Lisa G Saw
I've wanted to see the Northern Lights (the Aurora Borealis) for as long as I can remember! I was lucky enough to see the magic of the Aurora Australis briefly one night when I was in Tasmania, Australia in 2000. It was very surreal and without a camera in hand, I was able to enjoy the moment for what it was - breathtaking! With more places on land to see the Northern Lights in the northern hemisphere, you would think the chances of seeing the spectacle would be good, but I've heard countless stories of people returning from holidays without witnessing it. Not only has the weather got to be good - clear skies - there has to be high Aurora activity too! So, whilst I'd booked onto this photographic trip specifically to see the Aurora Borealis, I went with low expectations and tried to look forward to all the amazing scenery and possible wildlife we'd also have a chance of seeing.
I was travelling on my own, but part of a group of 18 booked with Exodus and lead by photographer Paul Goldstein. It was nice to see a few familiar faces from my polar bear adventure a few years ago and meet some new people. It was a lovely group of eager amateur photographers or enthusiasts, some, like me, hoping for their first sighting of the Northern Lights and a few returning for more. It was a long day travelling north just to reach our location - the Andoy Friluftssenter in the Vesteralen Islands, south of Tromso (see the map by clicking on the Further Details button below). I left home at 5.30am and after taking two flights (to Oslo and then on to Harstad/Narvik) we had a two and a half hour bus transfer to the lodge. We'd be arriving about 8.30pm and Nigel, our host, called to let us know dinner would be ready and waiting for us.
I'd downloaded an Aurora app to my phone and had been tracking the Aurora activity for the whole of the previous week, having learned about the Kp level and the chances of seeing the lights. Essentially, the further north you are the better your chances are. Where we were staying sits in the Kp 1-2 band but in Iceland, for instance, the majority of the island sits in the Kp 2-3 band. If the activity level is indicated as a Kp 2 you might see the lights where we were but not necessarily if you were in Iceland. The higher the Kp number the better the activity. It seemed that anything higher than Kp 2.5 and it would be worth getting excited!
That evening, as we headed north in the bus, my app was indicating Kp 3 for our present location! A few of us had even been chatting about how good it would be to see the lights on our first night. I didn't dare hope! I never imagined we'd see if from the bus! My face was plastered to the window, with the curtain pulled across behind me to block out the interior light. It was unmistakable, a stream of dull green light rose up in the distance, beyond the silhouetted mountains, and extended across the sky above us. It was amazing to have a relatively calm moment to enjoy it, unable to take photos and with no plans to stop. However, the longer we drove, the more it continued and the tension was palpable. We were all eager to photograph the phenomenon but not sure we'd still see it by the time we reached our destination. Even our group leader Paul, who's seen it many times, was just as frustrated as us. He'd warned us, if there was activity on our first night, we wouldn't be stopping for dinner or unpacking, we'd quite literally get out with our cameras and start photographing straight away. He wasn't joking. I knew him well enough to take him at his word. I used the time on the bus to get the camera settings ready for the night photography. He'd already given us some tips earlier on the journey. If you want to capture some good images, you must have a tripod, should use a cable release and take long exposures, usually anywhere between 5 and 25 seconds, depending on the intensity and movement of the light. Well, on arrival, we did at least get given the keys to our cabins. I packed all the warm layers I needed at the top of my suitcase, just in case such an event happened. Out came the tripod and I attached my camera whilst still indoors and got everything ready (so worthwhile to be able to see what you're doing!). Since the temperature was about -15°C it was also worth taking the time to get on all the necessary layers before going outside, which also included wearing a head torch over my nice warm fleece hat. It definitely paid to be organised and prepared!
Looking back on it now, it was quite amusing how chaotic things were on that first night. With so many people trying to get set up in the dark, some not having mastered how to use their tripod yet, torches were going on and off intermittently, much to the annoyance of others. Any local ambient light, whether it's from house lights, torches and cars will affect the image. 'Get those lights off!' was yelled out on more than one occasion (by Paul)! We began the evening at the lodge and down on the beach just by the fjord, then we were driven down the road to the dam where we could get good reflections of the light in the ice and water. There was lots of experimenting with the length of exposure, which was all quite fun, at the same time as trying to find interesting foreground. The good thing about using a tripod and cable release is you don't have to have your eye fixed to the view finder in the camera, so you can actually enjoy watching the lights with the naked eye at the same time. Whilst the long exposures are what you need to see the bright glow of green that you so commonly see in Northern Lights photos, I was amazed by how easily you could actually see the light and how it moved. It just wasn't as bright. Time flew by that night! I couldn't believe it was 11pm when we finally returned to the lodge. I said to Nigel, our host, "I guess we've missed dinner then!" I was wrong! Our delicious dinner was still waiting for us! Needless to say, we were late to bed that night.
The pressure was off once we saw the lights on our first night! The fact we saw the lights on all four nights was incredibly lucky, not to mention remarkable! What a blessing. We really were spoilt! On the second night we sat around in the comfy sofas of the reception, near the warm fire, chatting as we waited for any signs of Aurora activity, this time having eaten our dinner early in preparation. There was some light that evening but not for as long, or as impressive. You can't be amazing every time! The best night was the third night! From between about 9pm and midnight, we were out taking photographs. Paul got some of us to crawl on the edge of the frozen lake to try some more interesting shots with the natural ice sculptures in the foreground. I was very nervous about doing this and was sliding about on my bum! Periodically hearing the noise of the ice as it eerily creaked was incredibly unnerving! Thankfully, there were no cracks, no falls and no one fell into the freezing water! That night I was really spellbound by the beauty of the Northern Lights. I didn't know in which direction to look as there was so much activity and it was all so amazing. At one point I just had to tilt the camera skywards to try and capture the magnitude of the movement above us. It was truly magical and an unforgettable experience. When the light show had vanished I returned to my cabin with my roomies, who went off to bed quite quickly. I knew I wouldn't get to sleep straight away, so I uploaded the photos to my computer. When I finally decided it was time to go to bed, at about 12.45pm, I decided to have one last peak out of the window, just in case there was any activity outside. There was! "I hate to tell you guys, but there's activity outside and it's pretty good!" I got my coat back on and picked up my gear quickly and was out the door in no time (the others had to get dressed again). I was met by Paul coming out of his cabin at the same time, who'd got the same idea. Not surprisingly, not everyone ventured back out! We drove back down to the dam and spent another hour photographing the lights. Every time the light was in some way different and unique. I was so glad I went back out as I got some more fabulous shots. I didn't get to bed that night until about 2am!
By the fourth night I wouldn't say we were blasé about it all, but there was definitely a calmer air amongst the group. Everyone was polite about where they were positioned, not wanting to be in someone's shot. Many would check with others first before putting on their torch lights. Since we had already bagged loads of great photos it gave us the chance to really be adventurous and try different things. We didn't snap away every minute of the whole display. There was time to soak it up and digest the experience and really be in the moment. There were so many moments! I never dreamed it would be so good, so varied and so amazing. There aren't enough superlatives to describe the wonder of it all!
The trip wasn't all about the Northern Lights and it was wonderful to get out and about and explore the nearby area too. Just having the time to drive around or walk with my camera, taking photos of whatever inspires me, is so relaxing and enjoyable. Since the sun never gets that high in the sky this far north at this time of year, the light was pretty good all day. I barely saw a cloud all week. It was particularly magical getting up for sunrise on a few of the mornings (despite going to bed so late) and enjoying the peaceful landscape virtually all to myself. Both times I got a sneak peak at the sea otter that inhabits the fjord. It seemed as curious of me as I was of it! I was even lucky enough to see some moose one evening, which was a first, and a herd of reindeer. The dramatic landscape of the Norwegian fjords is remarkable. I always thought I'd do a cruise to see it, but now I'm glad of the opportunity to see it by land. We only scratched the surface really and one paragraph here doesn't really do it justice. Amongst other things we enjoyed some ice fishing and a dip in the wood fired hot tub - great on a cold day! If we'd had time we could have tried cross country skiing and snow shoeing, which I would have loved to have done again. I'll just have to save that for next time. I'm pretty sure I'll go back. The Andoy Friluftssenter was an amazing location and I'd definitely stay there again and recommend it to others (see Further Details to find out more). The Vesteralen Islands really are a magical place and well worth a visit!
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Northern Lights in Vesteralen Islands, Norway
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