12/04/2011...7:16 pm

Elusive Northern Lights: Wasted Arctic trek?

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By day six aboard the MS Trollfjord, cruising with Hurtigruten along Norway’s fjord-fringed coast, I was definitely getting the Arctic landscapes I’d come for. As we sailed into Kirkenes, a Norwegian frontier town of sorts within miles of Russia’s border, and the final port of call on this trip, the bow of the Trollfjord parted large chunks of ice.

We're on top of the world!

A few days earlier, in Tromso, a ride up a gondola during a city tour had shown only snowflakes, puffed up like cotton balls, instead of the city views we’d hoped for. And while snow might be pretty for some, it’s considered death for those of us who wanted to spot the northern lights (you need a clear sky). The captain even had to cancel one of the hunting-the-lights activities — hot fishcakes were to be served on deck nine while we scouted the skies for the Aurora — due to a gale force wind that sent snow hurling up from the icy ocean like it was being whisked by some deranged chef in the sky.

King crabs are not as elusive as the northern lights. Photo by Sergio Ortiz

But as we debarked in Kirkenes, it was a blue sky day. The glare of pure sunshine reflected on the snow like a zillion powdery diamonds in the Arctic rough.

And it was another busy Arctic day, starting with a King Crab Safari that had me piloting a snowmobile across the expanse of a frozen fjord and helping a fisherman haul up a trap full of the Jurassic-looking crustaceans from a hole cut into the ice. Afterwards, it was over the fjords and through the woods, to a typical Norwegian hytte (hut) by snowmobile. A crab feast of epic proportions ensued–just the sustenance I needed for a try at steering a dog sledding during the Husky Adventure shore excursion later.

Throughout the clear bright day, we all felt increasingly excited. Would tonight finally bring the magnificent lights? As dusk approached, thin wispy clouds started to stretch across the horizon but I willed them away.  The moon was bright and clear as it rose higher in the sky. There was hope!

I stayed overnight in Kirkenes (rather than flying immediately out to Oslo at cruise’s end) because of another post-cruise shore option: A stay at the Snow Hotel. It’s a frozen architectural marvel made entirely of snow and ice from the neighboring fjord that takes several weeks to build each year, and is left to melt back into its surrounds after April 20.

Before zipping into my polar-proof sleeping bag for the night on a bed of reindeer skins and ice, I had dinner at the hotel’s Gabba restaurant (built of wood, thankfully, and with a raging fireplace inside). We continually stepped outside to see if the lights had appeared. But sadly, the clouds were thickening.

Later, I rode one of the Snow Hotel’s kicksleds (like a kid’s scooter, but with blades instead of wheels) into town to a bar where I met a Spaniard who had come to Kirkenes from Galicia to work a seasonal hospitality job. He told me that just the week before, the light show had been one of the best he’d seen all winter.

Outside, snow was falling from the sky. My hopes were officially dashed.

The next day I flew to Oslo, my cheeks still flushed pink from a surprisingly decent sleep in the Snow Hotel and my mind full of memories of all the adventures of the cruise. I might not have seen the lights, but the other diversions had definitely been worth the trip.

Back home a few days later, I checked Facebook. An Englishman, Leigh, who I’d met on the Trollfjord, had posted photos from our trip. Well, not ours, exactly. He’d opted to stay onboard for the roundtrip voyage – heading back from Kirkenes to Bergen – and they’d gotten lucky.  His photos of the elusive northern lights were black as ink, and shot through with great slashes of luminous green that looked like Pixie dust falling from the sky.

Waiting for me was an email from Leigh.

It’s a shame you missed the lights, since we got them the night we left Kirkenes, then the following three nights. But around Tromso they were at their best and visible almost as soon as the sun went down. Later in the night, the sky was almost totally green, with rainbow-like curtains forming everywhere. I don’t mean to rub it in, but you have to go back. Next year will be the solar maximum.

Now that sounds like a plan–and you can bet I’ll be booking the roundtrip cruise, too.

by Terry Ward


  • Do you know about this website? http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/3

    It gives the aurora forecast for different parts of the world (including Scandinavia and Alaska), so you can see if you’ve got better than average chances of seeing the elusive lights on a given night. Though I don’t think it takes into account local weather conditions.

  • i dont think any cruise company should be advertising //// for u to see the northern lights of norway at this time of year /// look at the n -h /// history and you will see the best times ////northern lights wiki .com look up this web site

  • We are booked to go next feb. Can’t wait 2 weeks onboard Marco Polo hoping to see the lights.

    I too thought April is a bit late for seeing the lights. Best time is feb n march.


  • Hubby has booked us on the ‘Astronomy Cruise’ in March 2012 as the final celebration of my 60th Birthday. I can’t wait, am excited as a five year old on Christmas Eve.

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