I saw the Northern Lights. It was my fifth try when they really danced.
The first three tries were duds:
- I sat on a freezing bus for two hours with no bathroom. Received a free coupon to try again but obviously didn’t use it.
- I took a boat tour from Reykjavik Harbor dressed in a black-and-yellow thermal suit. No lights, but this was a great trip, and the boat had bathrooms. When we didn’t see the lights, a crewman named Sven started reading Northern Lights poetry over the loudspeaker. Highly recommended. Received a free voucher to try again.
- I took a SuperJeep into a not-really-so-impassable-after-all part of Thingvellir National Park, searching for a gap in the clouds. We found a gap with the moon and stars shining down on snow and silence. No lights and no bathrooms, but the tour guides served hot chocolate with vodka. Received a free voucher to try again.
On the fourth try, I used my SuperJeep voucher. This time the lights forecast was great, and before we’d even left Reykjavik city limits, our guide was talking with other guides on the phone about where to find the lights. We drove a short distance to a forest and got out with the Northern Lights stretching green across the sky. I’d heard they would look smoky-white to the naked eye, but they were whitish-green and beautiful, like a cloud or smoke but a little different.
We watched for a while and then drove farther out, to a snow-covered open area where the lights stretched up across the sky and then shrunk back. It was beautiful. Mission accomplished, I thought.
A couple of weeks later I was wandering around the old harbor in Reykjavik when I saw a booth for the boat tour company and decided I should use their voucher before I left Iceland. I stopped by to ask the man there which night would be best.
He insisted that I needed to go that night. I had no plans so agreed to board the ship.
A Light Show for a Lifetime
For the first hour we saw nothing, just drifting on the water in the cold. Then I saw a small white cloud on the northern horizon.
Shortly afterward, the cloud stretched across the sky. It was a Northern Light. A long period of nothing — maybe an hour — and then a bigger streak of light arced up to the top of the sky, shimmered, and split sideways into dancing lines.
The lines broke into three huge green swirls that spun around, with red shimmering through their cores. Then other lines streaked up, shimmering and marching like souls into heaven, and a huge green cloud drifted like a green smoke dragon across the sky.
The tour operator was yelling and could not contain herself. I was laughing and looking up and sharing the moment with 200 other people on this boat in the middle of winter, imagining what people used to think of the Northern Lights before we understood them, back when they were just a mysterious phenomenon.
We came back to Reykjavik Harbor with the lights as our companion, shimmering and dancing, covering almost half the sky.
I have no photos because iPhones take terrible night photos. The photos I have can’t do it justice, and I won’t post them. The memories I have will never leave my mind. It was an incredible gift from nature, and I feel so lucky.
I am so going back.
This post was also published on Medium.