Trip the (northern) light fantastic

An interview with a professional Aurora Borealis hunter in arctic Norway

Photos: Tromsø Friluftsenter The northern lights provide a lively backdrop for all of Northern Norway’s scenery, from fjords and cities to gentle hills and traditional Sami huts.

Photo: Tromsø Friluftsenter
The northern lights provide a lively backdrop for all of Northern Norway’s scenery, from fjords and cities to gentle hills and traditional Sami huts.

David Nikel
Trondheim, Norway

Recently I was lucky enough to see a spectacular display of the aurora borealis on a trip to Tromsø. I sat down with my guide, Trine Risvik from the family-run Tromsø Friluftsenter, to ask her about her experiences of tourism in the High North.

David Nikel: Who visits Tromsø Friluftsenter?

Trine Risvik: The whale safari attracts more Norwegian and Swedish people, whereas the northern lights and reindeer sledding are definitely for the foreigners. Although I think we Norwegians are great travelers, we are not that great at exploring our own country. We prefer to fly south for some sun!

Since the Joanna Lumley documentary “Chase for the Northern Lights,” people have started to realize what’s available on their doorstep. She made her impact and we still see the effect of it today.

We’re also seeing increased numbers from Asia. I’m told in many Asian countries seeing the northern lights is considered a blessing, so many people save up and come over.

Photo: Tromsø Friluftsenter

Photo: Tromsø Friluftsenter

DN: Is guiding people on the northern lights tour a rewarding experience?

TR: I realized over the years that people tend to come from big cities around the world. It’s so nice to offer people a real northern Norway experience—the people, atmosphere, and food. There is something different, heart warming, about the atmosphere in Northern Norway and we love to have people visit.

We want to be the company that leaves you with a memory, and leaves you wanting to come back. Like some Mediterranean countries where you might not remember the places you went, but you’ll remember the people you spoke to. People don’t have that feeling anymore in cities, they don’t have the time to visit each other’s homes and have quality conversations. The personal touch has become the heart and soul of the business.

What’s really touching is when there are proposals. Recently there was a young man who wanted to learn how to take a picture of the lights. I showed him and he went up the mountain with his girlfriend to propose in front of the camera and the lights. I had no idea it was going to happen! He left us a copy of the photograph on our Facebook page thanking us for being a part of “the best ever moment” in his life!

DN: Tell us about some of the local superstitions?

TR: Sami people work outside in the mountains, so they look up to the sky more than those who work inside on computers. It’s natural they have a closer relationship with the lights.

Their superstitions vary across the communities, but overall it is about having a big respect for the northern lights, almost to the point where they’re fearful of them. Many Sami people used to think you shouldn’t make the aurora angry because they would come and harm you. For instance, they never looked directly at them. Since they believe in nature-related gods, spirits of the water, sea and mountains, the aurora is very symbolic to them.

DN: Any tips on photography?

TR: A big element of what we do is showing people how to get the best from their camera. Although there are some who spend so much time fiddling with the settings that they get angry with the camera and end up missing some really magical moments up in the sky! One time I went over to a bickering couple and took away the camera. I told them to look relax, and just look at the sky! I took the picture for them.

You need a camera that is able to have a long shutter speed and a low aperture, which means generally a mid-range SLR camera, although the newer semi-automatic cameras that offer you a higher shutter speed and a lower aperture will give you most of what you need.

If there is a strong, playful northern light, you can accept a higher ISO and a shorter shutter speed, but with fainter, slower light, you need long exposure time and a lower ISO. Either way, you need as low an aperture as possible.

For those wanting the absolute best pictures with scenery included, you must come during a full moon. All the photos you see including fjords, mountains, and cabins require the full moon.

DN: How is it to live in Tromsø?

TR: Despite being so far north, we can live here happily due to the Gulf Stream. We have this amazing environment that gives us the 24-hour darkness and the midnight sun. We are different from other Norwegian cities, which means Tromsø people do often move south to study, but in your heart you always want to come back because you miss the polar nights and the midnight sun.

It’s so incredibly beautiful, you completely forget how bad the winter was, how much snow, the blizzards, you just forget it when the sun arrives and gives you all the vitamin D you were lacking all winter!

I don’t think it’s a hard place to live because we are close to the coastline. Just a little way inland from us there is more snow and it is much colder. In Kautokeino for example, a winter temperature of -40F is not unusual.

David Nikel is from the UK but now lives in Trondheim, where he works as a freelance journalist and communications consultant for Norwegian businesses. He publishes the popular Life in Norway blog at www.lifeinnorway.net about his experiences adjusting to the Norwegian lifestyle.

The complete interview was originally published at www.lifeinnorway.net/2014/10/chasing-the-northern-lights.

This article also appeared in the Nov. 28, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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