Sunday, December 15, 2013

The House Always Wins

OK, so let's get this out there right away: I didn't see the Aurora Borealis while I was in Iceland this past week. My $2,000 gamble didn't pay off. I'll have to try again some other time. And no doubt I will someday, whether it be in Iceland or somewhere else. I'll get to see the Northern Lights eventually, even if I have to station myself somewhere for a month or so and do nothing else but look at the sky every evening. But that's a long way away in all likelihood.

I usually do a fairly good job of setting my expectations at a realistic level for something like finding the Northern Lights where there are so many variables in play which are totally out of my control: the right solar conditions, the right temperature and clear skies are definitely conditions which I cannot even influence in any way. And so when I boarded my flight at Dulles Airport Tuesday night I was prepared for failure and the disappointment that would bring. I knew picking such a short window of time meant everything would have to fall into place perfectly.

My itinerary for this trip included only a three night stay and I knew the first night was probably a loss because I would surely just pass out early that day due to the lack of sleep on the overnight flight Tuesday evening. But Wednesday's activities brought a glimmer of hope. I took a whale watching trip that day just after noon (or since we didn't see any whales, it was basically just a boat trip). While looking hopelessly at the Atlantic Ocean for anything resembling a whale, we met Steve from the Isle of Sheppey in England and his wife, Anna, from Belarus (by Steve's own admission a total eastern European mail order bride scenario but it worked out - they just celebrated their tenth anniversary).

Steve and Anna had seen the Aurora Borealis two nights before just outside of Reykjavik. I had a chance between not seeing whales to check out the pictures Steve had taken and hope that I would have a chance to capture some similar images. The Northern Lights usually appear in pictures as mostly green and yellow waves of particles across the sky and Steve's pictures looked substantially similar to those posted on Northern Lights tour websites. But his account of seeing the Lights in person differed from his photographs. While his pictures showed a lot of green in the sky, he described only white lights, explaining that he was told to take photographs using an eight second exposure on his camera which would produce the signature colors of the Lights. I never really thought those photographs were taken as anything more than a single quick shutter click, but I'll surely remember Steve's story if I ever do get to experience it myself. I went to bed that night cautiously optimistic. I kept the curtains in my room open just in case the sky lit up in the night (it didn't).

Special Tours: Not so special last Thursday night.
The first thing I did the next morning when I got up was to check the Aurora Forecast on the Icelandic Meteorological Office's webpage. While not ideal, the forecast showed the possibility of some clear skies later that evening just west of Reykjavik, meaning over the ocean. Fortunately, I had scheduled a night Northern Lights by Boat tour that night as part of my vacation package so maybe there would be some hope. I set out on a most of the day bus tour to Iceland's Golden Circle with my fingers crossed that I'd get a break that night.

The Golden Circle is composed of three natural sites: Lake Thingvellir, a site of historical and geological importance to the Icelanders; Gullfoss, a 100 foot high waterfall; and Geysir, one of the first geysers ever to be discovered (and the namesake for all those that followed). The scenery was incredible but the tour got back a little late, so we took a cab downtown to get some dinner in plenty of time to catch our boat. Excitedly, we asked the cab driver if she thought we would see the Northern Lights on our tour. The answer was a flat "no, it's not cold enough." And if that didn't dash my hopes enough, they were killed when we got to the very imaginatively named "Special Tours" company office and found out the tour had been cancelled due to windy conditions. Better safe than sorry I guess but there went one of my two chances.

Gazing hopelessly up at the Iceland sky Friday night.
So then it was down to Friday, my last day in Iceland and my last shot at the Aurora Borealis. Friday gave me the best shot at a spectacular sighting because I planned to get out of Reykjavik and away from the city's light pollution. But after a long drive out of town, a few hours strolling around a glacier and a quick traditional Icelandic meal, our tour guides declared the sky too cloudy and there was no way would see the Lights that night. Strike three. I was out. No Northern Lights. Not on this trip.

I'm glad I went to Iceland, even if the primary reason for me going never panned out. The country is beautiful and I'm glad my introduction to the place occurred in mid-December. I really did keep the hotel room curtains open all three nights I was in country in hopes that I would wake up at some point in the night to a fantastic light show. It never happened and my disappointment was honestly almost palpable. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I am committed to try again. It may not be soon and it may not be in Iceland but I'll be back to look up at the night sky again someday.

Iceland's night sky, Friday December 13, 2013. Yes, this is a real photograph.

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