A trip to the north part of Norway, in the Arctic circle, lead to a few days of chasing the elusive northern lights.
It had been a year since I saw the northern lights with my friend Caroline in Sweden last year, so when my friend Danny said he and his brother had decided to come to Norway, I figured it was a good time to go back north. Exploring the eastern part of Europe would have to wait.
We planned for four nights there, getting a rental car, and going on a massive chase to make sure we saw the lights. It was going to be a true expedition.
I had my doubts though. There’s a lot of pressure to see the northern lights when it involves your friends or family. When it is just yourself, you can say things like “well, maybe next time” or “it’s ok to not see the lights”. I was worried that we wouldn’t get to see them – that Tromsø – where we were headed, was going to be cloudy the whole time, or that there wouldn’t be any solar energy. But things turned out well and it started early when already flying there, I was lucky enough to spot the northern lights on the way outside the plane window. They were dancing just as we were starting to arrive in Tromsø for an exciting 15 minutes. But the plane quickly reentered the cloud layer as we were approaching the airport.
Our cabin was located in Oldervik, which is on a separate island as Tromsø, just a little bit more north. It was the least expensive place we could find, although 40 minutes outside the city. But we figured it was worth the extra driving as it was in a good location. After grabbing food and testing our rental cars tires a few times, we arrived at our Airbnb cabin near 11pm. Our first night, we had a clear night sky above, but sadly no northern lights were to be seen.
Still, we mustered the energy to get out of bed and check the mountain top in the hills above the cabin. We drove to a parking spot about midway on the island and stared in the silence at what was a surprisingly bright night. The snow and stars lit up the horizon and for everything to be seen. It was a winter playground as there was nothing around except to run around and jump in the snow. We were all excited to be this far up north.
The next day, after some sleep during the day, we headed far north in a deep search for the northern lights. The weather forecast for Tromsø was not looking good and only up north were there potential clear spots. If you want to know more about Northern Lights forecasting, then see my post about it. Our search took us close to Alta, one of the most northern cities in the world. The long seven hour drive would push our limits and unfortunately we didn’t see any lights. It was wasted effort, but the search and the chance (and not chance) of seeing the lights is part of the trip.
We had lots of stops along the way, though. On one stop, we found a patch of clear sky and parked the car on the side of the road. We all stared into the sky to see the Milky Way in its full glory. It only shows completely in the lower northern latitudes during summer. The photo below shows another stop. This one was of a perfectly clear fjord. The waters in the cove completely still, almost mirror-like. We also walked on the road as no one was driving past 3am. Thus, only after 11 hours of driving did we realize that the road was as icy as a skating rink. Somehow the car had lots of grip on the road still.
Although we didn’t see the northern lights this time around, we did get a nice view at the town of Øksfjord. It is the most north that any one of us will be.
We got back to our cabin at 7:30am, exhausted, frustrated, and not very happy about how the night went.
But hope was not lost even after the previous day’s 14 hour expedition. This time we came up with a different plan and followed how the northern lights tours did it. On a series of fortunate events, our cards were declined at a gas station, and we decided to fill at a Circle K gas station just down the road. Here was the last pit stop for many of the tour companies and we saw many buses pull in and out of the station. We decided to follow in close pursuit of where they were headed and I’m glad my friend Danny walked over to one of the operators and asked what his plans were. Most companies were headed towards the Finnish border and this was where we saw our first major northern lights.
But, before I describe seeing our first northern lights, I forgot to mention that our trip was almost derailed right at the beginning when my friend Danny tried to do a donut in the parking lot. We stopped in the parking lot to see if we could see anything, but saw nothing in the sky. Danny, wanting to do at least one donut on the trip, sent the car around in what seemed like a good turn. But near the end, the car scraped the snow bank and came to a halt. It was one of those horrible bad stomach feelings and I knew we were in trouble. We hopped out of the car and began to dig and push. After some shoveling we got the car free. We were back in business.
Seeing the Northern Lights
We gazed out of the car windows while we were driving towards the Finnish border. I saw green out the passenger side and told Danny and his brother that there it was, right outside. We made a quick stop down the road in a small camp site area to see the whole sky filled with green and shape shifting. This was by far the best northern lights I have seen. Way more powerful than the last times. A thick green line stretched across the sky from horizon to horizon. This was exactly what we came for. Our luck and patience had paid off.
But the night was early and our search wasn’t over. We knew that the KP levels would come back near 12pm and we had already seen a good show at 9:30 at night. So we kept driving towards Finland, making stops along the way.
In this one area, we stopped away from the road and we watched as the northern lights danced above. This time was very slight but the sky was always moving. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow, but always shifting. A long green line stretched across the sky along with the milky way. We all lied on the cold icy ground and stared at the sky as it changed all the time.
In another area, we had driven fast, to get ahead of the approaching clouds. For a few minutes we saw the northern lights until the clouds rolled in. My friends tried to steal a snowmobile.
The clouds rolled in very quickly.
But soon our night got very interesting. We were driving and almost hit a reindeer. It was only a few feet away from the front of the car by the time our car slid to a stop. A little while down the road we saw a red fox and luckily it stayed near the car for a while, at least enough time to take a photo. I had forgotten about the untouched wilderness of this area called Lapland.
Finally, we had made it to our destination. The area where Finland and Sweden meet. We crossed over the 500m bridge to make it to just another country in what only took two hours.
My friends didn’t know that we were driving all the way to Sweden, but I figured it was only an extra two hours from the closest border town, and it was in an area predicted to have clear skies. Thus, along the way we would see more lights and we could see another country.
This part of Sweden was very interesting. It was a ghost town by the time we arrived, perhaps 2am. And when we arrived, we were so fascinated by the trees and how they looked like out of the Doctor Seuss cartoons with snow and all. We started to kick the bases of the trees so that the snow would fall. It was really simple and dumb, but good, clean entertainment.
Also, we were laughing at how bad our dinner was once again. Like the previous night’s dinner, it was our car hood as the table. Today was just a mix of everything we had left – such as bread, corn mixed with tomato mackerel, and some Norwegian made instant pasta that was very, very al dente.
Then, it was back to Finland. This time the northern lights were very strong. They were dancing in the sky again. Since they were lower in the sky near the horizon, the movements were more pronounced.
This was one of the best spots that we had seen the whole night.
On our final night in Tromsø, we were treated to completely clear skies the whole night. It was as if we didn’t have to have gone so far the past previous nights. All we needed was to walk outside our doorstep and look up at the sky.
This night’s show was particularly impressive. After scoping a dark spot the morning before, I went back to where the road ends and started to take photos. This was when the sky started to light up into a very strong green and the aurora started to put on its show.
For a good hour, the lights were very strong. These were the most vivid that we had seen thus far. I was fortunate enough to meet a couple other local photographers on the same route and they shared much of their information about shooting. It was very informative.
But as this show died down and the photographers left, we all decided to stay out. Part of our luck was that my friends didn’t drive the 1.5km road to the photo site and this meant that we would all have to slowly make our way back to the cabin, instead of get a two minute ride. This slowing down allowed us to stare at more of the sky and see a few other instances – very brief shows of light that weren’t too impressive, but enough to catch our attention. But then we saw the sky lit up once again.
I’m not sure how much time passes when seeing the northern lights, but it slows down enough for you to see every detail. But also, the overall time speeds up and you quickly realize that 30 minutes have passed. They are quite mesmerizing.
So on the last walk home, back to the cabin to pack for an early morning flight, it was here, close to our cabin, on our last night out, after driving for hours upon hours, where we saw the best northern lights possible. Right on the middle of the end of the road, a trip which had so many ups and plenty of downs, days blended together all into one, but hours and minutes seemingly taking forever. We had seen the northern lights in its best.
Here’s a guide to Seeing the Northern Lights. It has all the information you need to get the best possible chance, then it is up to nature to provide you with this phenomenon.