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To Where The Northern Lights Go

I stood at the window, eyes skyward.

Nothing.

It was my third night here in Rovaniemi; one of Finland’s smaller cities, just outside the Arctic Circle. But I wasn’t here for the sightseeing. The mornings and afternoons had been loitered through, and each night was spent lounging by the window, hoping to see the famous aurora borealis come out to play. Seeing them was the sole reason I’d braved the long journey into Lapland, but so far every night had been the the same. Rain, clouds, maybe some stars. But no lights.

I decided I couldn’t sit around and wait anymore. It was time to go hunting.

The next morning I picked myself up a rental car and forged my battle plan. I would head north, so far north that it would be impossible for the Northern Lights to escape me. My first destination was the town of Ivalo, some 300 kilometres away.

rovaniemi-ivalo

I’d arranged to Couchsurf with Kaisu and Arttu, a young couple with an apartment full of animals. I arrived in the early evening, and we chilled in their lounge and got to know each other over a few Estonian beers. As I’d promised to cook dinner, we all headed to the supermarket once the sun came down, stocking up supplies for a Chinese feast. Even in this sleepy town of 1,500 in the middle of nowhere, they had not one, but two enormous supermarkets stocked with everything you could want, even uncommon Chinese ingredients you would never expect to see. But Finland has a way of surprising you like that.

As we walked across the parking lot, to and from the car, I kept my eyes to the sky. Again it was only clouds and blackness, no different from the nights before. There would be no aurora hunting tonight. But not all was lost. Kaisu and Arttu had a ridiculously sized television, hooked up with a PS4 and Netflix. I cooked, we ate, and then the three of us boozed on wine and Finnish vodka, well into the night, until our heads and the Playstation controllers hit the floor.

Day 2

In the midst of inebriation the night before, Kaisu and Arttu had invited me up to their cabin in Neiden, a tiny town in Norway.

“We’ll get some friends together, have some drinks, have a sauna.”

It was hard to turn down such invitations. As soon as the hangovers cleared, we packed the car up and made the drive 300km north to Neiden.

rovaniemi-ivalo-neiden

Arttu had a charming little cabin on a small plot with around three other houses. It was so secluded he didn’t even have a lock on the front door. We just waltzed right in. There was no television or wifi inside. Just a fridge, an oven and some beds. It was perfect.

Once night fell, Arttu’s neighbour Howard invited us to his cabin for drinks. Kaisu’s friend also came by to join us; a Norwegian girl, whose name I forget. While we sipped on local beers, Howard brought out some fresh king crab he’d caught in the river down the road. In most countries such crabs cost a small fortune, but up here they catch them by the dozen without much trouble at all. So the five of us sat there drinking, chatting, eating crab, as the Norwegians do.

Between drinks we’d go outside to visit the bathroom, have a cigarette, run to Arttu’s cabin to refill the fridge, and each time I stepped outside I’d look at the sky, hopeful to see something. But every time there was nothing to see.

“Tomorrow,” I told myself. “It’ll happen tomorrow.”

Of course there was only one way for this night to end: The sauna. As usual they all disrobed completely, I followed suit. Where I’m from a bunch of guys and girls naked in the sauna is rather peculiar, but here it’s as normal as cereal for breakfast. We sat there drinking, laughing, talking, sweating, all butt-ass naked, until the early hours of the morning.

Day 3

The mission was to get north, as north as humanly possible. Or at least as far as a man with a rental car can go. Nordkapp was supposedly the most northern (driveable) point of Europe, and Google had me at seven hours away. I wasn’t sure if I’d make it in one day, but I was going to try. Because what better place to find the Northern Lights than at the very north of the world?

My first order of business was to get supplies. I headed back to the Finnish border to stock up on snacks, gas and water (everything is cheaper in Finland), before starting the long drive up Norway’s coast. It reminded me of rural New Zealand in the autumn. Fiords, golden fields, mountains, empty roads. Who would’ve thought the north and the south of the world looked exactly the same in the fall?

Every now and then I’d see a side road into a forest, a lake, a viewing point, a river, and I’d pull the car over to snap a few pictures and smell the cool air. Outside of New Zealand, I’d never had my own wheels to explore so freely. It was liberating, to truly follow the road to your own beat.

By the time the sun came down, I had made it 360km west to Olderfjord.

rovaniemi-ivalo-neiden-oldersfjord

I found a small parking spot by the roadside, on the water’s edge, and decided to stay there for the night. It was dark now, and as I turned off the car and looked up through the windscreen the moon smacked me in the face. It was glowing, and full, far larger than I was used to, lighting up everything in the vicinity. I got out of the car and stood over the water below, admiring how majestic everything looked. How nature can make you feel so small. That night, so many miles from home, I felt completely free, invisible to anyone and everyone in the world.

I only managed to sleep in that spot for an hour before the cold woke me up. I looked at the clock. Midnight. The clouds, once heavy, now seemed to be clearing slowly. If I was going to go aurora hunting, now was as good a time as any.

I fired up the car and continued north. I drove slowly, hyper aware around every turn, expecting to see sleep-walking reindeers or half asleep drivers. But the roads were empty. Any time I hit a straight, I’d cock my head and stare up at the sky, hoping to see greens and blues and purples dancing around the stars. But there was nothing.

Before I knew it I’d made it 100 kilometres north to Honningsvåg. It was Saturday night and the town was semi-lively for such a small, secluded place.

rovaniemi-ivalo-neiden-oldersfjord-honnigsvag

Some years ago I might’ve wandered into a bar to greet some new faces, but my eyes and body were tired from the long day’s drive. I parked outside the tourist office, jumped on the free wifi, and played some lullaby tunes to wind the night down. And as I piled on as many layers of clothes as I could, I checked the sky one last time.

No lights.

Day 4

I woke up at six o’clock with a numbing cold in my feet. It felt like they were frozen, ready to snap off at first touch. I’d fallen asleep in the driver’s seat, curled awkwardly on my side with my feet tucked under me. As I came to, my whole body suddenly felt cold. It reminded me of those winter mornings as a kid, struggling to get ready for school.

I decided to complete the drive to Nordkapp that morning, but after a wrong turn, I ended up in Nordvågen, a sleepy village-like place about 10km away. I parked by the road to catch my bearings for a second, when I noticed the mountains around me. For some reason they looked so climbable. Something in me was just saying “Why don’t you do it?”

I got out of the car and looked it over, trying to visualise the path. Certain places were definitely too steep, and the rock definitely too loose, but I just felt like I had to try. I stuffed my backpack with snacks and water and went to the foot. The first ten metres were easy. Lots of big rocks, the brush not too soft. And then it got tricky. The rock was loose, as I’d expected. And the brush was soft and deep. I moved slowly, hyper cautious, suddenly wary about how high I was getting. After about twenty minutes, I found a small landing and stopped. I looked down.

Falling from up here, there was no coming back. It was high. The same voice that had told me to come up was now telling me to go back down. But the top just looked so close.

I kept going.

When I finally got up there unscathed, other than a few scratches, I planted myself on a rock and looked over Nordvågen for the next hour. There’s something about climbing to the top, even of the smallest mountains, that makes you feel alive. I sat there in calming silence, and felt lucky; lucky to be in this faraway place, lucky to have two healthy arms and legs. It was a moment I needed, something to remind myself of why I was here, what the purpose of this journey was, why I continued to weather the road for all these years.

A photo posted by Bren (@brenontheroad) on

It was still only 10 a.m. when I finally made it back to the car. Normally I’d still be in bed, but as I didn’t actually have a bed on this particular morning, I was out battling little mountains in the Norwegian wilderness. Blessings in disguise, as they say.

It took me about half an hour to finally get to Nordkapp. The roads to get there looked new, narrow and winding, up and over empty hills. Everything was golden from the coming autumn. Every now and then I would stop by the side of the road and take a photo, but I could never quite capture the endless orange the same way my eyes did.

As I approached Nordkapp I saw a booth, about 100 metres from the point. I drove up to the window. A young lady greeted me.

“Hi, welcome to the North Cape. It’s 265 kroners per person.”

If you’re wondering, that’s about 26 Euro. Most people would probably think what the heck, we’ve come this far, but I’d fallen into this trap too many times. Honestly, I didn’t even know Nordkapp was just a cape. I thought it was the name of a small town at the tip of the world. I pulled the car over and got out. I could see the people up at the point, snapping photos, at least 300 Euros worth of entry fees wandering around up there. For some reason, I just didn’t feel the tinge of photo envy that was common in my earlier years of travelling. I snapped a quick photo from the car, and headed back to Honningsvåg.

I found another spot overlooking the ocean to sleep that night, in a small bay by the main road. There was huge rock to the left of me, which I hoped would shield the wind and keep me a little warmer than the night before. I lay for an hour or so, pounding an old blink-182 album I’d grown up listening to in high school. I must have listened to it over 500 times as a teenager, and with it came back all the memories, flashes of different feelings and faces that had shaped me during those years. I was amazed at how the songs carried so many memories, decades after I’d stopped listening to them. And of course, between songs I’d look to the sky, hoping to be amazed, and every time the sky would disappoint. I started to doubt whether I’d end up seeing the lights at all.

Day 5

The next morning I drove to the tourist office to use the wifi. I pulled up all the guides about the aurora borealis, something I probably should have done on Day One. It started to become clear why I hadn’t seen them yet. I was in the wrong place. I had assumed the further north you go, the better the lights. But in some ways it was the opposite. To see the lights you need crystal clear skies. The skies tend to get cloudier the more north you go. There were also various apps telling you all the best places to see the lights on any given day, which all gave terrible forecasts for Honningsvåg and its surrounds.

Of course I felt silly, but I wasn’t upset. I was hopeful. I was now armed with all this new intel, and still had three nights to make magic happen.

The forecasts said that Alta, a small town a few hundred kilometres south, had the best chance of aurora action that night. I jumped on Couchsurfing and shotgun requested a few hosts in the city. A Belgian girl, Isabel, responded almost immediately. I was suddenly energised again; a shower, a bed, the lights. It was all waiting for me just a couple of hours away.

rovaniemi-ivalo-neiden-oldersfjord-honnigsvag-alta

When I arrived in Alta two hours later, Isabel was there to meet me in the carpark. Even from a distance I could see a glowing smile on her face. She was tallish and thin, long auburn brown hair, and her eyes a piercing blue, almost dazzlingly so. She laughed as she greeted me, and from the colour in her voice I immediately knew what a free spirited and joyful person I was meeting.

My entire body smiled when I saw her place. Nestled in the corner of her room I had a bed, an actual bed with four legs and a mattress. A hot shower waiting. Wifi. I quickly met all of her roommates, then lay down and grinned at the ceiling. Luxury.

“So we’re going to relax in the sauna soon. You will join us?”

Uhhhhh. YES. It was a modest student sharehouse, but it felt like I’d checked in to the Couchsurfing Sheraton.

Afterwards Margaux – Isabel’s neighbour – invited us over for dinner. The two of them cooked fish, mash and vegetables for the whole house, with a few slabs of chocolate for dessert. After feasting, the six of us lounged in the kitchen, full bellies, talking and playing cards as the night wound down. Moments like these, plain as they may seem, always soothe the soul when the road is long and rough.

Come midnight we’d all saunaed, showered, eaten, and half fallen asleep, but Isabel still had one task left on the day’s to-do list. While the rest of Alta was sleeping, she rounded us up for a dumpster dive at the local supermarket. I was designated driver of the getaway car, Isabel was lead dumpster diver, Margaux and her comrades, Ali and Tom, were the bagging crew.

The streets were empty. As we pulled into the supermarket carpark, I set the car in the shadows while the five of us shuffled over to the dumpsters with pockets full of plastic bags. Isabel opened the dumpster and jumped right in. Granted I’d only known her for six hours, but I’d never seen her look so focused. Obviously this was serious business.

The dumpster was big, the size of a minivan, filled with six or seven full, black garbage bags. She untied the first one, yanked it open and looked inside.

“Bread,” she said flatly as she looked over at us.

Who wants bread?”

Her eyes were laser focused now, the permanent laughter from earlier in the night nowhere to be seen. The bag in her hands must have had at least 25 loaves in it.

“Just take all of it,” Tom shrugged.

“No, we can’t eat all that!”

Yeah. Geez Tom. We can’t eat all that.

She offloaded five or six loaves to us, one Christmas loaf in particular catching her attention.

“Ooooohh these ones are good,” she smiled, holding it up and admiring it before throwing it over to us.

I laughed as I watched her tie the bag up and move onto the next one. She was a professional.

As she pulled the next bag open, her eyes almost exploded out of her head.

“Ohh putain! Give me the bag hurry up!”

“What is it?”

“Just give me the bag!”

Tom handed over a bag, and she started digging deep.

She pulled out a mango, some grapes, and then an endless stream of apples. Five, ten, fifteen, just slamming them into the bag, rapid fire, a huge smile on her face.

By the end of it, we had at least fifty dollars of food, much of it in pristine condition. It was my first dumpster dive, and I was sold 110%.

When we got back home I took a minute to gaze out the window while the rest of them sorted through their spoils in the kitchen. Earlier in the day the aurora forecasts had been good, but suddenly they had all changed from “Yes” to “Maybe”. And the forecast from my eyeballs was saying “No”. I saw clouds, lots of them, and nothing else. I chuckled at my bad luck. My likelihood of seeing the lights was fading rapidly; chances high that I’d be seeing nothing in the 36 hours I had left up here. But such is life.

I got into bed and Isabel and I chatted for a while before I knocked out. We laughed about a few things happening in my life, things I usually keep to myself. But it’s funny, you tend to divulge a lot of your secrets out here. You meet people, fellow travellers, and they know the deal. There’s no judgement, no preconceptions about who you are or who you should be. You ask them for their opinion and they give it. It’s someone you’ll never see again, and in a strange way that makes it very easy to trust them. Because honestly, who the hell are they going to tell?

Day 6

I woke up late. As expected, I slept like a mummy in a coma. Isabel spent the day at school, and I stayed in her room glued to my laptop, enjoying a little rest and relaxation. I kept a close eye on the aurora forecast – most were saying it was looking good, maybe a 60% chance to see them, but I’d learned a few things from the week gone by. I didn’t get my hopes up.

When Isabel got home in the evening I helped her cook dinner for the house – apple cake and cauliflower soup, with the apples and cauliflowers we’d snagged from the dumpsters the night before. I mostly just cut the apples and played DJ, while she did the rest. When it’s been months on the move, it’s a priceless comfort to be welcomed into a family and do everyday things again. Moments like this aren’t exactly rare on the road, but are often far between, so we tend to cherish them more than people realise. I’ve never enjoyed cutting apples so much in my life.

When dinner was finally cooked and eaten, and the table cleared, I decided to go for a quick drive, just in case the skies felt like being kind. I blasted my favourite song on the stereo, and headed out beyond the city lights, hoping to see some colours in the sky. I found a small field shrouded in darkness and parked there, just reflecting on the past week. It had been an adventure for sure, a tiring one, in some ways an unsuccessful one, but I’d loved every piece of it. In between thoughts I looked at the sky in passing glances, but it offered nothing but thick and heavy cloud. But lights or no lights, I only had the fondest memories of the week gone by. Tomorrow I would go home happy.

Day 7

My last day in Norway. The car was due back at the rental office the next morning, and I needed to start driving at 2 a.m. that night to get it back to Finland in time. But I still had the day to kill.

I went hiking out in the hills just outside of Alta, searching for some grand canyon Isabel had told me about. After two hours of helpless wandering and a badly sprained ankle, I found it. She wasn’t kidding; it was enormous, long and winding, deeper than one’s mind could comprehend. I looked over the edge. Vertigo. 200 metres, at least. One trip and it was all over.

I barely got to see half the canyon before I felt the need to head back. My ankle was starting to swell, and I was already hobbling on one foot, with a two hour hike back to the car ahead of me. I fiddled with my foot, trying to determine how bad it was. I decided I would survive. But the sun was starting to set. I had to go.

Things got a little more complicated when I realised any trace of a path had disappeared. I looked around me, in every direction. It was all the same; stretches and stretches of orange hills, miles from any road or civilisation. There was a broken path I’d followed to get here, but after running excitedly along the canyon I’d lost all idea of where I was. The offline map on my phone, which barely loaded, was the only bearing I had. I needed to head west to find the road.

After about ten minutes a couple called out to me.

“Excuse me…do you know how to get back to the road?”

I turned to face them. They were a young Finnish couple, maybe in their twenties, tricked out in fancy hiking gear and colourful jackets.

“I’m not really sure. The map says to head west. So I’m just going to follow the sun.”

They looked at me blankly. I showed them the map.

“The road is to the west of the canyon. The sun rises in the east, sets in the west. If we just keep heading towards the sun, we should meet the road.”

Old lessons from Jackie Chan movies.

“Hmm okay, is it fine if we walk together?”

“Yeah of course.”

We followed the sun for two hours, ankle deep through swamps, mud and streams. Every now and then we’d come across blueberries, which I’d eat, comforted by the fact that I might be able to survive out here for a couple of days if it came to that.

Two and a half hours passed before we finally made it back to the road. The carpark was nowhere to be seen, and the sun was moments from dipping down over the horizon. We asked a passerby where we were, who chuckled at us getting lost, and pointed us in the direction of the carpark, a half hour walk away. I hobbled on my bung ankle, cold and muddy, but my spirits were high. It was the skies. They were a bright, soaring blue, not a cloud to be found; you couldn’t have painted a clearer sky on a canvas.

“Maybe,” I said to myself.

“Just maybe.”

That night one of Margaux’s housemates cooked burritos for dinner. We sat in their kitchen eating, chatting, waiting for the sky to go pitch black while I nursed my foot with a piece of frozen whale meat. But when eleven o’clock hit, it was time for aurora hunting. I had three hours left in Norway. This was the last hurrah.

Isabel suggested we head to Komsa, a small peak not far from the town centre. It was an easy climb for the rest of them, but challenging for myself with only one foot. But a little aurora promise was all I needed to get to the top.

The peak boasted a sprawling view of the city lights, set against the fiord, and a 360 degree view of Alta and its surrounds. We planted ourselves on a rock overlooking the water, the moon hovering behind us. The sky couldn’t have been any clearer.

“You’re going to see them!” Isabel beamed, smiling ear to ear. She was more excited for me than I was.

Finally, around midnight, a small tinge of green appeared on the horizon. We all perked up and eyed it closely. It was faint and distant, but slowly grew, longer and brighter. I wasn’t even sure if it was an aurora. But soon another one emerged beside it, much thicker and far-reaching. And then they both beamed, from the horizon to the centre of the sky.

For one or two minutes they shone above us, like nothing I’ve ever seen, before slowly disintegrating back into the darkness. I spent most of those minutes fiddling with my camera, trying to catch the perfect shot, somewhat failing to enjoy the magic of my first Northern Lights moment. For some reason I had assumed they stayed out for hours at a time. But they were gone as fast as they had come.

“Look, behind you,” Isabel nudged.

I turned around. They were back. A scattering of green daggers littered the sky, hovering over the city.

We both awed in silence for a moment, mouths agape, heads slowly swivelling back and forth. I felt a sudden surge of satisfaction in that moment, and in many ways, relief. The lights were right here, sitting on top of me. Have I really found them? It was one of those moments I wouldn’t truly appreciate until many days afterward.

A photo posted by Bren (@brenontheroad) on

The auroras continued to pop in and out of the sky for the next hour. We sat there and gawked and pointed and ogled, watching them fade in and out, braving the piercing cold as we waited for them to come back each time they vanished. But eventually the window closed, and the clouds rolled in, like a closing curtain, tucking them away for the night. Just like that, they were gone.

“Time to go.”

It was almost 2 a.m. when we got back to the house. I had to leave, and soon, if I was going to get my car back in time. I said my goodbyes to the roommates, and Isabel walked me out to the carpark to farewell me with a hug and a wave. Goodbyes, of course, are nothing new to me, but I was sad that night, genuinely so, to be leaving such a warm and welcoming place.

Alta had been the ending I’d hoped for; new friends, new adventures, all the memories I’d envisioned on the morning I first stepped into that little rental car. All that remained now was a seven-hour drive against foggy roads, tired eyes and stray mooses, not to mention a throbbing ankle that made me wince each time I pushed the clutch in. But I had no qualms about any of it. I just pulled the car out of the carpark and smiled at the long road ahead. Because after the week I’d had, I could’ve torpedoed my car right into a moose’s nose and it wouldn’t have dampened my spirits for a split second. My little Skoda and I had set out on an adventure, stayed until the end, and gotten everything we came for.

THE END


A heartfelt thank you to Kaisu, Arttu and Isabel for being such amazing hosts. You made the adventure possible. Until next time.

A short story of new friendships and experiences as the Northern Lights are chased through rural Finland and Norway.

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