At the Top of the World Without A Plan: Hunting the Northern Lights
Her tattooed fingers with black nail polish clipped away at the keyboard. The Norsk receptionist looked up and greeted us with a warm smile as we whisked into the hotel lobby out of the frigid arctic blast. I let out a breath of relief; we’d made it– 218 miles north of the Arctic Circle– to Tromsø, to the top of Norway, on a day when not a single ray of sunlight would glint across the sky.
My frugality was feeling uneasy . . . tickets for excursions to see the aurora borealis (or northern lights) were thousands of dollars online in advance. We booked the flights with the hope of finding a local to show us the lights for a fraction of the price once we arrived. The possibilities overwhelmed me. How were we going to make this work? We knew we wanted to see the lights but we just weren’t sure how. Would we borrow a car? Perhaps go home with some locals to have a pow-wow in the backyard? Rent a car? Are there even any car rental offices around here? Can my husband even drive on these glacial streets? I think we both expected the city to be a tiny place. It was surprisingly large. Clearly our initial spitball of an idea: to just walk outside of town, far enough away from the light pollution was (did I say clearly?, very clearly) not going to work. My thoughts raced on. Panic overcame my mind. We didn’t have a plan.
All we had were the dirty clothes on our backs, some discount snow gear, and a camera (might I mention, I wasn’t sure how well the darn thing would photograph gaseous particles in the dark, it’s not an extraordinarily fancy device). We’d left our suitcases behind in a locker in Oslo. We hadn’t eaten much in several days because Norway is known to be the most expensive country in the world and the food is (to put it politely) rather fishy and bland. This was the ultimate Hail Mary of an excursion.
In an admiral moment of quick wit, Andrew looked at the receptionist and charmingly declared, “It’s okay if you think this is crazy . . . but, we’ve flown here for one night. We’ve got 13 hours and we want to see the northern lights“. The receptionist tugged on her beanie and choked down a chuckle. She dialed a local aurora hunter and began to speak Norsk. While on hold, we established that she was from about 50km south of Tromsø. She laughed as she shared that during her first winter in Tromsø that she had to climb out of her second story window to shovel herself out of her house. The aurora hunter warbled on the other end of the phone. The receptionist whispered that the hunter was a “crazy man”. The weather conditions were not favorable for the night, but we were in. We were given the last two available slots on the tour. We had a plan & a relatively cheap one at that.
We stepped out into the below freezing weather and agreed that the chill was surprisingly, rather pleasant. We headed out into the night toward the tour meeting location while trying to stay upright on the layers of black ice. The snow crunched under our feet.
Fast-forward to the middle of the night when we’re stacked inside of a metal bullet of a van sliding down Norwegian roads. I was beginning to figure out why the van read “Whale Watching” on the side of it and not something along the lines of “Light Tours”. Our Norwegian guide, the “crazy man”, appeared to know little, if anything, about light hunting. From what I could tell, this was his second job. Perhaps some of those Moby Dick skills he’d mastered would transfer well to light hunting. What was with this guy? He pulled over often to ask locals if they’d recently seen the lights. He hadn’t even introduced himself. We headed to the boarder of Finland. We’d been at this for hours. We jokingly tossed around the possibility that perhaps once we reached the boarder that he would sell us on the black market. After a while of driving, he would unload us alongside a fjord to let us freeze for a bit. When feelings of frostbite ensued viewers slowly, one by one, looked away from the empty sky, and retreated back into the van with faces of disappointment. I tried to think up tactful ways to request a refund. I looked out of the breath-fogged windows into the never-ending darkness. White jagged peaks towered above us, almighty against their grey arctic skies. Their reflections below were still, somber, in the glass-still fjords. Surely this was the end of the Earth. The view was pristine, seemingly untouched by man. I thought to myself– this– this was the definition of tranquility.
These thoughts of tranquility were interrupted by the shear pain coming from the impaling cold on my fingers and toes. How often do visitors to the arctic actually lose those little limbs despite their persistent defense by gloves and snow boots? I secretly wished that I would have spent more than $20 on the plastic and faux-fur clearance booties in Denver.
We sat in the van nestled next to each other like two fluffed, freezing birds on a power-line. Who were we kidding? We’d come so far. But could we really expect to be successful? We’d bought clearance flights and clearance snow-gear; we had a bottom-of-the-barrel tour guide. We hadn’t allotted enough time. How could we expect to see one of the natural marvels of the world? Why had our tour guide driven us all the way to the boarder of Finland in vain? I gave up. In my wretched disappointment I decided that (unlike the other revelers in the van) that there was NO way that I would book three additional nights to repeat this light hunting fail. Not to mention the fact that we didn’t even have a fighting shot to stay longer. Our flights headed back to the states from southern Norway at noon. We had to catch a 6AM flight to our connecting location.
We fell asleep in our misery.
We were jerked from our slumber by the slamming slide of the van door opening and the familiar, excited warble of the accent coming from the tour guide, “you can see them a bit now!”. All of the riders quickly piled out of the van. The aurora danced overhead. Green, blue, and purple wisps danced & flickered in the sky above. The sight-seers squealed in delight. Some laid down in the snow to look up. Others wrestled with tripods and cameras while clambering through mounds of snow.
The light hunter mocked his own luck, he couldn’t believe his own strike of good fortune.
Was this his first day on the job or what?
It was easy to understand why the aurora borealis was thought to be the Roman god of the north wind. Indigenous tribes thought that the lights were their ancestors. I’d embarked on this journey expecting to be floored by natural beauty. But what I had not expected was to feel the spiritual pull of these dancing lights. It was as if they had a life of their own, as if they were a glimpse of the gates of heaven, as if they were part of a fourth dimension, a very obvious encounter with the breathing planet that we so briefly get to explore. Majestic. This Earth is majestic.
After a steamy shower and a 2 hour nap, we were back on a 6:00 AM flight back to southern Norway.
Spontaneity can be a beautiful thing. It’s filled with the potential to deliver a lung-crunching blow of disappointment when things go wrong or an elevating sense of delight when all the stars align and fall right into your lap. Fate is at the mercy of your own hands. Embrace it. Make things happen for yourself & for others. Hold the hand of fate and pull her stubborn, heel-dragging-self, wherever you would like for her to go. Even to the top of the world.