The Northern Lights would be better if you didn’t have to visit the damn Arctic Circle to see them.

They’re a phenomenon that’s dazzled Iceland’s insomniacs for millennia.
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the northern lights
Photo by @Amy Crosby

The Northern Lights—long regarded as the Holy Grail of nighttime skywatching—are an atmospheric phenomenon that happens all the time. Yet, this natural wonder isn't easy to see because you need to be at the right place, at the right time. One of those right places is Iceland, and one of those right times is . Despite those deal-breaking impediments, some friends coerced us into going anyway.

northern lights
A professional shot of the Northern Lights by @S. E. Liland

Iceland puts the north in the Northern Lights.

aurora borealis at night
Another good photo @T. Bjørkli

Nobody goes to Iceland during the winter—Iceland's coldest and snowiest seasonunless they're going to see the Northern Lights. I mean, you'd have to be out of your mind to fly almost to the Arctic Circle just for a few Icelandic hot dogs (although, they are pretty amazing).

Instead, almost everybody heads out into the freezing Icelandic tundra to wait around for hours, hoping to witness Earth's most-impressive late-night cosmic light-show. All so they can brag about it to friends, just like I'm doing right now. Frankly, it disgusts me.

What to do during Iceland's near total daytime darkness.

The roads in town were plowed.

Rather than trying to drive around Iceland's icy roads in the dark and dead of winter, we booked a tour that guaranteed we'd see the northern lights. If we didn't see the lights on this tour, they claimed, we could go on a tour again the next night. In fact, we could keep going until we either saw the lights, we flew home, or the company went broke—it was a ballsy business model, to say the least.

We scheduled the tour for our first night in Iceland figuring, if it was too cloudy to see anything, we'd be able to try again a few more times. This was a tip we learned on YouTube, and it turned out to be prescient.

While we waited for night to fall—at all of 3:30pm—we did a number of Things To Do in Reykjavík.

Our first Northern Lights attempt wasn't stellar.

van tour to Northern Lights

At the scheduled time, we arrived at our pick-up spot on 's main street and waited for the tour bus. It was yet another freezing night but, anticipating these conditions, we'd worn heavy clothes. Unfortunately, we'd arrived a bit early, and the bus showed up a bit late. Very late, in fact—like 45 minutes late. So we were standing out in the bitter cold for over an hour

Where TF are we? Oh, right, black beach.

Better yet, when our bus finally did arrive, its heat was out. Eshewing this necessary component of comfort, our driver pressed on. He drove out to a part of Iceland so dark and remote that I half expected him to rob and abandon us there.

Luckily, Icelanders are too nice to do that, or even think of doing that. They're almost Canadian in that regard. In regard to bus maintenance, evidently, they're more Italian.

Does that road look icy?

Seeing the Northern Lights is always a crap shoot.

bus to see Northern Lights
The fv%&ing heat in our bus didn't work.

Our driver eventually pulled off the road and stopped in a snowy, unplowed parking lot. He opened the door and hopped outside, looking skyward for any sign of the northern lights. Meanwhile, we sat inside the unheated bus—with its door wide open—slowly lapsing into hypothermia.

The cloud cover never cleared, so the driver finally gave up and drove us back to the city to lick our wounds and thaw our extremities. Through chattering teeth, we made plans to return the following night to try again. Ideally, on a bus with a functioning HVAC system.

Northern Lights bus
A representative image of our second, full-size tour bus.

Attempt number two went somewhat better.

bus interior
Our second bus was far more comfortable.

We got lucky the second night when a full-size tour bus showed up for us. (Late again, naturally.) Its more comfortable seats and heated interior made the long drive out of town a lot more bearable. The night was again cloudy, but our new guide assured us that he “knew a place.” Surely, this time, we thought, he would rob and abandon us.

After a period of time, the driver turned off the and drove up an icy side-road. We proceeded up a gradual, icy hill until it became apparent that the bus didn't have enough traction to make it all the way to the top. He would have to turn around. 

Ahead of us, the road split into two, providing enough pavement for the driver to attempt a three-point turn. After a few failed attempts, the driver realized turning the enormous vehicle was three-pointless. With no other recourse, he decided to back the bus down the side-road.

bus driver seeking the Northern Lights
Our bus drove us up an icy, uphill road. It did not go well.

That's right. Our bus full of foreign tourists on a dark, icy road in the hinterlands of Iceland began backing down a road into oncoming traffic.

Is cannibalism so wrong?

It was the cliché beginning of a horrific (and then a horrific movie starring Timothée Chalamet) about how all the passengers resorted to cannibalism to survive.

But, just as we were all mentally determining who to eat first, a passenger cried out, “I can see them! I can see the Northern Lights!” And so it was decided—we would kill that guy last.

We finally get to see those much-lauded lights.

Ignoring our hunger pangs, we exited the bus en masse and stood in awe of nature's majesty and grandeur for a hot second. Then everyone whipped out their iPhones to capture the scene for “likes.”

My DSRL, circa 2011.

Ever the artiste, I hastily set up my trusty Nikon D90 and tripod in a snow bank and proceeded to capture numerous high-resolution, long-exposures that were—to an image—painfully out of focus. I'd schlepped all my camera gear all the way to the Arctic Circle and had come away with nothing usable to show for it.

My wife, on the other hand, used her iPhone 14's automatic mode to capture the tightly focused, perfectly exposed image you see below, forever preserving the experience for posterity and bragging rights.

Photo @Amy (My wife's stupid in-focus shot.)

Regardless of who took “better” photos—it wasn't a competition, Amy!—the Northern Lights were a far sight better than any other Earth-bound light show I'd ever seen, either drunk or sober. And so it became immediately apparent why early humans were so confused and confounded by these dark displays.

Ancient peoples were either very imaginative. Or very dumb.

valkyries
Valkyrie image @Emil Doepler

During our long bus ride to nowhere, our guide tried to entertain us. He told us that, according to Old Norse legend, the aurora borealis was actually female Valkyries guiding the souls of the dead to Valhalla. (Valhalla is a majestic hall located in Asgard, presided over by the Norse god, Odin—aka, Anthony Hopkins with an eye-patch.)

The Ancient Romans, by comparison, thought this celestial spectacle was the appearance of Aurora, goddess of the dawn. She reportedly traveled from east to west every day, announcing the arrival of the sun. Unfortunately, during a global recession (aka, the Dark Ages), Aurora was laid off and her job was outsourced to cheaper roosters.

beautiful fairy in white dress
Huldufólk @Tú Nguyễn

Of course, most modern Icelanders believe the Northern Lights are caused by the Huldufólk (or “hidden folk”), supernatural beings who live in a parallel universe. And the aurora borealis is just them urinating all over the sky in our universe. The Huldufólk are, apparently, a-holes.

Magnificent CME Erupts on the Sun - August 31
Coronal mass ejection @NASA | CC-BY 2.0

The Northern Lights are evidence of the Sun's ongoing war against Earth.

killer sun cartoon
“I will destroy all those free-loading planets using my gravity without paying!”

More recently, scientists developed a less myth-based explanation for the appearance of the aurora borealis. The Northern Lights, they discovered, are actually our bastard Sun's covert attempt to murder our planet, and every living creature on it—including us!

painting of red planet
Photo of the Sun @Pixabay

The Northern Lights result from the Sun's frequent and violent ejection of its and accompanying plasma mass. Basically, the sun is firing energized particles towards Earth at speeds of up to 45 million miles per hour. That's faster than bullets or ICBMs, and more deadly than both, combined

Luckily, our planet's magnetic field protects us from the sun's unceasing onslaught. By diverting the Sun's deadly ejaculates away toward Earth's northern and magnetic poles, all life on Earth is spared from annihilation—well, so far, at least.

Like the rockets' red glare, the Northern Lights gave proof through the night that humanity was still there.

Disastrously, Earth's magnetic field is weakening 10X faster now, so you might want to see the Northern Lights before the increasing levels of ultraviolet radiation give you keratinocyte cancer as a souvenir.

The Northern Lights have been dazzling Iceland's insomniacs for millennia.

Despite my well-documented disdain for cold climates, seeing the Northern Lights was nonetheless a real thrill.

Those dancing ribbons of light were a pretty wild phenomenon that, much like the phallic terrain of Cappadocia, would look even more mind-blowing on hallucinogenics. (I mean, I assume—I don't do drugs, myself.) Even unintoxicated, however, the Northern Lights are worth the cold and cost. But just barely.

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