‘I’d say the chance of seeing the lights tonight at 80 per cent,’ says Anna, our host for the evening. I try to fight a sense of disappointment at this; after all, the sight of the Northern Lights over Tromsø made the news on Sky in the UK last night. ‘It’s a very good chance,’ she says. I glance over at H; he’s trying to arrange his face into a picture of optimism, too. I wonder how we will justify the cost of this holiday to ourselves if the Aurora hides from us.
As the boat wobbles its way under Tromsø’s bridge and out into the open fjord, we are served a proper Norwegian supper of roast cod (caught onboard earlier in the day), baked potatoes, bacon and onion sauce. Despite his long-standing antagonism to eating any form of marine life, H declares it ‘fine, actually.’ High praise indeed. We chat to the other people on the tour, but it’s half-hearted. We’re not here to make friends. Frankly, I’d tread on their heads if it meant getting a better view of the Lights later. As it is, I continually crane my neck to glance out of the window and scan the sky, a futile gesture with the cabin lights reflecting the room back at me. ‘The skipper will let us know if he sees anything at all, don’t worry,’ says Anna.
I fidget with my clothes; the cabin is too warm for even a jumper, but I’m conscious that the lights are capable of only showing themselves for three or four minutes sometimes, and that’s roughly how long it will take to get all my gear on again. I wonder aloud to H whether it would be a better strategy to just tog up and sit out on deck, rather than waiting indoors. ‘Problem is,’ he says, ‘we’d end up getting cold and then missing them while we’re defrosting inside.’
Just as we’re sipping our berry tea, though, Anna casually wanders in and says, quietly, ‘Well, there’s a little showing in the sky, only worth seeing if you’ve never viewed the Lights before.’ That’s enough for us; she might as well have screamed, ‘Man the lifeboats!’ We both scramble to pull on fleeces and coats, and I hang my video camera case around my neck. I pull on my hat and gloves as I get on deck, and gaze up into the sky, not sure what to expect.
Barely perceptible, there are two vertical streaks in the black sky above us. If I hadn’t been told they were the Aurora, I would have assumed they were smoke; they seem low in the sky, like displaced, thin cloud, and are tinged greenish. As I’m watching, though, they seem to spread in an arc which I could almost believe is centred on our boat. They are thin, indistinct and whitish; they don’t glow or dance. Rather, they shift imperceptibly over time, sometimes massing into a dense patch which is the palest green with edges; other times disappearing altogether. The only thing that stops me from believing that they are drifting smoke from some aged fishing boat is their crisp bottom edge. Their base is a perfect, clear curve, but their upper limit shifts and smudges. They are frustratingly elusive.
‘What did you think?’ I ask H, after we’re out of the earshot of the other passengers.
‘I’m not sure,’ he says. ‘I mean, I’m glad we saw them, but they weren’t what I expected.’
‘Same as that. I’m glad we got to see them on the first night; it takes the pressure off. If we don’t get another chance, at least we’ll be able to say we had a sighting.’
‘Yes,’ says H, ‘but I don’t quite feel satisfied.’
‘It just wasn’t dark enough.’
‘No, I think that too. I want to see them against a completely black sky now.’
We both walk on in silence, knowing that this commits us to a great deal more expense. But equally, I need something more than this. I have not travelled all the way into the Arctic Circle to wonder at a patch of mist for an hour.
To kill time the next afternoon, we go to Polaria, a museum of the Northern Arctic, which suddenly seems like a cheap activity at ten pounds a head. It’s a pleasant surprise: we try a Norwegian waffle with soured cream, local brown cheese and berry jam, and then watch a film about the Northern Lights that, briefly, leaves me feeling like I understand how they’re created. Then, we walk over to a pool where four bearded seals live, and spend an undignified amount of time standing in a perspex tunnel beneath them and cooing like people who have never seen animal before. They corkscrew over our heads over and over again, and we gasp every time. Then we watch them being fed, their trainers getting them to jump, high-five and dance their thick whiskers for the crowd.
Afterwards, I can’t help saying to Herbert that I wish we’d had the Albrecht [the baby’s womb name] with us already today, because we’d have enjoyed it even more through his eyes. I expect him to shrug, but he doesn’t; instead he says, ‘yeah, I know exactly what you mean.’ In the gift shop, we spend a long time choosing him a fluffy polar bear, so that we can one day tell him that he visited the Arctic before he was even born.
We head out on our coach journey around seven that evening, and drive for a couple of hours in the darkness. We marvel at the steadiness of Norwegian drivers, whose tyres are covered in studs. In England, this sort of weather is enough to shut down the whole country. Great outcrops of rock surround the roads, glazed in thick, shining ice, like miles and miles of frozen waterfalls. The lights are dimmed in the coach so we can all watch out for the faintest streak in the sky, and the atmosphere is muted, expectant, watchful.
Finally, the coach performs a u-turn and parks in a lay-by, and we’re told that we’re going to walk down onto the banks of a fjord to see if there’s anything to see. The onboard thermometer registers -12, and I wonder if perhaps they might wait for a surer bet before dragging us out into the cold. The sky looks unpromising as we tramp into the snow – black and starrily beautiful, but no lights in sight. There’s a refreshing lack of regard for health and safety here; all of us, young and old, slip and slide down an icy bank, onto a frozen shore so dark that we can do nothing but constantly trip and stumble. We are trying to get away from the road, with its sodium streetlights ruining the view.
It’s bitterly cold. Herbert tucks his scarf up around his face so that he looks like a bandit. I pull my hood up over my hat. This means I can’t turn my head, but it’s a small sacrifice to make. The cold finds every tiny gap in our clothing. The fjord stretches blackly before us.
‘There are some lights emerging,’ our guide calls, and points to a faint streak directly in front of us. It doesn’t look like much; even less than last night’s display. But, as we watch, we see other patches appearing to the left and right of us. One seems to grow up from behind the nearest mountain, and then spread across the sky in vertical ridges, which flare and smudge into each other until the sky is full of them. They are mainly green with the tiniest hint of pink at the edges; you can actually see them travel across the sky. Every now and again, they dance, their bottom edge flowing like a rippling skirt. It’s breathtaking.
The Northern Lights look different in photographs. The long exposures intensify their colours and make their forms cleaner-cut. I now realise, too, that every film I have ever seen of them has been sped-up. In real life, the Aurora seeps slowly and mysteriously across the sky, gradually morphing into new shapes like ink dissolving in water. They are not bright lights, but rather a subtle glow: the stars can still shine through them.
Watching them is a constant process of doubt; after a while, I realise that we’re all using the language of Most Haunted, squinting in to the sky and saying, ‘Can I see something manifesting over there? Maybe a faint glow above that hill? Yes, yes, it’s getting clearer now!’ We might as well be looking for orbs. But therein lies their reward: they are a subjective encounter. You get the sense that everyone sees a different display.
We watch them slowly unfold for an hour and a half before we are forced to give in and head back to the coach. I don’t want to leave them, but my knees are aching, and my feet are so cold that I can no longer feel them. Just as we are taking one final glance, we watch one star shoot between them, and then another. ‘Make a wish,’ I say to Herbert.
These photos were taken by Karen and Anja of the Arctic Guide Service that evening. Sadly our own cameras weren’t good enough!
You can listen to my Audioboos from Norway here.