually crossing the border into Norway. However, as we got closer to Kirkenes, it became obvious that the clouds weren’t going to clear, so we headed back to our original location in Finland. Just before we reached our destination, a fox crossed the road in front of us, which excited Alex, as previous sightings had preceded good views of the Aurora. There us a Saami legend that Aurora is produced by the snow that is flung up by the tail of the fox and the Finnish name for the Aurora, Revontulet, actually means Tail of the Fox. It did indeed seem like an omen too, as when we approached our chosen spot, the clouds started to clear and an Auroral band became visible. It wasn’t the most spectacular of displays, but it was as strong as anything I’d seen and it had some structure to it. The Tricky Lady had made her appearance at last.

Northern shore of Lake Inari.

The third night also looked less than promising. Not only had the cloud returned after clearing for a time during the day, it had started snowing again and the temperature plummeted from around -8 C to -14 C. This time we headed east with Andy, towards the Russian border, as again it looked like the skies may be clearing from the east. As we drove, the temperature dropped further to -22.5 C until we reached the border post, after a slight detour to visit the Saami church at Nellim. We stopped for some hot cranberry juice, courtesy of Marti and his family and some biscuits, until we got a call that Aurora had been spotted on a nearby bridge across the Paatsjoki river, which forms the border between Norway and Russia after leaving Finland. While the temperature rose near the river, a mist had started to form, making the atmosphere damp and bitterly cold. It also masked the Aurora, making it difficult to see, even though it was just about visible.

Aurora near Inari.

I spent the final day photographing the landscape around the western end of Lake Inari, as the skies had cleared, producing a beautiful dawn light on the snow-covered lake. It was still -16 C outside and I needed something to cover my face, so went shopping ready for the final night, which was set to be even colder. Yet again, the snow came in, in the afternoon around Inari, but it looked like it would be clearer at the Norwegian border. We started off heading north, this time guided by Marti, but after travelling a short distance, Marti changed his mind. After a quick phone call to a friend, he told us the skies had cleared, so we headed northwest instead. Along the way, he regaled us with some stories of his time as a nature story, including a story of a beautiful bear, which had us in stitches. In fact we were concentrating so much on the stories, we almost missed the main event. One of the fellow guests nudged me and asked if it was an Aurora to the right. I had a look and thought that it was an Aurora just poking out over a hill. We frantically tried to get Marti’s attention, who found a clearing in the trees to next to the road, switched off the car lights and we were met with one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen. Not only was it an Aurora, what I thought had been a hill, was in fact the sky, with a huge arc. As we watched, the arc was moving quite quickly, making the perfect subject for a timelapse movie. We viewed the same arc from two more locations along the road, before heading back to the hotel, ready for our early start to the airport the next morning. Marti had another surprise for us though. When we were about 20 kilometres from Inari, he decided to head off on a small side road. By this time the temperature had dropped to -28.5 C, but the display we saw was well worth the extreme temperature, which even challenged our thermal suits. We didn’t really feel the cold though, as the adrenaline was rushing through our veins. The arc was forming right across the road, almost above our heads, in a beautiful curve and the movement and changing forms were otherworldly. The Tricky Lady had done us proud.

For anyone who wants to see the Northern Lights, then I can thoroughly recommend Aurorahunters. The whole team exudes enthusiasm and is willing to go that extra mile to find the Aurora. That is probably why they still have a 100% record in finding the Aurora for each group.

2 thoughts on “In Search of the Northern Lights

    • Thanks, it’s my second attempt at a timelapse video if you include the first draft on Friday night. We saw them in four different places that night, as well as less impressive views the two previous nights. I’d seen them three times before, none as good as this though.

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