The Northern Lights of Tromso

12 adventures - NorwayFirst, a hearty meal at a restaurant down the road before we head off to parts unknown for a few hours.  We were to meet in the lobby of he hotel by 19:00.  Military or 24 hour time is standard here and helps to make sense when the skies here can become dark for most of the day/night.

Reindeer meat is on the menu and Mer seems keen to try it. I’m opposed and here’s how that went, Me: “No way…that’s like eating Bambi.”  You’re okay with eating Bambi? Mer: “It is not like eating Bambi.  More like Rudolf.  I’m ok with eating Rudolf.” I’m too squeamish for that or any of the other delicacies served in these parts, but catch of the day (Arctic Cod) is always a good thing and it was amazing.

If you travel to the northlands you’ll hear warnings like “It’s expensive” and “It’s very expensive.”  After booking our non refundable flights I heard it so many times I got a bit rattled.  Would we be reduced to stealing bread off the breakfast bar to tide us over til the next days’ breakfast??  Dinner last night was two full entrées with bread and potatoes on the side and a full carafe of the house wine for just under $100 (with tip) and honestly, one entree would have been enough for two, so it’s all in how you see, spend and taste it.

12 Adventures NorwayBesides that, most hotels include breakfast and ours (as you can see) served up a hearty variety of meats, cheeses, eggs, fruits, spreads and breads that lunching would be pure gluttony. To be honest (and you know I’m a foodie) I wasn’t even all that hungry by the time dinner rolled around.

Right, enough about that.  What you want to hear about are the lights…the lights…the lights~

Ok, I’ve got two words for ya…Holy Crap~  Yes, they are amazing~  No, you cannot fully capture them with a cell phone camera, so yes, I will be doing this properly with my Nikon and a videographer next time and yes, thankfully we were wise enough to pay up for a tour guide who happened to be an excellent photographer and captured some brilliant shots that we’ll be sharing later today on the 12 Adventures Facebook page.

The tour itself took a few hours and we were joined by people from Italy, Spain, Belgium and New Zealand. It started at 7pm and we were back at the hotel close to 1am.  The cost: 1200 Norwegian Krones which is about $140.  Not bad.  PS – That’s a good 5 hours on a mini bus and out in the wilderness.  Did I mention there is no toilet on a mini bus and they offer a hot cup of cocoa and norwegian cake during the trip…? Flashback to my parents shouting out “Did everyone go to the bathroom??” before leaving on our summer road trips.

Y’know, in our travels my amigas and I have a few steadfast guidelines that have worked really well for us over the years; good food, good booze, men with accents. Along with, “and learn/try something new.”  For Meredith that would be “Try Reindeer meat.”  For me, so far, it is how to say, “Thank you” in Norwegian,”Takk” which I just said to the housekeeper who brought us extra pillows, coffee and creamer and kleenex, because we both caught the sniffles :-). Also, how to properly photograph the northern lights.  I can’t tell you how many times locals approached me assuming I spoke Norwegian.

If you do decide to go after this adventure, here are a few settings tips (courtesy of our guide Alessandro Belleli of Tromso Safari) for your digital camera:

  • Set the focus to Manual Mode
  • Set the aperture to about f/3
  • Set the ISO to about 1600
  • Use the widest angle on your lens
  • No flash (other than the flashlight you’ll need to get around in the dark)
  • Attach the tripod before you set out in the dark

You’ll want to experiment /tweak a bit depending how much moonlight there is and the model/age of your DSL camera, but those are good settings to start with.

Alessandro Belleli, Tromso Safari
Alessandro Belleli of Tromso Safari

The lights are above you and will steak across the sky. Sometimes dancing, sometimes running across as if witnessing a cosmic water color artist at work.  Even the best descriptive and photos won’t do it justice. The lights aren’t something you can easily or fully explain.  It is definitely a “you had to be there” moment and one I wholeheartedly recommend being there for.

What else I learned is that we’ll need one camera for video and another for stills.  Our guide, Alessandro (Yup, an Italian living in the arctic circle) was elated at our find.  He was sure to caution us several times how unpredictable the lights can be.  We made three stops in total.  The first, we saw nothing but some clouds, the moon and some stars here and there.

My eyes saw lights dancing across the sky, but my poor cell camera only caught a glimpse of it.

My eyes saw deep and bright green lights dancing across the starlit sky, but my poor cell camera only caught a glimpse of it.

The second, we went further north and hiked down to a river, crossed the bridge and saw a bright moon and several stars with little whispers of clouds.  Or so we thought…those whispers were actually strokes on the canvas.  At first there was nothing, then he encouraged us.  He thinks there’s spark there…if any of us have a special dance or song that might bring out the lights, now would be the time.  The guy next to me, Kevin from Belgium, started humming “Send in the Clowns.”  This happened to be one of the first songs I ever sang, so without thought we started singing it together…still nothing…then before we knew it the sky started lighting up, first above us, then behind us then to the west and the east and at one point all around us.  When one area would fade, another would pick up.  Sometimes a luminous green streak across the sky, sometimes a mix of greens, whites and pinks dancing together.  Yes, the movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind definitely came to mind.

This was probably close to 11pm and apart from the moon n stars, very dark out.  Every few moments we’d hear our guide, Alessandro, blurting out “Yippee” or “Ayeyayeyeye”  as he skipped across the water’s edge to get just the right angle.  The photos you’ll see later today on the 12 Adventures Facebook page are courtesy of him and the tour service.

12 Adventures creative lead, Meredith Letts and Ali courtesy of Alessandro Belleli and Tromso Safari
12 Adventures creative lead, Meredith Letts and Ali (courtesy of Alessandro Belleli and Tromso Safari)

The northern lights are elusive, fleeting and unpredictable. No guide will be ever be able to guarantee you’ll see them on any tour and if you keep your eyes fixated on just one point in the sky you could very well miss a light show above and behind you, but the driver did say that January/February (the colder the better) were the best months to see them. He told us as he shared his bar of Norwegian chocolate “Sometimes they take the whole sky.” A comment followed by a unison “Wooooow” from both Mer and I who were huddled in the nice, warm bus while the others got their final shots for the night.

Lesson learned here?  Always be open to the possibility of off chances. If I hadn’t met professor Rigmor Solberg, if she hadn’t given me her card, if she hadn’t pointed me to Norway (obvious to many I know, but I’m a different kind of brain) then our mission to see the lights on this trip may not have been successful.  Thank you Rigmor for your guidance and thank you Alessandro Belleli for being such an excellent guide on our adventure :-).

If you do decide to add the northern lights to your list of 12 Adventures and you see them, sing them a little song, tell them I said hello and I’m coming back for more. Only next time with a warmer set of clothes and snow boots~

Next up…with 2 more nights left in a now rainy Tromso, there will be cuisine challenges and a trip to the local cinema to see a Norwegian film, so stay tuned to the 12 Adventures Facebook page~