Of all the natural wonders that draw visitors to Iceland like a magnet, the Northern Lights were at the top of the list for me. Not only was winter an appealing time cost-wise, the dark and clear night skies between September and March provide the best chance at catching Aurora Borealis in action. As soon as the sun went down our first night, my neck was perpetually craned upwards in hopes that we would be so lucky.
The tiny town of Hella provided a convenient overnight stop to break up the 450 km trip from the sea-side town of Höfn back to Reykjavik. We settled on Árhús, which offered a series of cabins along the shores of the Ranga River with a decidedly summer camp vibe.
Walking back to our cabin from a late dinner at the on-site restaurant, we notice another guest hurriedly setting up a tripod and camera. My breath caught in my throat as we pick up the pace towards the clearing over the river next to our cabin, hoping beyond hope that this was the night.
A brief note on the deceptive nature of the camera lens when attempting to capture dancing light in the dark:
Most of our hope in photographing the Northern Lights rested on Chelsea and her Panasonic Lumix camera. After fiddling with all of the necessary aperture, shuttle speed and ISO settings, our first attempts looked like green aliens had just touched down next door. It quickly became clear that immortalizing the beauty of the aurora in picture form (in a realistic way) was an art I wasn’t going to master that night. In hindsight, I wish I had set the camera down sooner and spent more time soaking in the moment.
The Northern Lights have held a special spiritual meaning for cultures around the world, many believing that the aurora was home to the spirits of loved ones lost. According to Viking legend, the lights were said to be reflections from the Valkyries, maidens whose shimmering armour, helmets and spears could be seen as they galloped across the night sky ushering fallen soldiers to the mythic halls of Valhalla.
Starring up at the hauntingly beautiful light display above us the lines between myth and reality certainly felt more blurred, and heaven a little closer to earth.
PRACTICAL TIPS FOR THE WANDERING SOUL
Many tour companies advertise Northern Light tours for upwards of $300/night for little more than dinner and a drive away from the glow of the city lights. Although darker skies certainly increase your chances of seeing the phenomena, on a clear night the Aurora Borealis can actually be seen dancing directly over Reykjavik. I would only recommend booking a tour if this was cheaper than renting a car yourself.
We stayed at Árhús — affordable by comparison to other accommodations in the area, and located just off the main Route 1 at the roundabout in Hella. They also boast one of the better restaurant options in the area. Two words: ‘Slummy Burger‘.