Matt Gemmell

Aurora

Chasing the Northern Lights

Personal & Cover 10 min read

There were nine of us in the expedition vehicle, including two guides.

The van was solid, well-built and reliable; quintessentially German. Individual climate controls were set into the ceiling above each seat. It had ice spikes in the tyres, blinding extra high-beams mounted on the front grille, spare fuel, and all of our equipment.

We’d already traded our own clothes for polar suits at the warehouse launch point - everyone except me and the leader, anyway. My technical clothing was already up to the task. The suits were rated for minus forty degrees celsius. Boots ran a size larger, to allow for an essential insulating air gap. Socks were wool - cotton isn’t a good idea - and the hats came with headband lamps that were switchable between full beam, dipped beam, and slow pulse.

Gloves were lashed inside cinched cuffs, and mittens are really what you want. The cold gets between fingered gloves surprisingly quickly. All gloves have wrist-loops to keep them near, because you’ll regularly have to pull them off to quickly do something or other, and your hands become clumsy frighteningly soon. Scarves are a must, to catch any gaps around your hoods. Rain wasn’t a concern; it would be too cold for it to form.

We had a crate of high-calorie hot food packs (add water, wait 5 minutes, eat), and instant hot chocolate. We had enough to go around, plus spares. Everyone had a phone, and there was a wide assortment of dSLR cameras and tripods.

We set out around 5PM local time in Tromsø, Norway, inside the Arctic Circle. We had meteorological data updates regularly, and called for local conditions every hour. We’d been given the go-ahead via email a few hours before.

We were chasing the aurora borealis: the Northern Lights.

The lights were the main reason that my wife Lauren and I went to Norway. She wanted to see them with her own eyes, as a treat for her birthday. Fittingly, it was that very day that we set out on our hunt.

The van’s big lights could pick out the eyes of a reindeer or an elk from a long way ahead. The former tend to be sensible and stay at the side of the road, but elk don’t see so well, and have a habit of wandering slowly out and staying there. We didn’t encounter any, which was a mixed blessing.

After the first hour of driving, we stopped at a fuel station to pick up some chocolate and use the bathroom. It was our first and last comfort break. We’d next find a bathroom eleven hours later. After ten minutes, we were back on the road.

Chasing the lights is actually chasing clear skies, at night, at the right latitudes. Then, you try to get there while the skies are clear, and you wait. Weather data and forecasts are of paramount importance. The next most important thing is a good camera - even if you aren’t interested in taking pictures.

Long exposures of ten seconds can pick up the green smear across the sky that shows the first particles of the aurora, long before the human eye can see any colour there. Technology gives some forewarning of where to look, and lets you set up a shot if you’re trying to get one.

The northern road between Norway and Finland is desolate. Isolated houses appear occasionally, but you’re driving through flurries of snow, reaching a plateau through the mountains. The only other traffic is the trucks.

They’re huge rigs with roof-mounted searchlight beams that put ours to shame. Even in the thickest snowfall, you can see them a mile out, shining over hills like the face of god. If they forget to kill their roof beams as they near you from the opposite direction, you’ll be driving blind. They never forget. They also never slow down, no matter the conditions.

The border came and went - just a small collection of buildings - and, as usual, there was no inspection. We saw no-one. We slowed to drive on through, but there are no barriers or such. Every one of us had a passport in our pockets just in case, but our guides told us they’ve never been needed so far.

Northern Finland is a place where the fuel stations have more snowmobiles than automobiles. The entire place is a playground for ski-equipped people and transportation. We passed no fuel stations, nor any other soul - except for the unseen drivers of the huge trucks that would periodically materialise from the white, blast past unheeding, and vanish as quickly as they’d appeared.

We did have one constant companion: snow devils. Wisps of wraith-like snow thrown up by wind, like dense fog moving with a purpose. It can look like steam coming from the road. If you stopped and stepped outside, you’d quickly realise it wasn’t. The devils leaped and corkscrewed around the windscreen, and after a while you don’t even notice them.

At length, we pulled over and carefully re-oriented the vehicle for our later departure. Parking is a very important consideration, even though you can park almost anywhere. Getting stranded isn’t an option.

We bundled out, pulled on hats and gloves, zipped up zippers, tightened velcro bands, raised hoods, tested headlamps, and hovered around the vehicle to let our eyes adjust to the polar night with the snow under the moon, and our bodies adjust to the cold. Standing there in a circle, it was time for a camera lesson, of all things. Exposures and ISO settings. We could have done it back at the launch point, but it’s better fresh in the mind. There was also a reminder that the snow surface masks the terrain below, and that a single step can mean a huge difference in ground level. Everyone was taken by surprise at least once.

There was a suspension footbridge nearby. Not large; you can cross it in a minute. It separates the countries of Finland and Sweden. The drop from the bridge was only twenty feet or so, but of course there’s a lake down there somewhere, below the snow and the ice. It was utterly silent.

We walked across, stepping into Sweden. There was absolutely no-one there, nor anyone for quite a way around. I stopped at the middle of the bridge, looking out at the moonlit snowscape. There was a peculiar whistling sound, coming from all around but far away. Melodic, but with an alien rhythm. First it would seem to come from the North, and then the East. Sweden, or Finland. Ahead or behind. It was almost like piping, and I wondered where it came from - certainly not from anything human.

Come and find me, it seemed to say, far out in the white dark. I even considered trying to walk towards it - just a hundred feet or so, to see if I could localise the sound. And then perhaps a hundred more.

The stars twinkled down, more vividly than I’ve ever seen them. Orion’s Belt was huge in the sky. Everything was so utterly still, and I could feel the cold pulling at me; pulling down inside my legs and into the ground. To stand still was to feel the cold pressing through the clothes and into your bones. Then the oddly pleasant tiredness. Then your mind wanders, and the wind can sound like cruel laughter.

The expedition leader asked for a volunteer to be first onto the surface of the frozen lake, so we could cross back into Finland directly, without using the bridge. I went. It was solid as a rock, and around the halfway mark I could see half-covered snowmobile tracks that could only have been a few hours old.

We passed from one lake to another, with a frozen wooden boat sitting on what must have been the shore, its edges made blurry by the snow. With some difficulty, we lit a fire.

The hot chocolate might have been terrible; it probably was. Hot is also a relative term - that’s a lesson I’ve learned very well recently. But it was heaven there, standing metres out from a hopelessly entombed wooden row boat on the surface of a frozen lake, under a clearing sky in the last minutes of a day that saw no sunlight whatsoever.

We made the food packs, and we ate. There were high-energy snacks like vacuum-packed peanuts, and a dubious range of meal choices like fish curry, meat soup, couscous, and a few others. I had the pasta. It tasted like… a meal that prepared itself in a pouch in five minutes, and would survive polar conditions, and was designed to provide calories above all else. We cleaned our sporks by dunking them in a snowdrift.

I derived no warmth from the fire, but it was reassuring. Whenever we needed to ferry items to or from the vehicle (parked high and always within sight), its grille-mounted flood beams could be triggered by remote control to illuminate the way.

My wife’s birthday ended as we ate - it’s an hour later in Finland than in Norway - and the man who had sat in front of her in the vehicle began to celebrate his own. Two birthdays on consecutive days, amongst nine people out in the wilderness; a small human ritual as the Arctic looked indifferently on, whistling tauntingly from somewhere out there in the dark.

Time passed. Conversation ebbed and flowed. The group split into small two-person gatherings, none straying more than a few metres from any other.

Eventually, the cameras began to pick up a faint wash of green light.

We took staggered shots now, every half minute, spanning the sky. The tripods looked like a defensive gun emplacement, and the crisp, electronic beeps sounded very unnatural. If anyone had been there to watch us, stalking nervously from one knee-high black device to another, eyes darting around the whole vault of the sky, they would have thought that we were afraid.

Minutes passed, and eventually we all began to wonder if we could perhaps see something up there, shielding our eyes from the almost-full moon. Another volley of carefully metred exposures. Minutes more.

And then something otherworldly arrived.

Northern Lights

There are experiences that we all recognise as being the stuff of science fiction; special effects added in post production, and actors reacting only to their own imagination. Phantasmagorical scenes, too vast and awe-inspiring and strange to be part of our disappointingly but comfortingly mundane world.

But once in a very long while, in our real lives, when we’ve perhaps strayed far from the nearest settlement, and it’s the dead of night and we’re standing on a frozen land under a glittering sky, we actually have those experiences nonetheless.

It started with a single streamer of dull green light, fading into view across the sky, like the distant axis of a nebula or some other astronomical phenomenon. Then it bloomed.

Northern Lights

The aurora is a twisting, undulating ribbon of light - green, red, sometimes purple or blue - that drifts sinuously across the sky, reaching down towards the Earth in a hundred curtained folds. It’s beautiful, and haunting, and terrifying all at once.

It moves with complexity and elegance, easily seen as intelligence and purpose. One moment it’s the barest pine-green wash against the star-scape, and the next it’s a billowing sail of vivid green energy, vast in the sky, turning an eyeless face down to momentarily consider the small beings staring up at it from below.

Sometimes it’s in one place, and sometimes it surrounds you. Sometimes it’s off towards the horizon, then you barely turn away and it materialises over your head, filling your vision. And it’s completely silent - ghostly and humbling.

The scenery of the Arctic Circle is painfully beautiful, and bleak. The colour palette is black, and white, and deep midnight blues and greys. Polar night bleeds all the brightest colours from everything, leaving a mush of murky shades and a constant undercurrent of foreboding. And then the aurora appears in the sky.

The effect for me was to cement a growing feeling that we’d wandered too far from our own domain, and into another place - a native land of things that could bear the numbing, dragging, leeching cold, and who liked nothing more than whistling their secret melodies to the vault of the perpetually dark sky. This was the place Lovecraft rightly imagined with such an ecstasy of terror.

It was fitting, then, that something alive came down out of the cold sky; beautiful and terrible and unforgettable. A thing whose very appearance interrupted our plumes of visible breath for long seconds, reminding us immediately how catastrophically small and ill-equipped we are.

Northern Lights

The aurora stayed for a while, and then left, returned, and finally left again. At length, we packed up and got into the van for a very long drive back to another country, along hundreds of kilometres of deserted road. The engine started first time. The vehicle was the tenth and most beloved member of our outing.

Periodically, as we drove, the aurora peeked down below the clouds again, watching our progress with alien interest. We duly paid obeisance each time, pulling over to the side of the road and erecting our circle of standing tripods, casting our eyes skyward. And when it faded, we drove on.

Twelve hours after we’d left, we arrived back where we’d started. The driving had been shared, everyone had at least a brief nap at some point, and we were all tired beyond much conversation - but delighted.

I was also changed.

On paper, the expedition is a questionable proposition. Expensive, uncomfortable in several ways, exhausting, time-consuming, and with no guarantee of success. Also not entirely without risk, I suppose. A very long way to go for the chance to stand powerless beneath something you could choose to simply experience via someone else’s images.

Yet I’m desperate to go back. Out into the cold and the perpetual dark, for as many miles and hours as it takes, until I can find that lonely, silent and still place where I can again come face to face with something astonishing. Not just as a photo or a video, but right there, hanging and twisting and rolling in the sky above my head. Where I can throw my arms into the air again and just behold.

I felt very small, and awed, and frightened, and thrilled at the existence of such a thing - and those feelings have stayed with me. We all ought to feel that way from time to time, to put our lives into some measure of perspective.

As I write this, I’m sitting at home in Edinburgh; we landed back here this morning. Four days ago, at this very moment, I stood on that lake, near the fire, still waiting for my first glimpse of green light. It’s a cloudy night tonight, with the moon just a shrouded yellow patch against the grey. Everything here is very small, and very real.

There are places, though, where other things are real. We wish for more of them, and our wishes take the form of our fiction, and the work of our imaginations. That’s only right and proper, because most of us can’t be out there searching for wonders instead of getting on with our lives.

But we can go sometimes.

Even just once. It took two flights, hours of driving, patience, insulation and luck, but I found one of those rare places with my wife a few days ago. As real as the armchair I’m sitting in now, and as undeniable.

There are still astonishing things in the world. If we’re willing to take some time - maybe less than you think - and to believe, and to chase those things… well. That’s the really thrilling, frightening, wonderful part.

Sometimes, we can actually find them.

Northern Lights