Saturday, March 8, 2014

Hunting the Aurora

The very helpful Fred and Nadia of
the ABC Hotel
We arrived in Tromso, Norway, on the night of the 25th Feb. On arrival at our hotel we asked Nadia the girl on duty about the northern lights. She checked her computer and told us that the likelihood of auroras, according to the aurora tracker website, was going to be high the next night. She checked another website and gave us information on cloud cover, pulled out maps and gave us tips on the best locations and lots of other useful information. Similarly in the morning Fred behind the counter gave us up-to-date information on the aurora and best locations etc.

The readings from the Aurora Tracker website
After four plane trips and over 30 hours to get here, we were going to use the 26th to sleep and recover, but with a reading of high for an aurora, sleep was going to have to wait. We went to several nearby car rental places and after a very good deal and some more advice we took the last car available from Hertz, which fortunately had GPS built in. Finally at 4:30pm, while it was already going dark, we set off to find the northern lights. Trying to rush but captivated by the landscape, we alternated driving to the first lookout with stopping to take photographs.

Some of the scenery
The GPS seemed to have a sense of humour because when we turned on to the street going to the first location it said 'drive for a long time'. It was not as long as we thought as we soon ran out of road and drove up a steep, slippery, ice covered driveway and ended up in somebody's front yard. Several family members came out on the balcony looking at us strangely. I tried to back up but started slipping and only just made it back up. The son came out and moved his car out of the way and the father helped me make a 7 point turn to face down and front first, which made it easier to drive down.

Off we went again. There were many pull over points on the road back and we would stop regularly to look up and see if we could see anything. I thought I could see a glow in the sky but Elizabeth thought it was just clouds. It turned out eventually that Elizabeth was right and I was just being optimistic. We saw lots of minibuses from the aurora-chasing groups that you could pay to go with, so we were obviously in the right area for looking. At 8pm we were hungry but had to drive nearly back to town before we found an eating spot, a pizza place. A customer helped translate a meal for us because the owner did not speak English. The customer's brother was a northern lights photographer and he gave him a ring; his brother said it was not a good night. Hmmm, things were not going well...

The car dash -3 Deg C  brrr
Off we went again, taking a new direction this time. Elizabeth at one point yelled that she had seen something green flash down and bounce off a mountain, but I was not quick enough to see it. I tried to be positive but inside not happy. This was my dream. We found a few really dark spots with absolutely no light from anywhere but still no luck. At 11:30 after passing lots of brightly lit towns we decided to head back to our really dark spot and sit it out. At midnight we parked the car and just sat and waited. The temperature according to the car was -3 outside, so we just looked out the windows.

Finally at 12:15 Elizabeth shouted that she saw something behind her, we jumped out the car and saw a sky lit up with dancing lights. Initially there was a large glowing circle of light at one end of the sky followed by a tail that went the full length of the sky to the other side, AWESOME. The sky continued its display for 20 minutes. One part that sticks in my mind was when it looked like somebody was sprinkling powder from above and then bouncing it off a glass dome breaking across the sky. By the time it was over my fingers were numb but I was definitely satisfied and happy. Now, no word of a lie, and I know people will think I am faking and using poetic licence but this occurred on the 27th February, the exact day of my 53rd birthday.

I did take some photos as you can see, but they are not very special. I found out my $200 camera is not quite geared for aurora photos. One photographer told me they got their best photos using 60 second exposures at 200 ASA. My camera had a 15 second limit as its longest possible exposure on manual, which I took on the 400 ASA setting. Consequently not long enough to build up enough light to show up brightly and bring out the mountains and a bit on the grainy side, but hopefully you get the idea.

The view from the car window of 'our spot'
All over the news the next day were reports of brilliant northern lights throughout England and Scotland. One lady we spoke to said she had just travelled from Scotland to see the northern lights and in 40 years there she'd never seen them. I had allowed over two weeks to see the northern lights as you never know what they are going to do, but luckily we saw them on our first day. So, what are we going to do for the rest of our time...

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