The winter of 2013-2014 marks a peak in the sun's eleven year sunspot cycle, which translates into a burst of solar storms and corresponding aurora activity. Even though the prospect of spending a week in the arctic cold is not exactly palatable, the opportunity to witness one of nature's most beautiful and elusive wonders at its best was too good to pass up. So, armed with heavy winter gear, Richelle and I rang in the new year in Copenhagen followed by a toast far, far north, where the sun does not rise for months.
This was our first time flying Scandinavian Airlines, and as with any unfamiliar airline, one quickly notices its quirks. For instance, a preparatory announcement leaving SFO for Copenhagen included: “passengers are requested not to sleep on the floor.” Unlike most transatlantic flights, which give the illusion of choice between chicken or pasta, this one served chicken masala or nothing at all, which reminded me of the Afrikaans airlines skit on “beef or cow?” On the return, the menu was preposterous: a choice between cheese or reindeer!
On the positive side, the plane, an A330, was equipped with external cameras: one forward facing and another looking straight down, giving the feeling of being in a flight simulator during takeoff and landing. Also, the SAS lounges are significantly better than United's – they have buffet food and self-serve wine and beer on tap.
NYE in Copenhagen
Upon arrival in CPH we were immediately impressed by the Danish train system. Quiet, clean, smooth, and punctual, it puts northern California's train system to shame. We can only imagine how appalled the Danes must be when they visit the U.S.
The Danes, like many Europeans, have easy access to fireworks. And lots of them. We arrived in Copenhagen in the early afternoon and already amateur fireworks were going off on the streets. By 4pm, after the sun had already set, the city sounded like a battlefield. Sporadic loud bangs and machine gun like fire made us feel like we were in a war zone. But, so severely jet lagged and exhausted were we that we napped through all of it until dinner time.
We expected a fireworks show over the main square between Tivoli Gardens and the university, but what we got was a cacophony of fireworks. If the residents of Copenhagen were to pool together their fireworks resources, they could really put on an impressive show and get a lot more proverbial bang for their buck. Realizing that the chaos of the town square would not be dying down anytime soon, we squirmed our way to the Marriott bar by the waterfront, watching the lingering fireworks displays more comfortably over champagne.
We began the new year on the right foot with a brisk morning walk through town, trying hard to stay out of the way of the extensive crew of garbage trucks and sweepers, who were working hard to restore order to the city, one broken bottle at a time. As we entered a bakery on Frederiksberggade street at 9am, drunk partiers were just leaving the bars and clubs.
Ready to exchange last night's man-made light shows for nature's version, we took off for Tromso after breakfast.
Hunting the aurora is a bit like a being on stakeout – not that I have ever been on one. A lot of time is spent bundled up, waiting, and huddling for warmth, hopefully a warm beverage in hand (we should have brought a thermos). The odds are against you. First, Lady Aurora is fickle. Solar flares take days to reach the Earth and their magnetic field must be aligned perfectly for the northern sky to light up.
Second, it must be a clear night, or the aurora will dance behind closed curtains and no one would be the wiser. The mild temperatures of the coast come at the price of greater cloud cover, with more than 80% of the winter days being overcast.
And third, if the activity is weak, city lights will kill the show, so it is best to find a secluded spot outside of town, which when the roads are snowed in and iced up can be hard to do – you can't just pull over wherever you please.
Therefore, when we saw a spectacular display on our very first night, just minutes after checking into our hotel, we felt incredibly fortunate. The Aurora was our main reason for coming to this frigid place in the dead of winter, and it felt rewarding to get such great welcoming displays.
We put on some warm layers and drove across the bridge connecting the island of Tromso to the neighboring fjords as quickly as the slippery roads allowed. We pulled over on a residential street with a view of the city and were quickly scolded by a local for parking too close to his driveway. Instructed to move 100m down, we actually got an even better view and quickly forgot his rudeness. The scene above us was surreal. Pale green streaks danced across the sky and swirled over Tromso. The display continued well into the night, and we went to bed feeling like we had witnessed a miracle.
As luck would have it, scientists promised a 65% chance of a geomagnetic storm occurring on our second night. Even though there was slight cloud cover over Tromso, we looked up at the sky and drove in the direction of visible stars. At our first stop we saw wisps of white light coloring the dark sky as well as some beautiful formations near the horizon. Clouds started to set in so we drove a bit further along the so called “Northern Lights Route” in hopes of catching the storm that the forecasters had promised. We waited at another residential offshoot, and waited some more, and just before giving up for the night, the strongest and most active Aurora suddenly appeared.
We scrambled out of the car into the sub-freezing cold and watched, mesmerized by the bright white light dancing gracefully around the Big Dipper, putting on a magical performance. After just 5 minutes, only a soft white glow remained. We felt uplifted by this silent symphony in the heavens.
Photographing the Aurora
My main lens for years has been the versatile Canon 24-105mm f/4 L with a B+W polarizer, which has been affixed to it for so long, it is now fused into it. But to capture the stars and generally for low light photography, the lens is less than ideal.
Since I mostly photograph landscapes, I started looking at wide angle lenses in the 14 to 35mm range. I bought the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens and returned it immediately after being hugely disappointed by its utter lack of sharpness as compared to my 24-105mm lens, even at 24mm f/4. It did not become sharp until f/9 and higher. I gave up the idea that I could have a sharp wide angle zoom lens, so I constrained my search for prime only lenses and narrowed the choices to two: the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 and the Canon 24mm f/1.4. The Zeiss lens is known for its sharpness and quality build, but I decided I couldn't live without autofocus, so the Canon prime won. And, boy, is it a great lens. It is so fast one can use it handheld in very low light conditions. And it is sharp, starting at f/2.8. The only drawback is that it suffers from severe coma at wide apertures, but my experience photographing the aurora was that stars looked decent at f/3.5 and higher.
One gets best results with exposures lasting no longer than 8 seconds. Anything longer leads to star trails. Also, one should not rely on auto-focus or blindly setting the focus to infinity. If your camera has live view, use it. Turn on manual focus, zoom in on the screen and make sure the stars are as crisp as possible.
Tromso, being the farthest north I have traveled reminded me a lot of Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. It is remote, cold, and rugged, but, in many ways it seemed more hospitable, better equipped, and more cultured. In some ways, it was like Ushuaia's wealthy cousin. The wealth of the region is reflected in the prices – $40 a plate at even the cheapest restaurant is not uncommon. They even have an elaborate tunnel system for crossing the island, fit with roundabouts!
The sun in Tromso does not rise at all for two months in the winter. It is a bit unsettling not seeing the sun for days on end. It is pitch black most of the time. Around 9am, there is the slightest hint of dawning, and by noon, it feels like an hour before sunrise. The feeling quickly fades into dusking, and by 3pm, it is pitch black once again.
When researching the trip, we read about the six hours of “lighting” and thought it would be strange but tolerable for a four day stay. The lack of sunlight really fools the body, though. We could not get more than five hours of sleep during the traditional nighttime hours, and a short nap at 4pm on our last day turned into a six hour slumber, leaving us with no dinner options when we came to.
Despite the lack of sunlight the residents of Tromso are active and exercise in the freezing outdoors at all hours, running in packs wearing bright blue reflecting vests and cross country skiing along the island's many trails. The weekend we were in Tromso there was even a marathon taking place. Staying active and maintaining a schedule supposedly helps beat the insomnia.
A trip up the Floya mountain on the cable car is highly recommended. The views of Tromso and the surrounding fjords are breathtaking, and it is also a good place to get away from the city lights to photograph the aurora, if one does not have a car. The guide books omit this, but a walk on the many trails around the island is a great way to work off all those carbs, even in the dark. Prestvannet Lake above the town is also pretty, even when it is frozen.
Drive to Finland
Tromso is a couple of hours' drive from the Finish border and three hours to the Swedish. So, if one gets tired of the city and has a car, a drive along the Lyngen Alps is well worth it. The twilight does offer some rewarding views of those snowcapped peaks and tranquil inlets. On our drive to Finland we noticed one of the inlets was fully frozen over and some Norwegians were taking advantage with a bit of ice fishing.
By the time we crossed the border, it was almost 3pm and completely dark, so we cannot say we saw much of Finland other than a coffee shop 10km south of the border. But even though we only dipped our toes in this country, Finland felt completely different.
We imagined what it must be like to experience this place under the midnight sun, and just thinking about the sun made us long for it. We did not reunite with it until thirty minutes into our flight to Oslo. We always knew it was just over the horizon, but that moment, when it poked through and blessed us with its golden rays, was a very special one indeed. As the old adage goes, you don't know what you have until it is gone.