Seeing the Northern Lights for the First Time

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“We don’t always see the auroras,” he said, a small smile forming in his eyes as we drove into the night, “but let’s hope the Green Lady comes out to dance.”

I wasn’t convinced. After a failed week-long attempt to watch the northern lights in Iceland the year before, I was skeptical that I’d be able to see the aurora borealis at all during my 4 days in Tromso. As I planned my trip to Norway, I had to keep reminding myself that seeing the northern lights at all requires a lot of luck, and even then it’s often just a distant, faint blob in the night sky.

In the few days before I arrived, I kept a hawk-eye on the weather and an even closer watch on the aurora forecast. I probably checked at least four times a day, if not more, for minute changes in either forecast.

Every condition – the weather, the solar activity, the location – has to be perfect, I reminded myself, cynically.

Why the Northern Lights?

There’s something so surreal about natural phenomena. Much like the bioluminescent bays in the world, or the amazing caves, or incredible meteor showers, there’s no kind of wonder like that of seeing a beautiful display that the universe created. So, among the things that I’ve wanted to see for a very long time is the aurora borealis.

Caused by charged particles from the sun, the aurora borealis is basically a reaction of these particles with the magnetic field of the earth. These particles release certain colors of light depending on the wavelength of the energy and how fast they’re traveling. When they release light, it shows up to us as swirling colors in the sky. Often, the formations move slowly around the sky, but sometimes, they dance.

I wanted to see the aurora borealis in full dance mode.

Seeing the Northern Lights for the First Time

As we flew to Tromso late on a Sunday night, I gazed mindlessly out the window of the plane, forehead pressed to the glass. The sky was almost totally clear, just a few faint clouds here and there. Then, suddenly, as we barreled at 500 miles per hour toward the Arctic Circle, I saw something. Twinkling in the sky were some faint wisps of whitish-green, just beyond the wing. Could it be? Were these the northern lights?

I hastily covered my head with my jacket, as the lights in the plane cabin were on – an abrasive interruption to potentially the only chance I had to see the northern lights.

Although I could barely see them, my camera did give me confirmation that these were the northern lights. All of my blurry, grainy long-exposure shots from the window turned out some shade of green! However, in my several attempts to catch a single photo of these faint northern lights, all I came out with that night was this:

It was disappointing, but it gave me hope that I could experience them again, from the ground, in the following days to come.

Choosing a Northern Lights Tour

Upon our arrival in Tromso, we shopped around at the different tour operators, researching each one meticulously. As we searched for the best company, we stumbled upon a tour operator called Chasing Lights, which boasted expert tour guides with photography equipment, and (maybe more importantly) snacks!

When we entered their shop near the city center, a super friendly guy named Bert greeted us at the counter. He reassured us that, although the lights are never a guarantee, their drivers and guides were very experienced at “chasing” them. Essentially, this means looking for patches of clear, dark sky outside of Tromso’s light-polluted city limits, even if it means traveling as far away as Finland.

We were sold. Before we left the shop, we scheduled our tour for that same evening and planned to arrive at the bus stop at 5:45 PM sharp. I nervously checked the weather. Partly cloudy.

Chasing the Northern Lights

As we boarded the bus, our tour guide, Jonas, greeted us. He was a chipper guy who stood up in front of us, energetically giving us some ground rules about the chase.

“Seeing the northern lights requires three things,” he said, smiling, “The first is darkness. The second, clear sky. And the third? The actual aurora borealis.” He went on to tell us that without any one of those things, we wouldn’t be able to see the lights. I began to get a little nervous.

He also explained how the Chasing Lights tour would work. We would drive to the outskirts of the city and he would keep an eye outside, looking for patches of clear sky so we could change course if needed. He reiterated that, in our chase for the northern lights, we’d drive as far as Finland if we had to. Again, I leaned my head against the glass of the bus window, apprehensively staring outside for any sign of this elusive natural phenomenon. I begged Mother Nature to let us see them, just once, from the ground.

And then, there they were.

Like a laser beam shooting through the sky, a bright green strand of light flowed through the sky. This time, there was no doubt that these were the northern lights. I let out a squeal and pressed my face against the glass. This was it! Stop the bus! The northern lights were gracing us with their presence!

Minutes later, the bus pulled over into an alcove and we all sprinted off. It was such an amazing sight – a green flash of light amidst the dark, dark sky. I pulled out my camera, hands trembling in the freezing cold, and snapped a few blurry shots. I’d get better throughout the course of the night, but all I really wanted was to remember the feeling of seeing this beautiful display for the very first time.

Throughout the rest of the night, we’d travel to a few other locations to watch the lights swirl and dance before us, lighting the sky up in a shimmering green layer. We stood before a bonfire that Jonas made and warmed our cold limbs, the auroras igniting and fading above us for the rest of the night.

I couldn’t believe my luck. I finally saw the northern lights.

Awe That Brought Me to the Ground

You might as well, I tried to justify to myself, you’re only in Tromsø once.

So heavy was my heart after leaving my tour that I decided to fork out the money to book a second night. Additionally, upon looking through some of my photos, I realized that 90% of them were blurry, and I just didn’t want to leave potentially the only other time I’d have to see the northern lights on the table.

I’m so glad I did. As we were standing in a driveway overlooking the water, something amazing happened.

All of a sudden, there she was: a dancing, swirling laser beam in the dark night sky. But this time, the auroras shimmered with rays of pink, purple, green, and white, moving quickly through the sky with incredible speed and grace. I could hear the sounds of the people around me yelling and rejoicing, but it all melted away when I looked up.

Fumbling for my camera, I felt my body crumpling to the ground, in this crazy uncontrollable way. I landed on my knees on the hard, cold ice, tears forming in my eyes. I felt my heart pounding in my chest as I yanked my gloves off, moving my bare fingers around my camera body in the frozen night.

But I knew in my mind that this wasn’t a moment that could be captured in a photograph.

It was a scene I’ll never forget, a feeling of being paralyzed by my own awe and wonder, the mix of color and light painting a stunning abstraction in the night sky. After a moment or two, I put down the camera and decided to just bask in the moment, admiring these lights for all of their beauty. I breathed in the cold, Arctic night air and smiled, eyes wide open and heart grateful to have experienced, if just for a fleeting moment, the beauty and mystery of the world.

Additional Resources

Overall, I couldn’t have been happier with the Chasing Lights team or my experience seeing the northern lights (three times!) in Tromsø. There was really nothing like seeing the lights with my own eyes, and catching a few (non-blurry) photos of it, too.  If you’re looking for more tips on Tromsø or seeing the Northern Lights in other places, check out our resources below:

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Have you ever seen the northern lights? What was your experience like?

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Kay is a full-time working professional located in Washington DC who takes every spare vacation day to get outside and explore the world. When she travels, she loves visiting the most iconic and naturally beautiful destinations in the USA and abroad. You can typically find her wandering the streets of a city, running through a park, taking ridiculous self portraits, or hiking a mountain somewhere. Connect with Kay: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

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