After flying across Norway by dog-sled and snow mobile, we camped out on a frozen lake and finally our hunt paid off….the Aurora came and danced all night…
Hi there fellow adventurists. My recent article in Outsider Magazine has set my phone and email buzzing with inquiries about my trip to Norway last year to hunt the Aurora by Husky dog sled and camp out on a frozen lake. I went in February with www.extremeireland.ie so you’ve picked the right time of year to start thinking about it. A year hasn’t dimmed the memory of the adventure, which I’ve hashtagged in my mind as #SoulFood #LifeWonder and #LifeWander.
Check out my video clips and blogs for a taste of what I experienced…and grab a copy of the winter edition of Outsider Magazine at good sports shops.
The beautiful #NorthernLights – once seen, never forgotten…. thanks so much to www.extremeireland.ie for the adventure, and my FB friends for all the photography advice that enabled me to get these shots with a little point and shoot camera and a few manual overrides.
I’ve been tobogganing, flown over the Norway Fjords, stayed in the highest building in Oslo, met the Husky Dog teams that will be hurtling us up to camp tomorrow by a frozen lake, I’ve been hiking twice a day over snowy hills overlooking Russia.. we’ve seen a taster of the Northern Lights and will trek out to hunt them again tonight, we’ve been to the border post to see the garrison turrets overlooking no-man’s land, I’ve been on a king crab diving safari and eaten more shellfish in one sitting than I’ve eaten in a lifetime on the planet, I’ve eaten whale and elk too; and today I swam in the freezing Barents Sea between Norway and Russia… this adventure is EXTREME and it’s only DAY TWO!!!!!
I feel totally exhilarated and slightly out of touch with reality, we’re packing so much into such a short period of time, that clocks and alarms and daily rituals seem totally irrelevant here. We eat well and often and grab sleep when we can, but there’s so much to do, that curling under the duvet is really a last resort when the body demands a re-charge, like the batteries that I keep tucked close to my body to keep the charge for phones and cameras. There’s so much to see and capture, I don’t want to miss a moment, and I don’t want to lose an image either. But yet I’m happy to ‘get the shot’ let the camera drop, and totally revel in the beauty of all that surrounds us. The snow is dry, powdery, and surprisingly cold to the touch – snowballs are hard to form, and within seconds my fingers lose their feeling, almost before I can deploy me weapon! Maybe that’s why I’m the only one throwing snowballs here, or maybe it’s because I’m the only kid 😉 Discussions focus on the dogs, the Northern Lights, the food which is gamey and unusal (whale-meat, elk, and king crab in the opening salvos) and there’s lots of talk about our kit, what’s keeping us warm, what’s working and what isn’t. It’s a great group, a real cross-section of fascinating individuals who I like instantly. I fancy friendships are being formed on this trip that will last a lifetime.
Two flights took us to Kirkenes with a stopover in Oslo, but even enroute I was pushed out of my comfort zone. Between flights we took a chance and grabbed a metro to go Taboggonning at Korketrekkeren. I wasn’t relishing the thought, knowing in advance that a dread of heights and a dislike of sliding downhill at speed, probably weren’t great qualifications for the job in hand. I couldn’t miss the opportunity of trying out something new though. Despite the gleeful ‘speed-freak’ sparkle in the eyes of Darren from Extreme Ireland, I tagged along, kitted myself out in balaclava, goggles and helmet, and somewhat reluctantly perched my bum on my rather flimsy looking craft. With the elaborate and detailed instruction of “put your feet up to go faster, and put them down to brake – oh, and yes, to steer”… off we went, some at speed of light, me at speed of snail; leaving a glistening, silvery trail of icy spray behind me as the heels of my snowboots dug determinedly into the mountain. We hurtled down to the metro stop far below, to take a train back up to the top, to start all over again. The brave souls did it twice, I did it once. Stop laughing. I survived, ok? I might even be tempted to try it again….
Flying north to Kirkenes was a revelation as I saw snowy mountains and frozen lakes and my first Norwegian Fjord – God this country is stunning. My heart quickened at the thought of the cold, the adventures ahead, meeting the husky teams that would bring us on our hunt for the Aurora, the Northern Lights. This is truly a country of fire and ice.
Landing and driving to our base, my senses are stunned by the brightness of the white snowy hills around me, the adrenalin that makes my heart beat faster, and already the cráic of a group of new buddies, with friendships forming all around. We get our rooms, grab our gear, and with hardly a breath we’re trekking up a hill in the direction of Russia. Two hours later we’re back for lunch, grab an hour to recover and we’re back out again to trek to our high-camp where we’ll be staying later. We are paying this first late-night visit to get a feel for our surroundings and a tempting, teasing first glance of a whisp of Northern Lights. I’ve been following the alerts and advice sent to me by Facebook friend and seasoned Aurora Hunter David Fitzgerald and he’s told me the signs are good.
We also get a fleeting introduction to the dogs who will be pulling our sleds tomorrow night. It was just a hint of the magic to come, but their howling has already visited me in snatched moments of calm during the day. I’ve played with their puppies and had my faced licked and been knocked over in the snow, and we haven’t even been formally introduced!
The Aurora is here all around us, but the cloud masks it; our frustration only eased by lashings of brandy and hot chocolate brewed over a camp fire. We take pictures of the mottled sky and later I find a smudge of green in a corner of a one single frame on my camera – I’m not asking questions – I’m claiming it. My first glance of the Aurora – captured forever. It may be fools’ gold – but it’s mine and I’m keeping it.
As I type, my heartbeat is racing; it’s 9pm, my buddies have gone out Aurora hunting and I’m here on my own, trying to capture my thoughts before they’re blown away by another day’s adventure… but it’s a race against, time, I’m straining against my own story, as the call to join them grows ever urgent. I don’t want to miss a moment.
Just to let you know before I grab my thermal gear and run away into the night; today I swam in the Barents Sea, somewhere between Norway and Russia. We went on a King Crab Safari, with a dive-team taking us out to sea in a trawler to catch the massive crustaceans and bring them up on deck for our lunch. The crabs are enormous, the flesh soft and sweet and steaming, boiled in the water in which they are found. I can’t begin to imagine ever eating that much crab again. When the boat tied up afterwards at the pier, I just had to give in to my curiosity to see how cold that sea would feel. The skipper told me it was between 1 and 2 degrees celcius; and with the snow all around I slipped off the pier and into the icy water, expecting to last 10 seconds and jump out screaming. But it didn’t feel as fierce as I imagined. Perhaps I’ve grown accustomed to the Irish wind-chill and slapping waves of swimming at HighRock in Malahide, Dublin with my Eastern Bay buddies. The icy bands came up over my chest, but didn’t totally take my breath and I felt comfortable to push off from the pier, swim out a little into the current around the boat a couple of times and then make it back to shore. The most notable difference was the almost instant restriction of sensation in my fingers, and after about 3 minutes I decided to call it a day. I dressed and warmed quickly, especially after I took advantage of my new friends’ offers of brandy and whiskey. They’re a good bunch!
I can’t resist the call anymore. Like the dog teams baying at the moon from the cabins behind me, I feel the hunt begin. It’s cold and frosty beyond my window but the snow has stopped for a while. My cameras are ready, my tripod is in my rucksack and my salopettes, boots and thermals are waiting. I know that out there in the snowy hills there are friends waiting; and a blazing camp fire, and possibly, just possibly, the mysterious, extraordinary Aurora Borealis. The hunt is on….
At 4.30am, hiking back after several hours of drawing steamy breaths through the dropping temperatures of a cold Norwegian night, I bump into an English couple who have been grabbing their last chance of seeing the Northern Lights before leaving the North and heading back home. They’re upset. They’ve spent a couple of weeks searching for the Aurora and their time here is drawing to a close. I feel sympathy for them and I comment that it simply means Norway wants them back. Even without the lights it is still a beautiful night; the stars and the moon are so bright and every breath casts filigree mists across the snowy hills stretched out in front of my eyes. I have a head-torch but don’t turn it on. The snow and the moon are bright enough to navigate and artificial light would ruin the moment. I understand the English couple’s desperation at failing to see the Northern Lights, but it’s impossible to feel sad for long, when you’re surrounded by all this beauty. The lights are simply a bonus. I understand the frustration though. Last night we had Northern Lights but too much cloud to see them, tonight we have bright clear skies, but not a whisp of Aurora in sight. I feel we’ll be lucky though. Perhaps every Aurora hunter feels the same; but I just have this deep-seated confidence that somehow the conditions will all come right tomorrow night, when we camp out by the lake in the traditional Sami Lavvu tent. I head for home, our base camp in Sollia, overlooking Lake Neitijärvi, and just 500 metres from the Russian border.
A couple of hours’ sleep and we’re back in action. Today we’re heading for a dog sledding and snowmobile safari into the hills behind us and we’re also moving all our cold-weather gear up to high-camp, where we’ll spend a night beneath the stars, and hopefully the Northern Lights. Our gear is packed onto sleds and vanishes into a flurry of snow and a mix of dogs barking and engines revving, as the snow mobiles line up. Our group of 14 is divided between machines and dogs, and I’m paired with Nicole who’s fast becoming a buddy. We approach the snow mobiles and climb up, driver and pillion passenger, onto a surprisingly large piece of machinery. We are given instructions on how to start, steer and stop, and we’re off on the trail with Nicole up front. Plenty of engine revs, and shuddering starts and stops until we get the hang of it. We take turns at driving and I loved being up front. A lifetime of fast cars and riding a few motorbikes in my late teens comes in handy. Although Nicole and I both turned out to be ‘tree huggers’ with an unerring talent for running towards anything solid in our path. There were screams and laughter as we made our way cross-country through the snowy hills and learned to lean with the mobile, and learned not to confuse the break with the throttle. At one stage we revved deeply coming into a sharp hill and engaged full throttle, driving sharp and fast up the bank, briefly becoming airborne as we cleared the top, before slamming down inches between a tree and the other waiting mobiles. Screams, laughter, terror and delight all bundled into one frosty, icy bite of adventure.
A couple of hours later we switched to the dog-sleds, and now I felt nervous. In this case, the passenger sits up-front, with the driver braking from behind. The sleds seem so flimsy and inconsequential and the dogs are so determined to keep moving forward, that chaos seems inevitable. The howl of the dogs frustrated and clamouring to set off, seems to echo around my heart and push my pulse rate higher as I feel their excitement. I quickly grew to like being the passenger, but it took me ages to relax when it was my turn to stand up behind and handle the brake. The dogs just don’t stop. They have two gears, ‘go’ and ‘go faster’. If you lose them, if you fall off, if you let the sled go, the dogs will just keep running until something snags them or someone catches up with them. That felt like a lot of responsibility. The lead pack steer and we follow, all I had to concentrate on was controlling the brake, controlling the speed. Despite the change of transport, Nicole and I still seemed to attract trees and ledges; but we survived, while our shreaks and screams and laughter continued to echo across the hills… perhaps we were calling to the Northern Lights.
We bundled into our camp beside the lake and stamped the snow from our feet as we stepped across the wooden floor of the Sami Lavvu – the traditional Norwegian tent, where we were served steaming bowls of reindeer soup and oily, salty bread. We caught another sled ride afterwards, bored holes in the lake to fish; and played in the snow around us with skiddos and mini toboggans, but all thoughts were now gearing up towards our night beneath the stars. We were staying in a tent village by the frozen lake. Temperatures all around us were dropping to minus 25 degrees Celcius, and we needed to be very careful about keeping our noses, toes, and fingers sheltered from frost bite. But we would be sleeping in relative luxury with stoves keeping out the cold and camp beds set up for our sub-zero sleeping bags. We organised ourselves and then went back to the Lavvu to get our cameras and tripods set and sorted, ready for what I was sure would lie ahead. We didn’t have long to wait, as we rolled the last of the bread around our bowls of reindeer stew, the call went up and we jammed together as we rushed out of the tent and into the night.
She danced for us. The natural green light that I had seen before on other people’s photos was now moving eerily and silently in the sky around me. Billowing up from behind the moon and reaching out across the heavens. I was amazed to see how clearly the stars shone through. The green was so intense I though it would mask them, but it was translucent and magical, draping itself in curls and eddies. Building and ebbing, like the tide, a sunami of light, sweeping across the sky then disappearing, only to burst through behind my head. I waltzed and danced in circles, as the calls rang out ‘here’, ‘here’, ‘look over there’ – excited voices drowning out the quiet click, click, of cameras snapping and capturing, again and again and again. I felt a fleeting sadness for the English couple who had flown home just a few hours ago, without seeing this. I hope they return. But my head and heart are lost, out there in the wildness a ‘green frenzy’, ‘green fever’, caught in the moment, in the intoxication of drinking in the light. The local people tell me sometimes you only see the lights for moments, or for minutes, we saw them for hours.
I don’t have any knowledge of photography, I bought a point-and go with manual overrides two days before we flew out here and soaked up all the information and advice I could from friends and colleagues about shutter speed and aperture and how to get the maximum light into my lens. I was happy enough to feast my eyes and have this adventure for myself, but I longed for just one, clear shot, to share back at home with all those friends who longed to travel with me on this journey. I got so much more than I bargained for. I got over a hundred shots, I got a thrill and an interest for my little new camera, I learned the difference between shooting in JPEG and RAW. I learned enough to know that I know nothing; but I learned I’d like to know more. A new interest in a new skill is just one gift I’m taking back from the Northern Lights. It’s one of many. The country is so incredibly beautiful and the people so funny and generous, I am definitely coming here again. The Aurora – amazing as it is – was simply a bonus.
The following morning we broke camp and covered in reindeer skins, I sled back down to Solia, where we went sight-seeing and ended up at the very impressive Snow Hotel. I saw an albino reindeer with just one antler; and I threw some more snowballs, but we were all very much aware that we were into our final hours. Reindeer steaks topped the bill for our final supper in Solia as a group – and the morning of our flight back to Oslo, I set my alarm and got up extra early, to have a final walk into the hills, and enjoy some fun playing with the snow-shoes that had been loaned to me by Ken at Great Outdoors back in Dublin. All too soon we were back on the Norwegian Airlines flight that would take us back to Dublin via Oslo. It felt stunning to have packed so many lifetimes into one week; and it still seems slightly unreal to be heading away already. I have kaleidoscopic memories, a tangled bunch of favourite moments that as yet I cannot choose between. We had a roller-coaster ride across beautiful Norway and I suspect the Northern Lights will lure me back again…
Here’s the video for our full adventure 🙂