Saturday, April 2, 2016

Iceland - Northern Lights

On the top of Don's wish list for "things to do" in Iceland was seeing the Northern Lights -- a request that is impossible to promise, a lesson we have tried to learn since our second trip to Walt Disney World when we promised our Pooh-loving two-year old daughter we would see Winnie the Pooh and failed despite knowing where Pooh lived, and seeing Pooh's friends at Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween party. Yet, no Pooh. How could I promise Don we would see something that is completely dependent upon the weather?

I did the best I could. We planned three nights in Iceland. I booked Northern Lights tours for two of the nights, one of the tours offered a second-try option if you don't see them the first time (which could mean staying out really, really late three nights in a row after spending a night on a red eye flight). One of the trips was with a traditional tour bus group that first went to the Golden Circle, the other was with a non-traditional local group called Time Tours, led by Runar.

On the flight over from Newark, Don stayed up all night and could see them from his window seat. This was confirmed the next day when we were talking to the tour guide. He said it was most active between midnight and 3 AM -- after most tour companies had already returned guests back to their hotel rooms. Throughout the trip he spoke with other people who also saw the Northern Lights on the flight over.

Runar, our Icelandic guide, picked us up at 8:45. This was our first night in Iceland following a red eye flight. Runar said he goes out any evening there is a chance of seeing them. He only went out twice between March 8 and 26 (and didn't even see them one night) because the conditions were too awful. The night we went with him almost every other tour group cancelled their tours for the night.

Our van seated 19 it was almost full (I count 15 in the pictures). Runar has your stereotypical Icelandic voice and mannerisms. I felt as if we were with the shop keeper from “Frozen.” He seemed like a big kid excited to be on the journey with us, as opposed to someone just going through the motions for the sake of the tourists.

After picking all of us up he took us to a remote parking lot and stopped the van to talk to us. Yes, a small part of us had some fear – now what? Well, he just wanted to meet all of us and explain he is taking us further than usual because his forecasts (from University of Alaska in Fairbanks, the University of Iceland, and a bunch of other mobile sites) indicate we have a 3 (on a scale of 0-9) for seeing the Northern Lights. It was a bit confusing because the scale does not indicate our chances of seeing the Northern Lights, but if we see them what it will look like. A 1 is even further north than Iceland (around the North Pole) and will be hard to see in Iceland. On the other end, a 9 is so far south we would not see it in Iceland, but people in Texas might see it. A high 2 or 3 is ideal for seeing it in Iceland, and for photographing it.

You need a clear night, or at least one with only sporadic clouds. As it had snowed that morning in Rejkavic, we had an overcast sky, hence the 100 km (60 miles) drive north to start our adventures away from the clouds. About 45 minutes around the town of Borgarnes he said he would stop for a bathroom break – 9:30 at night, but he saw the lights and we went to chase them instead.

We took Highway 1  to head north quickly, but then went on local roads (there are not many). Surprisingly on these local roads we passed only a handful of vehicles. We took a long tunnel (several miles long), which is on Iceland’s only toll road. The toll road was built about 15 years ago and is supposed to stop being a toll road in another 5. We’ll see what happens. There is talk of building another tunnel to help ease "traffic." 
We stopped for 40 minutes. Our guide explained what we were seeing, but said it was really too light to see anything. Yes, at the end of March in Iceland at 10 PM there is still some light in the sky. He took pictures of each of us in front of the Northern Lights, as well as pictures of the Northern  Lights which he will share with us. He tried to help each of us change the settings on our cameras to take pictures. I have a DSLM (as opposed to a DSLR), which means it is mirrorless and a lot lighter than a DSLR, but I can’t go totally manual with my shooting. This is the first time I wish I really could. I tried to give it up and just enjoy the moment. He sent us copies of the fabulous pictures he was taking. 

Back in the van to warm up. It didn’t seem too cold on the first stop – it was about 30 degrees out and did not seem windy (9 MPH winds), with the windchill it was 21.5 degrees. After being out in it for 40 minutes were cold. We drove for 10 minutes and stopped to see it again. Another 35-40 minutes out of the van standing in the middle of a quiet street. Yes, in the middle of the street. We saw about 3 cars the whole time we were out.

The third time out that evening was amazing – it was a “4,” which meant the lights were also dancing and some red and blues were also visible in addition to the traditional greens. We were ready to go home with a smile at this point – it was around 11:30 PM and we were an hour from the hotel (though we ended up not going nearly as far north as he thought we should go).

We also saw more stars than we will ever see on a night in New Jersey. Hard not to be inspired as you look up and count the stars, and fail to count them all. Gives real meaning to God's promise to Abraham to have more descendants than stars in the sky (Genesis 24:6, and other places).

Runar was as excited as a kid on Christmas. Every time he saw a hint of activity he stopped the van and encouraged us all to get out. By the 5th time, though, most of us were not getting out of the van. Our toes had searing pain in them – this was with wearing two pairs of socks (including wool ones) and snow boots. I felt like the Pillsbury Doughboy (or the Michelin Man) wearing a t-shirt, long sleeved shirt, heavy sweater, heavy winter coat, ear muffs, balaclava, gloves (which came off to take pictures), and running wind pants, but wish I had also worn tights and every other item of clothing I owned. My hands could not stop shaking. Once the cold finds a crack in those layers and gets in, it doesn't leave willingly.
Runar educated us the entire ride. On the ride back (we finally stopped for that bathroom break around 1 AM) he told us about folklore related to the Northern Lights. Cultures used to see them (such as Vikings and Eskimos) thought of them as favorable. Cultures further south were frightened by them. The Inuit felt after a hunt, they were the animal spirits going up to heaven. The Vikings felt they were their gods walking around.
The lights really have to do with a  combination of solar flare ups and energized oxygen (green), nitrogen (red), and nitrous oxygen (blue) interacting with our atmosphere. The Northern Lights occur 60 miles above us – where it is very, very cold always, which is why it doesn’t have to be cold were we see them, it just is because it has to be dark, which only happens in winter.

The Northern Lights do not look nearly this vibrant to the naked eye, but the camera lens (using the right settings) can capture it in ways that is not possible to the eye. It is still amazing, but not as stunning as anticipated. The colors really come out in the photographs, but not when you are looking at them. He took seemingly 100 pictures using a low F-stop, a high shutter speed (1600), manual focus, and holding still for 25 seconds to really let in the light. A tripod is needed to make this possible. He then used a light around us to capture us with the Northern Lights behind us.
Don described what we saw as a nighttime rainbow of green. The rainbow shape is the earth's curve. It extended across the entire vast sky. The lights also look like they are in curtains, arches, and beam shapes. At times they seem to dance. They could appear for a couple of moments  and the be done for the night, or keep going like they did on our night. 
We went out the following night at the end of our Golden Circle day trip. We were lucky to catch them a second night. What was truly stunning was that they looked different the second time. One of the guys on our trip took pictures. If he lets me share them with you, I'll post them here. That night they seemed more vertical, less horizontal. Still stunning. We stopped twice. The first time we just parked the van and waited for it to get dark enough. They were good, but not like the first night. Then we hopped in the car. At one point our guide (Max that night) found a safe spot to park and we all got out again. That time they were amazing. The whole sky was green -- some saw blue or purple, but I didn't. The lights seemed to stretch up forever. I truly felt like a tiny speck in the universe in the midst of God's glory.

Purely for comparison sake, these are our best pictures. The first is showing there is still light in the sky "blue dark" at 10PM.

On our third night we didn't have plans to see the lights. Even if we did, most tour companies cancelled their tours because it was flurrying again, which meant the sky was covered in clouds (simple snow does not slow down Iceland).

Having a successful sighting of the Northern Lights means future trips up North will take place during the warm months (advice our friend Kevin once gave us, and obviously we did not heed it this time).
I'll break up the rest of the trip into smaller posts. Keep in mind, I blog to help me remember about what is happening in our lives. The wording could always be improved upon, I do write too much, and I am always happy to let others share our experiences in this way.

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