A couple of months ago, I wrote a post listing 40 things I hope to do before I turn 40 next January. Some of the items are mundane (how to fold a shirt) while others are somewhat lofty (dive along the Great Barrier Reef) but I am happy to say that I managed to tick another item off of the list – #40: See the Northern Lights. Since adding them to my list, I have actually been lucky enough to see them on a few different occasions, first in Iceland and then in Norway. The most extraordinary display happened when I least expected it though, when I was all alone standing on the banks of a frozen river in Alta, Norway.
I was in Alta to experience winter in one of the northernmost cities in the world. Located well within the Arctic Circle, the small town of Alta is as far north of Oslo as Rome is south. It’s remote but not barren, instead I found a warm spirit and community that made me fall in love with this northern outpost almost immediately. It’s an outdoorsy kind of place, and my days were spent doing things like snowshoeing, riding on dog sleds and even taking specially designed fat-bikes out onto snowy mountain trails. My last evening in town was spent at the famous ice hotel, the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel. Located about 15 kilometers outside of Alta, Sorrisniva sits on the banks of the mighty Alta River, still thoroughly frozen when I visited in early March. The hotel is situated in what I would call affectionately the middle of nowhere, but that’s the point. The igloo wants to offer guests a chance to disconnect and relax, both of which I was happy to do.
After dinner though I was curious about the Northern Lights. Since we were so far out of town, there wouldn’t be any light pollution and as I peered out the window I could see the stars high overhead, a very good sign. Optimal conditions for the Northern Lights are cloudless nights with little or no wind. Having hunted a couple of times for the Lights, I know how hard they can be to spot so I wasn’t expecting a lot as I took my camera and tripod out onto the middle of the frozen Alta River.
The world-famous Finnmarksløpet dog-sled race was scheduled to start the next day from the very spot on which I stood on the ice. Lanes were marked, and volunteers were up late seeing to last minute changes. I kept away from them though, and instead found a quiet spot on the icy river, with the mountains in front of me and the igloo hotel to my back. Almost immediately I started to see the thin, wispy lines of the aurora borealis over the peaks ahead. From past experience I knew that to the untrained eye these faint manifestations of the Lights at first look like clouds. It’s not until photos are taken that you realize those streaks are actually green and aren’t clouds at all, but instead the Northern Lights.
I was cautiously excited. It was a great start to the evening and there are many people who go on organized Northern Lights tours who never see a thing, not even a thin wispy line of the aurora. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, more swirls and lines started to take shape, at first over the mountains in front of me, then also over the buildings behind me as well. I couldn’t believe my luck, the swirls kept increasing in magnitude, dancing around the sky. I mostly saw greens, but also flashes of reds and pinks in the Lights, rare colors to observe. Over the next hour or so, as I slowly froze, the Lights continued their show, giving me a private audience to one of the most amazing natural spectacles in the world. At one point the lights swirled all around me, creating a dome of arcing Lights in a display unlike anything else I have ever seen. I stopped trying to take photos and laid back on the ice, letting nature wow me with the performance. The solitude and the beauty were amazing and the ensuing experience is one I know I will remember forever. No other sounds, just my breathing in the cold night air as the sky erupted in a dancing, swirling mass of light. It was simply extraordinary and I immediately understood why Alta is known as the Northern Lights capital of the world.
While no one can ever guarantee seeing the Northern Lights, if this spectacle is on your bucket list like it was mine, do yourself a favor and plan a visit to the small northern city of Alta. Even if you don’t see the Lights, you’ll have a great time exploring the city and the pristine natural landscapes that surround it. But my fingers are crossed that you’ll get to experience the Northern Lights in their full glory just like I was lucky enough to see.
Have you seen the Northern Lights? Where were you?