By Fran Weaver, January 2013
Andy Keen is a hunter who pursues an unusual prey. He criss-crosses northern Finland chasing one of the world’s most amazing natural phenomena: the Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis. We go along for the ride.
Keen drives us in a minibus through the pitch-black forests that surround the village of Inari, in the heart of Finnish Lapland, to an embankment overlooking a snow-covered frozen lake. “I present to you the Northern Lights!” says the Englishman with a cheerful grin. He sweeps his arm dramatically towards the skies over the lake – they are stunningly illuminated by shifting and shimmering curtains, bands and arcs of greenish light.
I am thrilled just to gawp at the amazing natural light show; but professional photographer Jill Cole, who has flown to Finland from London, is also delighted to pick up tips from Keen about how to take vivid photographs of the lights, showing both their intricate detail and the beautiful snow-covered setting beneath.
It’s easy to see why northern peoples have often perceived this awe-inspiring celestial spectacle as a supernatural phenomenon, caused by gods, spirits or dragons.
We eventually bundle back into the warm minivan to head off to another spot with an expansive view. Fortunately the sky is almost cloudless – which is one reason why the temperature has plummeted to almost minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus four degrees Fahrenheit).
Keen first headed to Europe’s arctic north in 2007 to experience and photograph the Northern Lights after seeing them featured in a TV documentary. “I’d just recovered from a very serious illness, and realised this was something I really wanted to do while I still could,” he recalls.
He became so aurora-struck that he returned again and again – and eventually set up business in Finnish Lapland under the name Aurora Hunters, to bring other people to see the lights. “The skies are clearer here more often than near the Norwegian coast, and there’s very little light pollution, so this is about the best base in Europe – especially as there are good flight connections to Ivalo,” he says.
In a good year, auroras may be visible over northern Finnish Lapland on average about every other clear night from late August to early April. Keen spends almost every clear winter night out chasing auroras with small groups of visitors from around the world. He does his best to ensure that everyone gets to witness the lights, but emphasises that aurora chasers should plan to spend several nights in the north to improve their chances.
Keen knew we had a good chance of seeing a fine auroral display tonight, since he closely follows meteorological and geophysical forecasts to get a good idea of cloud cover and the likelihood of a magnetic storm here 350 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. Here a weak zone in the Earth’s magnetic field often allows electronically charged particles originating from the sun to penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere and trigger colourful auroras. Bright Northern Lights are probable a couple of days after intense solar activity, which Keen also monitors on scientific websites.
Auroras typically form about 100 to 500 kilometres above ground level, so the view doesn’t change much even over long distances. But Keen clearly likes to give his guests an exciting aurora hunting experience. “Maybe I overdo it sometimes, but we might drive as far as the shores of the Arctic Ocean or the Russian frontier if cloud conditions might be more favourable there,” he says.
Though Keen has by now witnessed countless auroras, his passion seems undiminished and he’s happy to stay out with us all night. “Auroras are different every single time,” he says. True enough, the display that we’re watching changes constantly. We pick out other colours, from red and pink to dark blue and violet, as well as the most typical auroral green.
We only return to the warmth and comfort of our accommodation in Inari as the dawn light starts to spread on the eastern horizon. It has been an absolutely unforgettable night.
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