“Why?” — I could certainly understand the question. Going to northern Norway in the middle of February seemed like a biblically bad idea to me as well. But the invitation from Antony Spencer and David Clapp to join them on an aurora-hunting expedition was simply too good to pass up. Still, after two days of traveling, and finding myself face down in the snow trying to extricate our rented Volvo from a stubbornly icy perch, doubts about the upcoming week of photography came creeping into the deepest reaches of my mind.
We Aren’t in Kansas Anymore
The Lofoten Islands, it must be said, contain some of the most dramatic scenery in the world. Soaring peaks stretch straight up to impossible heights, seemingly holding court over an infinite labyrinth of long fjords. I had never seen beaches where mountains, snow, ocean, and rocks conglomerate to form such gorgeous scenery. Enchanted by the thought of capturing the shimmering green lights over such a landscape, our hearts would soar each morning as we set off to shoot sunrise. And every morning, dramatic clouds brought incredible light and wonderful opportunities to photograph these stunning seascapes. You see the problem don’t you? Clouds + Aurora = Skunkfest.
Undeterred by such obstacles, Tony and David were singularly focused on getting us clear skies at night. Several times we made the snowy trek across the frozen mountain road between Norway and Sweden, arriving 6-10 hours later in the mining town of Kiruna. Blessed with a great group of photographers, we did our best to make the drives entertaining, highlighted by the purchase of “The Village People’s Greatest Hits” CD, and gas station hotdog eating contests. Our first night in the forests near Kiruna was a hit. The faint green glow low on the horizon finally took flight, building into impressive bands that climbed above us in waving sheets of color. As quickly as it built, it retreated, but for 5 minutes many of us were treated to our first view of a real aurora borealis. An addicting sight for sure. The drive back was not quite as pleasant. A massive snowstorm pummeled the alpine border, forcing us back into Sweden to wait for the light of dawn and hopefully the snow plows. Trying to sleep upright in a Volvo V40 stuffed with 4 people and photography gear is futile, and when we finally arrived back at our home base in the Lofoten’s, I calculated we had been awake for 40 hours.
Aurora, You Cold Mistress
And so it went for the next several days. The weather hung stubbornly along the Norwegian coast, forcing us inland to Sweden and Finland to find clear skies. We had some weak aurora each night, but nothing that lived up to the expectation that each of us had set for the trip. On our last night, we once again found ourselves in Kiruna, with Antony vowing to take us the 13 hours into Russia if necessary to get clear skies, as a solar storm had commenced. The logistics of making it back for our flight out of Tromso the next day was definitely hamstringing us, and we finally settled on an open field next to a road just south of the Sweden/Finland border. The temperature was plummeting as the sun set, ultimately destined to bottom out around -30c. The group was strewn around the field looking for comps, and we were immediately greeted with the now-familiar green glow low on the horizon.
The night stretched deeper, and I became more cognizant of the challenges of operating photography gear in extreme cold. My cable release froze straight out. My lens frosted over, and getting close enough to try to scrape the ice off the front element caused my breath to refreeze the area I had just cleared. Making matters more complicated, I was using my friend Steve Turner’s camera gear at this point, so I was paranoid about damaging it in the extreme conditions. Thankfully, he had been kind enough to send me abroad with his Nikon D3s and lenses because earlier in the week I had murdered my trusty Canon 5D Mark II by falling face first on top of it into an icy fjord. Camera? Dead. Lens? Dead. Tripod? On life support. RRS BH-55 Ballhead? Still operating like it had just come out of the factory. Silky smooth.
As the hours clicked off and the temperature continued to drop, our group became less and less comfortable. By 2am, after standing outside in the snowy field for 8 hours, there were just a few of us left shooting. The aurora was mildly active, and occasionally we would get a 5 minute burst of activity that left us scrambling to wake our frozen gear. By 3am, the final two of us grudgingly snowshoed out of the field back to the road. Despite the bitter cold, my warm clothes, hand and foot warmers had served me well. My biggest issue was my eyelids freezing shut when I blinked. With everyone else in the cars trying to get warm, I walked up the highway a bit looking to get far enough away from the car lights to try to shoot the mild aurora in front of some new compositions.
At 3:15am, it Began
It started slowly, building higher in the sky with waves of green snaking out to the end of the horizon. A review of an image that I had taken revealed other colors starting to sneak into the frame, signaling this would be a different event than any we had witnessed thus far. I turned and hustled back to alert the others that things were starting to get active, but they were already piling out and hurriedly collecting their gear. In an instant, the sky literally exploded overhead. Aurora was ripping in every direction, raining color from the sky. Huge shapes would form and collapse, and by the time you swiveled around there was another one rising from the ashes of what had just faded out. It was almost too overwhelming to shoot. I shouted a few words which were as colorful as the sky, and finally resorted to just pointing the camera straight up and shooting, trying desperately not to breathe lest I fog up the lens. The ultimate in aurora events is a corona. This looks essentially like a bomb exploding color above your head, streaking out in every direction towards infinity. Seeing 1 corona is a coup. I lost count after around 10. Besides my unfortunately profane commentary and the sound of shutters frantically clicking, it was absolutely, completely silent. Something so powerful MUST create noise I kept thinking, but there was none. Finally, after 45 minutes of seemingly unending color, shapes, coronas, and rapid fire photography, it was over. We stood cheering our thanks for the fireworks we had just seen, sharing hugs of appreciation that we had been able to share such an experience together. It was 4am, -30c, 10 hours in a field, 7 hours from the airport, and we had to be on a plane in 9.