On our visit to Tromsø in early September 2018, we went on an Aurora Chase with GuideGunnar, one of Norway’s most innovative and experienced tour guides.
“How do you sleep during the Midnight Sun?” I asked GuideGunnar.
“I close my eyes,” he said, tongue-in-cheek, eliciting a laugh from us as we waited for the Northern Lights to appear at Rekvikeidet, a chilly, open plateau near Tromvik.
Arun and I shivered in the icy winds, looking to the heavens for a glimpse of the elusive Lady Aurora until I decided to stop torturing myself and put on one of the thermo suits that GuideGunnar had offered us. Arun took one too, and we both felt much more comfortable.
It was after 10 pm on the 5th of September 2018, and the long days and short nights of autumn meant we had to leave an hour later than usual on our Tromsø Aurora chase.
The Northern Lights Tromsø tour left from Guides Central, which turned out to be just behind our Tromsø hotel, the Clarion Collection Hotel With.
We were expected to report at 7.45 pm, so we left just a few minutes before that and climbed up the stairs of the two-storey building to where GuideGunnar was waiting.
He welcomed us and told us that one other couple would be accompanying us, so there’d be just four of us tourists on his small Northern Lights group tour from Tromsø.
The young Chinese couple who came in turned out to be from Hong Kong. They didn’t speak much, except to giggle and whisper to each other during the tour.
I was very curious to learn more, so I paid close attention when GuideGunnar told us what to expect on our Northern Lights Tromsø bus tour.
He explained that depending on the weather and if the clouds came in, we may have to drive for hours, and even cross the border into Finland, if necessary.
He also told us a bit about the history of Tromsø, which played a big role in World War II (more on that in another blog) and was generous in sharing his in-depth, local knowledge.
We told him about our upcoming trip to Lyngen North, and he said he knew Ola, and that his grandfather would probably be able to tell us more about the war since the Germans had built the Spåkenes kystfort in the area.
Because it was still early and quite bright, Gunnar took us first to a spot where some wild reindeer had been spotted, and we could see them grazing from afar.
When I asked him which supermarket was the best place to pick up provisions, he recommended the Eide Handel in Eidkjosen, where you can get the best quality produce. He even took a detour to Eidkjosen so we could pick up some stuff.
Since we didn’t want to be lugging big bags around on our Northern Lights chase from Tromsø, we didn’t pick up any provisions. Instead, Arun picked up some premium tobacco called Snus. Gunnar found this very funny, considering that the supermarket had some of the best produce available.
Our next stop was a scenic spot called Henrikvika by Kaldfjord, where we stopped to take photos of the beautiful bay at twilight.
After that, we made a stop at the fishing village of Ersfjordbotn, and enjoyed the sunset while Gunnar chatted with a fisherman.
Next, we drove to the top of a hill at Grøtfjord, where we waited by the side of the road wearing the luminous, reflective wristbands that Gunnar had given us for night safety.
We spent quite a while here, watching for the Aurora borealis and enjoying the fabulous view of the bay and the long sunset until Gunnar decided that it wasn’t happening and decided to take us to another location.
This involved a drive on some roads that seemed a bit unfinished, to an open and windy plateau where we would have the best chance of spotting the lights.
Here, GuideGunnar provided us with tripods, helped us set up the cameras and gave us an impromptu lesson in Northern Lights photography. He set the camera to manual, increased the exposure time and set the ISO to 800, telling us to change it as needed.
Since I had no experience with night photography, his guidance proved invaluable as darkness fell and the first wispy threads of the Aurora made their appearance on the horizon.
The Aurora borealis, when it is weak (GuideGunnar rated that night’s Aurora activity as 2/10) looks like translucent clouds with little to no colour to the naked eye. It’s only when photographed through the DSLR that the greens and purples appear.
Once I got comfortable with adjusting the camera settings to capture more light, I got much better photos.
I even tried my hand at some Milky Way photography when the Aurora took a break. It didn’t turn out too bad, even if I say so myself. 🙂
GuideGunnar set up a campfire for us and served us a delicious snack called Skattøra Lefse – Arctic Norway’s traditional and locally made pastry with cream and sweet goat cheese.
Since I’d taken a liking to the Norwegian brown cheese or Brunost, I enjoyed it thoroughly. He also served some hot blackcurrant jus, which was very welcome on that chilly night.
As we sat around the campfire in our thermo suits, Arun and I lay back in the grass and watched satellites drift slowly across the sky. With no light pollution, we could see them clearly. It was a rare sight for city folks like us.
Gunnar decided that we should wait till 1 am to see if the lights returned. Arun and I were still jet-lagged and exhausted by this time, and we had a Fjord sailing excursion planned the next morning, so we rested in the bus till it was time to go back.
According to GuideGunnar’s Aurora blog, we covered 120 kilometres and spent 6.5 hours on our Northern Lights chase from Tromsø. It was our first excursion in Norway and a very enjoyable one.
Tips for your Northern Lights Chase in Tromsø with GuideGunnar:
- The best time to see the Northern Lights is from early September to early April. North of the Arctic Circle, the sun does not rise above the horizon during the middle of winter (from around mid-November to mid-January). This is called the Polar Night.
- The Northern Lights are visible when darkness falls so you can see them from mid-August. The tour guides begin their Aurora chases from the beginning of September. However, when I tried to book an Aurora chase for my dates (5th and 6th September), GuideGunnar was one of the few tour operators in Tromsø willing to take small groups on a tour before the 15th. That’s dedication!
- You can download the My Aurora Forecast app to see how likely you are to see the Aurora borealis and find out about solar wind activity (which is what causes the Northern Lights). However, no one can guarantee that you’ll see them. It takes a combination of good weather and solar wind activity to have a good chance of seeing them. Oh, and a good Aurora guide and a healthy dose of luck, too!
- The Northern Lights are most likely to shine often and strongest between 8 pm and 2 am, but it’s also possible to see them before and after this period.
- The nights can get pretty cold, even in early September, and when you’re chasing the Northern Lights outside Tromsø, the wind chill can get quite uncomfortable. Wear 2 to 3 layers of clothing when you go on a chase and if you’re freezing, don’t try to be brave and ride it out. Put on a thermo suit and stay warm, even if it looks a bit ridiculous.
- GuideGunnar will show you a movie or two about the Northern Lights while he’s driving you in his bus. Soak it all in, including the fascinating science behind them and the strange beliefs and superstitions that people had about the lights in days gone by.
- For Northern Lights photography, you’ll need a DSLR or mirrorless camera. A mobile phone won’t cut it, no matter how good it is, as you need long exposures (some of mine were 30 seconds long). Guide Gunnar will provide the tripod so you don’t need to carry one. Follow his guidance on taking Aurora photos as he’s an expert on it.
However, for the best discount on GuideGunnar’s chases, you can book more than one chase, since you can’t be sure when you’ll see the Northern Lights. Here are the discounts he offers.
Northern Lights ChaseSavers:
- Book 2 Chase dates and save NOK 500
- Book 3 Chase dates and save NOK 1000
Some of the photographs in this post were provided by GuideGunnar and are indicated as such.
- Why I Chose To Visit Tromsø For My Northern Lights Bucket List Tour
- Tromsø Excursions: Norwegian Fjord Sailing With Pukka Travels
- Lyngen North: Northern Lights, Fjords, and Fogbows
- Exploring The Macabre And Fascinating Polar Museum In Tromsø, Norway
Watch the highlights from our Northern Lights guided tour from Tromsø (and some fabulous Aurora borealis photos from GuideGunnar) in the video below.