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The aurora borealis is one of nature’s most beautiful anomalies. Popularly known as the northern lights, the phenomenon of green, blue and red lights that appear in the northern hemisphere’s far reaches has inspired wonder and awe among locals, travellers and dreamers for centuries.

The semi-nomadic Sami people of Finnish Lapland believed that the northern lights were the flick of an arctic fox’s tail through a snowdrift. The Vikings believed they were the spirits of their ancestors in the heavens above. Science offers another reason: the natural phenomenon occurs between the latitudes of 60 to 72 degrees, when electron-rich solar winds bursting from the sun are pulled in by the North Pole’s magnetic fields and collide with gases like nitrogen and oxygen in the earth’s upper atmosphere.

However, what makes the aurora borealis truly special is that there are no guarantees you will see it.

Luckily for travellers, the upcoming northern winter of 2012/2013 coincides with the solar maximum, when the sun is at the peak of its nine- to 14-year solar cycle. In short, it is one of the best opportunities to see the northern lights in 12 years.

In the Inari region of Finnish Lapland, the northern lights are active around 200 days a year and geomagnetic activity is highest in March and October, so seeing them is less about good luck and more about good planning and perseverance. Along with cloud cover, light pollution remains one of the biggest obstacles to seeing the lights, and often, the more remote the area, the better your chances of getting a clear view. Luckily, there are a number of aurora-based accommodations and tours designed by locals that aim to enhance your odds of seeing the lights in all their glory.

Some of Saariselkä’s most innovative aurora-watching accommodations are the glass igloos constructed on a hilly slope at Hotel Kakslauttanen. The owner experimented with a fog-resistant double-glass tepee before building 20 glass igloos for aurora viewing. Inside, the temperature-controlled lodgings include remote-controlled adjustable beds so guests can watch the lights without craning their necks.

Aurora hunting can be cold and tiresome work, with the lights being most active between 9 pm and 3 am, and temperatures plunging below -30C in the winter. The Reikonlinna Hotel, in the ski village of Saariselkä, has a purpose-built aurora room located in its 232-room hotel to help guests keep warm while they wait for the lights. Lined with pictures of the aurora and facing the nearby mountains with wide panes of thick glass, the darkened room is so popular (particularly older guests and those with small children), management often has to add extra chairs from the downstairs restaurant to cater to the crowds. Unfortunately, the room is only available for guests of the hotel.

Located on Lake Menesjärvi, the former boarding school Hotel Korpikartano is popular with aurora hunters for its remote location in the Inari region and for its views of the surrounding mountains. Hourly weather reports are posted by the front door next to an aurora forecast, and each evening, guests can walk out onto the frozen lake or snowshoe into the surrounding forest with the hotel owner to hunt the lights.

Watching the aurora can also be combined with a number of adventure activities and winter sports. Some of the best on offer in Finnish Lapland are Kamisak’s multi-day husky expeditions into the wilderness near the Russian border. During the limited daylight hours, visitors mush their own husky team through the wilderness, travelling between isolated forest cabins. After feeding and caring for their team of dogs, visitors can watch for the lights in secluded areas only a handful of kilometres from the Russian border, undisturbed by light pollution.

For those that want to do smaller tours, a nightly three-hour snowmobiling tour can be an adventurous way to hunt the aurora, especially if you have kids. Popularly used in Finnish Lapland as the main vehicle for reindeer herding, snowmobiles follow a series of man-made tracks through the forest and include a pit stop for a warm drink.

Of course, taking a photo of the aurora is trickier than it looks. To get a decent shot, a basic knowledge of your camera settings and a tripod are essential. Amateur photographers after professional-looking shots could consider joining a three- or four-day Hunting the Aurora tour with professional photographer Andy Keen, where he takes small groups out to secret spots to see the lights.

And if the solar winds and the earth’s gases align, you just might get to see the aurora itself. The unpredictable shapes and kaleidoscopic colours that engulf the sky, the slivers and wisps of smoky green -- it is a natural phenomena worth travelling to the ends of the world to see. 

 

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