Hunting the aurora

A wonder of myth and mystery, the northern lights are desperately elusive, writes Shaney Hudson. But patience has its rewards.

The Sami believed the northern lights were the flick of an arctic fox's tail through a snowdrift. The Vikings believed they were ghostly maidens who brought the dead to the heavens. Scientists say they are gusts of particle-rich wind from the sun, colliding with the gases in the upper atmosphere of Earth in an explosion of colour. Standing underneath them in complete awe, I'm convinced they're magic.

Also known as the aurora borealis, the phenomenon of green, red and blue lights occurs in the northern hemisphere at latitudes of between 60 and 72 degrees, well within the Arctic Circle.

But seeing them isn't easy. Like a fickle lover, they show up unannounced in the middle of the night, sometimes staying for minutes, other times hours. They hide behind cloud cover and sometimes don't even bother to show at all, leaving their suitors in the cold and disappointed.

Luckily, there is a little science to seeing them. This year and next year coincide with the solar maximum, a time when the lights will be at the active peak of their 11-year cycle. If there was ever a time to gamble on seeing the northern lights, it's now.

I'm ready to dynamite clouds from the sky.

We decided to roll the dice on a three-night trip to Finnish Lapland to chase the aurora. Here, the northern lights are active about 200 days a year, with the best months for viewing them running from October to November and March to April.

To maximise our chances, we booked a trip in late February during a new moon, when the sky would be darkest, and chose three aurora-specific types of accommodation: a hotel with a designated aurora room, a remote lakeside hotel with no light pollution and, on our first night, a glass igloo.

It is snowing when we arrive at Ivalo airport in Lapland and it turns out we should have been there yesterday. The aurora had put on quite a show. On the way to our hotel, our driver describes how the aurora slid into the sky disguised as a grey cloud and then shone for hours. The nervous, shy hospitality student showing us to our igloo suddenly becomes animated as she describes how it was the best light show she'd seen all season. At dinner, our waitress has lost her voice - she and her family had stood outside yelling the night before, an old Sami belief that if you yelled at the aurora, it would shine brighter.

The locals' enthusiasm for the lights is reassuring, but the thick snow falling outside isn't. We brush inches of snow from the outside glass of our igloo and settle on two single beds, adjustable via remote control so we don't have to crane our necks to watch the heavens. We stay up until 2am and wake every hour after that. But it doesn't clear. The snow has stopped but the sky is still clouded the next evening as we check in to the Hotel Riekonlinna in the ski village of Saariselka. The hotel is a little well worn but comfortable and renowned for its aurora-experience room - a darkened, heated room with wide glass windows to the northern ski slopes, so guests can keep vigil for the aurora without having to stand in the cold.

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The room is so popular, the manager tells me, the staff often have to move extra chairs into it.

At midnight, I find the room filled with aurora hunters. Camera tripods lean against the back wall, while lenses, vacuum flasks and plastic bags filled with snacks litter the tables. Silence dominates.

One girl kneels, her elbows spread across the windowsill, hands cupped under her chin. There's a break in the clouds. "A shining star," she says softly. But the clouds close overhead.

Our last night and last chance to see the aurora comes too soon.

We head north to the Hotel Korpikartano, a hotel in the isolated Inari region that used to serve as the local boarding school.

Children toboggan down the snowy driveway to Lake Menesjarvi, which has been frozen for two months. Anne, the hotel owner, takes us to the corkboard where an hourly weather report is tacked above an aurora forecast for this evening. The good news is that high aurora activity is predicted for this area.

The bad news is the weather is going to get worse.

We're invited to go aurora hunting with her husband that night. At this point, I'm done hunting. I'm ready to dynamite the clouds from the sky just to glimpse the northern lights.

We walk through the darkness for an hour, but the clouds are thicker than ever. My partner walks a few metres behind the group. I can barely make out his face, but he gazes despondently into the sky like a child who has lost a helium balloon.

Later, we lay on the beds in our room, not speaking. The disappointment is bitter, fed by exhaustion. "I really thought we would see it," he says quietly. I'm too tired to console him.

Instead, I set my alarm for every hour between midnight and 4am and drift into sleep.

From the darkness I hear a voice call out. My eyes snap open.

"Northern lights," the voice calls out again. I rip back the curtain to a clear night sky with the finest tinge of green to it. I panic. My foot ends up in my sleeping partner's back and I kick him out of bed. The next 60 seconds are a pantomime of untied bootlaces and inside-out jackets and tripod legs and lost gloves. But we get outside and look up and it is there: the aurora borealis, the northern lights, a lifelong dream.

A bright-green wisp smokes across the sky. There are rainbows of green and arcs, squiggles and shimmies of green light, swells and crescendos that build in intensity and speed. For every picture I've seen and movie I've watched and every description I've read, nothing had captured how the lights moved, the way they danced, how fast they transformed and changed like a kaleidoscope in the sky.

The climax of the aurora, called the corona, happens after an hour's show. The entire sky begins to glow green and then becomes an intense white colour, as white as day. Feet freeze. Bladders ache. But we are left in complete awe, a feeling that gives way to gratitude. We have seen the northern lights.

In 1876, Austrian explorer Julius von Payer put it best: "No pencil can draw it, no colours can paint it and no words can describe it in all its magnificence." You simply have to see it for yourself.

The author travelled with the assistance of Inari & Saariselka Tourism, Finland.


Three other things to do

1 From galloping through the snow on horseback to running a reindeer sled and trying to control a pack of overexcited huskies, the Saariselka area of Finnish Lapland is a adventure-sports hot spot. At Action Park, you can learn how to handle high-performance rally cars on an ice and snow track. It also has an excellent ice go-karting track for groups to race each other (actionpark.fi).

2 For all-ages adventure, Saariselka is home to Finland's longest toboggan run — a 1.2-kilometre mountain slope that offers a four-minute ride to the bottom. Punters can grab one of the few dozen sleds left at the bottom of the run for visitors and either drive or get the lift to the top of the mountain for the slide (saariselka.fi).

3 Temperatures in Finnish Lapland can plunge to minus 30 degrees in winter, but that doesn't deter some from ice swimming at Kakslauttanen Hotel. After warming up in a sauna, guests don socks for a 50-metre nudie run through the snow to a hole in the ice, where they dip in the lake waters (kakslauttanen.fi).

Trip notes

Getting there

Finnair fly from Sydney to Ivalo (via Singapore and Helsinki and codesharing with Qantas). Flights in mid-October start from $1750 return. 1300 132 944, finnair.com.

The airport is connected by bus to all major ski resorts and car hire is available at the airport (watch for reindeer if you're driving).

Staying there

Hotel & Igloo Village Kakslauttanen has 20 glass igloos, a dozen snow igloos and 40 log cabins available to guests. A one-night stay in a glass igloo costs from €300 ($383). kakslauttanen.fi.

The Lapland Riekonlinna Hotel has 232 rooms in the centre of Saariselka ski resort from €68. All guests are welcome to access the aurora viewing room. laplandhotels.com.

The family-run Hotel Korpikartano has comfortable, basic rooms from €75 (and is my pick for aurora watching). menesjarvi.fi.

More information

visitfinland.com, saariselka.fi, inari.fi, gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast.

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