independent

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Where magic happens - the Northern Lights, Norway

Compiling a bucket list makes you happy. But ticking it off makes you even happier, Arlene Harris discovers

Svalbard, Norway

Compiling a bucket list makes you happy. But ticking it off makes you even happier, as Arlene Harris discovered when she and her family went on the adventure of a lifetime under the Northern Lights of Tromso, Norway

Money doesn't buy you happiness and material things bring only brief moments of joy but memories really do last forever. I know it sounds trite but I have come to realise that nothing means more than spending time with people you love and enjoying happy experiences together -- whether it's a weekend away with friends or a trip to the beach with the kids -- these moments are precious and no amount of shoes or handbags can ever come close to competing.

So seeing the look of utter joy on my youngest son's face as he handed out bowls of water to a group of thirsty dogs after they had pulled us across the frozen Arctic under the night sky was worth all the saving, preparation and travel it took to get there.

Earlier this year, NASA announced that the chances of seeing a truly spectacular display of the aurora borealis were very high due to heightened solar activity. Experiencing the Northern Lights has always been on my bucket list and after several failed attempts, I was determined to hit the jackpot.

So after extensive research, I managed to find a low-cost route which would take us from wet and windy Ireland to the cold, snowy and hopefully brightly-lit city of Tromso in Norway, which is 350km north of the Arctic Circle.

With on-board bags crammed full of thermals, our family-of-five jetted northwards with thoughts of dancing skies and snowy slopes in our minds. Being so far north, there are no direct routes from Ireland so after a two-hour layover in Oslo, we began the second stage of our long-distance weekend away.

Travelling for a whole day just to spend two days in the Arctic may seem like madness to some, but to our adventurous crew, it was just the means to an end. We were chilled out, away from home and ready for action.

The Northern Lights at Dunree Head seen in north Donegal. Photo: Rory Adam

Our short trip was set to be jam-packed as I had scheduled in a snowshoeing expedition, a reindeer sleigh-ride and an evening of dog-sledding -- and of course, there was also the promise of the Northern Lights.

Night falls early in the Arctic and after a day spent exploring the snow-laden city, our first evening saw us wrapped up and ready for a trip into the countryside.

Forty minutes outside the city centre, we alighted into the cold night air. Initially we couldn't see our hands in front of our faces, but after our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we could see a herd of reindeer waiting patiently in the snow for our arrival.

Once untethered, the animals whisked us off on a mystical tour of the wilderness. There wasn't a sound to be heard apart from the whoosh of the wooden sleighs as we sat back and watched the sky for a break in the clouds.

Half an hour later they stopped close to a tent where hot drinks, (a guilt-laden) reindeer casserole and chocolate cake awaited us, after which the children used up their energy by careering down a snowy slope lit up by the headlights of a snow-mobile.

There was little activity to be seen in the sky and although a couple of French tourists marvelled over a white strip they could see moving underneath the clouds, I wasn't quite so enthused. But keeping my thoughts to myself, I reasoned that with one night left, we still had a good chance.

The following morning dawned bright and sunny and was perfect for our imminent snowshoeing trip. We spent over an hour exploring the forest and hills just outside the city and were rewarded with hot drinks and snacks at the highest point, from which the views of the dazzling white landscape were breathtaking.

Our short visit was almost over, but we still had one evening to go and in this, I had placed all my hopes for finally seeing the elusive aurora borealis. Needless to say, I was hugely excited about dog-sledding under the night sky, with or without the light show, so when just as we were boarding the bus to the husky station, a streak of green light shot across the sky, I was momentarily stunned.

I couldn't believe that I had finally fulfilled my wish but no sooner had I found my voice, we were ushered onto the bus and driven away from the city. Straining my neck to look out the window and catch another glimpse, I hardly noticed that we had arrived at the kennels.

But there was no time to waste and the dog-owner showed us into a tiny room to get kitted out with snow suits. There were no animals to be seen and I wondered how they had managed to keep them all so quiet. Not for long, though. As we headed out to where the sledges were anchored in the snow, a cacophony of howls broke through the dark night air.

The noise was deafening as 100 dogs realised that they were going to get their chance to race across the frozen countryside. Huddling up under a blanket with Rodhan, my 8-year-old son, as we waited for take-off, my excitement was almost as tangible as his. Citing my concern that I couldn't drive alone with a young child, we were appointed a driver, whilst my husband and the other two boys were going to take the controls themselves.

Without a moment to ponder the wisdom of this, suddenly we were off, careering across the snow (at 18kmph) with just a headlamp to light our way. Rodhan was literally squealing with delight as our troop of six huskies bounded across the ice and snow. Glancing upwards, I realised that the green streak we had seen in the city centre had turned into an amazing aurora display; weaving and dancing across the sky, the lights changed colour, direction and intensity as our canine friends gave us the thrill of a lifetime.

Every 15-minutes or so, the manual brakes were pulled and our caravan of sledges stopped to give us the opportunity to gaze at the sky or swap places to try our hands at driving the dogs who were patient to a point. However, if they decided we were taking too long, one would look back and start barking which would in turn set the whole pack off.

It took over an hour to complete the course and if it wasn't for the outrageously cold night air, we could have carried on for hours. Arriving back at the kennels, the dogs were taken off to be fed and watered, their handlers helped by a very willing 8-year-old Irish boy, who vowed to return to work there as soon as he was allowed.

Still on a high from the experience, we were herded into a tent where a roaring fire was burning; pots of coffee and hot chocolate were waiting as were some delicious Norwegian cakes. By this point the strength of the Northern Lights had intensified and even the blase locals commented on their beauty. Not wanting to miss a moment, we abandoned the fire and lay down in the snow to drink in as much of the experience as possible.

But all good things have to come to an end and eventually we were told it was time to catch a ride back to the hotel. Reluctantly we climbed out of our snowsuits and onto the bus where we sat, speechless for the journey into town.

Our flight home was early the following morning and even though we knew we had a long trip ahead of us, nothing could dampen the well of happiness which had been filled the night before. Seeing the Northern Lights whilst driving a team of huskies was undoubtedly an amazing experience, but having the opportunity to do it with our children was even more special.

Last week NASA extended their predicted peak viewing time to the end of April 2014, so for anyone looking for a memorable family experience, there is still plenty of time to head north for the adventure of a lifetime.

For more information visit northernnorway.com

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