Getting catty under the Northern Lights

Where am I? Am I on a bus? Why is someone on a PA system telling me stuff about the Northern Lights?

Maybe a midnight Northern Lights tour was not the best choice after a sleepless red-eye flight to Iceland from Toronto, but I only had one chance. Apparently aurora borealis goes in 12 year cycles, and this year was the peak, albeit the weakest one since record-keeping began.

I woke up more completely when we reached Thingvellir, which the guide informed us was were Iceland’s Parliament was formed in 930. Called the “Althing” (which yes, means “all-thing”) it is the oldest parliamentary body in the world. It looked like a parking lot in the middle of nowhere to me, but then again, I was asleep and it was pitch black, so what do I know?

A 1,083 year-old governing body? Impressive. A house that makes it to 100 in my hometown becomes an official historical landmark. (Though 1,083 is middle age for a redwood tree. Nothing tops my redwoods. No arboreal pun intended.)

10 busloads of us shuffled straight into a cafeteria where we stood elbow to kidney, DSLRs clacking against one another, wondering if we’d see anything. The trip had been canceled every night for the last week on account of weather, but the Travel Gods were smiling and the night was clear, though there’s still no guarantee. The guides said to wait inside and they’d tell us if something started happening.

What would aurora borealis look like. How fast does it actually move? I had the idea that all the clips I’d ever seen were time-lapse, but wasn’t sure. Would we be able to run outside and see anything? Would it be a mad stampede of screaming and swearing in a dozen languages? That might be as fun to watch as the Lights…

How do you say “Get out of my way you camera-toting jackass” in Icelandic?

Then the cork was pulled and well-wrapped bodies were surging for the door. We stumbled out onto the unlit plain and looked up into the starry sky, eyes pinched shut against the cold, but ready for brilliance.

There was some confusion. I heard “um…is that it over there?” in Japanese and German.

Northern Lights handheld and unimpressiveThere was a pale milky streak like a wimpy cloud hanging over the hillside to the north. But if you watched it long enough you’d notice that it was in fact slowly shifting and changing. I huddled next to my new Taiwanese buddy Jin, taking pictures between moderately successful efforts to keep blood flowing in my fingers.

They looked like this.

It was a rare case where the camera’s perspective is better than the eye’s, the milky blur showing up as emerald variation. But even a milky smear is gorgeous when you’re sitting in an Icelandic field with a few gajillion stars overhead. I love this planet.

After an hour and a half we ran into our Australian roommates, who told us there were two posts with buckets on top where you could rest your camera. That sounded promising.

Northern Lights, IcelandWe headed back out but found the buckets occupied by some dedicated non-sharers. The first was an Englishman taking black pictures, unable to set the shutter speed on his expensive Nikon that was well beyond his ability. He was a skilled at muttering swear words though.

The second was a tiny Japanese lass who was taking dozens of identical pictures with her point-and-click. In my family we call this “Shamu-ing” after my brother used an entire roll of film at SeaWorld taking identical pictures of the famous killer whale as a black speck way in the distance.

I got lucky here, that's a meteorite entering on the top left

I got lucky here, that’s a meteorite entering on the top left

I’d already burned off the day’s body heat, and we were running out of long frozen minutes. I stood politely, waiting, freezing in the glacier’s breath, and my patience leaked out and formed icicles from my cold-clawed fingertips. Then I started to lose my cool in the cold of the Icelandic countryside.

I would never push someone out of my way, but…good god, enough! The icicles cracked and I got catty.

“Would you mind sharing the post?” I asked. Politely enough.

“Ah, hmm, ah, just a minute.” One more. Then one more. Another.

Northern Lights“No problem, take another fifty or sixty if you like.” Crack. Meow.

The Englishman picked his expensive paperweight up and wandered off into the darkness, presumably intent on Nikonicide. Several of us pounced, and eventually I took a few, but most were ruined by the Japanese lass futzing with her flashlight, which doesn’t go well with 30 second exposures and a fencepost in the foreground.

I had a chance to try again though, and got this nice fuzzy one by zooming out over the course of the 30 second exposure. I really should get a tripod so I can experiment and figure this stuff out.Northern Lights zooming out

That chick never did let anyone else go (and she had the better bucket, without the post) but it wasn’t too hard to focus on the aurora in front of me, boreal breath of the gods, and I returned to Reykjavik with a happy heart in a frozen body.

Three hours of sleep, then a flight to Amsterdam.