Hunting the Northern Lights (and in need of alcohol)

I went to Iceland for the Northern Lights. For as long as I can remember, my top bucket list item has been to sleep in an ice hotel under the Northern Lights. That’s really more of a couple’s vacation, if I ever find someone weird enough to like the cold as much as I do. Perhaps a Siberian mail order husband.   Iceland was cheap way to see them, so I hedged my bets in case I never find an igloo buddy.

I planned for months. I researched the best lightweight camera to shoot them. I bought a designer camera bag for said camera. I checked the aurora forecast daily, which was looking very poor up until the day I left New York.  Then, for some reason the forecast shifted to 5 out of 10, which was one of the best forecasts so far this season.

I had booked a small minibus tour which was supposed to have tripods and give you tips on how to photograph the Lights (which never happened). I was further disappointed when my minibus dropped me and two college girls from my hotel off at a parking lot to get on a giant tour bus. Our departure was further delayed as we waited for 4 other minibuses and another giant tour bus to arrive.

As we drove away from the bustling metropolis and bright city lights of Reykjavik, our guide announced that green streaks were visible, so we pulled off into a field. I saw a slight green haze in one spot. Not really waves. A slight glow like from an alarm clock. The guide excitedly announced “We are so lucky tonight! Last night was not so good, but you are seeing the Lights!” About 100 of us stood in a freezing field looking for streaks of light. “OOH look behind that peak! More green!” Could be a stoplight. Or the glow from an iPhone. I wasn’t seeing much of anything. I tried to take photos but I knew as much as I was shivering they wouldn’t come out. There was one tripod for the entire bus, and Ansel Adams IV claimed that and wouldn’t give it up. I was growing depressed by the minute that I had planned this trip around this moment and it was a bust. Being the first night of my vacation, I thought it was a bad omen and suddenly I wanted to go back home. I felt that heartsick.

“We don’t need to drive anywhere else because you are seeing them! You are so lucky!” Lucky my ass, which was frozen and numb at this point. I climbed back onto the bus and wished I had bought some booze at the duty free shop when I landed.

The bus gradually filled up with other depressed people. The air was as thick with the feeling of gyppedness as it was ice crystals.

Our guide climbed back on board and announced that since the Lights were “soooo active” and we were “sooo lucky”, we could drive up to a fjord and see if we could get a better look. More like “a look.” The guide kept repeating how lucky we were, reminiscent of the dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. “So uh, there you go. You are lucky to be Greek and seeing the Lights.”

The buses pulled onto a dirt path with ditches on either side. There was a bulldozer parked at the end. For a split second my mind wandered into whether I’d just entered some sort of Viking ritual and was about to end up buried in a mass grave with a busload of Japanese and Irish tourists. I decided to pretend I was Canadian again, just in case.

This time I finally saw green ribbons dancing in the sky. I perked up a little at this gentle teasing. After about 10 minutes of taking pictures, with two different settings on my camera and my phone as backup, the sky exploded! Shooting streaks of green, vertical, then dancing horizontal lines, and shooting star like trails of green. They bounced up and down like waves, and then BAM! Reddish pink streaks as well.  It must have been a sight watching 100 people staring up at the sky and shuffling back and forth in 180 degree arcs. It was amazing. I was giddy and hopping up and down like I just got a lap dance from Channing Tatum. I finally put the camera down to soak in all the energy and….darkness. It just stopped. We stayed 20 more minutes hoping it would reappear, but it didn’t. I was disappointed again. Speaking of disappointment, here is the best of my photos:

On the long, late night ride back to our hotel drop offs–another fiasco– I tried to convince myself that I really was lucky. I felt like the Universe sent me a little hello, knowing how important it was to me. But like a hot lover, it didn’t stay to cuddle. I didn’t really get to soak it all in though, so now I have to go back. I will stalk you and make you cuddle, dammit.


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