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Hunting the Aurora Borealis III: A Dark and Stormy Night


The Andersons take a nighttime snowmobile ride on one of the many stops up Norway's coast in hopes of seeing the Aurora Borealis.

Photography by the authors


It’s our third day on our Hurtigruten cruise, and we’ll have more to say about this winter cruise experience when we end up in Bergen, but right now we’re wondering if we will, in fact, see the Northern Lights. The cruise that came up north from Bergen in ship (one of 11 ships that Hurtigruten runs up and down Norway’s Long Coast) never saw the Aurora.

The ships make 34 stops on their round trip along the coast. Many of the stops are quick 15-minute calls, some in the middle of the winter night. Others are arranged by our cruise line (the name Hurtigruten means fast sea route) with a longer visit because the port-of-call justifies a shore excursion. Even then the time given to a land tour may vary according to the weather and whether the hoped for photography is possible. Indeed travel writers sometimes have less to say if they were unable to get their cameras out.

That said, it was fun to dock at the little town of Mehamn on our second night and drive our Snowmobile Trip in the Polar Night for about 12 miles on a high plateau — in a light snow storm while searching the northern sky for the Aurora Borealis. We believe really dedicated photographers would have managed some shots by tripod, but some of the passengers did not recognize that if they had photographed what seemed like grey, odd faint swirling clouds they would have shown up later in their cameras as more green — and a truly moving complex.

One passenger who has stayed on the ship is unimpressed with our iPhone images of the snowmobile trip.

“Not much color there, folks!” she says.

We reply: “Heck it was dark.” What do you expect in the middle of the night!?”

The burly tour operator brings hospitality to a new level. We knew he was going to supply us with outdoor clothing, but one of the passengers had problems with size so he lent her his own heavy clothing and made do with what he could find.


Twelve hours later we dock at Hammerfest and have sunlight. We have gone from Vardo yesterday, Norway’s most eastern town, to the most northerly town. Founded in 1789, it bought a generator from Thomas Edison in 1891 and became the first European town with electric street lighting. It was surely needed because the sun doesn’t rise from Nov. 21 until about Jan. 23 — or set from May 12 to Aug. 1.

The shore excursion, no surprise, will be Arctic energy, showing the complicated and resourceful ways that a land with the potential for wind power and water power (not just from running water but from such simple situations as the energy obtainable from the rise and fall of the tide) can harness nature.

Norway has huge reserves of oil and natural gas and, arguably, leads the world in using and protecting natural resources. Another tourist attraction is the Meridian Column where Norway, Sweden and Russia measured the Earth for the first time ever while Oskar II was king of Norway, the measurements taken when it was important to find out for commercial reasons (at a time when nations were expanding) which country owned which resource.

We pass a hump in the snow. It is a Sami house — and looks comfortable, more cozy than the car completely covered in snow. The owner tells us he is using his snowmobile at this time not his car. He point out his family hiking through the snow on a hillside.

“We would see more of the sun in the winter months if it wasn’t for that mountain,” he says.

When we get closer to the ship we start to see the most welcome sun. It makes the land look like Switzerland, but this country is more laid back. This is friendly Norway! Hammerfest got its name because to tie up a boat is “feste” and boats in the old days were tied to rocks here called “the hammers” so the name stuck.

Later tonight we arrive around midnight at Tromso, the “Paris of the North,” and the jumping off point for many Arctic explorations including the 1928 fatal flight of famous Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. The Gulf Stream keeps the harbor ice free.

“The town has the most bars in Norway,” says a Norwegian passenger disembarking with us. “And it has a church here that dates back to the 13th Century.”

We are heading, however, for the famous Arctic Cathedral designed by the architect Jan Inge Hovig. It has the largest stained glass window in Europe, created by Victor Sparre and 75 feet high. We will hear Ole Bolas on the piano, Hanne-Sofie Akselsen on the flute and piccolo and Harald Bakkeby Moe, the baritone, sing — and we will be enchanted.

First part | Second part | Third part | Fourth part | Fifth part | Sixth part | Seventh part | Eighth part | Ninth part | Tenth part | Eleventh part

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