From Canada to Scandinavia the magical spectacle of the northern lights makes them a must-see.
The fantastic, spectral displays of the northern lights are a mythical and spellbinding natural phenomenon found in both the northern and southern hemispheres. In the north they are called aurora borealis, and in the south, aurora australis.
“There was a belief among the Athabascan tribes in Canada and Alaska that the aurora were caused by spirits playing a celestial ball game with a walrus’ head,” says Ali McLean a northern lights expert, who, moved as he was by his early experiences with the aurora borealis, founded the UK’s first ever northern lights holiday firm – The Aurora Zone.
“Now this may sound apocryphal, but I’ve heard that one tribe told this tale the other way around – that the walruses were playing with a human head. I hope this is true because these ancient tribes would have lived a pretty insular existence and I like to think that some brave soul found a route between the settlements and started a game of aurora-based Chinese whispers!
“To this day there are eleven different Athabascan languages and 22 different dialects, so it’s easy to understand how some confusion might have arisen,” he concludes.
The aurora’s origins begin on the surface of our sun when solar activity ejects a cloud of gas, known as a coronal mass ejection. Two to three days later, when this ejected matter collides with the Earth’s magnetic field, it generates currents of charged particles that flow along lines of magnetic force into the polar regions where they collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, producing a dazzling auroral light display.
“Many describe seeing the northern lights as a spiritual experience”
Trips to visit the areas where these awe-inspiring displays of nature take place are now more accessible, and more precisely tailored, than ever before.
“We run small group trips which are ideal for solo travellers as they provide the chance to meet like-minded souls,” says Mr McLean. “Our oldest client so far has been 88, and it’s also noticeable that the over 50s are increasingly getting bitten by the ‘adventure experience’ bug.”
And what an adventure it can be. From Finland’s captivating snow-covered forest slopes and lakes, to the mountains of Sweden and the Norwegian fjords, each one is distinctively different, both geographically and geologically.
“Canada is amazing and Iceland is a geologist’s dream,” says Mr McLean. “I love them all, and they are all so distinctively different, but if I could go back to just one then I would probably choose Finland. And one thing is the same everywhere you go; you will always receive the warmest of welcomes, no matter which of the countries you visit. They breed truly great folk in the north!”
Many describe seeing the northern lights as a spiritual experience, and undoubtedly it is this element that adds to the draw of the Arctic Circle’s most famous attraction. Despite our modern, scientific understanding of the lights, to stand in a magical, frozen landscape and watch the aurora dance against a pitch-black sky is a truly otherworldly thing to experience.
“At these moments I always find myself wondering what our less scientifically informed forefathers thought of the aurora borealis,” says Mr McLean. “Once you have seen the lights in this environment you can understand why so many myths and legends have arisen throughout time to try and explain this phenomenon.”
NOT AN EXACT SCIENCE
For those keen to witness such astronomical events, it may come as some disappointment that there is no precise way to predict their strength and appearance. Auroras occur continuously throughout the year but the light summer months render them invisible to the eye, so the prime time for aurora chasing is from September through to April, yet even this is still no guarantee.
“The problem is that we are dealing with the vagaries of Mother Nature, which makes it impossible to state with any accuracy when the best time will be,” says Mr McLean.
“It could be October, or it could be February if the sun is active in its output and the conditions are right. From personal experience, I have always had huge success around the equinoxes. September is greatbecause it’s warmer and the weather tends to be better, which means less cloud cover.”
As with most things in life, it is the age-old mantra of ‘location, location, location’ that is vitally important when it comes to seeking out the best northern lights experiences, so make sure that you do your research before booking.
“I think the location of any aurora hunting trip is of key importance,” says Mr McLean. “In recent years I have seen many businesses jumping on the aurora bandwagon by offering cheap trips to the likes of Tromsø and Reykjavik, but I don’t believe that three nights in a heavily light-polluted city or a large floodlit ski resort can in any way constitute a proper aurora hunting holiday.”
PATIENCE PAYS OFF
Patience and dedication are usually the most important factors when it comes to successful hunts of the aurora borealis. A traveller who might find himself in the middle of a large city when his ‘aurora alarm’ (most companies operate a warning service for their clients) goes off in the small hours will be unable to escape the city’s light pollution in time to view the display before it fades or daylight returns.
“The beauty of our trips is that they are almost exclusively in areas with virtually no light pollution,” says Mr McLean. “We’ll still take clients out ‘hunting’, but if there’s nothing going on they can simply return to their hotel or cabin. However, if the alarm does go off at two in the morning, it may well be enough to throw on some warm clothes and step outside to behold the myriad coloured lights dancing across the Arctic firmament.”
“The location of any aurora hunting trip is of key importance”
Astral light displays aside, just travelling into the aurora zone and the Arctic can be an experience in itself and visitors can choose from a plethora of exciting, or relaxing, daytime activities – which are easily just as important as the nocturnal aurora hunts themselves. It is the entirety of the experience that is invigorating and travellers can avail themselves of local pastimes such as dog sledging, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, ice fishing, reindeer safaris and even staying in the famous ice hotels.
A trip to the Arctic Circle, be it Iceland, Canada, Finland or beyond, is not only a blend of these activities – of snowmobile safaris to visit Sámi villages, of cooking salmon and reindeer steaks over an open fire in the wilderness – many travellers can also find it a deeply moving and spiritual experience, and one which they will never forget.
“Over the years I’ve heard from many clients,” says Mr McLean. “And although that’s a lot of nice things to hear, I’m very fond of one comment in particular from the daughter of an -year-old woman who witnessed the northern lights in Finland: ‘We held each other and cried tears of joy at the sheer beauty of the moment’. Now, I think that’s what you call a happy customer.”