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Why It's So Worth it to Chase the Northern Lights

It was a magical evening to say the least. I didn't fully realize just how rare and special it was to see the Northern Lights so strong and actively dancing until I realized everyone was talking about "the lights last Tuesday" two days later (I have no sense of what day of the week it is).
02/16/2016 10:59am ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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Aurora Borealis close to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories in Canada.

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"We will hopefully get to see the Northern Lights," The amount of times that Thomas, my tour guide and owner of the tour company that I used called Chasing Lights, emphasized the word "hopefully" was almost enough to make me worry. Like many people, I was initially naïve to think that all you had to do was go to Norway to see the Northern Lights, but I quickly learned there's a lot more that goes into the chase.

But after doing further research on what improves your chances of seeing the lights, I had a good feeling about it... mostly because the weather had just dumped a shit ton of snow on me the day before my flight to Tromsø, so I figured it would maybe give me a break since I didn't complain about being stuck in a blizzard on a train for 8 hours. I know that's not how weather works, but it is how hope works! This may sound crazy but I also felt like the lights would show that night, because as I flew over the clouds on my way to Tromsø, it seemed like I could already see the light energy getting ready for a show. It looked like a sunset above the clouds, and I secretly hoped that was a sign that something was going to happen.

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You don't always see the Northern Lights, and even if you do, sometimes they aren't that bright. Thomas kept emphasizing that they usually don't look like they do in pictures to the naked eye, and that usually they're more grayish and unlikely to move very much (more on how to get photos here). You can't predict them, despite the websites that claim to be able to, and you can't just walk outside and look up in the sky. At most, you can guess where you might have the best chances of seeing them, and it depends on weather, climate, and location. I've created a guide with all of the information I learned from Chasing Lights, but you're still better off letting a professional help you find them.

Needless to say, I got really lucky. Realistically, it was completely by chance because I only flew in on the 2nd because it was the cheapest flight to Tromsø. But to me, as a believer in the universe, energy, and Pachamama ("Mother Earth", a term and belief I picked up in Peru), I know I projected enough positive energy to light up the sky myself... if, you know, I could glow and whatnot. But enough of my hippie shit, now I'd like to share with you my experience chasing the Northern Lights, and hope that it inspires you to go do it too!

Getting Ready for the Chase

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I went early to check out the Chasing Lights headquarters, which is brand new and located in the center of the main downtown area of Tromsø. It's only about two blocks from where I was staying at the beautiful Scandic Ishavshotel, which is located right on the water with spectacular views of the snow covered mountains, the Tromsø bridge, and occasionally the massive docked Hurtigruten ship making a stop along one of its voyages.

Chasing Lights is run by a young, international team of Northern Lights fanatics and photographers, which is one of the reasons why I selected them. I don't like tours that just take people to see something for the sake of making a profit off of something that's not even theirs. I like people who are passionate about what they're showing, because that makes a huge difference in the experience.

When I arrived, Thomas took me upstairs to their office where the young male and female guides were running around like badass explorers, getting everything ready for their chase that evening. I couldn't help but note that as each would dash off to leave, they'd say something along the lines of, "Good luck!" or "Hope you see the Northern Lights!" which further emphasized that seeing the Northern Lights was really a luck of the draw.

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Thomas showed me on the big monitor screen computer where we were in Tromsø and where we were probably going to head that night. The map was on a live weather forecast website which showed where the clouds were, and where it was clear, which is how he decides each night where to go. That night we would be heading South, away from the coastal clouds that were lurking around Tromsø.

Next he took me to the gear room, where the guides pre-select thick thermal snow suits for the tour guests, along with heavy duty snow boots. He also seemed amused to show me the freeze dried meals they use for dinner, which are all locally made and packaged. Downstairs his colleagues were loading Reindeer skins to sit on and firewood for the fire into the Wifi equipped bus outside. Did I mention that Chasing Lights has Wifi on their buses? #WINNING

The First Chase

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After picking up other light chasers from their hotels, all of which were from different countries, we set off for what was my first ever Northern Lights chase. I kept looking outside the window, thinking maybe I'd see something, but quickly realized that that's the exact reason why it's called a "chase". We drove south of Tromsø, away from the city lights that cause "light pollution" and make it impossible to see the Northern Lights, on the E8, which is also known as the "Northern Lights Route".

About an hour later we arrived at a fjord near Nordkjosbotn, and geared up to get ready for the cold. Thomas and another guide, Jonas (from Sweden) ran ahead to scope out the area by the shore of the fjord, while our bus driver unloaded more gear and tripods for everyone to use. The only way you can get a decent photo aside from having the correct DSLR camera, is by using a tripod.

Suddenly Thomas flew back onto the bus and said, "Hey guys! Try to get dressed quickly, it looks like there's already some Northern Lights out here!" Beyond excited, I wiggled around the best I could to get the massive snow suit and boots on before grabbing my own camera and jumping out of the bus. I had no idea how to use a tripod, or my camera for that matter, but I grabbed one anyway and carefully stepped down the steps they had made in the snow that led down to the bank.

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He was right, they looked like grayish-green clouds hovering above the water, but they were still bright enough to reflect on the surface, and illuminate the mountain next to it. It was still pretty cool, and I was pretty excited to see them considering it was exactly like the low expectations Thomas told me to have, and although it was freezing (literally, around -17 degrees) I still stood out there and waited for more activity like they said might happen.

Jonas helped me set up my dinky Nikon digital camera, which embarrassingly I'll admit that my mother bought me so that I could take high resolution photos of my travels rather than only ever using a GoPro. I never wished I had a DSLR so bad than when I realized I couldn't see shit using my camera, and that it dies immediately in the cold (I'm still grateful to have it though). Normally I'd be upset if I couldn't get a photo of something, but after I saw the amazing shots that Thomas and Jonas were getting with their heavy duty DSLR's, I was perfectly fine just jumping in their shots and learning about how they get them.

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The lights got a little stronger at times, appearing and disappearing at random, just like they said. About an hour into it they gave us hot chocolate which largely helped with the defrosting of my numb finger tips. Since the lights weren't incredibly bright at times, we had fun taking "light painting" photos, which Thomas and Jonas showed us how to do with a red light and the timing of a long exposure shot. Thomas also had recently discovered that there was bioluminescent microorganisms in the fjord water, and they kicked it around so we could see them light up. Jonas was also crazy enough to somehow swipe one up out of the water, which then froze into ice and actually froze the microorganism while it was lit up!

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The Second Chase & The Big Show

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We got back on the bus, and I assumed the chase was over since we already saw some Northern Lights. But Thomas explained that we were going to head to another location that's showing some Northern Light activity on a tracker he has on his phone. To be honest, I was beyond tired and couldn't feel my fingers or toes, but figured if we had gone that far, we might as well keep on going.

I was a little confused when we stopped in what seemed like the middle of nowhere just east of a town called Bardufoss, on what seemed like just an empty area covered in snow and pine trees. But when Thomas ran back on the bus freaking out even more than the last time, I knew there was something going on. It wasn't until I heard the "Woah's" from everyone outside that I decided to hurry up and get all my layers on.

When I stepped off the bus, I joined the chorus of "Wow's". There, in the middle of the dark, empty, snow-covered road, was an Aurora Borealis so bright that it actually looked like the ones in the pictures. Everyone started setting up their cameras, except me who just hovered over Thomas' shoulder to see the view through his, even though you didn't even need a powerful lens to see these Northern Lights.

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"Ok guys, we don't know how long the Northern Lights will be this strong for, so let's get some pictures with it! Who wants to go first? Don't be shy! Alyssa?" He yelled over the opposite shoulder that I was lurking near. Apparently it was obvious that I wasn't ashamed at all to get in the pictures, which is rare since I usually hate when other people take photos of me, but I was not missing an opportunity to get in some with those lights!

The Aurora Borealis Ballet of the Year

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While everyone took pictures with their cool cameras, I decided to walk a little further down the road to get a view of where the lights were coming from. The Northern Lights usually run East to West, which is also how you can differentiate them from normal clouds. Suddenly they started becoming brighter, so bright in fact that I attempted taking pictures of them with my phone, and could actually see them! I kept starring up in the sky, secretly thanking the universe for letting me see them, when suddenly something awesome and slightly terrifying happened!

The Northern Lights suddenly started dancing! Yes, dancing! Like a massive, long, silky, shiny green ribbon being waved around in the sky. They were moving fast, and I had no idea where they were going until suddenly I didn't see so much ribbon anymore, but instead found myself looking straight up into the center of the Aurora Borealis, at what seemed like dozens of light columns reaching down towards me. If I ever had any idea what it would be like to get abducted by aliens, that would be it. That was the slightly terrifying part, mostly because I was alone in the middle of this dark road.

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But I couldn't stop starring up into the light vortex, trying to figure out what in the world was going on. I could hear a symphony of string quartets and bold brass instruments, even though I don't know anything about music, and the silence was abyssal. It reminded me of the part in Fantasia that you think is boring as a child, where they depict the music notes with different shapes and colors. Speaking of colors, I was no longer just seeing green. At the top and ends of the Aurora Borealis were streaks of pink and purple, and even a little bit of blue. Seeing these colors with the naked eye is apparently a rarity, although more likely to see with the powerful cameras.

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Not wanted to get abducted by aliens or abominable snowmen, I turned back to where everyone else was and saw that the light above me was now ribbon dancing it's way towards them. By the time I got back it had formed a full ribbon circle around us, which secretly made me feel really special, especially since no one else was around. Suddenly another big, strong Aurora Borealis appeared right in front of us, and seemed so close that you could jump up and touch it. Thomas was shocked at our luck, and said he was not expecting to see such strong lights that night, especially since they had been dim all week.

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But they never faded for the full hour or two we were there. They'd appear out of no where, usually moving quickly, then seem to run off in the distance before another one appeared.

Campfire Under the Northern Lights

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My fingers and toes were definitely frozen, and likely about to get frostbite, so I took off my gloves and boots and put my extremities in the fire. It was kind of ironic seeing fire on ice, and even more mind boggling to see it under the Northern Lights. Once everyone was situated around the fire, Thomas announced the "dinner menu" which consisted of the choice between sweet and sour pork, some sort of chicken, cod in a curry cream sauce, and the vegetarian option, couscous and spinach. Then they went off to "make dinner", which was done by adding hot water to the freeze dried food and mixing it until it became soft. I had the vegetarian option, and it was actually pretty good!

Northern Lights Pit Stops

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Just when I thought the chase was over after seeing such a spectacular show, Thomas told the bus driver to stop because he saw some activity on his tracker. As much as I was ready to go take a hot shower and sleep, I appreciated his enthusiasm for getting us as many opportunities to see the lights as possible. We pulled to the side of the road and got out, where we saw some more Northern Lights although they weren't nearly as strong as the last ones.

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It was a magical evening to say the least. I didn't fully realize just how rare and special it was to see the Northern Lights so strong and actively dancing until I realized everyone was talking about "the lights last Tuesday" two days later (I have no sense of what day of the week it is). What was even more special to me was that the Sami man leading my Reindeer sledding tour told me that usually when the lights dance like that, it means your ancestors are looking out for you, and with the strong connection I had with my grandfather, I wouldn't be surprised if he was up to some universal shenanigans!

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