Seeking the (Northern) light: a pilgrimage.
Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Polly Vaughan.
Ever read a gripping book and decided, there and then, you have to go and see where it was set, or go on a pilgrimage to find out more? After a two-month journey through South America this winter, I needed a contrast: so I curled up by the fire with Northern Lights by Lucy Jago which tells the tale of the work of Kristian Birkeland, the Norwegian physicist who camped out in the Arctic to resolve the conundrum of the mysterious aurora borealis. Now I have to go and see the Lights, one of nature’s most spectacular natural phenomena, for myself.
The aurora borealis have been believed to be spiritual manifestations, ghosts, ominous warnings of imminent misfortune and demonstrations of the anger of the deities – but whatever your beliefs and superstitions, they’re said to be intensely evocative and compelling. Often fast-moving, glowing and in colours including white, green, red, blue and violet, these ‘dancing’ aurorae are caused by charged electrons blown from the sun towards the magnetic North Pole, colliding with air particles. (There is a Southern Hemisphere version: the aurora australis, or Southern Lights). They are around 60 miles high in the sky, and can be seen from a variety of northerly destinations.
The Northern Lights can be seen all year round, but the dark nights of winter are the best bet, as you won’t see much on a light summer’s evening. The lights aren’t guaranteed every night, of course: it’ll very much depend on climactic conditions, and the sky will need to be clear. The best times for a good show are said to be September, October, February and March. The lights are also at their brightest during the most active times of the 11-year solar cycle – and are peaking 2010-2013, so are potentially at their best for the decade this year and next.
So where to go? You’ll need to be somewhere northerly with no light pollution, and while you don’t have to leave the UK (aurora borealis can be seen from less-populated parts of Scotland, the Highlands and islands), this could be a great excuse for a winter activity holiday or even a cruise – up the Norwegian coast to Tromso or Trondheim, perhaps, or taking in some whale-watching along the way.
The Nordic countries are an obvious choice; airfares are competitive to many destinations, which are well-served by the budget airlines. And you could combine some sky-scanning with a city break – Reykjavik or Helsinki, perhaps, as stopovers between transfers further north and into the Arctic Circle – or winter sports activities. Dog- or reindeer-sledding, cross-country skiing, ice-driving and more are all possibilities in Lapland, as is a visit to ‘Santa Claus’ around Christmas-time.
Cross the Atlantic and you could stay in a cosy log cabin in Canada (Manitoba, Alberta, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories are suitably remote but well-served by tourist facilities), or head up to Alaska, where Fairbanks is the epicentre for aurora tourism and research.
Greenland is increasingly accessible – there are flights via Copenhagen and Reykjavik, for example – and offers lots of adventure-sports options for the intrepid. Are you up for some igloo-building? Specialist tour companies can help you put together your perfect icy holiday package.
I’ll be packing plenty of warm clothing and suitable footwear, but most importantly, a great camera to capture some memorable images. And of course, don’t forget that you’ll need suitable travel insurance. You may also wish to order your foreign money in advance, especially if you’re going to remote regions, where finding an ATM or bank may not be easy.
And what about when I get back? I’ll have to decide on my next pilgrimage: watch this space.
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