In search of the Northern Lights

| 30 Jun 2015 | 02:42

When we booked our vacation, my friend Katie and I thought it was a given that if you traveled thousands of miles to Iceland, you'd see the aurora. It turns out we had much to learn about the Northern Lights, a display caused by solar flares entering earth's magnetic field, which can only be glimpsed in the Arctic regions… or so we thought.

When we took off from Newark in March, bound for Reykjavik, the interior of the Icelandair plane sported Northern Lights simulations. As our plane touched down on the runway, which had a few inches of snow on it (no biggie for them), we were all smiles.

In town they sell T-shirts that say “Don't like the weather in Iceland? Wait five minutes.” Indeed, first it was very windy, then snowing, then clear, then snowing, then sunny, then snowing. Our first scheduled night to see the lights was cancelled because the sky was too cloudy. With time to kill, we walked the streets of Reykjavik, heated underneath using geothermal energy to melt the snow. (Most of the town uses volcanic hot water for power.)

We tasted the signature Icelandic dish: fermented shark that's been been cured and hung out to dry for months. I'll save you the trouble: it reeks of ammonia and the taste isn't much better. I barely swallowed my piece.

The second night, we loaded onto a bus that took us an hour outside of Reykjavik to Thingvellir National Park, where there is no light pollution. The northern lights, our guide explained, can dance across the sky for 45 minutes or appear for just a few minutes. And, he warned, there is no guarantee to see them.

We piled out and stood in the heavy snow, staring up into the cloudy darkness, doing jumping jacks and running in place. True to form, the weather got clear, then cloudy, then clear. At one point a guide yelled that we should see the lights any minute. Everyone trudged through the snow and stared in one direction. No luck.Another specialist radioed in and said to look to the east. We all turned around. Nothing. Then to the west. Nothing.

A tourist asked, “How special is your specialist?” We all laughed.

As midnight approached, I could no longer feel my toes. When the clouds rolled in, the guide apologetically called it a night. Most of the tourists were relieved by then to warm up on the bus. Katie and I were disappointed, but we still had one more day. And, more to the point, one more night.

The next morning was clear and sunny, which gave us hope — until we got on the bus, and the guide said they were going to try and get us back on time because a blizzard with hurricane winds was passing through. The bus stopped at Thingvellir National Park, where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart, and if you are a fellow fan, where scenes from Game of Thrones were filmed. We stopped to see the Strokkur geyser shoot a column of water 98 feet every four to eight minutes. The weather held up until we approached Gullfoss (Golden Falls) waterfall, created by the river Hvítá, which tumbles and plunges into a crevice some 105 feet deep.

As we followed the path to the falls, the winds picked up until I worried they'd pick me up and fly me away. Once we reached the stairs leading down to the falls, many people turned around, but I hadn't come all this way to not see the waterfall. I made my way down, and it was breathtaking.

We huddled back onto the bus for the hour-and-a-half long trek back to our hotel. Unphased by the ever-intensifying winds, our driver laughed as he sped by tourists in rental cars stuck on the roadside. We were making good time until all buses were stopped and detoured to a strip mall parking lot. All the roadways leading to Reykjavik were closed due to the wind. We were going to have to wait. And wait.

After a couple of hours our bus, along with others, was detoured yet again to a hotel where we were unloaded into a banquet hall. They offered us free soup and bread, which was nice. But what was even nicer was when they opened the bar. It wasn't free, but after being marooned for hours, everyone ran for a drink. The overwhelmed bartender called for backup. We were stranded at the banquet hall all night; it was 2 a.m. before we saw our beds. It seemed a fitting way to cap our trip.

As we boarded our plane the next day, I vowed I would see the aurora. I would fly to Alaska, Norway, Finland, Canada — anywhere. This was going to be my mission.

Upon my return, a co-worker came running downstairs to share a picture on her phone. While I'd been away, a freak “solar storm” on a clear night had afforded night owls in the tri-state region the opportunity to see the dancing lights of the Aurora Borealis, without having to go anywhere at all. - By Alexis Tarrazi