Monday, February 17, 2014

Moment of a Lifetime - the Aurora Borealis

So when we booked this trip, I'm going to say the big decision in leaving the warmth of Barcelona for the freezing cold of Iceland was not just for the beauty of this island but for the opportunity for us to see the Northern Lights/Aurora Borealis.  Given Iceland's geographical location and the time of year, we figured we stood a pretty good chance that we would see the lights.  And to be honest, I think if we missed them, I was likely going to cry knowing that it was unlikely we would ever have reason to come back to Iceland again.

We booked the tour thru a company that a friend recommended which did private jeep tours - and by jeep I mean a massive 12 person jeep that really could have used a little step to get into as it was just that high off the ground!  By doing the private jeep we were able to go off road as well as go off the official tour route a bit better than the huge tour buses.  We paid a hefty price for it but figured it would be worth it.

The kids were already on the moody side before we even took off on the tour.  I guess that's the price we pay for doing a tour on the same day as flying.  Our rationale was that the tour would reschedule us if we didn't see the lights and we wanted to make sure that we had as many nights as possible available in the case that we didn't see them.  And that meant doing the tour the same night as our arrival.  The good thing is that the skies were clear and according to my weather app, it was likely the only night with clear skies during our trip.  So our fingers were crossed for a good night of Aurora chasing!

We got into the giant jeep to start our journey outside of Reykjavik.  The driver said that it would be about a 45 min drive (going about 80mph in his this massive truck or at least it felt that way, especially when we hit any bumps!).  I had my camera tripod with us so that we could try to take still shots of the aurora though honestly I hadn't practiced putting it on the tripod...hmmm in hindsight should have done that as well as figure out exactly how the tripod worked as it was pitch dark when we arrived and the jeep had pretty limited light.  Oh and my hands were frozen.

As you can see the step to get into the jeep is almost up to Liam's shoulder!

Quick story before I get to the actual tour.  So there were 12 of us plus the driver in the jeep.  Three of the girls behind me in the jeep were speaking American English - something I don't hear a lot of in Europe.  They asked where we were from and I told them originally Boston.  Turns out one of the girls was from Boston (Cambridge) and all three go to Brown in Providence.  What a small world it is - come all the way to Iceland to meet some "local" girls!

Anyways, it was super exciting as we drove.  The jeep didn't have a microphone which was the only bummer because we were sitting towards the back and couldn't hear much ... until... he got super excited and yelled back that he was going to be pulling down a side street shortly because the aurora was up ahead.  The windows were slightly fogged up but yes, you could see them in the sky to the left of our jeep.  I couldn't help but feel a little bit like the guys in Storm Chasers (only a hell of a lot safer than chasing a tornado) as we picked up the speed a little more to head towards a good viewing spot before they disappeared.

That's the thing about the Northern Lights - they come and go and are relatively unpredictable.  Yes, it's possible to predict whether the conditions will be good for a viewing but that's not guaranteed and the light show could be for minutes or hours.  So as we drove, there was this adreneline rush and need to get there quickly before the lights, and our once in a lifetime opportunity, disappeared.

We finally pulled over on the side of the road and I was in a panic on how to get the camera on to the tripod.  I also wasn't sure of my camera settings.  I had printed out a document on how to take pictures of the aurora but hadn't actually read most of it.  Shame on me.  Biggest photo opportunity of a lifetime and I'm totally unprepared.

I was even more panicked when I turned the camera on and this is the first shot I got:

Yeah that wasn't good.  And Josh was upset that I didn't research it as I had promised I would.  Then the worst thing happened.  The camera wouldn't work... at all.  Like wouldn't turn on.  It seemed like it was totally frozen which honestly I wouldn't have been that surprised as it was pretty damn cold out. But I could feel the panic rising in my body.  Here is the moment of a lifetime in front of us and I can't even attempt to capture it.  I can hear the panic in my voice as I yell to Josh to at least try with his iphone.  But of course you can't capture the aurora on an iphone - you just can't.

I finally decided I would change the battery.  Combined panic with my frozen hands made the battery changing process rather comical I'm sure.  I was devastated and ready to give up.  I decided to put the camera on auto to see what would happen.  Though it turns out that I actually turned the camera to A for Aperture.  And it was this stroke of luck got us amazing shots of the aurora.  Like amazing.

Josh and I were in awe.  It was magical.  Aidan actually asked if it was magic.  The pictures appear more green than they did in the sky, but you could still see how they were waving in the sky above and constantly changing.  Words can't come close to describing what an experience it was and we're so lucky to have been able to share it with our children.

The only shots that I got that I wasn't super thrilled with were the moon.  The moon was just rising nearby and the camera let in a little too much light so it looks more like a sunrise rather than the moonrise which was probably the largest and most beautiful moon I've ever seen.

The kids did pretty well overall.  Aidan was excited about seeing the lights and started to freak when I couldn't take pictures either.  He's so my kid.  Liam liked the lights but then decided he wanted to play in the dirt more.  Somehow he wasn't frozen solid like I was.  Aidan eventually gave up and went into the van in the hopes of warming up - I didn't blame him.  And after about 75 shots, I did the same.

So rather than keep you waiting any longer, here are our favorites from the night.

We stayed out there for close to an hour but the tour was supposed to go til 11 and so the driver said he was going to take us to another spot in the hopes of seeing them again.  I think we all knew it was unlikely we were going to see it twice in one night but from what we heard, the driver wanted to make sure we were out til at least 11 because someone had complained about coming back earlier on a recent tour.  I honestly could have gone back to the city at that point I was so cold.  I saw what I wanted to see and knew we weren't likely to see it again.

If I heard the tour guide correctly, the place he took us for our hopeful second viewing was where some of Game of Thrones was shot fairly recently.  So now Josh has made it to Dubrovnik and Iceland to see where Game of Thrones was filmed - lucky guy!  I took about 2 shots of the moon over the water and jumped back in the jeep with the kids, hoping to keep warm.  I glanced out every now and again to see if there were any lights and nope, there weren't.

Finally right around 11 on the dot, the driver got in and we started to make our way back.  As far as tour guides go, he was ok - I'm sure he was telling great stories outside but I didn't hear any.  There will never be a tour guide as cool as ours was in Scotland a few years ago.  I think if he'd had a microphone it would have been even better as the ride back to the city was in complete silence.  Regardless of the tour guide, the experience was one that was worth it a million times over and made the trip worth while from the get go.  I can't wait to see what other magic Iceland has in store for us!!


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