Northern lights

The Quest

As an adventurer and travel photographer, I have always considered myself an "Explorer of Light." I will go anywhere and do anything to get the shot. I don’t just travel in search of photos, sometimes a photo finds me and will spark an epic quest to go find an amazing place I have never even dreamed of. This was how my adventure originally began to trek to Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Northern Finland to hunt down the Northern Lights, otherwise known as the Aurora Borealis.

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One day I came across this photo of a thermal-heated igloo hotel on the internet. A photo that looked so surreal to me that I couldn’t believe a place like this existed. Imagine, sleeping in your warm hotel room that happens to have a glass igloo ceiling where you can see the Northern Lights from your bed! I took one look at that photo and I KNEW that I would be standing right there in that spot some day and I started researching how to get there.

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When I started researching on the internet how to get to see the Northern Lights, you wouldn’t believe how many disgruntled people there are out there that have traveled far and wide to Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and the North Pole and left empty-handed with no sighting of the Northern Lights. Just like storm chasing, the Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon that are caused by solar storms. Meteorologists can try to predict the weather here on Earth or in Space, but often times they are wrong and there are no guarantees that you will have perfect viewing conditions.

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The Science

What ARE the Northern Lights? Most people don’t even know what they are even when they are looking at them.

The Northern Lights are just the particles from the Sun hitting our magnetic field that protects our Earth from radiation and causing a disturbance. These electrons and protons flow along the Earth's magnetic field lines, like the vibrations of guitar strings, 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.

As if this wasn’t gambling enough trying to plan a trip to go see the lights, the heavens decided to make it even more difficult to view. Did you know that the Sun’s temperature actually goes through ebbs and flows? Right now, the sun’s surface temperature is at its highest, called the solar maximum, which is when the lights are at their most intense. When the sun’s surface cools, there will be fewer particles to ride the solar wind towards Earth. So, the occurrence of the Northern Lights will become rarer and a lot less vivid. In other words, if you put off seeing them this winter, you will have to wait another 11 years for another chance to set your eyes upon them!

The time to go is right now in 2016!

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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.

So what can we do here on Earth to try to see this elusive phenomenon? There are definitely tips on planning a trip where you will have a better chance of seeing the lights, such as:

  • 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.

Either way, 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 just for the Northern Lights, go for the destination.

The Destination 

It’s amazing that I can’t plan a dinner party and get 15 of my neighbors to all show up, but somehow I managed to convince 15 of my friends to drop everything and meet up on the other side of the world, north of the arctic circle to go on an epic, freezing, unpredictable, yet unforgettable adventure in search of the elusive Northern Lights (and also to celebrate my boyfriend, Winston’s birthday).

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None of us knew what to expect, or pack, but armed with our cameras, hand and toe warmers, many layers of thermal underwear, matching Rainbow Brite ski suits, and passports, we knew we were well on our way to experiencing the trip of a lifetime.

Although Kakslauttanen is located at the edge of the wilderness along the road to the Arctic Sea, it is not hard to reach. The nearest international airport is only 30 minutes away and the jumper flight to get to Ivalo from Helsinki is only about an hour. Thank god for the organizational skills of 5 Star Scandinavia for helping us plan this trip because my only advice is once you are there…you are there. You might as well be in Tahiti or on a deserted island because it is very expensive to get around or buy things once you are there. So planning an all-inclusive adventure through 5 Star Scandinavia before you get there is key.

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Our experience began from the second we arrived. When we checked in we were given a map of the igloo villages, told which number we were, and then given a sled to drag our bags through the snow, sometimes sledding down hills on it, in order to reach our hotel room…I mean, igloo.

Everything is covered underneath a thick blanket of snow. The land is pristine and white and frozen over. There is a giant glass teepee where you can relax and do yoga and watch the northern lights. You have cabins, glass igloos, snow igloos, hybrid cabin/igloos, saunas, Lapland huts, Santa’s house, you name it and they have created an unusual way for you to spend the night.

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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;" Husky safari, Snowmobiling safari, Horse safari, Ice fishing safari, Reindeer safari, Cross-country skiing safari, the list goes on. 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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The Hunt

Northern Finland is considered “Aurora-hunting country.” It is the best place in Scandinavia to see the lights due to its northern location and there is little light pollution as it is sparsely populated compared to much of the country. Part of the challenge for hunters is to find the darkest locations possible so they can see the brightest skies. It can mean scrambling about in the most remote, inhospitable terrain. For us, that meant taking off in the middle of the night on an army of snowmobiles, in search of our first sighting EVER of the Northern Lights.

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Part of the appeal is definitely the thrill of the chase because there is never a guarantee that you will see the Northern Lights. For us, we had no idea what to look for or how they would appear. All I had seen before were time lapse videos of the lights moving on YouTube, so I had no idea if that was what it was going to look like with my naked eye.

Within minutes of jumping on our snowmobiles through howling winds, we parked at the top of a hill and the sky started glowing green in one spot as if on cue. Then it grew and started spreading like veins across the sky in neon green; disappearing and reappearing in different places. It was a challenge to photograph them because, by the time you got your frozen hands and camera set the way you wanted on your tripod, they had moved and started becoming more vibrant in another area. But what a spectacular show they put on for us on that first night.

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They danced and moved in front of our very eyes and looked like someone was blowing bright green sand around on the heavens. Then 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 spiritual, even though I knew the science behind it and what was causing this heavenly spectacle I was seeing. I was in a state of awe and disbelief that something so beautiful and bewildering could be created in nature.

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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! We spent our days doing activities like learning how to drive a dogsled through the wilderness, riding in a snow tank and stopping in a hunter’s shed for coffee over a fire, or being pulled through the forest by a team of reindeer in sleds and trying on traditional Saami clothing and meeting the locals.

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We rented snowmobiles and drove through pristine, quiet wilderness and came within 30 km from the Russian border. We cross-country skied across the landscape and sledded through our igloo villages. We had a few birthdays in our group so we dared them to try the traditional “smoke sauna experience” where you sit in a wood burning sauna that heats up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit (so hot that you can’t wear jewelry in there or it will scald you) and then you have to run outside in the cold across a frozen pond with woolen socks on so your feet don’t stick and dunk through a hole cut out in the ice into the frozen lake. Then you run back into the sauna. Rinse and repeat.

Our reward came through each night. We would all have our meals together as a family in the lodge, all 15 of us, trading stories and photos from the day and miraculously checking the internet and posting photos to Instagram and Facebook. All of a sudden, someone would come rushing in and say, “It’s HAPPENING!!” and we would all run outside to see the Northern Lights dancing across the sky.

We had our equipment, cameras, and warm clothes ready and packed as a call to action can come at any time. It would always turn into a party back in someone’s cabin or igloo, playing music, wearing crazy costumes, and laying back in the snow to watch this dazzling display in the sky till the wee hours of the morning. We were so exhausted, but no one wanted to go to sleep for fear of missing a moment of this dramatic display.

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One night, my boyfriend Winston and I woke up at 3am, because it felt like someone was shining a flashlight in our faces. What we woke up to see was the ENTIRE sky was dancing and swirling in the most intense green I have ever seen. We held hands and just couldn’t believe what we were seeing was real.

I grabbed my camera and held my breath with it resting on my chest and got this photo through our igloo ceiling. It was my life’s dream coming true and I was spending it with my boyfriend and the people that I loved in a beautiful setting and it was an emotional moment for me.

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Coming to stay at Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort is guaranteed to be something extraordinary. It was the perfect blend of everything that makes a trip magical; full of adventure, romance, friends, partying, exploration, getting out of your comfort zone, trying new things, and a sense of community. You could do things as a group and get wild or find yourself alone in the wilderness. No matter what you chose to do, it was magical. The bonus, of course, was witnessing the Northern Lights almost every night. It just was the finishing touch that made our amazing journey, even more awesome. I feel so lucky that the heavens and conditions aligned for us to witness the most beautiful phenomenon that exists on Earth.