My Secret Trip to Iceland - Aurora Chasing

Hallgrímskirkja Church, Reykjavík, Iceland
Sun Circle at Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavík

Earlier this year, I took a secret trip to Iceland to chase the Northern Lights. I tried to see them once before about 5 years ago and I have been casually obsessed off and on with experiencing this unique phenomenon. I have several tracking apps and every time the Kp Index jumps or the view line heads close to where I am I try to see them.

How to pack for Iceland, REI pack, REI Trail 40
I like to pack light. :)

I went to Iceland to chase the Auroras, sure, but I also went because I love it there. I know Iceland is THE hot spot right now with stellar flight deals and lots of great press but I had no idea how much change I would find since the last time I visited. I visited in 2012, and then again in 2013 for a trip inside a volcano. From the first day of my first trip, my love of Iceland was already in full bloom.

This secret trip happened pretty last minute and I decided to keep it a secret for a number of reasons that I probably won't share. But I will say that it was part personal experiment. I wanted to see if I could do it, keep an international trip to myself in a world where sharing is currency. Suffice to say that it was an experience in this day and age to keep a trip secret and not share until now. No social media posting before or during the trip. No one asking about it while I was away or when I got back. No projections being heaped onto me. The external pressures were silent. I won't lie, it was bliss.

As with any unicorn experience, I knew there was a high likelihood that I wouldn't catch any auroras at all, just like last time. But I had hope. The yogi in me starting setting some non-attached intentions. I started tracking my apps on the daily to see the projected forecasts, the cloud cover over Iceland and future solar storms (the reason we end up with this beautiful phenomenon) and I also changed to laptop background to a stunning aurora picture (no joke).

The week before my trip, Reykjavik got slammed with snow and even had one of the highest snow falls on record two days before I arrived. But somehow, all of the days I would be there showed a nice little sun icon and I started to get excited. I tempered my excitement of course with non-attachment but I started to feel like it might happen. Then the Kp Index (aurora strength & visibility) started to rise. The highest spike being the day before I arrived and the day I would arrive. I could hardly contain myself but I still knew it was no guarantee.

As any aurora hunter will tell you, they are an unpredictable natural event. There are no guarantees, EVER. I decided to book a "Northern Lights Tour" for the night of the day I arrived (before I saw the Kp index had started to rise). I figured this would give me the best chance of seeing them because if I didn't see them that night, I could go out every other night of my trip. In fact, many tour companies that run northern lights tours suggest booking for your first night and offer a second night free if you don't see the lights. I've never seen a policy like this for any other type of tour across the world. It is kind of awesome. My arrival was at 4:35 am, so I figured I would have plenty of time to take a nap before my pickup between 8:30 and 9:00 pm that night.

For this particular trip I flew WOW Airlines, the low cost Icelandic carrier. (Previous flights were on Icelandair). My flight cost was under $300.00 USD, so I really couldn't pass it up when I saw it. I knew going in that it is a bare bones cheap airline and I was prepared for extra costs but I still paid less than 300. WOW charges for carry-on baggage and for checked baggage and the fees are high in comparison to other carriers. They even charge for water on the plane. Everything is extra. So be prepared. If you are prepared, read up and plan ahead you will have a good experience with them. Another thing to note is that they board their planes early!

WOW Airlines, WOW, Iceland

My experience on the plane could be it's own separate post but I'll share it  here instead. I was seated at the window next to two upper middle aged women who got pretty boozy before the flight, brought their own alcohol on the plane and proceeded to get loud and hammered until they passed out. The flight from Boston Logan to Keflavík International is not long. 4.5 - 5 hours depending on the winds. Needless to say I didn't get much sleep even though I boarded and then immediately put my eye-cover on and earplugs in.

About two hours into the flight, about 1 hour into my very disturbed sleep, I was jolted awake. I had been dreaming about the northern lights, or at least I think I was. Since I was now randomly wide awake, I decided to start looking out the window. WOW kept the lights in the cabin on the whole flight and not just the ethereal dim lights, it seemed as though the cabin lights were full blast. This made my outside view a little difficult, as did the blinking light on the wing which I was conveniently seated over. I cupped my hands around my eyes and face like blinders and started scanning the sky. As I mentioned I had monitored the forecast pretty heavily in the preceding days and knew that if the conditions were right I had a pretty high likelihood of seeing them from the plane. So I stared out the window, eyes peeled like a child waiting for Disneyland to come into view.

Then it happened. 

I saw a faint white looking cloud, but then it started to shift, I felt my heart skip, is that it? Is that it? I had no one to turn to to check in with, so I kept watching, thinking that my eyes were playing tricks on me. The conversation inside my head went something like this. "I see something! No, that can't be it, is it? That cloud is definitely moving. No it isn't, your eyes are playing with you...are you even awake right now or is this a dream? Just keep watching maybe something will happen. Nothing is happening. I must look like an idiot with my nose pressed up against this window. I wonder why no one else is looking out the window... I see it, I see it! " 

The faint clouds I saw a few minutes earlier, unmistakably started to move and change color. I couldn't believe it. I wanted to tell the whole plane but instead I crushed my nose further into the the window and tried to contain my excitement. The only way I can describe what I saw is that it looked like when you pick up sand on a windy day at the beach and release your hand and watch the sand spiral and fly away in a diagonal line down to the ground. It was sort of like that, except green and much more interesting. It truly was otherworldly.

About 20 minutes into my viewing, the captain came on the loudspeaker and announced it. If we had been on a boat, it would have capsized due to the movement to one side. They shut off the lights for about 15 minutes so people could get a view. Cameras came out, seats were leaned over, the excitement was palpable. I was so happy to have a window seat! Since my two seat mates were passed out, literally, I didn't have anyone looking over my shoulder which meant I could stay hands cupped around my eyes looking out for as long as I felt like it. I was so happy!

Even after the lights came back on and everyone settled down, I continued to watch and caught some really awesome views. I took a few pics with my phone but they are as you would expect, they barely came out (below). Once they seemed to drift off and stop, I still had a hard time looking away. The conversation in my head continued, elated, slightly in disbelief and a healthy dose of gratitude. Even if I didn't see them the rest of the trip I had still finally seen them!

(See next post for more pictures!) 

Northern Lights, Auroras, Plane Auroras

Northern Lights, Auroras