When chasing the Northern Lights, there are no guarantees. Conditions can change in an instant. A promising forecast can evaporate. The atmosphere can refuse to cooperate. And even when there is a fantastic display, clouds can completely scuttle the view. How well we know this.
After four nights on our cruise along the coast of Norway dedicated to this pursuit, we have seen only a faint glow. While the trip's daytime scenery has been stunning, the unspoken disappointment over the lack of a nighttime performance is a minor undercurrent. But we still have three more nights on shore in Tromso to score an Aurora.
When I enter the visitor center, it is packed with people all anxious to see the Northern Lights. The number of tour operators promising to mine their expertise, drive to different locations all night long, and deliver a memorable experience is astounding. These visitors are prepared to fork over a small fortune, and they anxiously deliberate the selection of a tour operator and the night they will take their chance. I, on the other hand, am here merely to purchase a parking pass. My tour guide is en route with a rental car, already armed with weather forecasts, Aurora apps, alerts, Kp index and solar activity ratings. Rich may be as qualified as any expert out there.
With Tromso still socked in with clouds, we layer ourselves in warm clothes, collect cameras and tripods and begin our chase after dinner. Rich is buoyed by the recent reports, revealing that “the numbers” are suddenly escalating. The key will be to find open skies. Rich's research convinces him we should drive away from the coast, and he has selected an area 73 kilometers to the southeast for this target. Distance is of little concern in this pursuit.
Traveling down the fjord, I keep my eyes trained on the sky. It's hard to see with the reflections of the dash and outdoor lights on the windows. Peering into the darkness, I suddenly find stars. First just in one spot, soon all over the sky! We are still too near the lights of civilization, but we are on target. Constantly searching, I detect faint green rays in the sky over the water. Surely I am not just willing them into existence. They are there from every angle I try. Wispy and ephemeral they fade, but I'm certain I saw them.
30k short of our destination, the stars disappear. Rich chooses to turn around, hoping to return to the earlier opening. We are amazed at the constant lights along the road – who knew there were so many people living this far north?
Still panning the sky, I spy an unmistakable brilliant green pattern right above us! This time it is the real thing. It moves and changes shape before my very eyes. We have ourselves an Aurora.
We are on the top of a mountain pass between two fjords, and amazingly a pull-out appears next to the road. We park and are out of the car in a flash. Despite the lights in the house across the road and the glare of the passing automobiles, the display is so bright that nothing seems to dim its radiance.
Ribbons of green cross the sky. Stretching from one side to the other, we can't even tell which way is North. They twist and twirl overhead. They form and reform then subside. New shapes appear, like curtains with folds that wave in the breeze. Moving and dancing with varying hues of intensity, sometimes with a tinge of gold. The sky is aglow. Its green illuminates the big grins on our faces.
Rich is in his element, repositioning his camera every few minutes. So much is happening overhead and in every direction, there are endless opportunities to photograph the show. I abandoned all thoughts of trying my hand at photography the moment I exited the car. Riveted by the action in the sky, I prefer to see it all live than to risk frustration trying to capture it. My neck hurts from continually looking straight up – a sweet pain I happily endure. Even Rich shoots fewer pictures than usual as the display is so enthralling.
As quickly as it began, the performance fades. The striking shapes ebb into vagueness then dim into obscurity. The clouds have caught up with us.
In all, the glory lasted 45 minutes. But we continue to glow in its wake for the duration of the drive back to Tromso. It is a night for the memory books. My personal Aurora Hunter nailed it. He found a sliver of open sky during one of the brightest of Auroras. Both Rich and the Aurora performed brillliantly.