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Chasing Lights in Iceland

Dancing Lights: Experiencing the Aurora Borealis

ICELAND | Thursday, 8 May 2014 | Views [150] | Scholarship Entry

I had heard it said that the northern lights dance, illuminating the sky, moving to a music of their own. I had heard this, often nestled into examples of personification from English classes—good, solid examples, but nothing in the photos I had seen prepared me for the celestial display.

For three nights we had been trying to see the Aurora Borealis, and for three nights we had to resign ourselves to defeat, as each night the Aurora Forecast was decidedly dismal, with Grade 0 activity and a pervasive cloud covering. We had one more night in Iceland, one night to capture the lights on film, a gift I had promised to family and friends, and when we drove 40 miles outside of Reykjavík that night, we were armed. I toted our Nikon with its wide-angle lens, a tripod, and remote. My husband carried hand warmers, extra scarves, and a hat.

It was dark, and the further we drove from the city lights, the more vast the sky became. We could see millions of stars, and I grew excited. The forecast was promising, with Grade 2 activity and minimal cloud coverage.

Along with around 100 other people, we trudged out onto an icy field backing a farm. It was strangely hushed, as though our voices had any bearing on the sky, although periodically flashes and voices punctuated our steps. Louis and I slipped across the field catching one another and trying to keep the camera in the air until we reached a location near fenced-in sheep.

We set up the camera, aiming at the horizon, ready to capture the lights with a long exposure, fingers poised over the clicker. This was it; we were ready, and so we clung to each other, not quite giving the sky our full attention. Over the course of three hours our noses froze, and every time we made a movement we were forced to grasp at each other for footing.

And then we saw the lights. They came slowly, barely there at first, a smudge of green against the black. We feared that our eyes were playing tricks on us. Hazy and translucent, they shimmered, gaining strength in their movement—dancers realizing that they knew the song, the steps. They began to crescendo, building until their colors reached their zenith, the lights weaving through the sky, a brilliant maypole ribbon keeping tempo with our breath.

We snapped some photos, but as I watched those lights I understood why so much mythology had built around them, why artists strive to capture their path, and I realized that no amount of photography training could ever contain their dance.

Tags: 2014 Travel Writing Scholarship - Euro Roadtrip

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