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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

Sky-Sailing above the Lakeland

I’ve always been afraid of heights. So, when a friend asked me if I would like to fly in a hot air balloon, I immediately said yes. I wanted to face my fears and have an unforgettable experience. Right after that I tried to forget what I just had promised.

After a few weeks it was time to face the fears. First the pilot gave us a short presentation of what was to come. Then he released a helium balloon to show the local wind direction, and decided the route in such a way that we would avoid the nearby great lakes. It would be a shame if the wind calmed over a big lake and the balloon would run out of gas.

The take off place was an old sports field 12 kilometers away. The first thing to do was preparing the basket. Then the hot air balloon was spread on the ground. First it was filled with cold air and when it was full, the pilot started to heat the air with a gas burner.

Soon the balloon was high in the air and the basket scarcely touched the ground. It was time to climb aboard. Now I was nervous, but just for a moment. Soon the balloon was high in the air and instead of thrill my mind was ecstatic.

Landscape was truly beautiful in the light of the setting summer sun. There was a green carpet of forests as far as it was possible to see.

Here and there I could see a blue lake shining like a jewel, hills rising and fields glowing in all shades of green.

The air was calm because the balloon had the same speed as the wind. It was absolutely quiet. The silence was broken only by our conversation, and occasionally the sound of the burner. The only sound from the ground was dogs barking.

Above a lake the pilot dropped the balloon as low as possible, and we could see our reflection on the calm water. The sight was unreal, beautiful and memorable. It was good moment to enjoy a glass of a sparkling wine. Then we rose again and travelled smoothly forward.

After an hour it was time to start preparing for the landing. As the balloon goes to the wind, landing takes place in a suitable open area. The balloon touched some treetops and finally it hit the ground with a small bump. The flight was successfully passed. This time fortune favored, because we hit the ground only 300 meters away from the planned spot. Such accuracy is very unusual.

We helped to pack the balloon, after which each of us received a diploma and a testimony to commemorate the memorable experience. It was not scary at all to be in the air. I had seen and experienced familiar landscapes in a completely different way than ever before. That was just great!