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Chasing the Northern Lights- the Arctic Circle and Beyond


The magic of watching the aurora borealis fill and then dance across the night sky is a surreal experience that is well worth chasing! While the northern lights are caused by collisions of electrically charged particles entering the earth's atmosphere, it appears more like something from a scene in a Sci-Fi movie than reality. It is no surprise that our ancient ancestors had strong beliefs on what turned the sky into these brilliant hues, including many of the Nordic legends which portray them as a display from the gods as light reflected from the Valkyries' armor and shields.


Like many others, getting to see the northern lights in person was a life goal. It was not a quick process and was frequently filled with frustration, but when I finally caught my first glimpses all the previous frustrations began to fade away. My chase included a trek across Alaska two years prior where the cloudy weather only offered a slightly green glimmer, which may have been a weak sighting but was definitely a lot of disappointment.



The next year involved a road trip around the southern side of Iceland which had clearer skies, but still no light show. I began to question whether the photos that filled the internet were more credited to photoshop than reality. I put this bucket list item on pause for a few years until friends invited me on a winter trip up to the top of Norway. This brought back reminders of the previous failed attempts and while booking yet another Northern Lights excursion my level of optimism was not particularly high. Regardless of the outcome for seeing the lights though, the trip was bound to be a good time with our plans for dog sledding, exploring the sleepy town of Tromsø, and of course having a beer tasting at Mack's, the northern most brewery in the world.



The detailed itinerary for the day was stacked with exciting plans. We bundled up for a long day in the bitter cold and loaded up before the sun rose to head off for our morning adventures of dog sledding and playing with the puppies. Afterwards we thawed out in a heated lavvo before we left the camp for Tromsø and our evening adventure of chasing lights. Our guide offered extra massive snow suits for the cold journey further north as we climbed into the toasty warm bus starting to buzz on excitement and gluhwein. With cameras charged, flasks in hand, and layered like Ralphie's little brother on A Christmas Story, we waddled on to the bus and were off.



We finally arrived to a small open area surrounded by trees far away from all lights which our guide claimed was one of the best places. Seemingly on cue, green light began to faintly make its way on to the horizon for the opening scene of the performance. We knew that we had lucked out as the show continued growing in size and intensity and our guide ran around shrieking in delight and calling us over to join her and watch the strongest demonstrations. She snapped our photos with the brilliant green backdrop for the few minutes that our eyes weren't glued upwards.



After years of chasing the lights, the final performance far exceeded all of my expectations! It looked like the sky was dancing to a song we simply couldn't hear but one that was certainly a grand symphony. After over 30 minutes of the brilliant light show, our guide welcomed us to cozy up in thick blankets and warm up around a massive bonfire while sipping on hearty soup and steaming cups of rich hot cocoa.



As the lights began to fade, we reloaded onto the bus for one final venture across the border into Sweden and the last glimpses of the northern lights before our drive back to town.



Looking back on this grand chase, I remember the disappointing nights checking apps for when and where the lights were predicted and squinting hard at the sky trying to make out something that resembled the aurora borealis, but after finally catching one of their performances I can truly say it was worth it! Whether you see them on the first attempt or have to make several tries, keep chasing!


The best locations for seeing the Northern Lights:

-Tromsø, Norway

-Reykjavik, Iceland (outskirts of the city)

-Fairbanks, Alaska

-Northern Sweden and Finland

-Greenland

-Northern Canada

There are also auroras in the South Pole which can be seen from Antartica, Australia and New Zealand



What to bring:

-Professional camera- wide lens and time lapse on a tripod is ideal. Our guide also brought a camera and got great shots of the night display

-Lights tracking app- I used Aurora Alerts but there are many different ones available

-Hot drinks to warm up- hot cocoa with some whiskey did the trick for us

-Lots of Layers- it gets very cold very quickly after the sun drops!