It is near midnight and the silence is imbued with a special quality. Much like Shakespeare’s “quality of mercy” (in The Merchant Of Venice), it seems to drop as “gentle rain from heaven”. A wall of glass that provides stunning views of undulating north Finnish countryside by day is just a yawning abyss of almost black nothingness at night. In the distance towards the north, a few gentle hillocks form darker silhouettes against the sky speckled with stars.
Just as it starts lulling you into a sense of time standing still, the sky above the hillocks turns almost imperceptibly soft green and before me is the most glorious of all celestial shows—the northern lights or aurora borealis. The light glows faintly, swirls and pulsates a bit, surreal and ethereal. And then it all disappears, the whole thing lasting just a few minutes. If not for a bad picture, it could have been a figment of my imagination. It is a far cry from the spectacular videos sent by friends, which I watched with envy. And yet, even though muted and ephemeral, the experience is surreal and magical.
For all its spellbinding capacity, the northern lights are actually a violent event, the result of particles from the sun crashing into the earth’s atmosphere. 2024 is predicted to be the period of peak solar activity in the sun’s 11-year solar cycle, so there are far greater chances of witnessing the northern lights this year.
September is the start of the so-called northern lights season but like most natural phenomenon, it is difficult to predict when and where to see them, and aurora chasing has become quite an activity in this region. The likelihood of seeing the northern lights is highest between September and March-April because the darkness lasts longer, provided the winter skies are clear. They are known to occur within a 2,500km radius of the North Pole, though on days of intense activity, they have been seen further south. The northern-most countries and regions far from habitation are the best bet, and the likelihood of a sighting increases with dark, cloudless skies and minimal light pollution. Apart from Finland, the lights can be viewed from Iceland, Greenland, Canada, Sweden and Norway. The southern hemisphere has its own version, the aurora australis or southern lights, which occurs near less accessible places.
Science, however, is the farthest thing on the mind of anyone chasing the lights. Instead, it is the magic and mysticism surrounding them that are entrancing. As with most such phenomena, early civilisations attributed fantastic stories to them. Predictably, several myths surround the northern lights and vary from country to country, vacillating between fear and reverence. The name, drawn from the Greek goddess of dawn, aurora, is associated with the arrival of morning in Greek and Roman mythology.
In China, the lights are believed to birth dragons and are seen as the battle between the forces of good and evil, while in Japan they are held sacred and a good omen. In Australia, indigenous people who are accustomed to seeing the aurora australis, consider it to be the dance of the gods. Several North American indigenous peoples, including the Innuit, associate the lights with the spirits of ancestors or as guiding lights for departed spirits on their way to the next world. Estonians believe in the whimsical myth that the lights are resplendent carriages ferrying guests to a celestial wedding. Vikings celebrated them as a manifestation of gods, while some Norse tribes feared them. In Finland, the Sami people have a number of beliefs around them, including believing they are caused by the play of fire foxes and that if disrespected, they have the capacity to bring misfortune.
Some of these stories swirl around me in the complete darkness of Urho Kekkonen National Park in the Lapland area. It is early February and intensely cold, around -20 degrees Celsius. Located near Saariselka, within the Arctic Circle, this is the land of the Sami, indigenous people and sole caretakers of reindeer. The ground is packed with snow and a gentle reindeer pulls the wooden sled that I am seated in, snaking his way through the park. An unusual thick cloud cover hangs over the area blotting out the sky and everything is dark. Any hope of seeing the lights are fading fast and my aurora-chasing is clearly jinxed. The rhythmic tinkle of reindeer bells and the scratchy sound of the sled on the icy ground pierce the stillness. My guide more than makes up for the lack of lights with colourful stories—of supernatural and celestial beings, of punishment and redemption, of benediction and gratitude.
A few years earlier during my first ever attempt at aurora-chasing, I camped out in Whitehorse, the capital of Canada’s north-western-most province Yukon for two days. On consecutive nights my local guide drove me 30 minutes outside of town and we pitched up at a place with zero-light interference and sub-zero temperatures. Fervent wishes and prayers notwithstanding, the lights remained elusive. I joined a couple of other aurora-chasers and toasted marshmallows and sausages on a bonfire and drew silly figures with light sticks in front of a camera set to long-exposure.
On this trip to Finland, rather than bursting with anticipation of seeing the lights, I am convinced my jinx is still holding. Earlier in the evening, much before I catch a glimpse of the lights, I drive out to the edge of a protected nature park as night falls. The park is home to bears, reindeer, lynx and wolverines, but none of them venture out on to the road as I arrive at a vantage point in the fell that is known for aurora viewing. The moonless sky is clear and speckled with stars. I see a few familiar constellations such as Ursa Major and Sagittarius. But the lights remain steadfastly absent.
Despite the beauty of the night—the star-studded sky, an occasional shooting star and the incredible peace—I head back, a bit dejected and sit staring at the dark sky in my room. And that’s when the lights show—in their own time.
Anita Rao Kashi is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.