Levi in northern Finland had kept us busy with winter sports and spas but what about the Northern Lights – the reason for us visiting such a frozen village within the Arctic Circle. Would we ever get to see them or would nature conspire against us?
I didn’t hold out too much hope because while the Aurora Borealis has been drawing travellers to northern latitudes for years, many have left disappointed.
Still, we’d done our homework and were (almost) prepared.
- We checked the aurora forecast regularly at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute website. It ranks its forecasts from 0 (no show expected) to 8 (too fabulous for words)
- We knew we needed clear skies but the weather forecast threatened plenty of cloud during our stay
- We had to find somewhere with little or no light pollution – not easy even in remote northern Finland thanks to street lights, car headlights, advertising and so on
The Inghams tour rep suggested the frozen Immeljarvi lake, just a few minutes walk in the gloom from the K5 Hotel on the edge of town. It wasn’t perfect thanks to some minor roads but we couldn’t face dragging ourselves out any further in the bitter cold.
On our first visit there, we found plenty of tourists with cameras at the ready. I felt remarkably dumb having forgotten my tripod, and I hadn’t found one in the local shops either. Instead, to ensure my camera’s stability during long exposures, I’d had to cobble together a strange invention with blu-tak and a biscuit tin.
As we adjusted our eyes to the dark, the constellation of Orion hung above us and the occasional shooting star fell to the horizon.
But of the Northern Lights, there was very little. Patiently, we waited for the show but all we could see were vague, misty clouds that only occasionally formed into something more distinctive – a gentle yellow or green. My camera, with its long exposures, captured deeper greens than our eyes could register.
So that was a ‘one’ on the forecast scale, and the next night wasn’t much better.
Mid-week, we’d booked ourselves on a night-time Northern Lights snowmobile safari with a party of other holidaymakers. That, typically, was the night the snow arrived in huge quantities.
Wrapped up in thermal suits, we followed tracks south for 14km through a driving blizzard and extreme cold, the only lights in the inky blackness provided by the headlights of our noisy vehicles. The chances of us seeing the Northern Lights? A big, fat zero. Graham – Mr Risk Averse – seemed vaguely traumatised by the experience of clinging on to my waist for dear life while we bounced around the snow at speed.
Friday promised a level three show – the best forecast of the week in Finland. Fortunately the clouds steered clear but it was still mind-numbingly cold. After dinner, we slid down the road to the lake and found a large crowd of holidaymakers among the shadowy figures on the ice.
Above us, huge clouds of dull green swirled and oozed through the starry sky, creating strange patterns and promising much, but never quite delivering. We stuck with it as long as possible before making one of our regular escapes to the warm and welcoming bar at the K2 Hotel for drinks. On our return to the lake, most people had left and it was while I was setting up my camera that I heard Graham, and those others who’d stayed, gasp and cry out.
Looking up, I could see why. There above us, those dull green clouds were forming into deep curtains of bright yellow and green light that swirled across the sky like a giant snake. At times it was like watching an illuminated waterfall tumbling out of the sky.
It was the Northern Lights of countless photos and films, and it was totally and utterly breathtaking. There, at last, was the awesome power of our solar system converted into a priceless and unique show. Now I could see why the Sami and the Innuit had created legends about the aurora.
It was surprisingly moving and bought a lump to my throat.
The deep curtains of light changed quickly, turning into huge pools of brilliant green – at one point shaped like a giant question mark amid the stars, at another like a distorted copyright symbol. It made me think of a giant lava lamp of green ooze suspended by an unseen hand in the blackness.
The aurora began moving northwards, slowly disappearing beyond the pine forests that bordered the lake. Soon, all we could see were dramatic shafts of green light shooting toward the heavens from the horizon. And eventually, they were gone too.
The entire display had lasted little more than 10 minutes, and it had left most of us speechless. For those few minutes, I’d even forgotten just how cold I was.
We celebrated our good fortune with a warming vodka in the hotel bar and I began to wonder… If that was a three, what on earth would a forecast of eight deliver?