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From Glorious Sun to Snow Storm in One Day

From Glorious Sun to Snow Storm in One Day

by Ruth Murdoch  |  1st October 2018  | Norway
The first day of October dawned bright and clear and pretended to be just like any other day, only it wasn’t.  This was a sheep in wolf’s clothing day.

Today was a day of firsts, not only as in the date but in many things that happened along the way.  We woke in Ulsvag, Norway and by 9am were on the road.  That was the first ‘first’ as we don’t usually move too early in the morning.

We had no set destination today, again a first.  We typically make a point of plotting our destination but today was different, we just hopped on the road and started driving, south. Hmmm.

The extent of our planning, however, was to not use the coastal route due mainly to the high costs of taking ferries.  That decision was to save us €100.  In hindsight, which is a wonderful thing, we are now thinking that perhaps it wasn’t worth it.  Or maybe it was, otherwise I wouldn’t have a story to tell.

We are making our way south to leave Norway hopefully before the winter snow set in.  The surrounding hilltops have been sprinkled with snow that looks like icing sugar (powdered sugar) and makes for amazing photos, particularly in the reflective waters that can be found everywhere we look.

We don’t go far before Betsy, our motorhome, is stopped on the roadside for us to jump out and take some photos.  A two-hour trip usually turns into three or four depending upon the landscape and photographic opportunities. On route we stop at a place called Drag for this photo.

Snowcapped Mountains in Drag

Half an hour later at Innhavet, we come across the camping ground where we had expected to stop the previous night.  It was closed.  That seems to be the common thing around here after the summer season.  This one however offered a wonderful photo opportunity so we wandered over for a closer look.  The row of cabins were mirrored perfectly in the reflective water.  The golden hues of the autumn trees were resplendent in the foreground reflections of the snowcapped mountains behind.

It’s really not difficult to take wonderful shots here when the scenery is so spectacular.

Camping Ground Hut Reflections

Not a breath of wind!

By this point we continue south, to where we don’t yet know but it doesn’t matter.  We are just enjoying the ride and there is only one road south.

The opportunity for more photos presented itself, however it was more of the same, albeit still stunningly beautiful.  I made the decision that we would only stop again for different scenery and forty-five minutes later this arrived.

Engan gave us rocks of greys, blues, browns diving into the again reflective waters.  When I first saw this sight my brain couldn’t comprehend what my eyes were seeing.  The scene in front of us was one of seamless rocks in an unusual shape, until I realised it was the water playing tricks on my eyes.

We asked [the universe] for different landscapes, and Norway provided these for us unlike anything I had ever seen before.  The colours had been carefully chosen from nature’s palette by the most experienced of artists.  Should anyone care to paint this scene, it would simply look too contrived.

But here in Engan we stood with jaws dropped and eyes wide, trying our best to take it all in.  It was still morning, just, and there was not a ripple of wind on the water, and the clouds above are soft and fluffy.  The day is stunning, there’s nothing to worry about here, yet.

Engan’s Rock Formations Repeated In the Still Waters Below

After a lunch stop we are on the road again and at about 4.30pm it only took ten minutes to come across more of nature’s glory, this time a roaring waterfall.  It was as though someone had turned on a fireman’s hose, the sound was deafening and the water rushing in a hurry to find the end, wherever that may be.

Another hour or so later the surrounds had changed and changed dramatically.  We knew we were heading through Saltfjellet National Park and had been climbing for a while.  However there was nothing, and I mean nothing, to give us any warning of what was to come.

We’re in the snowline, says Alan, excited to see the white around us.  We pulled over to frolic in the snow (okay we’re from the other end of the world where snow isn’t common).  We take photos of Betsy surrounded by the snow.  Gosh it’s cold outside.  About 1 degree showing on the dashboard.  It was a quick stop.  That was 5.59pm.

We continue climbing and drinking in the sights of the beautiful white snow and the barren mountain slopes.  The beautiful autumn colours were left far behind us and it was just black on white.  What a picturesque scene before us.  Until…

Six minutes later at 6.05pm we are still climbing and then it starts to snow.  Gently at first and we are pleased to have just replaced our dashcam with a better one now so we can capture the stunning scenery here in Norway.  I also capture a video on my iPhone, and the delight of seeing snow is clearly obvious in my voice.  The roads are clear and there’s no concern about driving, yet.

The next video is taken at 6.08pm when the snow is coming in heavy and just starting to land on the roads and is staying there.  The sound in my voice has a little more concern than the previous one and I say “I hope we don’t get snowed in”.

The third video is just one minute later at 6.09pm.  We are in Rokland.  My voice is quiet and I state the obvious ‘we’ve really been caught out here today’.   The road is white, Besty has slowed right down and we’re in trouble.  We don’t have winter tyres on, nor do we have chains.  We have snow ‘socks’ but there is nowhere to pull off the road to fit them.  I look at the other vehicles on the road, what few of them there are, and notice they also haven’t put on any chains.  Phew, that’s a relief.

Driving in horizontal snow is another first for us.

The weather is really closing in now, the visibility low and I am feeling concerned.  We don’t know how far we are to safety, or how long this is likely to last.  We don’t understand the weather in Norway and we’re miles from anywhere.

It defies belief that the weather conditions in 90 seconds could deteriorate so dramatically.

Watch the dash cam video to check it out for yourself then consider putting yourself in our driving seats.  For those from Europe reading this, it’s probably second nature.  But for those from Australia, or NZ, this situation is far from normal.  In particular look at the colour of the road surface at the beginning of this video then see how quickly it changes.

I have an out of body moment and hear my quivering voice saying “I’m out Alan, I’ve had enough, I can’t do this any longer”.  Then I have the thought, what do you want him to do about it Ruth?  There’s nowhere to pull over, he’s driving slowly, and there are no options right now other than to go straight ahead.  To say I’m not feeling particularly comfortable at this point in time is somewhat of an understatement.

We continue for another ten minutes.  We see a sign for a parking area.  Upon approaching this we could see it’s a steep slope of snow down to a snow-covered carpark.  We bailed on that idea, realising that if we got Betsy down there, there was no guarantee we could get her out again.

We continue forward, now travelling at just 50km/hr.  A van passes us and Alan opts to drive in his tracks giving us a smidgen more traction, or so we hope. Ahead we can see a sign saying we’ve just crossed the Arctic Circle.  We hope there are some buildings or structures and a welcoming rest area to stop.  There is a sign pointing to something but the side road is covered with virgin white snow and we are not about to turn down there.

So we plod on forward with Besty still occasionally losing traction as her feet find it difficult to hold onto the ground through the thickening snow.  Thankfully the road is straight, it’s relatively flat and Betsy holds her line as she connects again with the road and Alan keeps her pointing forward.  Again she slips and slews a little sideways.

Keeping a 3.5-ton vehicle moving forward in these conditions is no small feat.  Alan does a sterling job of man-handling Betsy and keeping her pointing straight ahead.  He also tries to keep me calm, but I know him all too well and realise he’s managing his own concerns for our safety in these conditions.

The snow has now well and truly settled on the road and it’s not going anywhere.  The temperature has dropped from 1 degree earlier to zero and the indicator on the dashboard is flashing, which means that there is a risk of ice – no kidding Sherlock!

We often talk about how the sun follows us around, how we are lucky with the weather, and whenever we ask the universe for something, like different scenery, it delivers.   Well, today it’s delivering and I make a mental note to be more specific in my future requests.

Up ahead we spied some lights.  What was it?  Is there a village there, or some sort of life?  We nudge slowly and carefully towards the lights and see a parking spot.  By now the snow is hammering into our windscreen, the wipers are on high speed, and the snow is caking where the wipers don’t reach, making an unobscured outlook for the passenger rather difficult.  I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing by this stage.

My heart is in my throat, and I don’t mind saying that I’m more than a tad scared by now. It’s made worse by the fact that I have run out of data on my internet plan.  However, that wouldn’t help in any case because we have very little mobile service up here.  No-one knows where we are and there’s no way we can call for help. Great.

I calm myself looking at our position rationally, which isn’t easy when faced with a new situation like this.  My rational mind says that we have lots of food, we had just filled with LPG at lunchtime, meaning we have heating and can cook, we have plenty of diesel, we are safe inside Betsy and we have each other.  Plus I don’t think there are Polar Bears in this part of the world.

We turn into the lit parking lot at Storforshei, especially grateful that the entry is flat and notice a building with lights on.  It’s a toilet block and the toilets in this part of the world are always heated.  Now I know why.

I look outside and can’t help but see the beauty in the scenery.  The bare sticks in front of me have snow clinging on one side from the now horizontal snow that’s hammering them.  They stand staunchly, teaching me a lesson in humility.  If they can brave it outside, then I can toughen up inside.

We park up and decide we’re not going anywhere tonight.  On the side of the road stands tall skinny red pegs that mark where the road used to be before the snows arrived.  The odd truck continues to drive on in the snow and I figure they, the Norwegians, are used to this stuff.  We, on the other hand, are not.

Heading into Betsy’s garage Alan retrieves the snow socks that we purchased in Sweden.  They are our insurance policy should we get unexpectedly caught out.  I think this situation qualifies for the inaugural snow socks outing.  Snow socks are lighter than chains, are made of a fibrous type material, and can be used to gain traction in the snow, providing one drives at no more than fifty kilometres per hour.  According to the marketing material on the outside of the packaging, these socks are designed to ‘get you home’.  I am now thankful for the €86 investment we made during the searing 31-degree summer heat.

Alan comes back into Betsy looking like a giant snowflake.  He’s covered in snow, it’s in his hair, on his shoulders, and all over his clothing.  He is also looking rather cold.  By this time the temperature had dropped to minus one and it doesn’t look like it’s about to let up any time soon.

Alan takes a wander over to the toilet block to suss it out and I start to set up the cabin to bunker down.  The heating is turned on, the blinds are lifted to cover the windows, and the front screen covers put in place.

We check out the forecasted temperatures for tomorrow and OMG!!!!  Have a guess what it says?  Go on, you can give it a guess.  Well, we are expecting to wake to a balmy minus five, tomorrow morning.  What on earth?  Minus five, do people really live in these conditions?  And what’s more, it’s due to ‘warm up’ to minus three by mid-afternoon.

My mind runs back to an earlier conversation we had with a local chap just a few days ago who said that the snow sometimes doesn’t come in until December.  December!  Not October!  Did I really hear him correctly?  Didn’t anyone tell the weatherman this news?

Then another conversation comes to mind from not one but two locals on two different occasions.  ‘We don’t mind minus ten, it’s when it gets to minus twenty or thirty that it becomes too cold.’  Really?

By now the snow has turned to rain, which possibly means that it’s warmed up outside.  If you can call it ‘warm’!

The amount of snow on the roads has visibly decreased with the help of the rain.  Alan returns from his reconnaissance trip to the bathroom and strongly suggests that we should continue driving tonight, now!  He recommends that we’re not to stay here because with the minus five conditions tomorrow, then minus six the next day, the wet snow is likely to turn to far more treacherous black ice and the roads could be closed.  The black ice is more dangerous to drive in than the option we have now.  Black ice is the name we give it when water on the road has frozen clear and becomes invisible to see.  It acts like a skating rink for cars and I don’t think Betsy would like that. 

My mind races back a couple of years ago when my sister, travelling during winter in the South Island of New Zealand, had a head-on accident with someone who skidded on black ice and wrote off their motorhome.

Local Weather Forecast For The Next Two Days!!!

I look outside and am thankful that we can actually see the tarmac on the road again.  The couple of inches of snow that had previously been hiding the road have now melted.  It’s now or never!

I agree with Alan and we make a run for it.

So the cabin gets prepared for moving, the blinds go down, the TV is put back into place, and we are bravely on the road once more. Betsy’s feet firmly connect with the now wet tarmac and she’s much happier.

Before long a truck comes up behind us, so Alan pulls over to let him go by.  Ah, following a vehicle lit up like a Christmas tree makes for much easier driving.  Although just trying to keep pace with him proves a challenge.  He’s honking.  Before long the truck is just a distant blur ahead and we’re on our own again.

The Norwegians are prolific road builders and they are constructing a new one alongside us.  Kilometre after kilometre of workmen, excavators, and dump trucks are still working away in the pitch darkness and freezing cold.  Road barriers, temporary traffic lights, diversions, and dug up roads all try to slow our progress but after coping with the snow earlier, these are mere trifles. The snow has stopped and between the roadworks, the road is actually reasonable. The seal is in good condition and the roads provide a comfortable enough width when meeting trucks coming towards us.

We slowly and safely make our way down the mountain and arrive, relieved and happy, an hour later at the small settlement of Storforshei.

We find a cheeky parking spot outside an abandoned building and gain some shelter from the elements for the night.

It’s now the following morning as I write this and we awake to the most glorious of days, the snow is now more than just a sprinkle on the hills around us.  The beauty of Mother Nature again takes our breath away as the clear blue sky shows off the fully covered mountains with her clean crispy white snow blanket.

Our day of firsts yesterday will make for a good story in our future.

In the words of a friend ‘we know we are alive’ and are happy (now) to have had this experience.

Our lesson with this new knowledge is to never attempt driving over a high mountain range in the late afternoon if there is a risk of snowfall.  We just need to be a little more mindful of the elements and how vulnerable we can be.

When Is The Aurora Borealis In Norway?

When Is The Aurora Borealis In Norway?

by Ruth Murdoch  |  September 2018  | Tromsø, Norway

When is the Aurora Borealis in Norway?

It is with an air of anticipation, our fingers crossed, and a belief that we have the best luck in the world when it comes to all things weather related, that we head towards Norway in an attempt to fulfill my lifelong dream, to see the Aurora Borealis in person.

We drive into Norway from northern Finland and realise that we really have struck the jackpot by arriving in Norway on a perfect day.  The best part was that we didn’t actually plan for any specific date.  Whilst many said “it’s far too early in the season to see the Northern Lights in September“, other sources (the ones we chose to believe), said they could appear as early as mid-September.  We have a tight window of opportunity due to our need to avoid the winter snows, which can arrive as early as October.  Our motorhome has summer tyres and no chains, therefore, finding ourselves ‘stuck’ in the winter conditions must be avoided at all costs.

So we proceed into Norway leaving the doubters in our dust, hoping to prove them wrong.

What is the Aurora Borealis?

Also known as the Northern Lights, or Polar Lights, the magical Aurora Borealis are actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere. The lights can, in the right circumstances, be seen above and close too the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres.

The Southern Lights are the Southern Hemisphere’s equivalent to the Northern Lights and given the right conditions, these can be seen in the far south of New Zealand’s South Island.  I never had the pleasure of viewing these in NZ and Norway has always been my first choice of location to experience this natural phenomenon.

Planning our Trip

The entire reason for coming to Norway is to see the Aurora Borealis.  Anything and everything else would be a bonus.  This amazing night-time spectacle has been on my bucket list since before bucket lists were invented.  I’d seen photos of the Aurora Borealis somewhere along my life’s journey and I may have possibly seen a documentary about them, narrated by David Attenborough (who else?) at some point over the years.

Just those words the “Aurora Borealis” still puts butterflies in my tummy with excitement and anticipation.  For many years I couldn’t even get my tongue around the words Aurora Borealis, let alone try to spell it.  Thank goodness it was also known as The Northern Lights, which is much easier to say.  Whenever someone mentioned the words Aurora Borealis I was suitably impressed, thinking they must be highly educated to be able to pronounce such complicated words. And if they could spell them, well, I was uber impressed.  Here’s a little help for your pronunciation practice, should you need it. Aurora (Ah – Raw – Ah) and Borealis (Bore Ree Alice).  Easy eh???

So, is it possible to see the northern lights in September in Norway?

The short answer is “not usually”.

In fact, an Australian lady I recently met on our travels in Finland scoffed at me when I mentioned we were on our way to Norway to see the lights.  She informed me that she and her husband flew to Norway in February (the height of the Aurora season) on a guaranteed Northern Lights tour.  They stayed there for two weeks, braved the snow and below freezing conditions, and ventured out every night on guided tours.  Did she see the elusive lights?  No, no, NO!

Eek, perhaps I’ve over-estimated my expectations to see these elusive creatures in the off-season!

However, we somehow tend to have the luck of the Irish when it comes to these things, and other weather-related matters.

Alan, my husband, found a free app called ‘My Aurora Forecast’, which provides excellent information on the probability of seeing an Aurora, based on a particular location.  The most important factor is something called Kp.

So what is a Kp I hear you ask?

Turning to Google (because I’m not a scientist) for the official answer, here’s what I found.

“The Kp number is a system of measuring aurora strength.  It goes from 0 to 9 (0 being very weak, 9 being a major geomagnetic storm with strong auroras visible).

So when looking at the aurora forecast we want to see high numbers, and the higher the better.  Anything above (and including) Kp5 is classed as a geomagnetic storm.

Coming from the German words “Planetarische Kennziffer”, Kp is better known in English as the planetary index.” 

I hope that bit of insight helps.

Arriving into Norway

The date is Monday 17th September 2018 and we have just driven in dark gloomy conditions from northern Finland, to reach Norway.  You can imagine our delight to be bathed in sunshine as we poke our nose into Norway.  It felt like we’d just shed not only northern Finland’s cold winter coat but had also left the rain and an overcast day in our wake.  The autumn colours are once again stunning; the sun is shining on the still waters of the lakes, which reflect the fluffy clouds from the skies above. There is a small stirring deep inside of us that we might have some good days ahead.

 

The Still Water Reflects Fluffy Clouds

Stunning Autumn Colours In Norway

We check the Aurora app and are delighted to see the Kp is showing 4 for tonight!  Wow, 4! that’s awesome.  Not only that but the forecast cloud cover tonight is minimal.  Finding a prime location is the next agenda item.

We head into the township of Tromsø where I spied a ‘Light Tour’ shop and called in to glean some information.  Their Aurora hunting tours cost $1800 NOK per person including dinner cooked on an open fire and hot drinks.  So we decide to keep the €189 x 2 to ourselves and ask for advice on the best places to see the lights.  Knowing it was a bit cheeky we were surprised that the lovely lady happily showed us, on her enlarged wall map, exactly where she rates the best light viewing place around Tromsø.  It’s about a 45-minute drive away and includes, on the way, the perfect stop to watch the autumn sunset.

So we’re off to watch the sunset first and then to find the lights (hopefully).

 

A Rare Perfect Norwegian Sunset

The sunset spot was near Ersfjordbotn (GPS coordinates for those wanting to follow are 69.6966, 18.6327).  We found the perfect elevated rock with a view directly between the two headlands running down to the sea.  Between the tips of the headlands was a small stretch of water and the sun was already sliding down towards the awaiting horizon.  A lovely Dutch couple, who have made Norway their home, already occupied our chosen rock however they were happy to share.  They informed us that the sun setting on the water exactly in between the two headlands only happens two or three days per year!  Then factor in that those days need to coincide with fine weather and you realise to actually see this happen is a fairly rare occurrence.

Well, someone is looking down on us and smiling because we shared this perfect sunset experience with our new Dutch friends.

A Rare Sight of The Sun Setting Between The Headlands

Next we were off to find our vantage point for the lights, which our app was now indicating are likely to be showing tonight, yay.  Our Dutch friends tell us that they have only seen the lights once so far this season and they too are off to watch them with their friends.

 

The Elusive Aurora Borealis

We pulled into the parking area at Grøtfjord (69.7745, 18.5270), some 18 minutes, or 15.4 kilometres of narrow, lumpy, bumpy, windy roads later.  Arriving unscathed, despite having to reverse to allow a truck to pass us at one point, we parked up and cooked dinner while waiting.

We didn’t have to wait long.  Dinner wasn’t even finished being scoffed when Alan poked his head out of the motorhome and…

Guess what…

“THEY’RE HERE!!!!  RUTH, COME OUT AND SEE, THE LIGHTS ARE HERE!”

YES, to all those non-believers, WE SAW THE AURORA BOREALIS IN SEPTEMBER IN NORWAY! WOOHOO!

My heart jumps into my throat and I hold back tears of joy.  I can’t believe I am here, in Norway, seeing the most amazing scene right before my very eyes.  I’ve waited my whole life for this moment and I watch stunned in awe.  If I was to think back as a child, seeing the Aurora Borealis in Norway – well, words just don’t even start to convey what I’m feeling at this point in time.

To my delight the lights danced mystically around the sky for hours, swaying backwards and forwards, changing colour from light green to darker green, one moment they are streaking upwards, the next they are moving horizontally and low across the sky.  They would fade, then strengthen and swirl around once again.  It was difficult to stop watching in case something spectacular was about to show itself, and it never disappointed.  The night sky was alive and here we are in Norway watching, transfixed by this phenomenon.

Alan had his camera and tripod out immediately and through trial and error found the right settings to get some great shots of the action going on upstairs.  My iPhone could not even start to compete with a good quality camera in capturing Mother Nature at her best.

We continued to stand outside, in the cold 2-degree temperatures, all rugged up, our eyes peeled skyward and mesmerised for hours by this exhibition.  The cold seemed to be secondary to our excitement until we suddenly realise we can’t feel our toes anymore.

Upon reading this, it may seem quite normal that someone can just turn up in Norway and see the lights.  However, there are three things that must coincide for a good viewing experience.  The first is a reasonably high Kp number, preferably 4 or above (the further you are from the poles, the higher the Kp needs to be), the second is a clear night with minimal clouds, and thirdly, darkness, which means sometime around the winter months and away from light pollution as well as late in the evening.  Tonight we were in luck and it was probably a one in a hundred coincidence that it happened for us.  Oh and did I tell you, it’s September!  Lol.

The Aurora Borealis ARE Here, In Norway, In September!

Us Enjoying The Light Show, Check Out The Shooting Star To The Top Left

Even Betsy, Our Motorhome, Gets To Enjoy The Auroras

Click on these to enlarge the photos

Aurora in Finland

Not to rub it in or anything, but we were actually treated to a short sneak preview three nights earlier (Friday 14th September) in Finland!  We couldn’t believe our luck then either.

It was 11.30pm and we were tucked up nice and warm in bed when Alan announces the Aurora app suggested a 33% chance of seeing the Aurora NOW with a Kp score of 4.  Sceptical and not understanding what a Kp of 4 really meant back then, we climbed out of bed, clad ourselves in multiple warm layers of clothing and braved the low single digit temperatures outside.  We looked skyward and couldn’t believe what was right in front of our eyes, the Aurora Borealis, here now, in bright green colours, bopping across the entire sky for our viewing pleasure.  Wow, wow, wow was all that come out of my mouth.

Mesmerised by the beauty of Mother Nature I was leaping out of my skin with joy.  The butterflies in my tummy had taken flight and I was jumping around with them.  This was real, this was the actual Aurora Borealis and I am here, in the flesh watching this show.  I needed to pinch myself.  Being here, watching the magic unfold before my very eyes is everything and more than I expected and hoped for.  This experience heightens every sensory element of ones being.  You feel your feet firmly planted on the soil of this safe and inviting foreign country and feel privileged to be here, you look skyward while Mother Nature is inviting you to her most rehearsed show on earth, your body tingles with joy and you hope with every fibre of your being that it lasts and lasts while you drink in her glory.  It is one of those things that you must just experience in person yourself.  Oh, how fortunate am I?

What’s more is I am in Rovaniemi, Finland, watching this for the first time.  We hadn’t even reached Norway and I had no expectation of seeing the Auroras on this particular evening, but here they were, the Auroras eager to show off and eager to be seen by us.  WHAT A TREAT!

The display of dancing lights however only lasted for a few minutes before fading away.  Half an hour later a second fainter aurora appeared, which showed up well on the camera but was less obvious to the naked eye.

Therefore we were very thankful for the longer display of stunning lights as showed to us in Norway, in September.  Plus thankful that Alan had time to experiment with his camera settings.

Aurora in Finland

Aurora in Finland Taken on iPhone (not recommended)

In Summary

So, when can you see the Aurora Borealis in Norway?  Well, the official word, according to me, is that the Aurora Borealis CAN, in fact, be seen in September and not only in Norway.  Finland can also provide a lovely display.

However, if you want the best chance to see this magical show the main season to view the Aurora Borealis in Norway is from October to March.

So don’t wait any longer, elevate the Aurora Borealis on your bucket list, and make it a priority to book your trip up here to experience this sensational spectacular for yourself.  You won’t be disappointed.