After a good 4 years of searching northern skies for the elusive and etherial Aurora Borealis, in locations from Alaska to Iceland, North Norway to Swedish Lapland, and lastly Finland’s Lapland region, I hit the motherload of opportunity when in November 2016 I landed a very exclusive job opportunity in Ivalo Finland. By a very small but not so coincidental (so I believe) chance, I was offered a position to be the one and only host of a new cabin resort in Ivalo, the magical hide away resort known as Aurora Village Ivalo which opened it’s doors in December of 2016.
Before I start to go on about life in Ivalo Finland as the host, tour guide, resident aurora photographer and somewhat manager, I want to give a little back story about my quest to not only witness the Aurora Borealis but to learn how to photograph that celestial magical event which can light up a dark night sky with it’s ghost like green and pink (and reportedly other colors that I have not yet witnessed myself) glow. I would also just like to make mention that I am an American dude from Southern California who has been living in Finland now since the end of 2015, but that is a story for another entry some day.
It was in January of 2012 when I visited Sweden and Norway for the fist time, I was full of excitement and naivety about the Nordic countries and the facts about seeing THE NORTHERN LIGHTS. Naturally I figured my chances to catch the Aurora Borealis in Sweden or Norway during cold January must be really good, right ? After all, both countries I knew were far enough north to see the lights, WELL lights I did see that winter. Lights from cities such as Stockholm, Oslo, and Bergen were the only lights I saw during that visit to Scandinavia. My first lesson about witnessing Aurora Borealis, IT DOES NOT HAPPEN OFTEN IF YOU HAVE LIGHT POLLUTION FROM A CITY OR EVEN A TOWN. You see, lesson number one, you should have little to no ambient light from cities or even the moon (unless you are going for a dramatic photograph) when you are scanning the northern sky for aurora, this is especially an important factor if you plan to capture dynamic photos of just the aurora light itself (I will make a separate entry about photographing the aurora). I am not saying that the aurora can not be seen above a big city such as Stockholm or Helsinki, it just does not happen too often. So, being in an area with few or no lights is where you want to go, this is why AURORA HUNTING SAFARIS are very popular in places such as Iceland or here in Finnish Lapland, where there is so much vast dark area, away from towns and cities. Speaking of Iceland, I will now jump to 2013, the month of September. I ended a three-month journey around Europe and all of the nordic countries with a two-week stay in Iceland, one of the most popular and promoted locations to witness The Northern Lights. I happened to be in Iceland at the beginning of Aurora season, meaning it was already dark enough in the evenings to be able to see the aurora. After about a week around Reykjavik and a few clear nights, I had still not witnessed anything, it was once I went north to Akureyri that I felt hopeful I would finally get a chance. While I really enjoyed Akureyri and some of the scenic locations around the north of Iceland, I was beginning to not have much hope in seeing the aurora, but then one half cloudy night, my travel friend and I were arriving to the guesthouse when we noticed a strange faint glow in the sky behind the clouds, those damn clouds ! My friend who is from Sweden had seen the aurora many times and she assured me, what we were seeing was aurora borealis. My excitement was short-lived however, as the could cover became thicker and then finally the sky was shrouded in that dreary grey blanket that so often creeps over the north. Just when you think you will have a chance to witness a celestial showing of glowing green magic, those damn clouds kill the show before it really even starts. This scenario brings me to my next bit of advice for those seeking the Northern Lights, the weather obviously (or it should be obvious) is the next important factor in aurora hunting, one must consider very dynamic weather changes in the far north, whether you are at Iceland or in the middle of Lapland, you are in an arctic environment, which means the weather can and does very often change.
Since I have been living and working in tourism here in Lapland, I have come up with a bit of advice to visitors that usually comes too late since they have already booked their stay for one or two nights typically. What I advise people who are seeking the aurora borealis is, stay a minimum of three nights in an area that is known to have frequent aurora sightings, just one night in Lapland is not gonna give you good odds, it just will not. There is nothing about the aurora borealis that is predictable, from a guides perspective anyway. There is a handy tool that we guides use just about every night, which is a phone app that gives detailed information about the sun’s activity and the earth’s geomagnetic activity (KP level). The sun is the first reason we see the aurora, with the weak magnetic field at the poles of the earth being the second factor, and finally the gases that make up earth’s atmosphere, which is where the colourful event happens as the charged particles from the sun collide with gasses like oxygen (green and pink aurora) and nitrogen (the very rare red and blue aurora). The aurora is in the simplest of explanations, a phenomenon that occurs not so high above the earth, over the poles, about 60 miles up. When charged particles from the sun pass through gaps in the earth’s magnetic field at the poles, we see the aurora near the north and south polar regions, where the magnetic field is weaker. With a handful of pretty decent smart phone apps or several internet websites that give updated information about the current geomagnetic activity, one can get an idea if the aurora may show itself in the night sky. We guides talk about the KP LEVEL when we consider taking guests for aurora hunting tours. The KP Index is not a magic number foretelling of aurora activity but generally speaking, the higher the KP Index number, the better this possibility MAY be. I say ‘MAY be’ because again, there is nothing predictable about the aurora borealis. I personally tell my guests that it is possible to see aurora activity with a KP Index of 2 though obviously a KP 5 or higher brings greater hope, and hope is really what it boils down to when people come from all around the world to locations such as Finland, Norway, Alaska or Iceland for example. We take a gamble to witness the other worldly aurora borealis. A client I had taken for an aurora hunting tour said something that still resonates in my mind now every time I take guests for aurora hunting tours, he said something to the effect of, “if the aurora was so easy to see, it would not be such a special thing for people to do in their life time, traveling far to try to see aurora is like gambling but that makes it much more fun if you do get a chance to witness it for yourself.” I really like that point of view when it comes to seeing the aurora. I have now seen aurora displays of all magnitudes since 2013 in Iceland and most especially during a month working in Alaska in 2015. Now that I have been living and working in Ivalo Finland for several months during winter season. I can say that I no longer stand outside in sub-zero temperatures with high anticipation, unless I have a group of tourists on an aurora hunting tour and then my anticipation is usually because I want to get back in the warm van ! None the less, I still get excited when lady aurora comes out and dances bright across the sky for everyone, then I too have my camera and tripod out and ready to start snapping photos until the camera battery gets too cold !
Witnessing the aurora borealis moving fast or slowly sauntering across a dark winter sky is truly a once in a lifetime experience and I believe it is worth the gamble, at least once or twice in our lifetimes.