Trip report - north Norway

20th March 2012
Dates: 15th to 19th March 2012

Destination: north Norway



Purpose of trip:

The main purpose of my trip was to see the “Northern Lights” (following my previous unsuccessful visit in February 2009) and to enjoy the “winter wonderland” of the Troms region in Arctic Norway.

Getting there:

I flew from London Gatwick to Tromsø Langnes via Oslo Gardermoen with Norwegian Air.

The cost of return flights including baggage and taxes was £166.30.

The schedule was as follows:

15th April: London Gatwick to Oslo Gardermoen – depart 09:10 a.m. and arrive 12:20 p.m. (local time GMT+1)

15th April: Oslo Gardermoen to Tromsø Langnes – depart 14:20 p.m. and arrive 16:10 p.m.

19th April: Tromsø Langnes to Oslo Gardermoen – depart 08:00 a.m. and arrive 09:50 a.m.

19th April: Oslo Gardermoen to London Gatwick – depart 12:25 p.m. and arrive 13:45 (local time UK)

However, there was a significant delay to the outward flight from London Gatwick to Oslo Gardermoen to the extent that the onward flight to Tromsø was delayed to allow for passengers from London Gatwick to catch the internal flight.

Getting around:

At Tromsø Langnes airport, I hired a VW Polo for 4 days from Europcar.

The cost of car hire was £213.23 reduced by 11% Quidco cashback to £189.77.

Diesel was significantly more expensive than even in the UK at just under an equivalent £1.60 per litre. Petrol was even more expensive so it was fortunate that the hire car was a diesel which had a better fuel economy of between 50 to 60 mpg and was cheaper to fill.

I travelled independently following thorough research and preparing an itinerary before leaving the UK.

Day 1:Tromsø Langnes – Tromsø – Breivikeidet – Svensby

Local routes around Svensby at night to watch for the “Northern Lights”

Day 2: Svensby – Lyngseidet – Olderdalen – Skjervøy – return to Svensby

Svensby – Lyngseidet – Skibotn – Norway/Finland border at night to watch for the “Northern Lights”

Day 3: Svensby – Breivikeidet – Tromsø – Kvaløya – Sommarøy – return to Svensby

Local routes around Svensby at night to watch for the “Northern Lights”

Day 4: Svensby – Breivikeidet – Tromsø – Kvaløya – Ringvassøy – return to Tromsø

Tromsø – Ersfjordbotn at night to watch for the “Northern Lights”

During my trip, I stayed at the following:

3 nights at Busehuse at Svensby located on the shore of Ullsfjorden. This was a warm and comfortable house costing around £325 for the 3 nights. It proved to be a good base for the daily trips although the Svensby to Breivikeidet ferry ferry timetable needed regular scrutiny to ensure a shortcut across Ullsfjorden.

1 night at the Hotel Scandic Tromsø in Tromsø. This was chosen solely for its close proximity to Tromsø Langnes airport and the final night’s accommodation before an early flight home. The cost for a room at this hotel was £87.84 reduced by 12% Quidco cashback to £78.18.

Impressions, experiences and memories:

The Troms region …. the northernmost reaches of Europe (almost) ….. 2250 miles from home .... over 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle .... 1365 miles south of the North Pole

A lot of snow and ice .... stunning Arctic winter landscapes

And of course, the “Nordlys” .... the awesome “Northern Lights”

Weather:

The weather was extremely mixed with many bright and sunny periods but also cloudy periods, rain, sleet and heavy snow. The last day of the trip provided the best weather with bright sunshine and blue skies all day.

Daytime temperatures varied from minus 4 degrees to 4 degrees. However, the warmer days with sunshine seemed to make little impression on the deep snow and frozen lakes and rivers.

Although it was only mid March, daylight hours were already longer than in the UK.

"Northern Lights":

Following an unsuccessful visit in February 2009, I had always promised myself another trip to northern Scandinavia to try and see the “Northern Lights”.

This trip was additionally prompted by NASA scientists predicting that the “Northern Lights will shine at the brightest levels seen for 50 years in 2012.

Since 2007 the aurora has been growing in intensity and the 2012 event is being caused by the “solar maximum”, a period when the sun's magnetic field on the solar equator rotates at a slightly faster pace than at the solar poles.

The solar cycle takes an average of around 11 years to go from one “solar maximum” to the next. Prior to 2012, the last “solar maximum” was in 2001 and NASA scientists predicted that the next one in 2012 will be the greatest since 1958.

Whilst the Troms region of north Norway sits in the auroral zone (see map below), any chance of seeing the “Northern Lights” during this short trip was very much dependent on the weather and the level of solar activity.



Both in the lead up to the trip and every day during the trip, I regularly checked the information on both using the following websites:

Norway weather forecast

Aurora forecast

The aurora forecast was level 4 (on a scale of 0 to 9) throughout the trip which provided reasonable optimism for seeing the “Northern Lights” .... but only if the weather behaved and gave up a dark and clear sky.

I had hoped to see and photograph the “Northern Lights” against the Troms coastal landscape of fjords, islands and mountains. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the weather by the coast was stubbornly cloudy if not very snowy.

Having read Internet articles which suggested that travelling inland often provides drier and clearer weather, a 160 mile return trip south east to the Norway/Finland border was required to track down the elusive celestial phenomenon.

The majority of the outward trip was undertaken in heavy snow which did not augur well for seeing the “Northern Lights”.

However, moving further inland along Skibotndalen from Skibotn (the E8 “Northern Lights route”), the sky eventually cleared as evidenced by the sight of zillions of stars and the added bonus of seeing Venus, Jupiter and Mars with the naked eye.



Finally, some subtle changes in the night sky slowly evolved in to the “Northern Lights” which were present in different parts of the night sky on and off for an hour or so.

There is a lot of complicated science and physics to explain the “Northern Lights” but nothing that can put in to words the experience of a cold and dark Arctic night and the sight of wafting curtains, ephemeral plumes and flickering fingers of light together with more stars than you can imagine and 3 of the 9 planets in the solar system.

Cold and tired on return to Svensby? .... definitely!

Exhilarated by the experience of the “Northern Lights”? .... definitely!

Photography:

Before my trip, I believed that seeing the “Northern Lights” would be a bonus on top of seeing the jaw dropping beauty of the Arctic landscape in north Norway. Being able to also photograph the “Northern Lights”, given what I had read about the technical difficulties, would be an even greater bonus.

I had read various articles about “Northern Lights” photography prior to my trip and summarised the main points in this document:

Northern Lights photography

I also decided to hire a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G ED AF-S NIKKOR lens for the trip since this would give me a far better chance of capturing the “Northern Lights”.

The company that I rented the lens from was hireacamera.com. I have not used this company before but they get 10 out of 10 for customer service, website information, ease of ordering, prompt courier delivery and collection and value for money .... highly recommended!

I have to say that I am reasonably pleased with my first efforts at “Northern Lights” photography, if only to have a record of the trip. As with most photography, practice and more practice usually improves technique and results. Unfortunately this trip provided only one short opportunity for “Northern Lights” photography.

If anyone is interested in seeing some seriously good “Northern Lights” photography, then take a look at the work of Bjørn Jørgensen or Ole Salomonsen. They obviously have the distinct advantage of seeing the “Northern Lights” on most nights from November to March!

Ole Salomonsen has also produced some short films .... stunning!

Wildlife highlights:

During the Arctic winter, most of the wildlife either migrates south or hibernates.

However, there were a number of wildlife highlights during my trip:

White-tailed Eagle: seen each day either as singles or as pairs with a total of 13 birds

Golden Eagle: 2 together on Ringvassøy

Long-tailed Duck: c.10 at Skjervøy, 1 off Kvaløya and 1 off Ringvassøy

Common Scoter: c.15 between Olderdalen and Skjervøy

Common Eider: seen each day in groups of up to c.100

Red-breasted Merganser: small numbers seen each day

Mallard: small numbers seen each day

Black Guillemot: 1 at Skjervøy

Oystercatcher: 1 between Langslett and Skjervøy and 1 on Ringvassøy

Purple Sandpiper: small groups of 5 to 20 on Kvaløya

Heron: 1 on Sommarøy

Snow Bunting: c.10 on Sommarøy

Raven: small numbers on Kvaløya and Ringvassøy

In addition, Magpie and Hooded Crow were commonly seen plus Cormorant, Shag and Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls.

With regard to mammals, several Reindeer were seen in small groups on Kvaløya and a Red Fox was seen outside the Busehuse in Svensby one morning.

Finally, and rather frustratingly, the trip down Skibotndalen provided a very brief and fleeting view of a largish mammal running across the road caught in the headlights of the car. Taking in to account size, shape, movement and habitat, this was probably a European Lynx. However, it was in view only momentarily before disappearing in to the darkness for ever!

Just in case it was a European Lynx, here is a photo of one that I took in the Ranua Wildlife Park near Rovaniemi in Finland in June 2009. If it wasn’t a European Lynx, it is a nice photo of one of the northern Scandinavian mammals that didn’t make it on to the trip list!



Disappointments:

My previous trip to Troms in February 2009 resulted in the disappointment of not seeing the “Northern Lights”.

The only disappointment of this trip was that the trip itself was not longer (although if it had of been then “credit card bill” shock would have been even greater!) and that there were not more opportunities to see and photograph the “Northern Lights”.

As I said after my 2009 trip, inevitably another trip has to be planned. I read somewhere that the “Northern Lights” are addictive. You keep trying to see them and, when you have, you keep trying to see a bigger and brighter display.

Photos

Photos from my trip can be found in the European trips gallery.

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