Tromsø, Gateway to the Arctic

posted in: Scandinavia 2019 0
Flying from Bergen to Tromsø

Kirk and I have a lot planned for this Saturday. Not only is it our 5th wedding anniversary, but it’s also the day we’ll first try to catch a view of the Northern Lights!

Step 1 in that adventure is to bid Bergen farewell as we hop on the airport express bus to catch our Widerøe flight from Bergen to Tromsø. Tromsø, also known as the Gateway to the Arctic will come up when you google “best place to see Northern Lights in Norway” and hence the reason we’re going. It’s a 2 1/2 hour flight and we’ll be crossing the Arctic Circle on our way, reaching the snowy city of 70,000 at 69 degrees latitude in the north of Norway. It’s still about a thousand kilometers to the Nordkapp (north cape), but we’ll try our luck here for the next 3 days (nights).

The airport as well a city center (aka tourist hot spots) are on the Tromsø island connected to the mainland by the Tromsø Bridge.

Our accommodation at the SmartHotel is about as simple as it gets. A room the size of a shoe box. At least the bathroom has floor heating. It’s high season in Tromsø and hotel rates do reflect that very well. Hence the choice … we’re not planning to spend any extra time in the room anyways! Since check-in is not until 3pm we deposit our bags at the front desk. With a little time to kill we head out to find a place for a late lunch. The Mathallen Delicatessen offers a winter menu including burgers (fish and beef) and we’re set. Walking off some of the calories after lunch we check out some of the downtown area including the Chasing Lights office/store. That’s where our Northern Lights Chaser Mini Bus Tour will depart from tonight.

At 3pm sharp we return to the hotel to claim our room to get settled and relax before it is time to dress warmly and head out for our tour.

We meet our Chasing Lights group at 5:35pm – Tour Guide Liam and Driver Waggaari pull up in the white Mercedes mini bus ready to welcome the 13 of us from all over the world. Liam is originally from Aruba, but a year ago decided he needed more than year-round summer and moved to Tromsø to chase the Northern Lights. Our group consists of guests from Austria, Singapore, Turkey, Hong Kong, the UK and US. Liam has everyone introduce themselves to make sure we fell as one team … with one goal: seeing the lights for the first time! He tells us that tonight the company will have a total of 3 mini buses and 2 large buses out on the chase. The guides are in contact with each other at all times to share updates on where there are favorable weather conditions, i.e. breaks in the clouds for lights to be seen.

The bus is all decked out for a comfortable ride tonight – with 4 rows of 2+1 (across aisle) plus back row of 4 it seats a total of 16 guests plus the driver and guide. Boots and heavy snow suits are stored in the back in case anyone needs them. Water and chocolate are available on board and beef stew and hot chocolate to follow later for dinner around the campfire.

As we drive out onto the mainland and along the fjords, Liam tells us that we need three factors to see the Northern Lights:

  1. Darkness (got to get away from light pollution like the city lights)
  2. Clear skies – or at least breaks in the clouds
  3. And of course Northern Light activity

We learn that the “KP factor” is measured on a scale of 1-5, but really only indicates how far south the Northern Lights can be visible, but does not guarantee that you will see them. Liam for example has seen them up here with a only an 0.8 factor, when at KP 5 you should see them as far south as in Oslo! Tonight’s forecast predicts 50-60% chance of favorable micro climate weather on the mainland area we will be heading to.

First up, just over an hour drive south to Nordkjosbotn where we stop at a gas station to stretch and check up on sky updates. A whopping 560 people live here in town where E6 and E8, the two busiest highways in Norway meet. We see two other cars – one of them is another light chaser mini bus! The town has another claim to fame – home to the 2nd northernmost brewery in Norway: Arctic Brewery (Kirk will try their beer tomorrow).

We’ll head on to the next valley to stop and check conditions, then another large valley, with large micro-climate, if still nothing head towards Finnish border.

It is 7:35pm as we’re stopping as a small parking spot at the side of the road and Liam gets out to check on the stars. Good news – he sees some and we will stay put for a while to see if the break in the clouds will move north to open up a window to the Northern Lights. We are just south of Skiboten, one of the driest places in all of Norway, near Lyngen Alps on other side of the water in front of us. Liam tells us that with the mountains around us high enough to sometimes block the clouds from coming in, we can maybe catch some lights. Between here and the Finnish border there is no more salt water (no more fjords). In the past, Sámi people (indigenous to the area) would walk all the way from their lands where all rivers and lakes (fresh water) would freeze and it gets extra cold during winter, to the fjords/coast.

We are all set up with our cameras and tripods and searching for steady footing in the wind and on the ice. We’re eager to waiting for the Northern Lights to appear.

By 8:25pm we have a first glimpse of lights! The excitement is real and everyone is trying to get a shot. Just a smudge of green between the layers of the clouds not even visible to the naked eye. But the camera can see it and record it for proof! It’s not much and does not last long, but we get a couple of shots through our camera before it disappears again. We hang around at this spot for a while but the clouds keep coming and our spot eventually got invaded by other buses so we pack up and head out.

At 9:35pm we enter Finland, north of Kilpisjäri. It is still cloudy overhead, so we keep going for another 30 minutes or so hoping for a break n the weather. There is no border control and buses usually don’t get stopped at customs (Liam says the company saw that happen only twice in last six years). BTW, time zone change to Eastern Europe time … +1 hour!

By 10:30pm our tour hits a snag – a bus and a truck got stuck on an icy incline, blocking the road. Due to safety decide to head back towards the border, but do stop at the frozen lake crossing under the road (Lake Kilpisjäri, about 30 minutes south of the border). While we’re waiting for a little more clearing in the sky, Liam sets up a campfire with reindeer hides around for all to sit on and serves beef stew and hot chocolate.

It is a quarter past midnight when we’re all packed up again and start the 2.5 hours ride home on the icy road. While we haven’t had any luck with the lights tonight the chase isn’t over until we’re back in Tromsø. So Liam will keep his eyes open and camera checked for any more glimpses of the elusive Northern Lights. No luck on the way back so we’re all a little disappointed when we get dropped off at the hotel at almost 3:30am. Time for bed…

By the time we wake up on Sunday, Liam has sent us all an e-mail with a Google Map snapshot of our route, as well as a recap. It had been a very challenging night, and despite searching many different areas the clouds put up too hard of a fight. The weather forecast was looking challenging, but suggested that Finland would have better conditions. We found around 70% clear sky in Skibotn, however the Green Lady was a bit shy and only made a faint appearance.

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