Everything You Need to Know to Catch the Aurora Borealis

Northern Lights in Finland

To science buffs they’re charged particles from the sun colliding with atoms inside the earth’s magnetic field. But to Karla Courtney, the Northern Lights are simply the greatest show she’s ever seen.

My son, Marshall, aged nine, recently wrote a letter to his favourite illustrator. The first line read: “Dear Claire Belton, you have started a completely new life for me with your drawings...”

When I saw his words I cried a little. He so innocently captured that spark we get when we find something new that inspires us or something that we strive for. And he took me back to moments when I also had these intense feelings.

As a lifelong travel romantic, my thoughts often drift to childhood places and journeys – now more than ever as I spend all my time indoors, at home. I think of my first road trip; my first plane flight; my first time dipping my feet in the ocean; or, as a little Canadian girl typically surrounded by conifers and maples, my first time not just seeing but actually touching a palm tree. Flash forward to the most moving, memorable and life-changing travel experiences I’ve had as an adult: the first time I saw the Northern Lights almost entirely by chance. And the second time I saw them, after a year of meticulous planning.

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“SURPRISE! We’re going to meet Santa!”

After moving from Australia to the United Kingdom, my husband and I wanted to treat then five-year-old Marshall to an over-the-top-festive Northern Hemisphere Christmas. At the airport under the guise of a work trip, I gave goodbye hugs and kisses, dragged my duffel bag (packed with all our gear) around the corner towards security and then popped back out to break the exciting news: we were all headed to a Finnish resort town called Saariselkä that delights kids (and adults) with reindeer sleigh rides, giant snow igloos and even a trip to meet the “real” Santa. Marshall was ecstatic.

The itinerary was magical: wake up, put on moon boots and snowsuits, eat, play in the snow, take a cookie break by the fire, spend time with Santa, put on tacky sweaters, hit the buffet for dinner, sleep, repeat.

Exploring a snow igloo in Finland

Exploring a snow igloo in Finland

But even on day one, nothing could distract me from the strange, dusky horizon crowned by the crescent of an orange sun that, despite all my mental nudging, wouldn’t fully rise. I knew we were a long way north but in the rush of planning the surprise I hadn’t contemplated our exact latitude. A local, laughing, confirmed: “We are above the Arctic Circle. We won’t see the sun rise again until the ninth of January.”

Inside the lodge there was a flip pad mounted on the wall beneath an official-looking Days Until Sunrise sign. The count was at 30. Below this was a whiteboard with handwritten notes on the Aurora Forecast. I studied that day’s conditions: solar wind gauge, “moderate”; estimated aurora level, “5” (out of nine); cloud cover, “partial”.

“For the best activity you really want the solar wind gauge to be ‘high’ or ‘extreme’,” the local explained. “But, of course, there’s always a chance… Your other main variables, apart from the weather, are really just your luck and your patience.”

Not game to test a five-year-old’s patience at -5°C in the middle of the night, we tried our luck on a short evening tour to a tented camp that would at least take us away from the light pollution of the resort for an hour. We strapped on our snowshoes, packed a flask of hot chocolate and found a quiet clearing in the woods where we could make snow angels and keep watch on the sky.

Time passed… and nothing. “Why have we come here just to wait around outside?” asked Marshall. We adults began to ask ourselves the same question. We heard our guide call the 10-minutes-before-you-have-to-return-to-the-bus warning. Feeling a bit defeated, I made our last few snowballs before suddenly hearing Marshall yell, “Mum, look!”

And then it happened.

There was an intense swirl, almost like a fluorescent-green black hole forming right there in a sliver of sky framed by towering pines.

And as quickly as it appeared, it completely vanished.

We were so taken aback that we fell uncharacteristically silent during the entire bus ride back.

Exchanging stories over breakfast the next morning, I learnt that a couple who had been trying for four days had not yet seen the lights. Another pair, there for a week, had seen an elaborate display twice. A few others had witnessed the same blink-and-you’ll-miss-it activity we had.

Back home, these feelings of surprise, awe and serendipity stayed with me.

I knew I had to make it happen again – and this time I was not going to leave anything to chance.

I pitched my sister the idea of meeting in Iceland to celebrate her birthday. But not on her actual birthday because that doesn’t fall in peak aurora season. We’d instead go in mid-January, optimal viewing time in Iceland. To do it right we would have to spend a full week in the middle of nowhere, in the cold, with long nights of broken sleep and only short windows of daylight to get out and sightsee.

Despite the strict terms and conditions, my sister enthusiastically agreed to join me. As did my mum, three aunts and five female cousins.

In a remote location about 100 kilometres south-east of Reykjavik, Hótel Rangá became our home for the seven-day adventure. It’s entirely geared towards helping guests see the lights, offering wake-up calls and additional warm clothing that’s quick to pull on (because you usually have to act fast to catch them).

With so much riding on a sighting, we stuck to a basic schedule of activities.

Day 1: A visit to nearby Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. Frozen in a giant mass of icicles, it looked even cooler than pictures I’d seen of it in the summer.

Night 1: Clear skies, no lights.

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall in Iceland

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall in Iceland

Day 2: Horseback riding in a small town nearby called Hella (hellahorserental.is).

Night 2: Partial cloud, no lights.

Day 3: A drive along the southern coastal highway to admire the flat, moon-like landscape on the way to the famous Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon – crystal blue and filled with icebergs of all sizes.

Night 3: Clear skies, no lights.

Day 4: At the hotel, Aunt Shannon and I knitted hats. Everyone played cards. And for the first time on the trip a few of us had drinks with dinner.

Night 4: My sister, two of my cousins and I stayed up late telling stories and having beer giggles in our room. At around 1am the phone rang. “Go outside,” said the receptionist before hanging up. We grabbed our cameras, woke everyone up and made a mad dash for the snowsuits.

We walked out onto the barren, snowy landscape and looked up at a completely uninterrupted sky filled with glows of blue, green and purple that stretched across the entire horizon. It was so much bigger than anything I had seen before that my entire sense of perspective was altered – all of a sudden I was a tiny ant staring up at a giant painting his house with light. My sister just kept gasping. My cousin, Lindsey, toting a camera and tripod, held her finger firmly on the shutter button while her eyes were glued upwards.

I’m pretty sure my mum was teary.

Beneath our feet was a vast white plane that seemed to expand forever into nothing. But above us was the most amazing show we had ever seen.

We ran around laughing and yelling and trying to get each other’s attention. There’s a splash of green over the lodge! There’s a purple blur over by that volcano! There’s a bright blue swirl right over our heads!

There was too much happening at once to take it all in. And the intense display lasted almost an hour.

The light activity slowly faded until we were left with a more familiar starry sky. But no-one moved; we stayed outside in the cold for nearly another hour. Eleven of us standing alone in silence and awe. That’s the effect of the Northern Lights.

SEE ALSO: Your Guide to Seeing The Northern Lights

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