finding the Northern Lights (2018)

“Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly.  Choose happiness”

(Brionnie Ware, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying)

A new chapter had begun. A page turned.

She’d left a job of the last thirteen years to take another that, she hoped, would give her a better quality of life.  It was a time for change. It felt like the stars were aligned … and she was feeling brave.

Feeling brave is feeling empowered, and so, in that precious week of freedom between leaving one job and starting the next, she pushed her boundaries just that little bit more and booked a flight to the northern most parts of Norway to follow a life long dream to see the northern lights.

Research shows that to stand the best chance of seeing them, there needs to be darkness, and lots of it.  And the best way to find that is to head just about as far north as civilisation allows, to a tiny city called Tromso.  Linked to the main land by a elegant arched bridge, the island of Tromsoya is located over 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle,  where, during the polar night lasting from November to January, the sun does not rise at all.

The darkness apart, never having been a skier, she had also never before experienced a landscape eternally shrouded in its winter coat.  It was difficult for her to imagine, therefore, a land where it is like this for months on end, which is why she wanted to see it for herself.

The flight out of Oslo gave her the first glimpse of what she had been looking for.  In the eerie twilight blue, the jagged crevices and undulating contours of the bleak barrenness were outlined in every detail by the snow, norwegian firs piercing through, standing proud and defiant in this unforgiving landscape, so much more beautiful here than the one she’d left behind still holding up the gaudy remnants of the festive season at home. On they flew, two hours north of Oslo, on and on, north and north, leaving behind day light hours, and speeding towards a land of perpetual dark.

On her first morning, a violent noise, like someone throwing grit at her bedroom window, woke her with a start.  What she’d noticed when she arrived the night before was how quiet everywhere was.  Not only does a colder climate discourage anyone from venturing out, but the snow muffles any sounds, from passing traffic to voices, thus amplifying the strange and foreign sound, which turned out to be the snow plough doing its morning rounds, clearing the road outside her room after several feet of snowfall while she’d slumbered in the early hours.

In the south of England, on a “bad” year, we might do the depths of winter, or at least our perception of it, for a week or so. We momentarily marvel at the white, sparkling beauty of  a couple of inches of freshly fallen snow, then we grind to a halt. We moan that the trains don’t run on time (if at all).  We begrudgingly clear our drives and slip-slide our unresponsive cars onto roads often ill prepared for a cold snap, with gritting lorries cajoling the main arteries into life, but anywhere else left to the eagerness of its residents to get to work with a shovel.  We dig out our warmest clothes, raid the food stores as if the cold snap is unlikely to ever end, become neighbour friendly in ways we never do in “normal” times, start making homemade soup …. and wait for the thaw.

So different there … they are prepared and several feet (not inches) of snow is the norm. As is the multiple layers of clothing required to even step outside the door.  It certainly takes longer to get ready to go out for the day!

Apparently the way to walk best on frozen ground is to walk like a penguin … not something she ever really mastered and even had to be rescued from the middle of a cross roads when she froze on the spot (literally) trying to decide in which direction she would least likely end up on her derriere!  A kindly octogenarian, came dashing across the road with astonishing nimbleness, and came to her rescue.  It seems the key is not to walk like a penguin, but clip on spikes! She needn’t have worried though – by necessity everything moves slowly – the people (it’s all those clothes) and even the traffic!

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Tromso, dotted with centuries-old painted houses, was a centre for seal hunting, trapping and fishing, and later a launch pad for several notable Arctic expeditions. A truly fascinating place to explore in the mornings, the blue twilight creating an enchanting and surreal landscape before darkness set in, and the town retreated to snug indoors by candlelight, in front of cosy fires and generous bowls of steaming reindeer stew.

Afternoons were for sleeping …  for the real reason for her visit happened of course, at night.

She had three chances to see the northern lights.  Three nights to find what she had dreamed of seeing for as long as she could remember …

The first two nights were too cloudy, so she awoke on her final day knowing that it was now, or probably never.  To cushion the potential disappointment of not seeing them at all, she had booked a husky sleigh ride for that morning.  Two to a sleigh, with a team of excitable barking huskies straining at the reins, they left the city lights behind and headed into the snowy barrenness. It was one of the most exhilarating moments of her life – Wednesday mornings would never quite be the same again.

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And so it came to the last night.

Two minibuses set out in search of the elusive lights, higher and higher, deeper and deeper into the icy wonderland, then stopped to set up campfires and wait.  And wait.  And wait.  It was approaching midnight, by which time she had retreated into the warmth of the minibus and closed her eyes, resigned to the fact that it wasn’t to be.  Then there was a loud banging on the door. “Come quick! The lights!”.  And there they were, drifting across the night sky before her eyes in their magical dance, a green luminescent cloud, shifting and undulating like a flock of murmuring swallows.

There were no words …

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