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Stories from our Travelers

Hunting the Lights


Racing through the dark

Northern Lights aglow

Aboard the MS Trollfjord
by Nicholas Walton

The temperature is dropping by the minute as lazy snowflakes fall, dancing in the clouds of steam from my breath. Lifting the visor of my helmet, I drink in the cold, fresh air; it bites at my lips and eyes as flakes of ice wash up from the snowmobiles in front. Time is running short; tension is building as we race through the darkness, eyes peeled towards the sky, headlights whipping across through the thick snow. The hunt is on.

The Northern Lights are an elusive prey. They come and go as they please, their green, pink and purple bands appearing in the inky sky in moments, dancing, taunting, only to vanish so quickly you’re forced to ask if they were ever there. And sometimes, just sometimes, they come out in a staggering display that reaches across the sky, captivating the imagination. It’s those epic lights that we’re hunting for tonight.

The Northern Lights have captivated visitors to the Arctic Circle for centuries. Found in the high latitudes, on cold clear nights, they’re caused by the collision of energetic charged particles with atoms at high altitude. This year is said the best for Northern Lights activity in half a century and our cruise is packed with camera-toting tourists looking to the skies.

Exciting night snowmobile safaris like this are just one of a raft of activities offered by Hurtigruten, a cruise line-cum-ferry company and local Norwegian icon. One of the very best ways to explore Norway’s stunningly-rugged west coast and to delve into its slice of the Arctic Circle, Hurtigruten’s 11 vessels connect isolated fishing communities with urban centres like Kirkenes, Tromso and Bergen, while also connecting an increasing number of intrepid travelers with this truly unique landscape. On our journey we’ve caught hubcap-sized king crab on a frozen fjord, dog sledded through icy tundra at twilight, shacked up in a hotel made entirely of snow, and toured towns first established by the Vikings, but nothing compares to the exhilaration of hunting the Aurora Borealis by snowmobile.

Our adventure began at our ship, the MS Trollfjord, as she docked at the remote fishing community of Kjøllefjord, where we scramble into survival suits that make us walk like astronauts, our feet toasty in foil-lined boots, our hands bundled into gloves that resemble oven mittens. A bus takes us up the winding road from the town into the mountains which wreath the tranquil harbor. Snow-capped peaks are silhouetted on the horizon and the blinking red lights of a crop of towering windmills tell of the power farms that ring Kjøllefjord. Our guide points into the darkness and tells of the northern most forest in the world, a corpse of slender birch trees that stubbornly defy their proximity to the North Pole.

In winter this road can become treacherous; snow plows often lead scheduled convoys of commuters and a couple of times a year the weather whips up a frenzy, preventing the Hurtigruten ship visits, closing the road and cutting the town off from the rest of the world, “or the rest of the world from us,” our guide Vikonov chuckles.

Following torch beams, the air pinching at exposed skin, and the faint rumble of engines on the wind, I almost walk into the first snowmobile, a powerful half-bike, half-sled contraption that sits patiently in the silver moonlight. After a quick safety briefing, we’re mounting up and following Vikonov in a chain of lights and reeving engines.

We come to our first break in literally the middle of nowhere. There is no sense of space or shape. As we wrestle out of the oven mittens to change camera settings, Vikonov points to the sky, waving his hands through super-chilled air as whitish, wispy formations gather above. The shapes have little colour and look more like scattered clouds than the famed Northern Lights, but it’s a joy to be out in the cold night, wrapped up warm and drinking in the starry night above. Determined to impress, Vikonov leads the convoy deeper into the countryside, across flat plains of foot-deep snow, and down into shallow valleys. In the distance, the skies are stirring.

On a final climb up a steep hill that has the convoy reeving and steaming, we summit a peak overlooking the Arctic town of Mehamn. The lights of the tiny settlement twinkle in the distance like grounded stars and beyond, the MS Trollfjord can be seen steaming up the coast to collect us. “We don’t have much time,” says Vikonov, climbing from his snowmobile. “Your ship will soon arrive, but I think Mother Nature will beat her to it.”

He looks up, and as if on cue, the sky’s nothingness starts to shift as the pale streaks of colour gather contrast, their fingers reaching across the horizon until the sky is a series of spectacular green and blue bands. We lie back on the seats of the snowmobiles, gazing as the lights literally dance above, shifting hue and form constantly. Time seems to stand still, the rush to see the lights gone, the rush to the ship ignored for 10 tantalizing minutes as the skies erupt with colour.

Camera memory cards filled and fingers begging to be buried back in the oven mittens, we mount up, this time for the quick race down the mountain’s back to the harbour and the rapidly approaching ship, by far the largest thing in town, the captain eager to continue north. From the rail, as we pull away from the pier, I watch the last wisps of the Northern Lights flicker on the horizon, as if calling us back to the frozen wilds, where they play in a jewelled sky above the darkened stage of Norway.

If You Go:
Check out Hurtigruten.

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