The domestic flight arrives late in the evening in the small town of Alta. After disembarking the plane, we walk through some door and suddenly find ourselves in the lobby of the cute Northern Lights Airport Alta, where the sole baggage carousel already starts moving. Indeed, we had wondered whether the timing of the airport bus – about 15 minutes after landing – was a weird coincidence or quite sensible. Yet we don’t even need it as our Airbnb host has offered to pick us up. On the ride into town we gasp at the piles of snow lining the road. Even for Alta this is unusual.
“The warm weather that plagues Europe’s ski resorts with rain has brought more snow in Northern Norway. In most years it is too cold for heavy snowfall up here in the far North.”
explains our host Morton. But we are not in Alta for winter sports – we are after the Northern Lights (aurora borealis).
The next morning we explore the town centre with its modern Northern Lights Cathedral, a quite stunning building with interesting architectural details. We also visit the informative Northern Lights exhibition in the basement. The mysterious green lights, we read, are caused by so-called solar winds – a stream of particles bringing sun plasma from the sun’s corona and hitting the Earth’s magnetic field. Locals have witnessed and described the phenomenon of the Aurora Borealis or “Northern Dawn” for centuries, but scientific research only began in the 19th century.
In the evening we join a specialised tour to “chase the Northern Lights”.
Chasing the Northern Lights in Alta
This night we are the only customers and our guide happens to be German, so we practically get a private tour. On most nights, we learn in the introduction, the Northern Lights don’t really dance visibly in the sky like a huge colourful lightshow (as on the pictures you may have seen). But when there is auroral activity and the sky is clear, it is often possible to spot those lights as a green shimmer in the sky. Taking photos with a long exposure will make the green lights more visible: “Those photos are what you see on social media”, our guide Sarah explains. “Images on Instagram are probably the main reason why tourist numbers to Alta are exploding”.
Although we brought thermal wear, warm boots and padded jackets for our Norway winter holiday, we need an extra set of winter overalls and boots – to put on top of all our other clothing! We feel (and look) like the Michelin Tyre Man when we stumble to the minibus.
Today, the Northern Lights are not quite visible from within town. Sarah, who has consulted several Northern Lights forecasts on the Internet, drives us to a nearby hill that is often a good spot for seeing the Northern Lights in Alta. But today there is a slight fog. At least there are no clouds, Sarah comments cheerfully; otherwise we might have to drive hundreds of kilometres in our quest to see the Northern Lights.
Minus 20 degrees celsius in the middle of the night
Half an hour later, we descend a narrow track through knee-deep snow towards a lake. Beyond the lake, a hint of green is visible in the sky, like a very faint rainbow. And yes, on the camera it turns out a little more green: it’s a Northern Light! Over the next two hours or so, the shimmering green is sometimes a bit more visible, sometimes less, while the temperature moves towards -20 °C. Most of the time it is very cold and very dark – but somehow that’s also charming. Christa, Isa’s 81-year-old mother, stumbles into the snow once, but we can help her up. And Sarah has brought hot chocolate and cake to keep our spirits up.
Natascha tries a sun salutation in the snow – just because Northern Lights Yoga seems trendy – and quickly decides that Northern Lights Aerobics might be more viable.
During next two nights we keep looking for the Northern Lights in the sky above and around Alta, but don’t see any again. So, professional help in that chase is apparently quite sensible unless you are lucky enough to hit a day with strong solar winds.
Alta Winter activities – apart from the Northern lights
The next day, we join a brief tour by reindeer sled and chat with Mikkel, a Sami herder, in his tent. It is called a lavvu and made from wooden poles and textiles.
In Norway, only the Sami minority are allowed to own reindeers in the first place. They usually start building up their personal herd from childhood, and still follow very traditional lifestyles. Nevertheless, Mikkel says, he is glad that they have smartphones and motor sleds these days, unlike fellow reindeer herders he has met in Siberia …
Natascha also tries her hand at dogsledding and finds that it’s not that difficult as long as the dogs just follow in the track of the group leader. But steering a pack of dogs through the snow-covered forest? That might require a little more training …
Have you seen the Northern Lights or are you planning a trip to chase them? Let us know in the comments!
Note: We were not sponsored in any way or received money or other benefits for and during our trip to Alta. All expenses were fully paid by ourselves.