“In Europe, 100 miles is a long distance. In USA a 100 year is a long time.” this saying cannot be truer when travelling in Russia. That is to say, you better get used to heart-dropping road signs that say ‘Moscow 1290km’ or a bum-numbing declaration of ‘Murmansk 907km’ when you’ve already raced up the country for over 1000 km in the last two days. This is the price one must pay when one is a member of the Northern Light Hunters Club, such as ourselves. Membership count: two.
My first knowledge of the magical aurora borealis was in my teenage years when I devoured Philip Pullman’s His Dark Material trilogy. The books are set in the cold far North, comprising of ‘daemons’, ‘Gobblers’ and a magical element called ‘Dust’, it left me with plenty of opportunity to imagine how this fairy-tale like light would look like. Now I finally have the opportunity to, possibly, maybe catch this natural electrical phenomenon. You can only imagine my excitement.
But let us not forget part of the excitement is the anticipation. The ride up to Murmansk from Crimea, around 3625km, was more than anyone’s fair share of a build-up, especially when the scenery only started to get interesting in the second half of the journey (once we were on Snoopy’s face when looking at a map). Then another two hour drive further onto Teriberka. Let me put this into perspective, if you will let me muse myself, just so I can do the days of driving justice. This ride is the equivalent of going from the Mediterranean Sea to the most northern tip of Finland. It is true, we stopped in Moscow for a few days but let’s glaze over that for fear of spoiling the dramatic effect of the previous sentence. Back to the drive. The further north we went the closer the sculpted mountains became, and soon we were surrounded by an army of vegetation and were crossing pools of lakes and rivers. Amongst the green, splashes of yellow, auburn and red scattered the earth that was radiating the colours of autumn. A google for some autumn poems gives me the opportunity to recall one to you by Emily Dickinson (Dickenson, E. (1896). The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Series One – Nature, Poem 28: Autumn):
In fact, we donned on several trinkets as the quest for northern lights has no place for the scantily bedecked.
Teriberka is an old fishing village on the Barents Sea coast. It is a rather strange and eerie place. There is perhaps one hotel and a handful of structures that barely qualify as a building and the rest is either ship-wrecks, rows of sea containers, that people seem to use as either storage or shopfront, or empty derelict constructions. After a successful Russian film being set there, it is apparently trying to become a tourist attraction, but what I can say is, it is definitely not there yet.
After finding a sweet spot near the rocky coast we set up shop, crossed our fingers and waited for the night sky. It was like watching paint dry. After a while, as is often the case when one waits for something spectacular to happen with great anticipation, we started imagining things. In general, I am more prone to giving up than my better half, so I was losing patience by the hour. My weak optimism gave way to a fact, that I had not faced until that moment, that it’s very circumstantial and conditional to be a witness to this phenomenon and all our efforts could be in vain. A glass or two of wine later my grumpy disposition was cured. As I looked out of the car window, once again, my eye sight started to get blurry, so I thought. In fact, it was the clouds clearing and the green lights coming through.
I will attempt to describe what we saw. It was as if someone dipped the tip of a wet paintbrush in absinthe green and grew a wavy line across a piece of black rice paper. Following the flow of water along the fibres of the paper, the green ink spreads up and down the line giving it a hazy impression. Before we could blink, and we made sure we did not, the green grew brighter and brighter and the haziness became more animated. If someone asked me to imagine a chain of green fairies, with their fluttering wings, dancing across a sky as they hold each other’s hands, then what we witnessed came very close to that. These words really do not do this marvel justice and it was probably a prelude of a more intense experience during winter when the sky is darker and less cloudy. Nevertheless, it is a miracle witnessed.