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The Myth Behind the Lights

In Finnish, the name for the aurora borealis is "Revontulet", which literally translated means "Fox Fires." The name comes from an ancient Finnish myth, in which the lights were caused by a magical fox sweeping his tail across the snow, spraying it up into the sky. Even to the native Saami people who have grown up for centuries seeing these “magical” lights, known as the Northern lights or the Aurora Borealis, they have remained a mysterious enigma or elusive phantom.

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Some people have traveled far and wide searching for them and have never been fortunate enough to catch a glimpse. As a child when I first heard about these mysterious green lights in the sky, I knew one day that I would have to go on a quest to find them. The idea of catching a rare glimpse of the Northern Lights back then was like spotting a unicorn, but let's be honest, most adults don’t understand the science behind the Aurora Borealis either. Although luck does have a lot to do with being able to see them, there is a skill to capturing a rare display of the Northern Lights. I didn’t realize that there was a strategic chase involved and that I would have to go on an exotic safari in the far Northern Arctic wilderness and become a hunter, a solar storm hunter to be exact.

But before you can become a good hunter, you have to understand what you are hunting for…

The Science behind the Lights

Imagine the Earth as a giant, spherical, spinning magnet. Our core is one giant electromagnet that creates the polarity of the North and South poles. We literally have a protective force field around our planet with magnetic field lines that lead to the poles. It’s like those magnetic lines are the strings of an instrument and when plucked, the vibrations travel and collect at the poles.

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Then we have our sun, which is a giant sphere of burning gas and energy that has huge explosions all of the time, ejecting supercharged radioactive particles called solar flares shooting out towards our Earth. This event is called a solar storm and our electromagnetic force field protects us from these storms all of the time, but sometimes they can knock out power and interfere with GPS and radio communications. This sounds negative, but this “interference” is what we are searching for.

The Northern Lights are just the solar particles hitting our magnetic field and causing a disturbance. These electrons and protons flow along the Earth's magnetic field lines, the “strings” I mentioned earlier, and collect in the polar regions where they interact with oxygen and nitrogen to produce the magical red, green and purple dancing light show in the night sky. This is why you have to travel north of the Arctic circle to be able to have a better chance of seeing them.

Become a Solar Storm Chaser:

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Just like Tornado storms chasers in the United States, Solar Storm chasers work in a similar way. You can check the hourly Aurora forecast using real-time solar wind data from Nasa’s ACE spacecraft matched with some computer modeling to predict how the aurora will behave at any time around the world. Just like any meteorologist, they are not always correct, but at least you can have an educated guess by visiting this website.

Be a Strategic Hunter:

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When planning a trip you need to understand the following; The Northern Lights are unpredictable. So many factors have to perfectly align in order to see them, so don’t go on a trip to the other side of the world to see the Northern Lights and leave it all up to chance. Here are some important tips on how to plan a trip where you will have a better chance of seeing the lights:

  • Find a place with little to no light pollution
  • Check the weather for aurora activity
  • Travel North of the Arctic circle during the months of October-April when the polar night is the longest
  • Find a place that has the coldest and driest weather, because any precipitation or clouds will block your view entirely.

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This is why Northern Finland is the best place to view the lights because Norway and Sweden get the brunt of the weather from the Arctic Ocean. Finland is the driest place in Lapland and has the clearest nights of almost anywhere else in the Aurora belt. According to the Finnish Meteorological Institute, four nights out of five are illuminated by Northern lights in Northern Lapland.

Sleep in an Igloo:

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Since you can only see the Aurora during nighttime hours and the best chances of seeing the lights are in the Winter time North of the Arctic Circle, you either need to stay up late and bundle up to battle the below freezing temperatures OR you can stay in a thermal-heated igloo hotel. Staying at Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort is guaranteed to be something extraordinary. They have 2 villages of igloos where each hotel room is a stand alone glass igloo that has a domed glass ceiling that you can lay in bed and look up at the heavens while snuggled up warm under the covers. It was by far my favorite way to view the Northern Lights.

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Nestled deep in the wilderness of Northern Finland, this resort has a variety of accommodations from cabins, glass igloos, snow igloos, hybrid cabin/igloos, Lapland huts, Snow huts dug out of the hillside, Santa’s house, you name it and they have created an unusual way for you to spend the night and watch the Lights.

Go on a Snowmobile Safari

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Kakslauttanen Resort offers every snow activity and mode of transportation that you could ever dream of and everything is called a “safari”. When you look at the actual definition of safari, “a journey or expedition to see or hunt something”, it all makes sense, because every move you make here in Lapland is a hunt to spot the elusive Northern Lights.

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I found the best way to get somewhere quickly to try to hunt down the lights was via snowmobile. Not only was it an adrenaline rush and ridiculously fun to zoom through the snowy trails surrounded by ice-covered trees, but your guides would radio one another and tell each other when and where the lights were appearing so you could head in that direction. Also, if there was light pollution or wind, you could quickly zoom to another better spot to sit and enjoy the view.

Dogsledding Safari

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This was not as fast as the snowmobiles, but a ton of fun to incorporate 6 live husky dogs into your Aurora-hunting team. I had no idea that dog sledding was such a workout. I thought all of the dogs did the work, but I was sorely mistaken.

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Each dogsled has 2 people that are paired up as a team; One as the driver and the other sitting on the sled. The driver has to command the dogs, help steer the sled so you don’t slam into a tree or get tangled up, and also has to help the dogs on hills by kicking or pushing the sled so the dogs don’t tire too quickly. So after an exhausting round, the driver and person sitting on the sled switch places so they can each have a turn to relax. It was a ton of fun and such an authentic way to traverse the snowy landscape.

Reindeer Safari

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The Saami people, the native reindeer herders who live in Lapland (which is the name for the area north of the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia), are still present and working with herds of reindeer today. We had the opportunity to meet a Saami family and spend the day with them.

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They introduced us to their herd of reindeer who pulled us through the snowy terrain bundled up in sleds lined with reindeer hides. We then stopped and had a traditional meal prepared for us and they even dressed us up in their native attire and showed us how they adorned themselves. I have to say for a landscape that is so white and barren, I was shocked at how ornately beautiful and colorful their traditional garb is. It was yet another type of “safari” that we were able to do in search of the Lights, but definitely a super slow-motion one. This was a perfect experience for families and children wanting an easier ride.

Cross Country Skiing

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Remember the Nordic track from the 80’s? Cross Country skiing is one of the most intense full-body workouts without being too impactful on your joints. There are miles and miles of cross country skiing trails in Northern Finland that led you through pristine wilderness out where there was not a light or soul around. If you are looking for more outdoor exercise and the opportunity to find quiet and solace, skiing at night to hunt for the lights may be for you.

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My boyfriend Winston and I bought matching Rainbow Brite snowsuits from Tipsy Elves and thought it would be the perfect attire to go skiing in. Everyone else was in spandex and after 20 minutes of this intense workout we understood why! We were getting shown up by people double our age and I will never look at cross country skiing the same again. It was such a fun experience skiing through all of the tracks in the woods and enjoying the downhills especially!

Drive a Snow Tank

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Yep, it’s what you imagined it would be. It’s a tank… with rotating treads that can off-road over even the deepest of snow drifts and uneven ground. You can pile in up to 15 people seated and surrounded by windows and enjoy the heat while you claw through the wilderness in search of the Lights. We stopped at this wooden cabin in the middle of nowhere and enjoyed freshly brewed coffee and hot chocolate. Traveling this way made it feel more like being on a Disneyland ride, but it was definitely comfortable and a great way to talk and listen to music, be warm, and be able to talk to each other as a group.

Do Yoga under the Stars in a Glass Teepee

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Just being lucky enough to witness the Northern Lights, the most beautiful phenomenon that exists on Earth, is a spiritual experience. The way that they danced and moved in front of our very eyes made it look like someone was blowing bright green sand around on the heavens. At times they started dripping this hot pink color, like fireworks after they burst and start falling and disappearing into the ground. It is impossible to even describe in photos or words the powerful emotions I was feeling. It was ethereal, even though I knew the science behind it and what was causing this heavenly light show. But most of the time you are outside freezing or inside trying to catch a glimpse and stay warm. So our resort, Kakslauttanen, figured out how you can do yoga, meditate, or just relax yet still be able to witness this heavenly spectacle…they built a giant glass teepee.

Have your camera and tripod always ready!

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It’s already hard to hunt down the lights in order to even see them, but it is a whole other thing to be able to capture them well on your camera. The lights are very bright to the naked eye, but almost impossible to capture on a cell phone and you definitely need a tripod and at least a 5 to 15-second exposure to get a really good shot of the lights. Try setting up your camera and tripod in the snow while your hands are freezing, the winds are howling, and the lights moving, disappearing and then reappearing in a completely different spot. It definitely is tricky to capture these elusive lights!

However challenging it is, you are guaranteed to get the celestial show of a lifetime and the best photos you have ever taken if you are prepared! A fun easy tip to get a photo of you lit in front of the lights is to have someone light your face with a cell phone flashlight and stay still for at least 5 to 10 seconds while your camera is set on a tripod. Using a flash will overpower the glow of the Northern Lights and also blind everyone around you that is trying to enjoy the lights and have their eyes adjust to the dark.

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Knowing what I know now about the Northern Lights, I didn’t realize just how lucky we were to have witnessed the intensity of the Aurora that we saw, not only for just one night but for 4 night in a row! Each night we had a different type of adventure safari in search of the Aurora. We were so exhausted from the day’s activities, but no one wanted to go to sleep for fear of missing a moment of this dramatic display.

No matter what kind of experience you wanted to have while witnessing the Northern Lights; whether it be solitary, magical, full of adventure, romantic, with friends and partying, exploratory, challenging your body, or just getting out of your comfort zone, there is something for every kind of Aurora Hunter out there.

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