Arctic Circle Expedition – Hunting the Aurora

The thermometer reads -19°Celcius as I stand in snow up to my knees, in the company of 8 sled pulling Alaskan Huskies 350 kilometres (217 miles) north of the Arctic Circle. I am in a region called Håkøybotn, on Kvaløya island 25 kilometres (15 miles) North-West of Tromsø, Norway, the third-largest municipality north of the Arctic Circle anywhere in the world (following Murmansk and Norilsk). The night is still and silent, as the frozen waters of the nearby Grindøysundet sea reflect the constellation Orion above.

The snow-topped pine trees block any residual light, helping emphasise the fact that with Tromsø’s latitude of 69°N, I am standing under the perpetual darkness of a polar night. The sun remains below the horizon during the polar night from about 26 November to 15 January, but due to the surrounding mountains, the sun is not visible from the 21st November to the 21st January. The date is December 6th. The sky is free from clouds, and also of any possible light pollution. It is supposedly the ideal place to do what I am doing; I’m in search of the Northern Lights.

Humans have been fascinated for centuries by the waxing and waning of auroral lights in our skies, our closest and most dramatic manifestation of visible space phenomena. The reaction of various peoples in history to auroral displays has depended largely on where they lived.

Cro-Magnon cave paintings: “macaronis” may be the earliest depiction of the aurora (30,000 B.C.)

The oldest known auroral citing was written in 2600 B.C. in China:

“Fu-Pao, the mother of the Yellow Empire Shuan-Yuan, saw strong lightning moving around the star Su, which belongs to the constellation of Bei-Dou, and the light illuminated the whole area.”

A little over 4000 years later, a spectacular aurora was witnessed over middle Europe in 1570 A.D and brought forth the need to record the event, to capture the event in a drawing, where the aurora was depicted as candles burning above the clouds, now understood to be the West of the Czech Republic.

“A shocking prodigy which was seen from Kuttenberg in the kingdom of Bohemia and independently in other towns and places roundabout on the 12th of January, for four hours in the night. As it stood within the clouds of the sky in this year 1570.”Crawford Library, Royal Observatory, Edinburgh

49 years later in the year 1619 AD, the astronomer, physicist, and engineer, sometimes described as a polymath, from Pisa, Galileo Galilei coined the term… Aurora Borealis. Aurora was the Roman goddess of dawn, and Boreas was the Greek name for the north wind. However, the “father” of observational astronomy, modern physics, the scientific method, and modern science, Galilei mistakenly thought that an aurora was caused by the sunlight reflected from the atmosphere.

The Aurora Borealis, more commonly known as the Northern Lights have inspired some of the most dramatic tales in Norse mythology, making them quite possibly the most famous stories linked to the Northern Lights given their popularity in modern culture, with ‘Odin‘, ‘Thor‘, and ‘Loki‘ making regular appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the tv show ‘Vikings’. The real Vikings celebrated the lights, believing they were the Earthly manifestations of their gods. Other Norse people feared them, telling stories of the dangers they posed and developing superstitions to protect themselves. These Norse myths and legends come from the Nordic countries in Northern Europe and the North Atlantic, and Arctic Circle.

A Viking boat under the Aurora. Vignette by Gerhard Munthe. Illustration of Norway’s King saga by Snorre Sturluson.

Odin was the principle God and ruler of Asgard, revered by all Vikings. A war god, he appeared in heroic literature as the protector of heroes; During every battle on Earth, Odin would pick only the bravest warriors who would die and join him in Valhalla and where he was preparing for Ragnarök – the cataclysmic destruction of the cosmos and everything in it – even the gods, before beginning the world anew. In Viking legend, Ragnarök was predestined and would be Odin’s greatest battle, so he needed the bravest warriors at his side. The Valkyries – female warriors on horseback, who wore armour and carried spears and shields – were tasked with leading Odin’s chosen warriors to Valhalla. The Vikings believed the Northern Lights illuminating the sky were the reflections of the Valkyries’ armour as they led the warriors to Odin.

The Ride of the Valkyries (1890), William T. Maud

Furthermore, in some legends, the Vikings believed the Aurora was the breath of brave soldiers who had died in combat. In others, the Aurora was believed to be the ‘Bifrost Bridge’, a glowing, pulsing arch that led fallen warriors to their final resting place in Valhalla.

For the Sámi, the indigenous Finno-Ugric people of Finland, Estonia, and Hungary, the Northern lights didn’t represent stories of bravery and heroism; but was in fact a bad omen. Thought to be the souls of the dead, they were to be feared and respected in equal measure. The Sámi believed the Northern Lights shouldn’t be talked about, and if you were under them, you should be careful not to alert the lights to your presence. If you caught their attention, the lights could reach down and carry you up into the sky. An even more sinister interpretation was that the Northern Lights could reach down and you would find yourself a victim of decapitation.

In Finland, the name for the Northern Lights is ‘revontulet’, literally translated as ‘fire fox’, and these Arctic foxes actually created the Aurora. These foxes would run through the sky so fast that when their large, furry tails brushed against the mountains, their tails swept snowflakes up into the sky, which caught the moonlight and created the Northern Lights. This also helped to explain why the lights were only visible in winter, as there is no snowfall in the summer months.

Photo: Swen Stroop

In Icelandic folklore, it was believed the Northern Lights would help ease the pain of childbirth. In Greenland, the lights were the spirits of children, who had, in fact, died in childbirth and were dancing and playing across the sky. In Norway, the Northern Lights were the souls of maids dancing in the heavens and waving at those below.

In North America, some Native American stories depict the Northern Lights as torches held by the spirits who were tasked with leading the souls of the recently deceased ‘over the abyss to the land of brightness and plenty.’ The Cree, a North American Indigenous people, believed strongly in the ‘circle of life. They also believed the lights were a way of communicating with their ancestors, and when dogs barked at the lights, it was because rather beautifully, they recognised their lost companions. The Menominee people believed what they saw were gentle giants fishing at night, and that the lights were created by their torches as they fished. The people of the Great Plains also believed the lights were the reflection of large fires, under huge cooking pots, lit by northern tribes to cook their enemies. The Fox, an indigenous people from Wisconsin, thought the Northern Lights were the restless spirits of their slain enemies attempting to rise again for revenge – and were an omen of war. In Alaska, Inuit communities also feared the lights and carried knives to ward themselves against the evil spirits of the aurora. Eskimo communities, indigenous peoples of the Arctic and subarctic regions of Greenland, Canada, the United States, and far eastern Russia (Siberia), believed they could summon the Aurora to converse with their dead relatives. 

In Canada, Algonquin tribes believed ‘Nanabozho‘, the creator of the Earth with the power to create life, moved to the far north and lit a huge fire. The Aurora was a reflection of this fire, created to let his people know that even though he was far away, he was still thinking of them. In Hudson Bay, they believed the lights were the lanterns of demons chasing lost souls.

On very rare occasions when the aurora appeared in the skies further south and into continental Europe, the lights would often take on a deep, reddish hue that is associated with a particularly powerful Solar event. This would offer an explanation as to why many considered the blood-red streaks of the Aurora to be an ominous presence, often seen as a portent of war, or other dangers such as plague, or catastrophic weather. For instance, in the Winter of 1788/89, with the onset of the French Revolution that threw the country into turmoil looming, in the weeks before the monarchy was overthrown a bright, crimson Aurora was seen in the skies over England and Scotland, and even… France.

Photo: Jens Mayer

In Scotland, the lights were the children of Beira, Queen of all Winter. Known as the “Merry Dancers” or ‘Nimble Men’ they were divided by colour into several clans. The men were identified by their pure white clothing, where others wore only yellow while the women wore a myriad of reds, blues, and greens. But, despite the relatively happy connotations associated with the term, the ‘dancers’ actually depicted fallen angels engaged in an epic battle. In the Hebrides, where bloodstones are a common sight the myth took on a physical form.

image credit: Arya Magdalena

These beautiful green heliotropes are speckled with red, and it was believed that these red specks were drops of blood that fell from the sky as the Merry Dancers engaged in battle.

Not all stories about the Northern Lights were specific to humans living, dead or mythical, nor were they specific to deities, creators, or supreme beings, there were also stories about animals and the natural world. The Danish believed the aurora was the result of swans who, competing to see who could fly further north, became trapped in the ice and as they tried to escape, flapped their wings and thus created the flurries of light seen in the sky.

In Sweden, fishermen were encouraged by the arrival of the aurora in the sky, as they thought the lights were the reflections of giant schools of herring, bringing good fortune and the promise of a hefty catch, as the fish would keep them alive through the tough winters. This often symbolised the arrival of good news, and by definition, a gift from the gods.

In Greco-Roman mythology, Eos, (Greek), Roman Aurora is the personification of the dawn. They believed that Aurora was the sister of Helios and Selene, the sun and moon. Aurora was depicted as a woman riding side-saddle on a horse or driving a chariot drawn by a pair of winged steeds, alerting her brother and sister to the breaking of the new day.

Aurora, by Guercino, 1621-23 (ceiling fresco in the Casino Ludovisi, Rome)

For such a well-known phenomenon, for all its beauty, this spectacular light show is a rather violent event. Geomagnetic disturbances in the Earth’s atmosphere are what causes the Aurora to appear in our night skies. When there are more geomagnetic disturbances, there will be a greater chance of an Auroral display.

The exact science behind the northern lights wasn’t theorised until 1916, thanks to work by Norwegian physicist Kristian Birkeland. Birkeland proposed that electrons emitted from sunspots, the darker, cooler regions of intense magnetic activity on the Sun’s surface, occur where energised particles coming from the sun interact with the Earth’s magnetic field, producing the atmospheric lights. The theory would prove correct.

At any given moment, the Sun could eject charged ion particles from its corona, creating what’s called the solar wind. When that wind slams into Earth’s ionosphere, or upper atmosphere, at speeds of up to 45 million mph (72 million kph), the aurora is born. These charged particles are drawn into the Earth’s magnetic field, particularly at the North and South magnetic poles, and down into the ionosphere. When the particles collide with gases in the atmosphere, energy is created. Some of this energy is given off in the form of light emissions; called the Aurora Borealis in the northern hemisphere and the Aurora Australis in the southern hemisphere.

Ask any professional Aurora guide about their favourite time of year for chasing the Northern Lights and they’ll reply with Autumn through to Spring, September through until March.

In this part of the world, the Northern Lights appear year-round but it isn’t until the polar night sets in that you get the best chance to enjoy a light display. The ‘Aurora Zone’ got its name from a band of the Arctic Circle that stretches from 66°N to 69°N over Northern Scandinavia and North America famed for its frequent and excellent Northern Lights displays. I am one of many visiting the Arctic Capital, eager to see the lights in all their glory:

Sunday, Dec. 5th 2021 – London Heathrow to Bergen. Bergen to Tromsø. I enter the Arctic Circle one hour into the final leg of my flight, over snow-covered mountains and fjords that span the landscape. The Sun disappears below the horizon and will remain there for the next four days. I have a little more than 45 minutes until I land in the city of Tromsø.

image credit: pcdphotography

Tromsø is named after the island of Tromsøya, on which the city stands. My taxi weaves its way from the airport through the labyrinth of tunnels carved into the mountains that surround the city, before eventually arriving at my hotel, the Scandic Ishavshotel, on the quayside of the harbour.

The windows of my junior suite span a panoramic view of the waterfront, and with it, docked ships that are made for Arctic exploration. One of the regulars is the ‘Johan Hjort‘, a 64m Arctic fishery research vessel, another is the French-owned ‘Polar Front‘, a weather research station, each a reminder of where I am, where trees and streets are bare and white, where the snow had fallen, snow on snow, on ice.

I unpack, check my camera equipment, add additional layers upon layers of clothing, and brace for the Arctic conditions as I explore the city. Exiting the hotel I instinctively look up and feel comforted by the sight of a clear night sky full of stars. Where I would normally welcome the sight, a great night for astronomy and astrophotography, I am here for the Northern lights.

It isn’t there. It doesn’t appear the entire night. Nothing.

Monday, Dec. 6th 2021 – The second of my three days of aurora-hunting, when day one was unsuccessful, begins with a visit to the Polar Museum, as the “Gateway to the Arctic”, Tromsø became a base for many polar expeditions. There is a unique exhibition devoted to Roald Amundsen’s expeditions. In 1903–1906 he was the first man to sail through the North-West Passage on the ship Gjøa. In December 1911, he was also the first to reach the South Pole. In 1926, he was one of the leaders of the expedition to the North Pole on the airship ‘Norge’. He died in 1928 on a rescue mission in search of the crashed airship ‘Italia’, which departed from Tromsø.

Outside, I stop for a hotdog that consists of a blend of beef and reindeer from the ‘rocket kiosk’, the smallest bar in Norway, if not the tiniest bar in the Universe its owner, Margit Løkke, likes to claim. She may not be wrong.

image credit: pcdphotography

The temperature begins to drop from -5°C to -10°C as any residual sunlight from beneath the horizon disappears and darkness returns around 1pm. Between the hours of 9am-12noon, the Polar Night in Tromsø is a time of beautiful colours of light orange and yellow, and a soft, indirect white light. Even during the darkest time of year, there are still three to four hours of light a day as the sun skirts just below the horizon, never fully rising.

image credit: pcdphotography

At 6pm, I am collected by the Villmarkssenter, Europe’s leading dog sledding company, to be taken to Kvaløya (the whale island) where my dog sled awaits.

Starting out as a home for dogs in 1988, since then their passion for dogs and life in nature has taken them on an exhilarating journey. The family-run business was set up by Tove Sørensen who has over has competed 19 times in Europe’s longest dog sledding race – Finnmarksløpet. In 2006 she participated in the World longest dog sled race in Alaska, The Iditarod. Her son Torkil, plays an active role in the company. He helps run the company day-to-day and is my guide on my expedition, who tells me he plans on competing in the Iditarod in the next few years.

You can hear the dogs before you see them. A chorus of barking and howls signal our arrival and as they hear our footsteps approaching ever closer, the welcome gets even louder. Entering the kennel field, 200 huskies are either standing on their houses or resting in the snow, and begin enthusiastically, uncontrollably wagging their tails begging for a stroke behind the ears. I happily obliged.

image credit: pcdphotography

There were eight huskies attached to my sled, a female called ‘Lyn’ (Lightning) was in the lead spot to encourage the males to chase her. Guided by headlamps and Lyn’s nose, with her head held high and chest low, we raced off into the dark, snow-covered landscape to chase the Northern Lights.

The Arctic wind whipped my face, as the dogs fought the raw, tough country. Through white ice and snow, they carved a track beneath me, bouncing the sled off the high edges of the path. The pride and happiness of pulling the sled is in their heart. They toil without complaint.

image credit: Kate Davies

For a little over 60-minutes the darkened scenery of Håkøybotn races by before suddenly, Torkil shouts “Se til høyre, se opp!” (“Look to your right, look up”) as he frantically taps me on my shoulder while applying the snow brake on his sled. The dogs skid to a stop, and Torkil turns off his headlamp.

The sky is awake. Wearing luminescent veils of green, purple and white, the aurora dances and swirls across pigmented skies. Great curtains of delicate light hung and trembled.

image credit: pcdphotography

From one side of the sky to another a drapery, woven with light and colour is seemingly blown; now here now there, first one then two, then several bands, one above the other, never at rest, and never the same form, here and there it folds and twirls with a soft, fascinating motion, as from one end to the other waves of light chase each other, over-taking, crossing, meeting, while the lower, intense border, displays the loveliest colours of green and white, the lower purple fading into the dark background.

image credit: pcdphotography

There is a richness to the colour and display of light that for those who live south of the Arctic Circle can form no idea. As I gaze up in amazement, the waves of light roll over the entire sky to the furthest corners of my vision. Wafted to and fro like a curtain made of light is caught in a light breeze. Streamers hang in the air, here and there they form large graceful folds, all the way down to the horizon.

Faint, then strong, then almost symmetrical, and soon water-like. In one moment, the aurora is split into three or four arcs, then again it gathers back into one. Quicker and quicker the motion becomes and intenser the colours, higher and wider they travel, in every direction, the entire sky is covered.

For an hour this marvellous display continues in this Arctic sky, at first stronger, now fainter. It carves the night sky, the slightest wind does not stir the air. In an ever-changing display, it slowly alters its position and form, as the band gradually uncurls itself to its entire length, constantly changing position, form, and intensity. Sometimes it disappears in an instant, fading into the darkness of the night sky, to reappear as suddenly as it left. More and more rapidly, bands upon bands, waves upon waves swirl across the sky, as vertical streamers of light cross and leap over each other, falling down from the sky.

image credit: pcdphotography

But suddenly the light fades fast, the intensity diminishes, and with the same mysterious rapidity that it appeared, it is gone.

I am alone again, under the veil of a dark and star-filled night sky. Standing in this lonely snow-covered plain, my heart thumping, breath near still, I feel changed from this day going forward, reborn, possessing feelings similar to that from witnessing my first total solar eclipse. I am relieved to have seen it, humbled by it, adrenaline coursing through me, I continue to look up, reluctant to leave the frozen tundra.

Before long I reluctantly head into the lavvo (Sami tent) for tea, and a Norwegian classic; fish soup. The wood fire warms me, calms me, hugs me, enables me to breathe again, and to reflect on what exactly I have just experienced in comfort, amongst others each describing their experience of seeing the Northern Lights.

Tuesday, Dec. 7th/Wednesday, Dec. 8th 2021 – Tromsø to Bergen. Bergen to London Heathrow. Seeing the Northern Lights is one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had, and the fact that luck played its part is not lost on me. The only night that the aurora appeared during my entire stay in the Arctic Circle was the very night that I happened to be under a dark, moonless sky, out of the city while dog-sledding across the tundra, I do not take it for granted.

What is it, I ask myself, that makes something memorable? Of the countless things I may encounter on a given day, why do some become indelibly imprinted, whereas others vanish completely? Psychiatrists and scientists alike know that many factors play a role in determining what people remember, among them how much attention the person is paying, how novel and interesting the experience is, the physical and/or visceral experience itself through sound or sight, and the kinds of emotions that are evoked.

It’s no wonder the Northern Lights have influenced folklore and stories through the ages and been associated with magic and mystery. Despite the year being late 2021, early 2022, and the science behind the majestic spectacle that paints the northern sky today being relatively fully understood, the Aurora Borealis retains as much of a wonder as it ever has.

As I depart the Arctic Circle, flying further South with every second, I watch the Sun return from beneath the horizon from the window of the plane. As the wrath of a perpetual polar night fades away behind me, and now across the Earth below me, sunlight kisses the snow-covered mountains and icebergs that occupy the Norwegian sea, I crave a return to the dark, to the bitter chill and stinging wind, to the polar night of the North, and the magic in the skies.

image credit: pcdphotography

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