Hunting the Northern Lights

Lisa T.E. Sonne has chronicled the blinking lights of synchronous fireflies in Malaysia and flashing lures of fly fishing for Intelligent Travel. Now she shares her latest quest to “see the light.”

The word “hunting” conjures a primal set of emotions. The word “lights” elicits more artistic and spiritual thoughts. My 2010 challenge was to “hunt the northern lights,” and come home with something to mount on the wall to share nature’s wild spirit. I left the warmth of California and headed to the Arctic Circle well-armed, a new digital camera in hand. I crossed the U.S., flew over the Atlantic, and enjoyed days of fjord-hopping north along Norway’s rugged coast on the Hurtigrutens’ wonderful ship Trollfjord.

Everything looked promising as we approached the prime playground for the plasma night show I had come to capture.

Then, winter struck. Snow flurried and covered the ship’s decks. Locals murmured, “Worst storm in a year.” Gusts registered a nine on the Beaufort wind scale of 1-12. (Technically, a nine means “high gales,” but for me, it translated as “not very good for standing upright outside to look skyward while at sea.”)

When skies cleared a bit, I resumed my quest, disembarking at ports-of-call. I snowmobiled into the dark wilderness on the way to Mehamn, “the world’s northern-most mainland town.” But no ghostly lights appeared above.

Back on the Hurtigruten ship, I joined intrepid light hunters from Japan, Europe, and the United States. They had set up chairs and tripods on the icy ninth floor observation deck in hopes that the heavens would let loose. One problem: They didn’t.

The next morning a little band of us ended our “Hunting the Lights”

cruise in Kirkenes with great memories, but no celestial photos of

great dancing wonders–yet. Next we attempted a dog-sledding trek to

where the Aurora Borealis might be found. Standing on the back rails,

holding the reins, I felt hopeful as the dogs mushed through the ice

and snow of the taiga. The dogs began to bark excitedly as twilight

dimmed. Finally, the hunt had led us to the emerging, powerful prey

above! My trigger fingers were itching to start shooting!


temperature was dropping, but I lay in the snow to use my three-inch

tripod and try to keep my hand stable on the shutter for up to 30

seconds (Note to self: carry bigger tripod; get remote shutter

release.) The longer exposures showed more vivid colors on my small


My focus was on framing part of the dramatic horizon where a band of

solar-wind-driven plasma danced with the earth’s magnetosphere and

arced across the sky like a gray-green rainbow.

After several attempts to keep the shutter open and steady in

shivering cold, I looked away from my camera, and let go of the idea of

trying to still the moving scene. I turned my eyes directly overhead

and whooped at what I saw: Five lines of aurora–true

finger-painting of the heavens–swooped over the entire sky above. I

didn’t begin to have a wide enough lens or the right tripod to capture

the scale and magnificence. So I lay on my back and laughed at the

wonder of it all. At last the Northern Lights!

I felt enveloped in an organic eeriness that felt both divine and

slightly demonic. Myths, fairies, and apparitions seemed plausible.

Lights rippled like sheets in the wind or stood straight up like a

geyser of light. When the Big Dipper emerged from clouds, I waited until the lights

undulated close and reached for my camera, holding down the shutter in the cold, praying to

steady my shaking. I couldn’t tell in the dark then if the signature

constellation had been “shot,” but I also knew I was taking something

home from the hunt that could not be mounted on a wall. I did a last

slow 360-turn looking up, and the whole moving sky seemed to proclaim

that life isn’t just about thinking outside the box, but

also seeing outside the box, and experiencing the world outside the small flat

rectangles of the viewfinder and playback screen. This hunt for

the Lights was over. I had found the quarry of my quest and more.

 © Text and Photos, Lisa TE Sonne, 2010 Hunting for the Northern Lights