Trip gambles on finding the light
THERE are no guarantees when it comes to chasing the aurora borealis, except that you'll almost certainly get cold. Very cold.
A cruel trick of nature means that anyone with a desire to see one of the most spectacular phenomena on the planet must travel to the Arctic Circle during the northern winter and generally spend prolonged amounts of time outside during the night, standing still in the middle of nowhere, waiting.
Then, of course, there's the harsh reality that in spite of all the money it has cost and all the thousands of kilometres you have covered to get to your chosen vantage point, you may be greeted by a snow storm, thick cloud or just a dark, star-lit sky. That, or the charged particles that collide with atoms in the Earth's atmosphere to create the light show may simply not be present on the night.
One of the few factors within our control is where to view the aurora, or northern lights, and in this respect, my wife Sarah and I have hit the jackpot.
We have opted to go aurora hunting without even leaving our bedroom.
We have checked in to the Hotel Kakslauttanen, 250km inside the Arctic Circle and about 30km south of the small town of Ivalo in Finnish Lapland, where we will spend one of our two nights basking in the warmth and comfort of a unique glass igloo.
Beneath a dome of thermal glass, we hope to be able to lie back - or sit up using our adjustable beds - and gaze at the light show through the roof while other mortals try their luck standing knee-deep in the snow in the small hours of the morning.
It is with great smugness that I turn the key in the door of our small yet comfortable room in the middle of a thinly wooded forest in anticipation of being among the few people on the planet to see the northern lights while wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts and a T-shirt - or perhaps even less, just because we can.
But, of course, conditions need to be perfect if you are to be lucky enough to witness the colourful smoky waves drift silently and mesmerisingly across the northern sky. So it is with rather a sense of disappointment that our schedule means our two-night window of opportunity falls just three days after a full moon. Light pollution is the enemy of any aurora hunter so it makes sense to conduct your search close to a new moon and away from any man-made light.
While not cheap (a night in the igloo costs about $440, plus $35 a person for the hotel's obligatory half-board), the experience of being in the glass igloo, lying on your warm bed, gazing up at the treetops and vast Arctic sky beyond is worth every cent ... even if the auroras fail to materialise.
And on our big night, that is exactly what happens. The elements have conspired to mask the near-full moon with a thick layer of cloud that is gently and peacefully dropping snow on to the windows all around us. We watch it melt as our eyes adjust to the subtle light of the moon filtering through the clouds and reflecting off the snow.
With just two single beds, a toilet, small basin and very little room for storage, you should pack a small overnight bag for your stay in the igloo but the setting and sheer wonder of it all more than compensate for the absence of creature comforts you might expect from a more traditional hotel room. Besides, why would you need a television when you potentially have one of Mother Nature's greatest spectacles going on above you?
In spite of all that glass, your privacy is assured in this and the other 19 glass igloos on site - except for the rare occasion that both you and your neighbour might find yourselves standing up at the same time.
So an uneventful night - in terms of the auroras - passes with nothing more than my alarm going off every hour from midnight to 4am to prompt me to take long-exposure photographs from my tripod-mounted camera pointing towards the northern sky. When the eerie twilight of morning arrives, I inspect the pictures in the hope that the clouds broke during the night. But four grey images greet me to confirm that while the most spectacular northern lights show may well have taken place overnight, only those lucky enough to be above the clouds would have seen it.
With four hours of daylight on offer in these parts in mid-December, we decide to make the most of the still conditions and explore the countryside on a husky safari - another deal sweetener in the event that the auroras are a no-show.
A couple of kilometres down the road from the hotel is Husky & Co where about 200 kennels are each guarded by a four-legged sentry eager to be one of the lucky ones chosen to guide sleds through the snowy wilderness. With three merino underlayers, ski pants, ski jacket and Husky & Co's supplied heavy-duty one-piece winter suit and boots, Sarah and I are guided to our sled to meet the team of Alaskan huskies that will power us over the powder.
We are greeted by just six diminutive pups that barely look strong enough to pull our wooden sled, let alone the two of us on it. But our guide, Tuomas, assures us that if anything, we will be struggling to slow them down rather than them struggling to pull us along.
Following a short instruction session where we are given the hand signals for "let's go", "slow down" and "stop" (for us and our fellow sled drivers, not the dogs), we are ready to depart in convoy with the eight other couples.
When it's our turn to leave, our six trusty border collie-sized huskies spring into action and get down to the business of pulling us along at a surprising but at least not unsettling speed. When we are signalled to stop due to a hold-up in front, I discover the true power of these four-legged dynamos and it takes all 85kg of me standing on the crude metal brake, plus a slight incline on our route, to eventually bring them to a halt.
With the temperature at a lip-numbing minus-10 degrees, we are glad of a warming fire and cup of tea upon our return.
For our second night at Hotel Kakslauttanen, we relocate to a quaint log cabin. But rather than relax in a rocking chair in front of the open fire or steam in the sauna, we decide we must make one more attempt to do what we really came here for: to see the northern lights.
After a warming meal of salted reindeer and mashed potato, we head out on a three-hour aurora-hunting snowmobile safari.
Facing facts that we must now be like the vast majority of fellow aurora tourists scattered across the Arctic landscape and actually get cold in the pursuit of our quarry, we don our supplied outer layers and join our guide, Jukka, as he leads us into the stark beauty of the Lapland wilderness to escape the few lights that illuminate the streets of nearby Saariselka. After two hours of seemingly going around in circles across open ground, we arrive at a small wooden cabin that shelters walkers in summer and offers the prospect of a warm fire for skiers and snowshoe walkers in winter.
As we warm ourselves by the fire he has built outside, he moves inside to build another and soon returns with sausages and a steaming pot of traditional berry juice for us to enjoy.
Later, Jukka's clear connection with the environment pays dividends as we near the end of our tour. He indicates for us to stop as we again appear to be in the middle of nowhere.
Once we have gathered beside him, he points to the north and there, on the horizon, ever-so faintly, is a narrow whisper of smoky haze spanning the sky before us. I have to say it's not quite what I had imagined, based on the vivid colours of long-exposure photographs I have seen, and for a minute I think the haze is smoke from a distant fire or maybe the moon reflecting off a cloud. But no, this is what we came all this way to see: the aurora borealis. We stand speechless for 10 minutes or more as the "smoke" slowly moves and shimmers across the sky - part of us never wanting it to end and the other part screaming out for a warm cabin as our toes start to sting with the freezing cold.
A look at our fellow hunters' photographs when we return to the warmth of Wild North's office reveals stunning streaks and waves of green against a dark blue background.
While the images are stunning and a lot closer to what an online search for aurora borealis will deliver, the memory of witnessing the more subtle reality with my naked eye is what will remain with me for the rest of my life.
GOOD TO KNOW ABOUT AURORA BOREALIS
Where: Hotel Kakslauttanen is 30 kilometres south of Ivalo airport along Highway 4.
How much: One night in a glass igloo costs €342; one night, half board, in a log cabin costs €242; when it is cold enough (usually from December or January) snow igloos are built as part of the ice hotel and cost €338 a night. All accommodation is subject to compulsory half board (three-course dinner and buffet breakfast) for €26 a person a night. www.kakslauttanen.fi, +358 16 667 100.