If you are a traveler, then the northern lights (Aurora borealis) is probably on your bucket list too. I'm no exception, and share that dream of staring at the dancing green lights, maybe even more intensely so, that I have openly proclaimed my intention to see them for over 9 years now. As soon as an opportunity presented itself, I seized it.
Note: If you just want to hear about the northern lights, Skip to Day 4. But if you enjoy, ice and the Fjords read on.
You know you are flying to the Nordics when you see a lady knitting at lightning-speed the whole two hours sitting next to you on the flight. I landed at night in the city of Tromsø after a short stop over in Oslo. The first change I strongly felt was the insanely high prices and the non-existent Covid19 regulations. After contemplation, I also decided to shed the face mask in Tromsø.
Being displaced from a concrete jungle into the midst of the Fjords inside the Arctic Circle felt profound. I did nothing else that night except getting a taxi ride to the AirBnB, where I was welcomed with a sheet of ice that I had to carefully maneuver my luggage over, and a friendly young English couple, who were co-inhabitants of the AirBnB.
My fellow travelers were arriving a day later, but I should rather say that I arrived a day earlier than planned as I committed to the trip a month later than they did and the flight to arrive today was more reasonably priced.
Did I think twice about arriving in a Country I have never been before, all by myself? Absolutely, not.
I went to bed in my private bed room, which offered little to no distractions, as it was very small, except the Large window directly opposite the bed which projected the snowcapped mountains of the Fjord into my thoughts.
I learnt that things don’t always go as planned up north, one must have a plan B or even a plan C. I had a snowshoeing tour of the fjords booked, which was cancelled last minute due to bad weather. It was clear that the rest of the week was going to be rainy, cloudy and our chances of seeing the Northern lights, close to null. This did deter my spirit a bit but I was determined to explore the region for its other features.
Now, instead of the last two hours I had the whole day to myself until my friends arrived later that night. I slowly slipped into the Arctic’s way of thinking by getting a piece of their history at the Polar museum downtown. The arctic hunters and trappers that over-wintered are celebrated here as heroes. Trust me I had no idea what trapping and over-wintering meant before the visit. Look it up, it's interesting.
Hoping then to get to the modern Arctic Cathedral on the other side of the Tromsø bridge, I ventured to cross it on foot which would have been a breeze on a fine summer day, but today was not one such day. It was a battle, Man vs Wind. I instantly knew that attempting to walk on the bridge was a bad idea. I got to the middle and felt the entire wrath of the Fjord blow against me as wind. Tears didn't roll down but they were brushed back by the wind. I decided to keep the Arctic Cathedral for another day and headed to the Harbor (køi).
Cruise ships frequently docked at the harbor and the entire coastline of the city was bottled with small docks with yachts and boats. Instead of a tourist cruise package I opted to explore the fjords in the shoes of a local, opting for the local transport - the Express Boats.
TIP: Express Boats connected several islands in the Fjord, cost way lesser than the tour boats, had their schedules available on Google as well as an App called the TromsoBillet. Tickets can be purchaed in this app or at the harbor. With Google navigation I was able to pick a ferry that would take me to an Island called Lysnes and back to Tromsø that same day. One has to be vary as there are some boat routes that do not offer a return trip until the following day.
The express boat was, as the name suggests, fast, and my attempt to step outside the glass doors showed how fast we are really moving on the water. It took some effort to work against the wind, get a grip on a railing and walk up to the top deck (which I later learnt was off bounds to passengers), where I used all my energy to stay put, let alone trying to take photos or videos.
The boat on the inside was very comfortable and had a self serve beverage and snack area, and my mobile data plan didn't fail me as I was listenin' to Disney's Frozen playlist.
After the round trip, I had time to explore the quaint little city of Tromsø, finding the one road which formed the backbone of the city with all shops and restaurants.
Among the offerings were, fur, real and faux, winter gear for everyone's taste, tasting boards of Whale, Moose and Reindeer sausages. I braved the tasting of these meats; no regret having reindeer meat, a common local delicacy, indifferent toward the Moose, but taking an oath never to reach for the whale meat ever again.
I have already been on the island the whole day which qualified me to buy a souvenir. I hadn't seen the lights, the lights that so gracefully made an appearance for travelers just a day before I arrived. I bought a magnet, with no green color whatsoever on it.
As I continued the stroll, I found Nitty Gritty, a restaurant serving burgers and all good things and dinner was taken care of. The American couple next to me, were quite conversational and shared their experiences, including how they had seen the extravagant show in the sky not but 2 days ago. I enjoyed the specialty burger and watched as the rain turned to snow outside.
I was later enjoying a drink in the Magic Ice bar which is close to the harbor, picking up conversations with other travelers, while my friends finally arrived. This unique bar was my favorite spot in the city.
Another rainy day in town, this time we were visiting a different island in the Archipelago, but first a visit to the Arctic Cathedral.
People in northern Norway are very friendly. They love what they do and welcome others cheerfully. Now this next story is about why I think so. On today's boat ride I observed two ladies one of whom was knitting a scarf while chatting up her lady friend.
This wasn't the first time I saw a knitting enthusiast in this part of the world. I was so intrigued by the craft that when I spotted a knitting shop in Tromsø I had walked in and had already bought a kit for myself, but knowing nothing at all about it. Now was my chance to go a step further.
I walked up to the lady in the express boat and asked if she could show me how to get started with my knitting kit. The lady that was knitting immediately put away her needles and started to show me how I would start. Step 1 was to make a ball of yarn from the loosely packed yarn I had bought. She held out the yarn with two hands as the other lady started to show me how to get rolling .. I took over and did a pretty good job according to one of them. The lady holding the yarn around her two hands started to sway the yarn like as if in a dance, to help me keep rolling the ball of yarn, as my ball grew the yarn around her hands reduced. And it was time to get off the ferry but I can’t wait to get home and continue.
[Retrospectively, I never managed to properly knit anything, now the kit will be safely handed over to my mom, whom I have high hopes for.]
We had sushi dinner, found the below dog sculpture and called it a night. There wasn't any hope for the lights that night.
On Sunday we had an exciting day planned, dog sledging and visiting the Ice Domes. This was partially cancelled, this time it wasn't the weather but the dog sled instructor that called in sick. Persuaded by my friend the touring company allowed us to board the bus slightly latter then planned to visit the Tromsø Ice Domes.
I figured, by road, was the best way to see the Fjords, and with the sun shining, it made the bus ride memorable. Yes, you heard me right, we finally merited a sunny day in the Fjords.
On arrival, we were greeted warmly by the hosts of the Tromsø Ice Domes, first, into a warm cabin with a fireplace in the center where were served a warm blueberry drink followed by Polar bread with Lamb stew with all locally sourced ingredients.
We sat in the warm cabins as the sun shone on the ice igloos outside. I had the chance to fly my drone here, close to the husky kennels where the sled dogs lived.
Inside the domes was an ice theater, an ice bar and several bedrooms. The host Jonas narrated stories about the massive ice carvings that ornamented the inner walls of the dome as we took a shot in a ice shot glass.
The first narration was about the Sami people who are native dwellers of the land and are Reindeer Herders. If you are interested in tasting reindeer meet, Tromsø is a great place for it, as there are many domestic Reindeer farms near by which are owned and maintained by Sami.
The next two ice sculptures were about the Vikings who are also inhabitants of the region. Let me throw some names here, Midgard, Asgard, Loki. You can imagine why we all stayed hooked onto the story. My favorite narrative was about the 9 realms in the Tree of life and the prophecies about Ragnarok which is the destruction of the Tree of life.
The bedrooms had magnificent carvings too! Each with a Large King bed covered in Reindeer fur, which, I figured, was not my kind of den as I grew averse to the natural scent of the Reindeers.
Following the excursion we decided to get some rest in hopes that tonight was going to be a long one. By 9PM we already turned our living room into an observatory for the night sky by turning off all indoor lights. But the lights didn’t appear. When it became pitch dark we headed out with the car to chase the Aurora.
The Aurora forecast (See the end of this post for details) didn’t give us too much hope but enough to pursue. The website said ‘Try’. The Kp index was however measuring at Kp0/kp1 But the forecast for midnight was a minimum Kp0 & maximum Kp2. It really was just a gamble. But I have been saying my prayers from the time I saw the clouds clear up that morning.
Off we went, into the dark, into the unknown. We sketched up a route west of the city toward the Summer island, Sommarøy. The Fjords looked majestic at night and more so with the lit villages lacing it. I asked to pullover to take a night time photo of a village, as I clicked capture on my iPhone and it started counting down from 3 (3 second long exposure), on waiting still, the capture was taken. It was a beautiful shot, but I wanted to try again, staying extra careful not to shakes I looked at the final image I saw something above the mountains, in the sky. (I get goosebumps as I type) Was it my first look at the Northern Lights ?
At this point I couldn’t see with my naked eyes. But yes the lights were there and they were starting to become visible. We were all in awe as we got our first capture of the lights just a 15 minute drive from Tromsø island.
I was perplexed and unable to believe that this is finally happening..
Once the light faded in this spot, we drove further and pulled over where another van had stopped and we saw some photographers trying hard to setup their tripods. This was going to be our next sighting and indeed it was!
The sky was clear but there blew a tempest of a wind outside the car. Most of the next hour was spent inside the car with brief bursts of stepping out. The three of us inside the car were variably equipped with cameras, I only my iPhone 13 Pro, another a digital camera with tripod and the third an Android phone that could capture a time lapse of the night sky. All three of which were insufficient on their own and we worked as a team, the iPhone being the quickest to identify the spot for the aurora borealis, the Android phone was then pointed in that direction to capture a time lapse of the dancing lady, while the professional cam shots great long exposure photos. The tripod, however, couldn't handle the wind outside the car, so most photos had been captured by hand held cameras.
Meanwhile, I also downloaded the app called 'Night Cap' which proved to be my savior and I could capture every moment of that magical night in Long exposure video format and slight jitters didn't cause the video to blur.
As we continued the drive toward Sommerøy island, the activity was so high that we kept seeing it everywhere in the sky. The next spot we pulled over was the most epic show of all. We just sat there not speaking a word, mesmerized. Not only did our cameras but so did we, with our naked eyes, see the entire sky being painted in green ribbons.
Go to the end of this post for tips on catching the Northern Lights.
The cloud cover took over again.
We had our rental car, enough fuel and some snack and traced back our way toward the ice domes. We first visited the nearest Reindeer farm, although an entry was denied, I think I spotted Rudolf from looking through the fence.
The rest of the drive was to take place in our own pace, stopping anywhere so scenic that it cannot be passed by without digitally imprinting it in our memory cards. I had several occasions where the drone was flown.
My favorite spot was where the Fjord was completely frozen between the mountains, and some men ventured to walk on the ice to go Ice fishing. I did not do the same but simply flew by them to capture the scene of them fishing while the birds flew around in anticipation of their success.
The road trip was followed by a short cooking session and then a very easy hike around the neighborhood where we stayed. It wouldn't be a bad idea to spend a few months living here and experiencing the local way of life I thought.
The only show tonight was put forth by the well lit city and the Arctic Cathedral, there was no activity above the Horizon.
The last day of the trip was for a round of shopping, and early arrival at the airport. I said my good bye to the city that made a long unfulfilled dream come true.
Tips for catching the Northern Lights in Norway:
1. Track Predictions: Predictions for lights in various regions are quite accurate in norway-lights.com. Just find the city you are located in and note if it says Try or Go, in either case there is a chance of sighting. It constantly changes so check every half hour at least. We we started the chase the Website said 'Try', I checked again when we spotted the lights and the website had updated it to 'Go'.
2. Transport: They don't use the word chasing for no reason, Its is better to travel by car or a van to chase the lights to go after these lights. A bike is not a good option as it gets extremely windy up north. There are also options to book a norther lights tour by van or boat if you are in a city like Tromsø.
3. Camera: The lights might be right there and you can't see it. A long exposure camera is a must have to be able to spot the lights. When the activity gets high enough you can see them with your naked eyes. In case you are, using an iPhone, the NightCap app was perfect to shoot footages of the lights dancing. See sample GIF generated from the Night Cap Time lapse under Day 4, the original of, course had better quality. Tripods, if planned to be used need to be heavy enough to bear the wind.
4. Prepare to stay up late. Save your energy for the night, if you plan to chase the lights. Pack some sustenance. And don't give up :)
5. Dress for the weather. Gloves are a must have.
6. Chance: The likelihood of seeing the lights depends on the time of year and increases with the length of your stay. By all means do not just plan a short weekend trip.
All the Best!