Look up, way up, into the inky dark sky. Faint at first and then brighter ghostly images appear, moving strangely across the heavens. The Northern Lights, the aurora borealis, are putting on a show.
Tonight, they are luminescent green. Perhaps, the next time they might be blue or red. It all depends how the powerful solar stream hits the Earth’s magnetic field, for that is what we are seeing. Streamers of electrons and protons colliding with our ionosphere.
The trick is being in the right spot at the right time. I’ve chased the Northern Lights across Canada and, in 50 years, never seen them. From Yellowknife to Tuktoyaktuk, Churchill and Iqualuit, people say: ‘You should have been here last week,’ or ‘Try next month.’
Now we’ve discovered the shipping company Hurtigruten, (pronounced hurtig-rooten meaning ‘express route’) who run boats up and down the coast of Norway. The 125-year-old line offers comfortable passenger accommodation for just a few hundred and not much by way of activities on their ships, beyond the restaurant, bar and coffee shop. Everything is geared to shore excursions and the big draw, between October and March when the nights are long and dark, are the Northern Lights.
In addition, they serve the dozens of fishing villages up and down the coast. Skjervøy, Øksfjord, Berlevå and Båtsfjord are just four of the tongue twisting little harbours we pull into, sometime staying as little as 15 minutes, just like a bus stop. Passengers peering out of their cabin windows in the middle of the night watch cars and passengers unloading and goods and fresh fish loading. Because of the latter, the fresh catch of the day in the restaurant is exceptional every night.
On the MS Nordnorge, the passing scene is spectacular. Vast skies, glaciers tumbling down to the water, rocks everywhere and not much green. Our journey has started at Tromsø, itself several hundred miles above the Arctic Circle, and continues further north round the top of Norway and into the Arctic Ocean, before dipping into the coastal archipelago towards Kirkenes on the Russian border, where we turn back south again. The weather is surprisingly mild for the time of year, though by no means warm. We are only 2,300 km south of the North Pole and about the same distance north of Amsterdam. The Gulf Stream is what is keeping the climate reasonable, for if we were in continental Asia or America at this time of year we could expect temperatures into the minus 50s and worse. As it is, we can enjoy the rear deck hot tub without frostbite. By way of comparison, Kirkenes is at 69°N, Rekjavik in Iceland is at 64°N and Iqualuit in Nunavut is at 63°N. I’ve been in Canada’s Arctic at a similar time of year and it’s impossible to stay outside for more than a few minutes, even with full Arctic gear.
MS Nordnorge was refurbished in 2016 and now features an updated interior. The cabins are sparsely furnished, but comfortable. Most have single beds, but some can be pushed together to make doubles. A few suites have all the comforts of a larger ship. There are three restaurants and the food is exceptional. Culinary highlight for me was reindeer carpaccio pizza. There are countless expeditions and we booked several, but expect to be disappointed if the weather doesn’t cooperate. Our three more challenging adventures were all cancelled, but two excellent and easy trips – one to the Russian border and one to the lookout atop Tromsø – were worth the money.
There are 10 ships in the Norway fleet, and more which head to further waters, including Antarctica. Cruises cover the whole coastline and on the 12-day voyage, sightings of the Northern Lights are guaranteed or you get another complimentary cruise. Many cruises include packaged charter flights from European cities direct to the departure port. North American passengers are responsible for getting there independently. All I can say about our strange Bulgarian charter was that it got us there and back. The advantage was that we met over 200 of our fellow passengers on the flight, and amazingly connected with folks we knew from other lives. For us, transfers from and back to the airport were included, as well as a final night ashore in a hotel.
During the small amount of time we spent in our cabin, with an unobstructed outside view (no lifeboats in the way), we were able to watch our progress on a live map or live bridge camera. Sightings of interest were broadcast during the day, and on sky watching nights, we could set our internal phone to alert us to Northern Lights sightings.
On the northbound journey, night after night the skies were cloudy or snowy and we began to think the shy aurora will not appear. Rounding the North Cape we were in open ocean for the first time, and began to see how nasty the sea could be in winter. Sitting on deck seven in the bar with panoramic windows, waves were almost breaking over the bow and up to our windows. Not a night to go outside.
The final night afloat on our four-day voyage the forecast promised a break-up in the clouds and, with luck, a sighting. Just before midnight, the bridge announced: ‘Northern Lights off the port bow.’ At first sight, I might have thought they were just clouds lit up by the lights of some tiny Arctic village, but there’s nothing north of us but Arctic Ocean all the way to the North Pole. The faint greenish-grey curtains of light hang in the sky off the port side of the ship. They are spooky. Dancing and slowly changing shape, from long trails of ectoplasm-like material to strangely glowing billows.
At first a handful of hardy passengers, legs quickly thrust into trousers and warm coats and gloves donned against the minus 7°C weather, rushed to the best vantage point in the bow, just beneath the bridge. But the boat’s speed of about 25 knots, plus a similar wind speed, creates enough of a breeze to threaten to blow us off our feet on the icy deck. We retreat to the more sheltered aft deck and gaze in awe until at last they fade. By now we are chilled to the bone, even though well wrapped up in our Canadian style winter gear. It was a thrilling viewing experience, albeit too short. Old timers on the crew tell us that the lights look different every time they see them and the excitement never fades.
Another item ticked off the bucket list, we return to our cosy bunks.