The big experiences in life remind us just how insignificant we are, writes Margaret Merten of her journey to the Arctic Circle to see the legendary aurora borealis.
Apparently, I have 23 years left to live. I discover this from doing an online life-expectancy survey. Time moves more quickly as we age, it’s true, but how to live with this number? What does it mean? In my case, it means doing that long-dreamt-of trip to hunt the Northern Lights – a sure salve to my troubled and now foreshortened perspective. I’ve been obsessed with the aurora borealis since reading about it as a child. It has been the North Star in my life; something I have to see before I leave for good. Now, with a red line drawn over my time on the planet, I need a quest – and all good quests start with a crazy idea that holds risk, disappointment, rapture and transcendence in a massive roll of the dice. Did I see the lights? I did. But we’ll get to that later...
First, there’s a fair bit of travel. Leaving the golden warmth of Sydney, it takes 24 flying hours to get to frozen Scandinavia. My first stop is Sweden’s beautiful capital, Stockholm. I’m travelling with Captain’s Choice, a high-end tour company that takes you to places that would be hard to see by yourself. My three-week itinerary includes Scandinavia’s big three: Stockholm, Helsinki and the Arctic Circle. Captain’s Choice limits its groups to 20 and, much like families, you don’t get to choose your travel companions. It’s risky and slightly thrilling being thrown into a new mix of people. Are there elders? Yes, the oldest guest is 86. Is there a surfeit of expensive camera equipment around the necks of 60-year-old men? Yes. Led by head guide Jo Taylor (an ex-policewoman and one of the most tenderly bossy people I’ve ever met) and our very own tour GP, Dr Linda Harris, we’re in good hands.
Though everything is considered – five-star hotels, dinner reservations, heated tour bus – Captain’s Choice has no say in the elements and the cold is astonishing. Scandinavians have a saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” A day out means layers of thermals, wool, cashmere, puffy plastic jackets, stockings and socks. As we explore Stockholm, the routine is to be freezing outside and too warm inside (the Swedes heat everything ferociously). In Stockholm and Finland, most establishments have a coatroom where you hang your jacket, beanie and gloves. No-one steals them. Imagine.
The prospect of seeing the Northern Lights inches closer with an overnight trip from Stockholm to Helsinki on an ice class 1A Super icebreaker (tallinksilja.com) that literally carves through solid ice – white, smooth and untouched as far as the eye can see. Pushing through, the vessel shudders as massive blocks of ice are sucked under the prow and smashed by the hull. The dull thump of breaking ice becomes a soundtrack to the breathtaking views of Stockholm’s many islands. All night, we shudder, glide and smash our way through to Helsinki.
Modest at first, the Finnish capital slowly reveals her charms: the human scale; the sense of history. It’s -10°C when we come across a heated outdoor lap pool and sauna on the edge of the iced-in harbour. Sturdy Finns run from the sauna in their swimmers and plunge into an iced-over pool in which a small hole has been cut.
For my part, I count the number of layers I’m wearing (I’m going to need them where we’re going). Flying in an A320 aircraft above Finland, en route to the Arctic Circle, the landscape looks like an abstract etching, the tall fir trees in the snow resembling detailed crosshatching in a muted palette of black, white and grey. And Finland does good snow. Thick, powdery and pure. Deep drifts with no footprints or tracks. When the sunlight hits, it glistens. Passing over these still forests, I can see why fairytales were created in this environment. It’s a world of shadow and light, smooth forms and dark shapes, with eclipsed glimpses of sky between the branches.
At Kemi, I walk on the frozen Gulf of Bothnia at sunset and trudge through snow as far as I dare in the fading light. The sky is a vast, open dome and the horizon is ringed with lights on the opposite shore that gradually come into focus as daylight fades. The peace is palpable.
Finns embrace solitude and their love of nature is a kind of religious faith. So is hunting. Our driver, Haneul, explains that every Finn loves to hunt – but only for that which they’ll eat. There must be no wastage; no wanton, blood-lust killing. There’s a calm, considered approach to choosing the right animal then preparing the meat to take home to the freezer.
But time is running out to see the Northern Lights. Every night, the sky is covered by a thick blanket of cloud. Why, I wonder, do we seek out the real experience of natural phenomena? We could watch great footage of the Northern Lights on YouTube but the desire to see the real thing is starting to consume our group. At meals, seeing the lights is the topic of discussion. One tour mate assesses our chances each day from an app on his phone. We’re all becoming obsessed.
Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Finnish Lapland is legendary for sightings of the lights. Famous for its glass igloos, the property resembles a winter “Disneyland” with Santa’s Home, Elf Bridge and husky safaris. It’s vast, too, but when you’re inside your sturdy hut with its igloo extension (the décor is a bit Flintstones with huge stone walls, chunky wooden furniture and a surprisingly modern sauna), you could be alone in the woods.
At dinner, a ripple goes through the room. Something’s up. People rush to the door, putting on their snowsuits. According to the app, lights are starting to appear on a nearby hill. It’s time to go. We abandon our meals and struggle into layer after layer to brave the -23°C temperature. Our bus joins the stream of cars heading to the top of the hill. The air crackles with anticipation.
While we wait in the cold – so extreme that I can feel the bones in my face – something moves in the sky. It’s a suggestion, a wisp, almost clearer when you look to the side rather than straight on. It gains form then disappears. I gaze so hard that my face aches. Again, a hint of faded colour, a pale greenish ghost against the sky. More cars come up the hill, their headlights interrupting the darkness. Are these the Northern Lights? Wait, a greener spot moves slowly. Fades again. And then it’s over. I board the bus, puzzled. Is that it? I was expecting something grander, bigger, more colourful… more awe-inspiring. If I’m being honest, I feel heartily ripped off. As we drive away, the mood is quiet; people speak in low voices.
My cabin is at the bottom of the resort so I’m the last to be dropped off. My disappointment is growing as I step out of the bus. It’s my last night and perhaps I have seen the Northern Lights.
And then... a slow movement in my peripheral vision. As I turn, an intensely emerald funnel of light appears, slowly twisting and turning like a cartoon tornado. The shade of green deepens then expands into a shifting curtain of greens, blues and reds. My mouth falls open. The sky is exploding with colour. Right outside my hut, with no-one else around, I watch the spectacle silently unfold, as if the gods themselves are breathing across the sky. Great sheets of green light move gently, undulating and swirling. They move right above me; I feel I could reach out and touch the edges with my fingers.
Time stops. There is only the vast sky, the lights and me. The earth is hushed, just a stage, a backdrop, for this intensely moving moment. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.” And now the lights have faded, the wind softly rustles the pines and I go to bed.