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
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
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
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.
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.