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Diary of an Aurora-Chaser

When it comes to aurora-chasing, any number of unexpected, lucky or unlucky things can happen. Along with more obvious hazards such as being exposed to extreme cold and simply not seeing any northern lights, there can be camera malfunctions and even trouble from wild animals, unwanted police presence and then a shooting star to break it all up.

A chase can end in total failure — or a whole-sky aurora storm. The single greatest problem is having the aurora blocked out by clouds. Much research and planning goes into understanding when is the right time to search for the lights. But when you can see them, it makes it all worth it.

This was a spectacular aurora storm… and in a CITY (Helsinki) too! Still the best show I have seen… yet.

I am an adventure-minded Australian that has been chasing auroras since my time on a study exchange in Helsinki in 2017. Since then, I have become almost addicted, taking many opportunities to go in search for them, even in my home in Southern Australia (where it is MUCH harder to see them).

Here is a diary of my adventures… and misadventures searching for them in Southern Finland. Note: while most of these below photos were taken by me, the few that weren’t have the photographer fully credited.

Chasing auroras can often be a game of waiting for months… or even years for the perfect storm. Photo: Jonna Saari

Friday October 13th 2017 — Kirkkonummi, Finland

This was to be my first ever aurora chase, and what better night to go out into the wild than Friday the 13th. To start off, I took a night bus from Helsinki that meandered its way through the Finnish countryside.

I looked at the dials that measure the chance of seeing an aurora. They were looking very promising.

This is the area around my destination during the day — very enchanting.

When I arrived to my destination, the air was cold and crisp, with few clouds in sight. The perfect setting.

Then as I started walking towards a better vantage point along the lonely road, I wandered past a large, guarded gate. It was opening.

Coming from within, there was a menacing large vehicle. The vehicle pulled up beside me. Two heavily armed military soldiers stepped out.

They questioned what I was doing there. Unknowingly, I was in a restricted area.

The soldiers escorted me to the cell at the back of the vehicle. The vehicle started to move. There was only a tiny window in the cell. It was very dark inside. The walls were closing in.

The vehicle kept moving.

Another photo from during the day.

Worrying and tense feelings came over me.

Suddenly, the vehicle stopped. After getting out, they exchanged words with each other that I could not understand.

They approached close, looming over me. Closer yet. Interrogation.

Then they began to speak in a surprising manner.

‘Never come back here again unless you want to be arrested. You can find the bus stop further along this road.’

They trudged back to the vehicle and droned away through the cutting darkness.

I had a sense of overwhelming relief. I was free.

But it was the middle of a dark forest road. Walking was now the only option.

Tall, twisted trees loomed on either side. The night was clear with stars flickering. Leaves rustled in the distance. But no view of the northern horizon, and no sign of those elusive lights.

What it was like being in that forest.

Then… a clearing could be seen ahead! I hurried there and set up my camera equipment in anticipation.

Looking upon the northern horizon there was a pale glow low on the sky. To my great luck, there suddenly was…

A bright shooting star!

 

Being still inexperienced at aurora chasing, I had no idea whether this mysterious glow was an aurora or not, so I let the camera shoot away. At home, I looked at the photos properly.

Sure enough, the pale glow was green. It was my first capture of the northern lights.

This was the aurora adventure that turned into a ‘lucky’ misadventure.

Aurora Chase Result: 6/10

 

Tuesday November 7th 2017 — Helsinki, Finland

There is always something mysteriously enchanting about the northern lights, even a certain sadness about them, as they have the capacity to lift ones psyche right up regardless of the circumstances. And this night truly did that.

On a relatively quiet night, where there was no major activity forecast, I was just sitting in my room reflecting on things. The shortening and mostly grey days of November give a sombre air at this time of year.

Then I got a notification on my phone that the northern lights may be visible in Helsinki imminently.

The solar activity was much stronger than forecast, and was now at moderate storm level (kp6+). These events are quite rare.

So I hurriedly raced down in the cold, middle of the night with my GoPro camera to the Helsinki ‘beach’. More like a rocky outcrop.

When I got there, to my complete shock, I saw them! They were reasonably low on the horizon, but they were moving much faster than I expected, and there was definitely some colour in there as well! There were these forms that kind of ebbed and flowed.

My first glimpse of the aurora from that rocky outcrop complete with city lights.

Unbelievable. This was my first time seeing the northern lights properly — and the best word to describe it is maybe mesmerizing. Like wow, they are really there.

I almost fell over on the rocks and almost dropped my camera in the sheer excitement.

Then, problem!

The GoPro started beeping non-stop as I tried to set it up.

But to my great luck it wasn’t broken and I managed to make it work again.

The unexpected combination of northern lights and a big city, captured by Ustun Ergenoglu on this night also.

Started to take some photos. The lighting and setting wasn’t that good so I decided to change location to another nearby ‘beach’.

This one turned out to have much better photos, and the northern lights after being quiet for some time again flared up and this time were very spectacular.

I stayed for a while longer until the show really died down.

Later, after a bit of editing the photos I thought it would be a good idea to try my luck at sending the photos to the Finnish news. To my surprise, they offered to post them on their Facebook!

The original edit of the northern lights from the Helsinki foreshore that night.

This was truly a night to remember, and was one of the most widely seen and photographed northern lights events in Finland in recent years. Still the best show I have ever seen.

Aurora Chase Result: 9/10

 

Tuesday, December 5th 2017 — Tampere, Finland

This day I embarked on an overnight trip to Tampere to chase the northern lights. Far in advance, there was a predicted high level of activity as the region of the sun that caused the previous northern lights show in Helsinki returned to face earth.

A picture from an earlier daytime trip to Tampere.

Everything was set, and the conditions were slowly creeping up to the expected levels as night fell. But there was one problem — cloud cover that didn’t seem to be budging to go away.

Tampere is a picturesque city situated between two lakes — ideal for viewing the lights if they are present.

As it was an overnight trip, I waited until it was almost 10pm to head to the ideal viewing location by the lake, as auroras are generally strongest and most likely around midnight. However, they can happen at any time and this came back to bite me this day.

While I was walking towards the vantage point, I could hear cheers coming from the lakefront. I figured that the people already there had seen something exciting, so I hurried to get there — but all I could see was cloud cover and a small amount of glow, like something was happening above the clouds near the horizon.

Bad luck… this is the best it got for the night; just a streak of colour behind the clouds.

I figured that in between the heavy cloud there must have been a break, allowing the others to catch a glimpse of an auroral show, even if just for a few minutes. It eventually started snowing and I decided that was it for the night. I learned not to trust rules of thumb with aurora hunting — the lights can appear early evening, midnight, or morning.

Aurora Chase Result: 4/10

Come to the dark side, we have lightkayaks

Repovesi is one of Finland’s most popular national parks in the summer time, but when winter arrives, there is hardly anybody. November is perhaps the least popular month to go in the nature. That is why I believe it is the best time to see familiar places in a new way.

In November, the day in Finland is short. When the weather is cloudy, there is almost no light.

That’s why we were in Repovesi in November. We wanted to find a different view to it. To experience a familiar place with a new twist. We also wanted to test an idea to fill an Orukayak with bright LED-lights and see what happens.

Tony from Tentsile Finland prepared the kayak. I tried to make a fire, just because of security. In less than 15 minutes the angular box was transformed to a real kayak. In this point we read through the plan. Let’s fill a rickety kayak with the electrical equipment, and then go to paddle on the over-frozen water. After it gets dark, of course.

On the water you are as close to the nature as possible. Now it was the last chances this year. A few days later, all lakes could be frozen.

We walked to the shoreline. The snowy forest that we passed was illuminated by the kayak. It was so beautiful that we needed to stop for a couple of times just to shoot some photos. Even I had had some doubts in the morning, but now I had a feeling that all the effort is surely going to pay off.

Now it was time to put the kayak on the water and jump aboard. I was amazed. The sight was something incredibly beautiful, way finer than what I had imagined.

The only colors in nature were black and white. Calm water and the reflected image in the middle of the silence.

The kayak glided silently. The moment was so perfect, that it felt almost bad to break the surface of the water with a paddle stroke. This moment was not for the busy ones.

The bright light made the darkness surrounding us feel ever deeper. The water surface reflected light. The darkness was filled with magic. Light in the darkness is an unforgettable experience. Long live the darkness!

May the forest be with you.

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Symphonic metal band Nightwish inspired by the backwoods

We share the same ancestors as the birch tree, from which this firewood was taken. That is the world’s most beautiful fact. Understanding how everything is connected, could provide an important insight into the well-being of mankind.

In the belly of a dark tipi-like hut, a bright fire hisses and crackles. Trees exhale their final breaths as gentle heat and smoke. Afternoon November rain taps on the roof.

Tuomas Holopainen is celebrating the sabbath. 20 years of Nightwish and a tour lasting a year and a half are now behind him.

‘I asked the band, what if we take a little breather after the tour. It would probably do our heads some good’, Tuomas explains.

‘Everybody thought it was a sound idea’, and now here we are.

The legacy of the backwoods.

At primary school, Tuomas was a lone wolf.

‘I didn’t have a lot of friends, but I didn’t want a lot either. At my childhood home I spent all my days in the local woods or the field. Frodo and Bilbo and Huey, Dewey and Louie were the best of the bunch.

The lonely days of childhood were not lonely in the negative sense. I made up imaginary friends, forest trolls and gnomes, and that took me into the forest everyday, I felt extremely happy there.’

Tuomas was not cut out to live in the city. At one point he studied biology and lived in Kuopio for half a year. That was enough urban life for him.

‘People often like things they’ve had exposure to as a child. And I’ve lived my whole life in Kitee in the middle of the forest. That’s something that’s always stayed with me, the desire to stay near the forest and the lake.’

Nature roars

When in nature, Tuomas hears music. During his daily forest walks, nature can inspire a part of a melody, the subject of a song, a phrase or some other idea. It won’t leave him alone.

‘There comes this need to get it out. The need to make it something concrete. And that need is like an unimaginable roar in the head’, Tuomas explains.

There is something intriguingly recognisable about the Finnish melody, chord structure and all-encompassing melancholy. Tuomas also describes Nightwish’s music as organic and thinks that he would be making a completely different kind of music if he had grown up in a big city.

‘There’s no denying that it’s a huge part of Nightwish’s identity, the fact that all band members are originally boys and girls from the countryside. It brings with it a certain amount of healthy naivité, innocence and good-natured childishness’.

Nature is also a perfect antithesis to the unrelenting torrent of the social media world.

‘I even notice in myself that I always have a phone in my hand or am sitting at a computer. It’s very difficult to stop and then when I do, I start to wonder if I’m being useful, why am I not doing anything, should I be achieving something in this performance-driven society?’

In the forest or on the lake shore, that feeling disappears.

‘At first I might feel that I really should be doing something. Why am I just sitting still or walking? But then I realise that there is no need for anything else.’

Our common ancestor

Nightwish’s Sacrament of Wilderness tells of how humans once tamed the wolf. The latest album, Endless forms most beautiful, is devoted entirely to nature and science, the miracles of life: evolution.

Tuomas reveals that making the record was a virtually spiritual experience for him.

‘Evolution is self-evident, but when reading Dawkins, I understood the poetry that is within that self-evidence. And it was an overwhelming experience to understand that every living being on this planet is our cousin, that we all have a common ancestor. We have a direct line of almost 4 billion years into the past’, Tuomas says.

‘Just think, your dad, his father and his father, that line doesn’t break for 4 billion years. The fact that we are descendants of survivors is quite an understatement.’

Tuomas points to the campfire.

‘The birch tree, from which that firewood has been taken, shares the same ancestor as us. These are facts, and to me this is the most beautiful fact in the world. It could be a very important insight into the well-being of mankind, if we could understand that everything is connected, that man is not above everything, but part of it’, Tuomas considers.

‘We couldn’t get all that across on one album, so we might have to continue.’

Acoustically on Ukko-Koli?

A couple of great travel fantasies of Tuomas’s are yet to be realised. The biggest of them is Alaska.

‘I have a strange fixation. Just the word, it has something mystical. And then one of my all-time favourite films, Into The Wild, fuelled that desire even more. I must get there one day, with a guide, so that I don’t end up as bear food’, ponders Tuomas.

For years he has also dreamed of spending a month in Lapland, away from people.

‘And I won’t leave for a month. There, I will be alone. I want to experience the isolation and that feeling of loneliness. And some of that survival spirit. One month’s gear in a backpack and that’s what I’ll survive with. This is something I definitely want to do some time.’

Tuomas has drawn music from nature, and he wants to combine the two in a way that hasn’t been done before.

‘I think it would be a really tempting idea to play acoustically from the top of Koli or somewhere else in nature. It would require a lot of work, but could be a suitably challenging arrangement project.’

Rain and sleet, cold and harsh winds

At the end of the summer Tuomas plans to hike. Staring at the fire, eating and drinking – enjoying the basic things in life in his favourite landscape, Finnish Lapland. The man says he’s never had a big urge to go anywhere else.

‘When I go hiking, I don’t like walking 3 km per day and then sleeping in wilderness huts. In my opinion you can and should stink of sweat. Experience the rain and sleet, the cold and harsh winds. With that you go through some kind of catharsis, inner cleansing’, thinks Tuomas.

He likes to hike with friends – his traditional hiking friends are Tony Kakko and Timo Rautiainen, both well-known Finnish artists.

‘We have a week booked in August, so we’re going to revive our hiking guild. We will also have foreign friends on that trip, who have never been to Finland, but who want to hike, so we’re going to take them along’, says Tuomas.

‘Just as it says in my favourite film, Into The Wild, happiness is only real when shared.’