Expectations, reality and not seeing the northern lights

Expectations, reality and not seeing the northern lights

I’d be willing to bet good money that anyone who loves to travel would like to see the northern lights. Anyone who ever hangs out in the travel section of Instagram or has an interest in travel and landscape photography has probably seen numerous, astounding images of the stunning polar light phenomenon. They look incredible. It feels almost like a rite of passage for a keen traveller.

There are only a few places on Earth where the lights are even occasionally visible, and those places are typically in or close to the Arctic. Ivalo, in Finland, is lauded as one of the best places on the planet for seeing the northern lights, though the website does emphasise at every opportunity that no one can guarantee an Aurora sighting.

I won’t lie – we were hoping to see the lights. Of course we were. You don’t head up to northern Finland, to a spot known for Auroras no less, in the middle of winter, without hoping, just a little, that you might get to see the northern lights.

Although we had come in the middle of winter, with winter and its associated darkness being a requirement to see the lights, it turned out that we hadn’t come at a particularly good time for Aurora spotting. The Aurora exists on an eleven-year solar cycle and we are currently reaching the trough, meaning that it is particularly unlikely that the lights would be visible, and if they were, they would probably be faint. We knew this when we booked tickets but still decided to take our chances. When we arrived, the first few days had heavy cloud cover – it is impossible to see the lights when the clouds are thick – and then we had an amazing full moon, which brightened up the sky considerably. The Aurora thrives in darkness and this moon was providing anything but.

A lot of factors came together that made seeing the lights unlikely. If you are even more keen (and organised) than us, you could take more steps to increase your likelihood of witnessing the Aurora, like going at a better time in both the solar cycle (next peak is 2025) and the lunar cycle. But when it came down to it, it truly didn’t matter. Even though, we, along with hundreds of other people, had travelled thousands of miles for the chance to see this awesome natural phenomenon, its absence was not missed.

It’s important to say that this is mainly not a problem because it is no one’s right to see the northern lights. To get travel widely, let alone to somewhere far away in the far north of this planet, is a huge privilege, and for anyone to stamp their feet because they didn’t see an unpredictable natural wonder would be, I feel, against the spirit of being gratefully open to what the world offers you. It feels a little too much like expecting the universe to somehow cater to a whim that is really only a bonus in what is already a charmed life. No one needs to see the northern lights. It would be an extremely cool experience. But it is not a right, nor a requirement, and to just be somewhere where you might see them is enough of a privilege and thrill in and of itself.

You can’t go somewhere to see a natural occurrence that’s totally out of your control and have a real expectation that the universe will deliver. It’s like being deeply annoyed when you go away and the weather isn’t perfect. Yes, it is unfortunate. It’s a shame to go somewhere and find that it rains the whole time or the museum is closed or the restaurant you were dying to try is booked out. It’s annoying, sure, but if these uncontrollable occurrences render you incapable of enjoying your trip, then the problem is you, not the place. Isn’t travel about having your eyes open to new places, to see them for what they really are?

Most of the images that inspire you to travel somewhere have captured that place looking its best. The glorious photos of the northern lights that litter the web often take weeks of patience and generous editing to produce, with many nights offering only a plain sky with a whisper of colour, if you’re lucky. London is represented by Tower Bridge, the London Eye or Westminster in the sun, not the numerous dirty streets, months of cold, cloudy weather or a platform full of grumpy passengers as yet another train is cancelled.

To try to entice you to spend your limited money and time in a particular place, it is often presented to you at its very best, dolled up and ready to party. This is just part of life. Sifting through the marketing to distil some ounce of truth. It doesn’t mean you can’t be lead by the gorgeous pictures you find online or in books. It does mean that you can, inaccurately, end up with an image of everywhere being sunnier, cleaner and more photogenic that where you are now.

Last year, I wrote about the reality of paradise, about the importance of turning tropical, beach destinations from vacation fetishes into real places, where whole lives play out. Where, yes, there are jungles and white sand and tropical birds but also rain and clouds and huge spiders at every turn. Everywhere is real in the same, unglamorous way your hometown is, imperfect and occasionally plagued by the vague petty annoyances that irritate you regardless of where you are.

To travel expecting everywhere to look like a postcard is to set yourself up for disappointment. I try to enjoy myself everywhere, so to that end I try to head out with no expectations. I am genuinely curious about every random city strewn across Eastern Europe, every far-flung nation dotted across the Pacific if you hit Australia and keep going east. I just want to know what’s there, at the moment when I happen to be there also.

So, we didn’t see the northern lights. We didn’t even see a hint of green across the black sky. But we saw a glorious full moon and an extremely rare lunar eclipse and fox trails across the snow. I discovered cloudberries. I rode a snowmobile through a forest at night. It was awesome, and it was real, and you can’t ask for more out of anywhere other than for your destination to show itself to you, rain or shine, northern lights or full moon or enough clouds to block a thousand dancing Auroras.

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