I drove down snowy roads that meandered deep through the forests of Lapland.
“We’re about 10 kilometers away, keep following this road,” my friend Rocker said. His red mohawk reached the roof and took up a majority of the reflection of the rearview mirror. “Keep this speed too, we don’t want to miss them. They could disappear any second.”
My sweaty hands gripped the steering wheel as I cruised at 80 kph on snowy roads in the middle of the night. Don’t slam the breaks if there’s black ice, turn in the direction you want to go, I repeated in my head like a mantra. Despite the spikes on our rental car, it didn’t mean we were granted immunity from spinning out on icy roads.
“Keep going straight up this road and the lake is at the end,” Rocker said. My friend Bridget sat next to me. Her round eyes stayed locked on the front windshield as she looked out for the Northern Lights.
Seconds after I parked the car, we jumped out and walked onto the frozen lake. Our boots sunk in deep snow and our fingers tingled and burned from the chilly 20-degree Celsius temperatures.
Thousands of stars stood against the night sky like poppy seeds on a bagel, as several shooting stars whizzed past us. The Milky Way, with its dusty, dense appearance, made a stripe in the sky.
It wasn’t until I turned my head towards the North, when I let out a shriek of surprise, euphoria, and excitement.
There they were.
My friend and I had decided to change all of our travel plans – skip the overnight train to Rovaniemi, skip the ferry to Estonia, and instead spend a few more days in Lapland in hopes of catching the Northern Lights.
Seeing these babies glisten and dance in the night sky is based on pure luck. It has to be a cloudless night during the months of August through March, with little light pollution. And of course, the Northern Lights have to actually show up – with a KP index of 3 or more (their strength, based on a scale of 0-9, with 9 being the strongest).
We decided to throw our plans out the window and to trust our luck. If we didn’t end up seeing them, at least we could spend our days settled amongst a permanent twilight that stained the sky pink and made the snow around us appear to glow.
I obsessively followed the Northern Lights on the Aurora app and the weather on the Windy app. The Windy app is incredibly accurate and shows you what the weather is to the hour – mainly the cloud coverage. The Aurora app follows the Lights and tells you how strong they’re going to be and where they are at any given moment.
December 26th promised clear skies and a KP index of 3. This was my one and only chance while in Finland to catch the lights, and I wasn’t going to give up just yet. Estonia could wait.
Finding the Lights
Once the evening rolled around, I could barely eat. My stomach twisted and turned with anxiety as thoughts whirled around in my head about seeing one of my childhood dreams for the first time in my life.
The pizza that sat in front of me later that night felt like sandpaper as it slid down my throat, as if it were trying to soften it.
It wasn’t until around 8 in the evening when my stomach leapt from my body. “The live cam at the lake is showing a green stripe in the sky,” the owner of the hostel said.
I grabbed the car keys and ushered Rocker and Bridget into the car. No time to lose.
I whipped the car into the parking lot down the road and choked on every breathe that came out of my chest. “I’ve never seen you drive like that,” Bridget said as she smiled. “You really want to see these.”
10 minutes later, we were at the lake in Ylläs town, one encompassed by tiny cottages and light pollution. A faint, but visible, streak was in the sky. It formed a parenthesis, an upside-down smile as if to welcome us.
“Is this it?” I said.
“These are the Northern Lights, yes, but they can get way better,” Rocker said. He’s spent months in the Arctic Circle and has seen the lights several dozen times.
“Let’s go to the secluded lake you were telling us about,” Bridget said. “I’m down to try.”
“They might not be there,” Rocker said, “But if they are, they’ll be more visible since there’s no light pollution.”
“Let’s go,” Bridget said.
We jumped in the car and I drove 40 minutes towards the lake up north. My hands shook with excitement – I had just seen them, but I knew they could be more spectacular.
The lights look similar at the secluded lake, so after a half hour of standing in the cold, we decided to sit in the car for warmth. None of us could feel our feet or hands, and no amount of jumping up and down was warming us up.
Minutes later, a burst of vibrant color shot through the sky. The Northern Lights shimmered and glistened. They moved up and down like camel humps trekking across desert dunes. They stretched horizontally and vertically, like a dancer performing on stage, moving their body to the music.
It was a storm.
At that moment, I knew this would not be the last time I would see the lights. It was one of the most spectacular natural phenomena I’ve ever seen.