Chasing the Northern Lights in Tromso Norway

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There were two things I wanted to experience during our recent winter trip to Tromso, Norway: Polar Night and the Northern Lights. Polar Night is easy to experience, because all you have to do is show up and it is there. Polar Night exists just by being there (Tromso is located about 400 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle) during the approximately six weeks in winter when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon. Experiencing the Northern Lights is a different thing altogether, however. Sure, we were there at the right time (dark, cold nights in winter) in the right area (Tromso is considered one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights- at least of those places that are easily accessible), and often the right weather (cold but often clear).

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Of course for those who have chased the Northern Lights, they know it is not that simple or easy. Successfully seeing the Northern Lights can be such a hit or miss affair. Sure, the weather is typically clear and cold, but it isn’t always. I mean, Tromso doesn’t get covered in snow in the middle of winter without some clouds and snow falling. A good example is that there were days and days of snow before we arrived in Tromso and some snow while we were there, and if the weather is cloudy and snowy, the chances of seeing the lights are almost nil. Then even if it is clear, that doesn’t mean the lights will show up. It also depends on the level of solar activity hitting the Earth’s magnetic poles, and to make things more questionable, we are heading into a downcycle of solar activity for the next few years. And even if the conditions are right, timing is also critical. They are more likely to show up late at night, but that could be relatively early in the evening, or it could be hours after midnight. You could go out all night on a clear, cold night and still not guaranteed to see them.

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So, while you can set the conditions as much as possible to see the Northern Lights, you are never guaranteed that they will appear.  It is what makes setting a vacation around seeing them so fraught with nerves, but so exciting and exhilarating if you do see them. Knowing all this, I did what I could to set the conditions to maximize seeing the Northern Lights on this trip to Norway. I budgeted three days in Tromso, and an additional three days on the Norwegian coast cruise. I booked a couple of Northern Lights tours while we were in Tromso, and knew that if they appeared during our cruise, our captain would alert everyone. I figured, we had to see them at least once in a week, right?

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Thankfully we were successful on our first Northern Lights tour in Tromso, because we really didn’t see them too much after that. But the first night made it worth it. Both Mom and I have seen the Northern Lights before in Alaska and Iceland, but there is something special about seeing them in Norway for me, especially since northern Norway is a winter wonderland of snow this time of year.

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Choosing which tour company to use was an interesting experiment in research and sometimes blind  hope. As you can imagine, there are scores of Northern Lights tours offered in Tromso, so it is just a matter of choosing which one is right for you and your wallet (since none of them are cheap, but some are more expensive than others). I knew that I didn’t want one of those big bus tours, having done one in Iceland. Yes, those tours are the cheapest, but they are going to be the most crowded, since they use a large bus. Big groups of people don’t really enhance your Northern Lights viewing experience, and it can be a detractor, plus the fact that these big bus tours are more limited in where they can go.

Northern Lights-14There are many, many options for the smaller group tours, though it will require some research. After careful selection, I chose the Creative Vacations Aurora Photo Tour. I was drawn to the fact that the groups are small (no more than 12 people per night), so you are transported in vans, but I was especially drawn to the fact that the tour guide will show you how to best photograph the Northern Lights, which is something I wanted to do.

In my previous Northern Lights experiences, I wasn’t really able to capture some good photos. I knew the basic requirements on how to photograph the Northern Lights, but it requires proper camera settings (a bit easier on a DSLR, though there are apparently phone apps that also help you take aurora photos), a good tripod, AND extra batteries, none of which I had with me. But since this tour provides a tripod and good instruction on proper camera settings, I figured this was my best opportunity to capture them. And if we did any subsequent aurora tours, I would know what were the proper settings for my camera. Our tour guide, Vidar is a professional photographer and he took the time to personally set the settings on my DSLR camera to best capture them. Some of the settings I knew about (such as adjusting the shutter speed to 30 seconds-later reduced to 15 seconds, because the lights were so bright), but some of the other settings were especially helpful.

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Another nice thing this tour (and most of the small group tours) provided was snow suits. Even if you have your own snow gear, it was still nice to add even warmer snow boots and suits, because you will be outside for hours on end (though you can warm up in the van if needed).

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Because seeing the Northern Lights is so weather dependent, there isn’t one location the tours venture out to each night. Sometimes if the weather is cloudy in Tromso, they end up driving to Finland or Sweden for viewing (it’s not as far as it might sound, since the Finnish and Swedish borders were probably only an hour’s drive or more away from Tromso). Thankfully this night, the aurora forecast was good. The sky was supposed to be clear, the wind minimal and the chances for viewing were the best they had been in a week.

Because of the favorable conditions, we did our viewing on a nearby island that wasn’t that far of a drive from Tromso. But it was still isolated enough for no ambient light to interfere with our viewing pleasure. The setting was really nice, with some mountains and a lake in the background. Even though most of the group went down to the lake’s edge, I chose to stay up on the road simply because they snow was deep, I am clumsy, and I was likely to fall going down. Even though we were set up on the road, the road was completely isolated and there was no traffic in the hours we were out there.

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Once we got into position, it was just a matter of waiting. And that is the biggest thing you will do on these tours- wait. Even if conditions are perfect for aurora viewing, it’s not like they show up on a specific schedule. You know they are likely to show up after midnight (though in Tromso, they often appeared as early as 2100 or 2200 at night), but they might not. They might take their sweet time appearing, and they might stay for hours, or they might make an appearance of only minutes. Our guide told us stories about a previous night’s tour where they drove all the way to Finland, and the lights did appear, but only for about 15 minutes.

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Thankfully this was not going to be one of those nights. This was going to be a night of some good aurora viewing. When they first appeared, they were so faint in the sky, that sometimes I wasn’t sure if I was looking at auroras or just some clouds (we had a near full moon out with us that night to light up the clouds around us). But as Vidar pointed out, my camera can pick up on those colorful nuances better than my eye, and he was right. I started taking some pictures and the lights slowly made their appearance.

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It’s funny that when the lights just tease you in the beginning, you get so excited, because they are actually appearing. But the lights got stronger, brighter and better as the night wore on. They went from just some faint streaks of green, to wide swaths of green, flowing and swirling across the winter expanse. The colors got brighter and it was amazing to get these photos of the Northern Lights high in the sky, and often reflected in the lake below.

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It’s hard to stop taking pictures, because I just wanted to capture as many as I could, because you never know when the show is going to stop. The biggest hurdle to capturing all the photos you want is the cold, time, and of course battery life. I had bought a few extra camera batteries, because I knew that the extreme cold drains battery power quickly. I was actually surprised at how long my first camera battery lasted, but of course it eventually drained. Maybe it was the increasing cold or the fact they were new, but my subsequent batteries didn’t have much power to them.

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By the time we left our first site, I had captured dozens of beautiful Northern Lights photos, and my camera was drained dry. On our way back, we stopped at a second site for at least an hour, and I’ll admit to being a bit irked at that at first. I was cold, a bit tired, and it’s not like I was going to get any more pictures. For the most part, there were only limited auroras, but by the end of our stop, they had gotten pretty bright, and I wished I had a working camera to capture them. It’s one of those lessons in aurora photographing- you never know if they will show up, or how long they will show up, so it’s hard to plan your photography if you have limited supplies. But it’s one of those things you get what you get, and enjoy whatever it is you get. So even though I wasn’t able to photograph those later lights, I still can remember how bright they were across the sky.

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I can’t recommend a good aurora tour enough if you are in Tromso in the winter. There are many tours available, though I was very pleased with Creative Vacations. So pleased that we did a daylight tour (the subject of a coming blog). Aurora viewing is something you can’t guarantee to see, but if you have the opportunity to see them, the experience will sear into your memory. Just make sure you take enough camera batteries to capture it all.

Fairbanks Chena Hot Springs Resort in Winter

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I have always been a fan of very cold winters. I elected to go to Iceland in March one year, specifically because I wanted to see the country in winter, and hopefully see the Northern Lights. While I did see the Northern Lights, they certainly weren’t bright like the pictures. So I did some more research to discover that Fairbanks, Alaska is one of the best places to see the Northern Lights, at least in the United States. It took me a few years, because I was living overseas for a couple years, but I finally had the opportunity to go up to Fairbanks in January 2015. I figured New Years would be a great time to visit Fairbanks, since it is pretty cold and dark, and would provide a great opportunity to (hopefully, since the auroras can never be predicted) see some beautiful Northern Lights.

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Some quick research of potential places to visit in Fairbanks yielded me Chena Hot Springs Resort. It’s located about 60 miles outside of Fairbanks, basically in the middle of nowhere, and therefore a great opportunity to indulge in some (really) cold winter activities and see some Northern Lights well outside the lights of the city. Chena Hot Springs offers up a wide variety of packages, and I selected the  four-day Aurora Odyssey package for my mom and me. The package offered up a selection of activities, including a night time Aurora Snowcoach tour and a dogsled ride. It was an opportunity to do some things I had never done before in a cold place I had never been before.

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Due to the timing of flights and the timing of check in at the resort, my mother and I flew into Fairbanks the night before our check in at Chena Hot Springs, and stayed the night at a very comfy lodge, the Pike’s Waterfront Lodge, which is near the airport and right on the Chena River. The next morning we took a shuttle bus to the resort, which is about 90 minutes away from Fairbanks in winter weather.

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I knew that there wasn’t much daylight in Fairbanks during winter. Reading up on the sunrise and sunset times for Fairbanks, there was officially four hours per day of sunlight when we were visiting. So I expected to spend most of my vacation in darkness, and that appealed to me as well. If I ever get the opportunity, I want to go north of the Arctic Circle in winter time to experience polar night where the sun never rises, just like I experience midnight sun in the summer, when the sun never set. However, what surprised me is how much light there is on either side of sunrise and sunset. It started getting light about two hours before official sunrise and it stayed light about two hours after official sunset. But because of our location, I never actually saw the sun the first four days of our trip. Sure it was sunny and beautiful out most of the days and I enjoyed the brilliant light, but the sun just never rose high enough in the sky to actually see over the mountaintops.

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For the most part, there are limited scheduled activities at the resort. We had four days out at the resort, and the only scheduled activities we had were the Aurora Snowcoach trip one of the nights, a trip to the Aurora Ice Museum (a follow on blog post) and a dogsled ride. That left a whole lot of time to do whatever we wanted.

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We both walked around the resort on many of the nature trails. Sure there were inches of snow on the ground, but the resort took the time to ensure walking paths were available and packed the snow down. One morning I got up early (for the area anyway, since I started hiking about 0900, two hours before official sunrise) and did some hiking along the ridge trail. I hiked about one hour up the trail, before deciding to turn around because the snow was a lot more unpacked, deeper and harder to walk in (plus I couldn’t get the thought out of my head that I was being stalked by wolves- which I wasn’t). The view from the trail was very beautiful. The air was clear and cold, the silence and absolute solitude was peaceful, the light was beautiful, changing from the blue of the pre-dawn to a gorgeous salmon light shining on the mountaintops (even though I still couldn’t see the actual sun).

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Fairbanks in the winter is also an opportunity to experience some serious cold. I have experienced single digit temperatures on occasion here and there, but winter in Fairbanks is frequently much, much colder, especially with wind chill. I was looking forward to it, so imagine my surprise and chagrin when we arrived our first night at the temperature was in the low 30s. Yes, the temperature rose to be around 32 degrees so it snowed. It sounds like it could be cold, but that temperature is basically spring thaw weather, and it was exceedingly out of character for Fairbanks in January. It actually snowed the first day we were there, but thankfully the temperature dropped into the single digits and the sun came out.

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That also meant clear nights out to see the auroras. The auroras would make their first appearance around 10 pm, but then disappear until around 1-2 am, when they would come dancing out over skies. Our first two nights were cloudy, because it was so warm so no auroras were visible, but the last two nights were dark, clear and cold. On the third night, we got the aurora call from the front desk at 10 pm and bundled up to hike up to the aurorium to see more aurora. I had forgotten to bring a flashlight, but luckily our stay coincided with the full moon, so we had enough light to hike up the hill in the middle of the night. We stayed up until about 12:30 am the third night, but after seeing nothing, and because I assumed we wouldn’t see anything, because the weather wasn’t perfectly clear, we went back to our rooms to sleep. Of course we found out later that day that the auroras came out around 2 am and were so bright, with colors of green, pink and purple.

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I had to kick myself for not waiting, but the next night we went out on the Aurora Snowcoach tour that took us to a nearby hill out in the middle of nowhere. The aurora schedule mirrored the night before. They were initially out in force around 10 pm as we ascended the mountain. I kept straining my head for a good view, but by the time we reached the top, they had disappeared. The next three hours were filled with cold and disappointment (luckily they had heated tents with hot beverages so we weren’t outside for those three hours), and doubt they would appear. Just because the conditions are right for aurora, there is no guarantee they will actually appear. Of course, shortly before 2 am when we were supposed to come down the mountain, the auroras came out in force and were bright green, dancing overhead with long swirly streaks. While the guides kept trying to usher us back into the snowcoaches, we weren’t having any of that, and stayed as long as we could to enjoy the sights. I deliberately didn’t bring my camera with me, because I wanted to just take in the experience and see the lights, and not have to worry about camera settings or getting the best picture. I just wanted to treasure these memories, with the hope of coming back later to take pictures. I am very glad that I got to see the Northern Lights, though that engendered a desire to see more. I REALLY want to come back to Fairbanks in the winter (preferably around the new moon) to see more auroras. What I learned from this experience is to have patience. Sure there are no guarantees they will appear, but I can’t give up until around 3-4 am. I mean, that is one of the main reasons to come to Chena Hot Springs in the winter anyway, so take full advantage of it and stay up all night. Chances are you won’t be disappointed.

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This trip was one of the best winter trips I have ever taken. Sure I didn’t see as many auroras as I wanted, but I still did see them. I got some great hiking in, and enjoyed clear, pristine weather in a gorgeous location. Our final day, when we were at the airport getting ready to leave, I finally saw the actual sun for the first time in several days, as it rose beautifully above the horizon. Fairbanks is definitely not a place to be missed if you like cold winter and beautiful nature.

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