Seeking the (Northern) light: a pilgrimage.

By Posted in - Iceland & Travel Resources on April 12th, 2012 The colorful nothern lights in Alaska.


The colorful nothern lights in Alaska.

Photo by US. Air Force Senior Airman Joshua Strang | Flickr Creative Commons

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.

The northern lights in Greenland.

Photo by Nick_Russill | Flickr Creative Commons

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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(21) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Jun -

    April 12, 2012 at 11:37 am

    Experiencing the Aurora Borealis is still in my bucket list. The post talked about going somewhere to see the aurora. Haven’t you done it yet? Good luck. Cheers!

    • Randy -

      April 23, 2012 at 5:55 pm

      @Jun, No, we haven’t seen them yet either. 🙁 Hopefully, like Polly (the author of this guest post) we will catch a glimpse of them sooner than later.
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting Jun, we really appreciate it.

      • Jun -

        April 28, 2012 at 5:49 pm

        It’s a good read and yours is a featured blog. Keep writing…:)

  • Ayngelina -

    April 13, 2012 at 1:56 am

    I’m Canadian but I have never seen the Northern Lights, even I am too far South. I don’t really have a travel bucket list but if I did it would be one of them.

    • Randy -

      April 23, 2012 at 5:57 pm

      @Ayngelina, Couldn’t agree more! I don’t really have a bucket list either, but the Northern Lights are definitely a must-see for me.

  • Roy Marvelous -

    April 13, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    I never even thought about Southern Lights. Ooooh.

    • Randy -

      April 23, 2012 at 6:00 pm

      @Roy Marvelous,I know, right? If that doesn’t scream Off The Beaten Path, then I don’t know what does. As always, thanks for stopping by. 🙂

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    April 13, 2012 at 7:58 pm

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  • Amanda -

    April 13, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    I tried to see them this year in Reykjavik. But even though I was there 5 nights, I didn’t happen upon any that were clear enough to see the Aurora. The one night where patches of clear sky WERE visible, the Lights could not be found.

    But that, of course, has just made me more determined to see them! I’m considering Fairbanks this fall…

    • Randy -

      April 23, 2012 at 6:06 pm

      @Amanda, That’s too bad you couldn’t see them in Iceland, we didn’t see them either when we were there; unfortunately, we weren’t there in the right season. I wish you the best of luck on your possible endeavor to Fairbanks this fall. 🙂

  • Leah Travels -

    April 14, 2012 at 4:08 am

    Seeing the Northern Lights would be simply a phenomenal experience.

  • Brimshack -

    April 15, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    It’s interesting, the city of Fairbanks gets a fair amount of Japanese tourism when the northern lights are out. Apparently there is a custom about conceiving children under the lights. How seriously people take it, I don’t know, but it is apparently enough to drive some travel plans.

    • Randy -

      April 23, 2012 at 6:09 pm

      @Brimshack, That’s fascinating about the conception custom. I had no idea, but somehow I’m not too surprised that something like that exists.

  • Christy -

    April 16, 2012 at 7:44 am

    We are heading to Iceland in September and hoping to see them!

  • Victoria -

    April 17, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    Now this is something I’ve longed to see. I live in the Pacific Northwest and once in a blue moon people say they’ve been able to see the lights this far south. I think it calls for a trip North.

    • Randy -

      April 23, 2012 at 6:19 pm

      @Victoria, I think it’s time too. 🙂 Though, it would be pretty cool to be able to see the Northern Lights from your home. Good luck on your endeavor!

  • Mark -

    April 22, 2012 at 3:58 am

    I share your longing. I think there’s something universal about the Northern Lights. I’ve met people who aren’t interested in seeing big cities like Bangkok or Singapore and others who have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to tropical beaches or African savannah. But I don’t think I’ve met anyone who wouldn’t like to witness magical explosions of coloured lights in the night sky

    • Randy -

      April 23, 2012 at 6:25 pm

      @Mark, Yeah, I agree. I think the Northern Lights has a magical quality that is completely unique, unlike famous cities, beaches or safaris, which can fall under–for some people anyways–the attitude of “you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.”