Sunday, March 10, 2013

Tromsø and Chasing the Northern Lights

One of the first things that Jason started asking about after we arrived in Norway was the best place to see the Northern Lights. I had no idea that this was something on my hubby's bucket list, but he was incredibly excited and passionate about making a trip to see them and obviously I was on board too!

Tromsø, Norway was the number one spot from the people we asked around our offices. It's located inside the Arctic Circle at a latitude of 69 degrees. The ideal for seeing the Northern Lights is between 68-72 making Tromsø one of the best places in the world to observe the Aurora Borealis phenomenon!

We arrived Friday and took advantage of the free afternoon to explore the town. We visited the Polar Museum, which provided a great background of city's sealing and polar exhibitions. It was a fantastic museum and we loved hearing the stories about the explorers.

Afterwards we walked through the Perspektivet Museum and enjoyed the special exhibit from American photojournalist Lynsey Addario about her travels to Afghanistan. It was a heart-breaking exhibit and we solemnly walked through appreciating the blessing we have being American citizens.

Our next stop was a late lunch/early dinner at the top-rated Trip Advisor restaurant Emma's Drommekjokken. Their main restaurant doesn't open for dinner until 5:30 and our excursion to see the Northern Lights left at the same time. However, we enjoyed the quiet atmosphere and the delicious food all the same!

We headed back to our hotel to start layering on wool undergarments and packing up the camera with all of our accessories. Jason purchased a special wide-angle lens in order to capture great pictures of the lights. I think you'll agree we got some amazing shots! :-)

We booked to go and watch the Northern Lights all three evenings we were in Tromsø. The lights are incredibly unpredictable and we wanted to increase our chances of seeing them while we were in town. We booked with Arctic Explorers because of their great reviews and more personal tours (9 people as opposed to a tour bus of 20+ people).

Our first stop was their warehouse to get our snowsuits and any additional warm gear (clothes, hats, etc.) that people wanted. We also got our delicious dinner - dehydrated camping food and headed out. The guides have a system of people they talk to throughout the evening to find out the weather forecast and where the best places to go to see the lights are. They talk throughout the evening and will go to multiple places if needed to catch a glimpse of them.

Our first night we were warned that it was very cloudy, but a high activity level. We needed to stay near the coast and not head to Finland because the clouds were moving from the southeast and the northwest so there was a small window of where we could go to try and get clear skies.

We hadn't even gotten 20 min on the road before someone in our group said, "Hey, I think I see something on the left side!". Sure enough we were already seeing some vague Northern Lights in the sky just outside Tromsø. We thought it was a good sign for the rest of the evening!

Our final destination was Skibotn. We setup camp and the tripods and got ready to see more Northern Lights. Then comes the waiting game. You wait. And wait. And then you see them! It was still very cloudy, but we were able to see the lights a few different times throughout the evening because of the high activity level. It was such an incredible thing to see!

The lights vary in color depending on which gases are being released - oxygen is green or brownish-red and nitrogen is blue, red, or purplish. Green is the most common color, but we were able to see purple!! Also, the lights that you are seeing in the sky look nothing like the pictures that come out with a long exposure time. The lights look more like fast-moving (or dancing as it's typically described) clouds or puffs of air.

You probably already skipped everything I wrote above in order to get down to this point and see the pictures. ;-) So without further adieu, here are Jason's fantastic pictures from the first evening of chasing the Northern Lights!

Friday, March 1 Northern Lights -

And here's the picture we took and used for my Week 25 post! I informed Jason that he better appreciate how fortunate he was to have a wife who was willing to drag her 6-month pregnant behind out into the cold for hours and hours multiple nights in a row. He didn't even skip a beat and just looked at me and said "Why do you think I married you?" Darcy - 0, Jason - 1.

After dropping our stuff back at the warehouse we headed to our hotel and crawled into a warm bed around 2:00 am that first night. The temperatures that evening had been around -8 C (18 F). It was a great first night and we were excited to see more!

Saturday we were incredibly lazy. The only thing that got us out of bed was that breakfast was ending and we were starving. :-) Afterwards we took a warm shower and then ventured out on the town again. We walked across the main bridge in Tromsø to see the Arctic Cathedral and get a view of the town.

We also played around on the ice in an empty parking lot. Impromptu ice skating! :-)

By the time we wandered back into the city it was too late for us to make any other museums/sites. We consoled ourselves that it's okay to not plan to see everything and visit every tourist attraction there is! (Baby steps people, baby steps.)

Our dinner that evening was at the second top-rated restaurant on Trip Advisor, Fiskekompaniet. We enjoyed a delicious meal with a great view of the harbor!

Once again we headed back to layer on the clothes and get ready for night two. We had the same guide all three nights which was great because we really liked Thomas. He is originally from Germany and used to be a photographer and helped anyone who had questions and also helped us take the photos where Jason and I are pictured together.

However, Thomas greeted the group with bad news. It was very cloudy all over and the activity was low. The forecast did not look good for the evening, but we would hope to get lucky. We headed out toVasstrand on the island of Kvaløya, a bit closer than our previous night's destination.

We got out warm gear on (see Jason in his furry hat) and I had ice cream. Who doesn't love ice cream in below freezing temps?!

As we were headed out to the lighthouse where we would make camp we saw a few small glimpses of the Northern Lights. We snapped some pictures and waited until they were over before continuing. When we arrived there were a few more small sightings. Jason was able to get some great shots still with the lighthouse in the background, but that activity was about it for the evening. The rest of the night was spent trying to stay warm by the fire and hiding inside a "carrot" for extra warmth. We finally called it quits at an early 11:00 pm and headed back to Tromsø arriving at our hotel around 12:30 am.

Saturday, March 2 Northern Lights -

From Thomas Hunger, our guide

Sunday we had plans to go dog sledding and met our tour bus at 9:00 am to drive to Oteren where Lyngsfjord Adventures is based. We suited up in the same suits we were quite familiar with by this point and headed out to meet our dogs.

Each group of two people had their own sled and five husky dogs to help pull it. We got instructions on steering, braking, and helping the dogs up hills or other flat terrain so that they are not pulling your entire weight alone. Jason took the reigns first and we headed out!

The trail we followed meandered through the trees and mountains in an uninhabited area. It was beautiful and we loved it!! Halfway through Jason and I switched and I got to take a turn at steering the pups! It was a lot of fun, but actually pretty difficult at a couple parts to run up the hill with the dogs. Good thing I'm still in decent shape and was able to do it with no problem. :-)

Goofing off after a tough ride!
What are you doing?! This is a serious job!
The gentleman in front of us, however, was apparently not in shape or did not understand the instructions to help his dogs. You aren't allowed to pass and we kept falling behind the group because he was being cruel and lazy and making his dogs do almost all the work. We finally hollered at him on one hill to help his dogs and he got the idea. My dogs however, gave me quite the look every time I has to slow them down or stop them to wait on him. Sorry guys! :-/

Afterwards we headed back to Camp Tamok and enjoyed a fire and hot chocolate inside their tee pee-like cabins. They served us a delicious lunch of soup and bread before getting back on the bus to drive to Tromsø.

While we waited for everyone to load the bus we got to meet the reindeer that are used for the reindeer sledding!

Gazing into the bright sun
We took a short nap before laying up again and heading out to meet Thomas for our third night of Northern Lights watching. We welcomed his news that it was still partly cloudy, but better than the previous two days. The activity level however was lower than we had Friday so that might make it difficult to see much. We  headed back out to Skibotn that evening and setup camp once again and got ready to wait.

Fortunately we did not have to wait long before we started seeing some amazing lights!! Across the sky it looked like a line of cloud was rising over an invisible mountain. There wasn't a lot of "dancing", but it the sheer volume of lights in the sky was greater than anything we'd seen the previous two nights.

A short while later someone shouted for us to turn around and Thomas, knowing what was about to happen, instructed everyone to get up and get ready for a big show. And WOW was he right!! I can picture in my mind how the lights look and it's so hard for me to describe. They danced like I have never seen before. In and out they rotated and swirled and glided across the sky. I wish that you could capture video of the lights in that format, but it's not possible (at least with our amateur equipment!).

We all stood in awe and running through my head was a song I haven't heard in years since I attended camp, "What A Mighty God We Serve". The chorus kept running through my head the entire evening as we stood in amazement at the divine creation God has allowed us to enjoy.

What a Mighty God We Serve
What a Mighty God We Serve
Angels Bow Before Him
Heaven and Earth Adore Him
What a Might God We Serve

That was just the first show! A while later we saw another incredible finale similar to the first one overhead. Thomas told us that this was by far the best show he had seen during his time as a guide (which granted was only six months), but emphasized how lucky we were to see them at all, but especially to see two shows of this magnitude. After it was over the owner of the company, who was camping a few hundred yards nearby with his group, came over and told us that this was one of the top three he'd seen ever. We were all shocked at how fortunate we had gotten with finding a patch a clear sky! 

And still the evening wasn't over! We didn't see another huge show like the first two, but we continued to see the Northern Lights throughout the evening. When we finally decided to head back into town after a long break without the lights, Thomas told us to let him know if we saw more and he'd pull over. Twice we had to pull over again and stand in awe at the lights around us. It was great seeing them in a few different places as we headed back into town. 

That third night we got an unbelievable and spectacular show of the Northern Lights! We feel so incredibly blessed and are amazed at God's creation around us. We saw vibrant greens shining through in the clear sky and lots more purple too dancing above us and moving around the starry sky above. 

I hope you enjoy this last set of pictures and consider taking your own trip to see the Northern Lights at some point! 

Sunday, March 3 Northern Lights -

From Thomas Hunger, our guide

And here's what you can do if you want to enhance them in Photoshop (which Jason obviously didn't do on ours above although he said he did minimal processing on them :-) )

... After

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