Hunting the Northern Lights

So you probably already know that I got my first chance to see the Northern lights in Rovaniemi, Finland on the Arctic Circle. I did witness something I had on my bucket list for several years, and yes, it was one of the most memorable experiences I ever had!

Just imagine the anticipation and the excitement. And the first advice I’m going to give you will probably be the craziest, but…

1. ….don’t go for the Northern Lights

I have a very dear friend who spent 3 winter months in Finland, visited Sweden and Iceland during winter but she never had the chance to see the Northern lights. She was the one preparing me mentally… and she was right. 

If you’re planning a trip remember this: don’t go just for the Northern Lights. Go for the destination, go for the memories, the activities, the expedition, the people, the food. That was her advice to me and probably the best advice.

2. Avoid light pollution 

We had 3 nights in the Arctic so we were coming up with strategies for maximising our chances… the very second we checked in, I asked what were the best spots to see the Aurora. They told us we got high chances to seeing the Northern Lights in the Park in Rovaniemi. 

First night

it was cloudy and a snowstorm just stopped an hour before we landed. Yes, weather in the arctic changes in the blink of an eye! It was cloudy so 0 chances to see the Lights.

Second night

clear sky, I checked all the Aurora Forecast apps I had on my phone (not going to lie, I installed 6 and used 4 of them), all the apps showed high chances of Auroras. 

It was about 10 pm when I received the notification: Aurora will be visible in one hour! WE were THRILLED. We immediately layered up and hurried to arrive in the park. Surprise surprise, we did not see ANYTHING, in the meantime the Apps were buzzing with notifications that the Northern Lights are visible… 

The Lights were there but it was our job to search for the most favourable viewing conditions…. In the meantime we enjoyed being the only people out :))

Third night

our last chance to see the Northern Lights… The sky was super clear but this time the Aurora Forecast Apps were pessimistic … 26% chances! TWENTY-SIX!!! But our mind was set on it. We had to see them and we somehow believed we’re going to see them, so we booked an Aurora Hunting and Photography tour… 

3. Weather and darkness play a big part 

The weather and the Northern Lights are super unpredictable. Guess it’s not a surprise that you need a clear sky to see the phenomena, so before you book a flight to the Arctic check the monthly precipitation average and make sure it’s low. Also make sure you’ll get enough hours of darkness a day – don’t forget that during summer the sun will stay continuously above the horizon for 24 hours. I guess September-October and February- March have been some amazing months for Aurora hunters. The lights are there all year round but the optimal viewing conditions are in complete darkness.

4. The Sun plays a major role

Maybe this comes as a surprise, but the Northern Lights become more visible in line with the Sun’s activity and the Solar Magnetic Activity Circle, which has an average duration of 11 years. The Sun is now approaching its Solar Minimum, which means a period with less Solar activity, also less chances to see bright Auroras. (The Solar Maximum cycle ended in 2013)

The Auroras are formed when the solar flares interact with the Earth’s magnetic field, the sun particles enter our atmosphere and collide with gas storms. The aurora forecast apps predict the lights level based on sun activity but the predictions are not always accurate.

5. The aurora borealis appears in a spectrum of colors 

The colour is determined by the attitudes at which the Northern lights occur. 

The most common aurora – the yellowish\ green (occurs at 100-240km above Earth’s surface)

Red auroras – the rare red glow is produced by high-altitude oxygen (occurs at above 240 km)

Blue or purple auroras are produced by Nitrogen (they occur below 100km)

6. Location

You need to be in the aurora zone 65° – 72° North. But if you happen to be in the Southern Hemisphere, you get the chance to see the Auroras during Southern Hemisphere winter time between March and September.

7. The Adventure

We booked our Safari, received warm clothes and headed north. 

The drive was approximately one hour from Rovaniemi and we arrived in the middle of nowhere in the mountains. The second we got out of the car, we were able to see some green lights, despite the small chances, the lights were there, waiting for us. They were bright and I even managed to take a photo with my mobile device:

The Climb

We received some lanterns for the uphill climb but we were only allowed to point them to the ground. We were in a hurry to reach the top of the hill in order to get a better view of the lights. At approximately -20C we all overheated, I was literally sweating.

Once the hike was over, we had to switch all light sources off. We were on the top of a hill, our eyes had to get used to the darkness. 

We spent the next 30 minutes looking at the sky, our guide told us how Auroras are formed and the members of the group with tripods prepared their cameras to surprise the dance. The brightness of the Lights faded and I wasn’t able to take any photos with my phone. I didn’t have a tripod with me and this is what I managed to photograph without one (haha, what a joke):

The Aurora wasn’t as bright, so we went inside the TeePee nearby to warm up by the fire. One of the guides waited outside in the cold and he called for us each time the Lights got brighter.  

Shooting Auroras

I knew that having a sturdy tripod is absolutely essential in order to shoot the lights, however I had no space in my carry-on for it. Since I wanted so badly to see the Auroras, I kinda did not care that I won’t be able to shoot them. We booked a photography tour and they told us we will receive the photos the guides take via e-mail.

However, the more I travel, the more I believe in the kindness of strangers! We were inside the Teepee, cracking jokes, eating by the fire and getting to know each other. There was a girl from New York who traveled alone, she noticed that I did not have a tripod with me, suddenly looks at me and says: “I noticed you have a camera, but not a tripod. If you want to, you can borrow mine for a minute next time we go outside. To take some pictures with your own camera” I thanked her politely. Soon after we got called outside, the show was on.

Once I put my camera on the tripod the lights were suddenly brighter and this is what I got:

The night continued to be magical. We got back in the Teepee to warm up by the fire, this time, I was beyond happy: I managed to see the lights and to SHOOT them!!! 

8. The Legends

We continued the night drinking warm beverages and eating while listening to myths and legends about the Northern lights.

Here are some interesting ones I remember:

  • If a woman watches the Northern Lights while giving birth, she feels no pain.
  • Sami people, which are the native people in Lapland believed that the Lights are bad Omen, so they hid inside their houses when the Lights were present on the Sky.
  • The Finnish word for Aurora is “revontulet” which translates as “fire fox”, there are lots of legends about a wild fox with a firing tail, a mystical creature running through the forests of Finland.

Did you get the chance of seeing the Aurora?

If you did, how was your experience?

xoxo Claudia

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