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You can’t see the Northern Lights if it’s raining

Iceland, land of fire and ice – and waterfalls or fosses as it turned out. Part of Europe though seemingly a land of its own it held an alluring attraction beyond an old stopover to refuel in the earlier days of commercial aviation. Iceland landscapeThere was also that northern lights thing beckoning me. Karen and I had wanted to visit for decades now but the price from Canada had been a problem in years past. Now the airlines had solved that problem and getting there was very cost effective.

It was a short trip, just 5 days so much of our time was spent in Reykjavik. We did rent a car and see some of the island – enough to realize this was the way to do it on a return visit. It’s a beautiful pastoral, mountainous landscape and the people are wonderful but it was still the northern lights I fixated upon.

I was always perplexed when I heard people say they had been trying to see the northern lights. I didn’t get it. It’s dark, they’re light, what’s the problem? During a recent trip to Iceland it all became clear – and that’s one of the critical factors required, the night skies have to be clear. You can’t see the northern lights if it’s raining.

Iceland landscapeThe Northern Lights Mystery Tour – the mystery being whether we were going to see them or not because it looked totally overcast to me. We were headed for a horse farm about 45 minutes away and it sounded to me like there was going to be about a dozen buses present. The buses I don’t mind, it’s the hordes of people that roll out of them that tick me off.

Our guide John explained the northern lights appeared in the sky in both the northern and southern hemispheres. On the surface of the sun there are always solar storms or solar flares. The highly charged particles surrounding the sun take about two days to reach the Earth. When these highly charged particles come into the air they migrate to the north and south poles and that’s why we can more readily see the lights in the north and the south.

When these particles come in contact with the atmosphere they light up. It happens about 100 kilometres away from the ground but sometimes they are closer, about 60 to 80 kilometres. The colours we see are usually white or green but occasionally they are purple or red, all indicative of the distance the lights are from us. White is farthest away and red is closest which is extremely rare.

northern lights, iceland

There are many myths surrounding the northern lights. In the Icelandic and Nordic religion it is believed the lights are a reflection of warriors who came to Earth in search of the souls of dead soldiers. It was the highest honour to die in battle in the old Nordic religion where their souls were transferred to Valhalla to await a life in eternity of fighting in the daytime and drinking beer and eating bacon in the evening. So we salute you with a beer, yes, we like beer.

The northern lights are called Aurora Borealis. Aurora was the Roman goddess who announced the arrival of the day. She also ruled the night sky and had two brothers; Boreas who was the god of the northern wind and Australis god of the southern wind. That is why we have the names Aurora Borealis for the northern lights and Aurora Australis for the southern lights.

By this time it was pouring rain and I remember wondering if the lights were visible under water. No matter, John was plenty entertaining as our journey continued. “If you look to your left you will see a space ship-like building. It’s not a space ship actually it is a geothermal energy power plant. There is a lot of hot water and steam in the area and the plant produces electricity.”

“Soon you will smell something strange like I have farted or something but it wasn’t me. The Earth is farting really. How sweet. Yes, so if you need to fart now is the right time to do it. No one will notice so please be my guest and let one rip.”

Northern lights, Iceland

Part two of our quest began two nights later. Again it started out being overcast, threatening rain but we only had one more night after this one so our hopes were high. We were headed on the tour bus to our favourite horse farm once again when guide Svava noticed activity in the sky to our left. It was funny because I had seen the same thing and thought to myself, hey, the northern lights! She referred to it as an emergency stop as we pulled into a rest area about 10 minutes outside Reykjavik. All tour buses in Iceland must be in radio contact with one another because it wasn’t long before there were a dozen of them there.

Our incredible experience started out innocently enough with a rainbow of green light arching across the night sky. I set my camera up on a fence post and prepared to take 15 second time exposures in hopes of getting something presentable. The camera would not balance on the post so I had to support it. That introduced a human hand, a bit of a shaky old one at that, into the precarious scenario. The light faded and intensified for about 30 minutes then it seemed to subside permanently. We and many others returned to the bus.

After about half an hour Svava was banging on the door for everyone to get back out. This time we got an absolutely spectacular display of waving, shimmering light. It was like watching ocean breakers as the light changed from a faint glimmer to a stunning crescendo of luminance. Though I was intent on getting a photograph I had to tear myself away from the camera to watch. The oohs and ahhs from the crowd were real and I have never seen anything quite so amazing. The cold didn’t matter, the crowd didn’t matter, I was witness to a fascinating phenomenon; Mother Nature and global climate change at their spiritual best.

In complete contrast to the desired requirements, on the return trip we drove through a very heavy fog and realized our good fortune. Had this happened a few hours ago we would never have seen anything.

Svava relayed some of her favourite myths and legends. If a woman gives birth during the northern lights her labour will be easy and painless. She confirmed she had given birth to “four of the little buggers” and the myth was definitely not true. Neither was the one that said all children born on a night when the lights were visible would be born cross-eyed. If that were true half the Icelandic people would be cross-eyed.

The northern lights were why we came to Iceland when we did and indeed the whole purpose of the trip. It had been something we’d wanted to do for a long time. Good things do come to those who wait.

Northern Lights

For more of Eric’s very excellent travel writing head across to his website

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