March 01, 2017

Hunting the Northern Lights

Hunting the Northern Lights
A photographer captures the lights. Mikhail Mordasov

In our region, we really don’t have to exert ourselves much if we want to see the Northern Lights. They can be seen while sitting at home, by just casting a casual glance out the window. And, it’s really not something people get themselves worked up about around here. It’s not a big deal. I imagine that people who live in a verdant tropical jungle probably don’t get very excited about the rare plants blooming all around them, either.

I should explain.

We live at the furthest edge of the inhabited world. If you take out a map of Russia and look in the top left corner, you will find the Kola Peninsula. Can you picture where Anchorage, Alaska is on the map? Now you’ve got the general idea, except Murmansk is in the Eastern hemisphere and 500 miles closer to the North Pole. And this is why for six months each year it is dark, cold, and you can easily see the Northern Lights.

In point of fact, our region has been flooded by tourists hunting the Northern Lights. And if we want to establish blame for this, it could probably be shared by Canon, Nikon, NASA, American politicians, and, in some small measure, Valentin Zhiganov of Apatity, Murmansk Oblast.

Valentin phoned at exactly the right time: on January 3. This is the point in the annual life cycle of every Russian when all the New Year’s salads have been consumed, every friend and relative has been visited, and people begin to wonder what else they can come up with to fill seven more holiday days.

“Let’s go!” Valentin said, “The lights are glowing right now!” And so photographer Misha and I rushed to suit up. We had to dress as warmly as possible – that, after all, is the prime directive for any Northern Lights hunter.

My babushka retrieved an old suitcase from our storeroom, and pulled from it a pair of ancient, barely worn valenki that were five sizes too big for me.

“Wear them, and don’t be ashamed,” said babushka, herself a bit embarrassed. She had long since stopped wearing valenki.

It was –26º Celsius outside, and we were heading to the woods at night. Myself, I would be far more ashamed of getting frostbite and having to live without my feet, than appearing in public in humongous felt boots. Our photographer, being the slightly proud and finicky fellow he is, refused both valenki and wool socks.

On the hunt for northern lights
On the hunt for the Northern Lights / Mikhail Mordasov

The car that Valentin came to pick us up in was stuffed full of Muscovites. In reality, the three of them were from the suburbs of Moscow, but to provincials like us, that was good enough. Their age and sex was unclear, as they were muffled up to their eyebrows from the cold and turned out to be rather taciturn. I expect they did not like the fact that two local freeloaders had glommed on to their private hunting party.

It was hard to see where we were heading, as outside it was pitch black, and the car windows were covered in hoarfrost. But that was a good thing, because it meant that the police would not be able to spot me, the over capacity passenger riding atop the photographer’s knees. Indeed, the only thing visible in the dark was a numeric display on the dashboard that kept going higher and higher: 27, 28, 29, 30...

“Are those kilometers?” I asked.

“That’s the temperature outside,” Valentin answered.

Meaning the degrees below zero.

Valentin became a hunter of the Northern Lights ten years ago. He describes this pursuit as “a borderline-professional hobby.” Some time ago he became interested in photography and began shooting nature. But the daytime is now reserved for his day job in a publishing house, and the evening is for family. Today, the only time left for his hobby is the night.

“And what are you going to photograph at night other than the Northern Lights?”

It’s hard to disagree with Valentin on that front.

What kind of a passion would drive someone to spend half the night hunkered down in a snow drift, especially if he has to head off to work at 8:30 in the morning? A celestial passion, perhaps. I would go so far as to call it a cosmic passion. This level of passion may explain why his photos of the Northern Lights are gobbled up throughout the internet like hot pirozhki, and why his videos garner views in the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. People love Zhiganov’s work. Recently, for example, one girl wrote to him: “Oh, I am so delighted by your work, but could you send me your photos in higher resolution? I’m downloading your photos from the internet to make a calendar and would really like better quality. Thanks in advance!” And she is not alone. Plenty of people are making things out of Zhiganov’s photos, but of course without his permission. It is wise not to bring this topic up with him.

We made some quick calculations of our own. Were it possible to take these intellectual property thieves to court, there would likely be a settlement of R20,000 ($335) for each infraction. Multiply that by the number of calendars or magnets produced, and the copyright holder (Zhiganov) would easily cover what he spends on equipment.

“What can you do?” Valentin asks with a dismissive gesture. “I don’t want to spend my time on that.” And, true enough, suing someone in Russia for copyright infringement is a quixotic undertaking.

“But don’t you remember how we met?” the suddenly cheerful Muscovite sitting in the front seat asks Valentin. “It was a few years ago. You sought me out, accusing me of stealing your photo. But it turned out you had mistaken me for someone else.”

“Really? I don’t remember,” Valentin answered, embarrassed.

Even though we did not have far to drive, we were almost too late. While we were flapping our tongues, the sky was lighting up. The car came to a stop and we, moving quickly and awkwardly in our multi-layered outfits, headed to the side of the road.

The location, to put it mildly, was not picturesque and, in my mind, not suitable for photography, nor for enjoying the beauty of nature. A narrow road between two berms of plowed snow with some nondescript landscape on either side – neither forest nor field. Yet at least we were beyond the reach of the city and its light pollution. The night was blacker than black, a darkness unknown to city folk, sprinkled with distant stars. But the car’s headlights were on, and a constant stream of cars drove by, bathing us first in yellow, then in red lights.

Those who had them pulled out Canons, Nikons and Fujis, and began fussing over them. A green snake trembled above us, nervously twitching the tips of its tails, its quivering mouth agape. Ghostly-pale, it spread from horizon to horizon, threatening to vanish at any instant. And that is often how it is: the Northern Lights flare for half a minute, then go out.

Northern Lights Murmansk Region
Capturing the Northern Lights. / Mikhail Mordasov

But ours lived on, forming shivering rings before once again dissolving its green light into the black cosmos.

I approached the tripod and for the first time in my life looked at the flashing lights on a camera screen. The snake I had seen a dozen times before was here foreign, unfamiliar, as ridiculous and bright as a carnival show, like a Chinese dragon. The eye cannot see such light and color. And that is the deceit at the root of these lights.

Valentin begins to patiently explain about the rods and cones in the human eye, and how we see poorly in the dark, and how evolution made us distinguish between shades of green better than any other color. In short, the camera is not to blame that it can capture an image that mere mortals cannot see with their naked eyes. In fairness, one should note that mid-range consumer cameras also cannot capture the firework of colors on display. Nor can good equipment in untrained hands.

The Muscovites struck various poses for the camera, with the pale green ribbon of light in the background. They watched the show from this place and that, stomped around in circles, and tromped in place. The bitter cold quickly dampened their enthusiasm. But the Northern Lights continued. It was not normal. I had expected to spend several long hours in the forest, hopefully peering at every indistinct glimmer in the sky. I had hoped for a crazy safari, but it had turned out to be a school trip to the zoo.

The Northern Lights kept on going, but our patience ran out, and we headed back to the car. Valentin took out his tablet and studied the forecast.

Where is the intrigue, where is the mystery? It is as if all the secret machinations of the cosmos have been shamelessly set out for everyone to see. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of sites that in graphics, tables, and diagrams describe the lurid details of the Earth and Sun’s cohabitation. It is a reality show, in which the solar winds fly toward Earth’s atmosphere, causing the gases in its upper layers to light up. And the more the Sun burns with passion, the more excited the Earth becomes, and the brighter the nightly glow at her poles.

The forecast for the Northern Lights is now about as accurate as a weather forecast. One can prepare to go hunting with a two- or three-day prediction in hand. But the real countdown begins an hour before the Lights appear, with a signal from a NASA satellite that measures the solar winds on their path toward Earth. Anyone can teach themselves to read the charts and become a hunter of the Northern Lights. And those who can’t, or who are simply too lazy, can pay specially trained experts.

If you ask locals when one can see the Northern Lights, you are most likely to hear, “At night, when it is very cold.”

We have ideal conditions. It will soon be midnight, and the temperature is dropping. We are driving still farther from the city, to a frozen lake topped with a meter of snow. The Northern Lights continue glowing, and, frankly, it is starting to get a bit boring.

Why are tourists paying no small sum to be driven about looking at the Northern Lights? After all, they can study the forecast themselves and pay a taxi to take them out of town. And it would cost one-tenth (if not one-one-hundredth) of the jacked-up fees charged by local guides. What’s more, no one can guarantee that, if you buy a “Hunt for the Northern Lights” tour, that you will in fact see them. You may be driven to just the right spot at just the right time, look up, and see only an unbroken ceiling of clouds.

But now it is time to reveal a horrifying secret: the Northern Lights occur year round. And far more frequently than we are led to believe: in both summer and winter, day and night. It is actually a rather common occurrence, because the Sun is constantly bombarding the Earth’s atmosphere with charged particles – sometimes more strongly, sometimes less so. But the Northern Lights can only be seen with the naked eye under ideal conditions.

This means that, despite the disinterested assistance of NASA (and the interested assistance of local guides), hunting for the Northern Lights is largely reduced to waiting for the proper weather: clear, black skies. And such a confluence is far more likely in the winter, when the nights in the North are very long, and the temperature is very low.

It should be noted that our Scandinavian neighbors – Norwegians, Swedes and Finns – have become rather adept at selling this combination: Northern Lights, snow, cold, night. They are pioneers in a tourist industry devoted to observing the heavenly fireworks. And although the exact same Northern Lights are on display in Russia and Scandinavia, our neighbors’ provide far better creature comforts to their audience. They have built all sorts of ice hotels, glass igloos and wooden saunas, have groomed ski trails through their rolling hills, and fattened up herds of undersized reindeer, both for their restaurants and as sled teams.

It used to be expensive and uncomfortable to travel to our Russian North, and not only for foreigners. For Russian citizens as well. Finland was somewhat better. But a few years ago the Russian North got lucky: the ruble crashed, and we had a falling out with the Europeans, Americans, and some Asian countries. Now things are far cheaper here, and whole busloads of Chinese citizens have started visiting, as have the occasional Japanese and Koreans. Supposedly, people from these countries believe that if they see the Northern Lights, they will produce a son. It is unclear, however, if just one of the prospective parents needs to see the Lights or both. And, more importantly, it is not clear if the viewing should be organized before, after, or during conception.

When we started gathering ourselves to return to town from the lake, some three hours after we had set out from Apatity, the sky was still aglow with the Northern Lights. The tourists from Moscow clearly wanted to head back. They had quietly informed me that it had turned out to be not as beautiful as it was in photographs, and they were chilled to the bone, even though they were wearing all the clothes they had brought with them.

The professional photographers, of which we had two, were not yet ready to call it quits. They would have gladly kept clicking their shutters, even though their tripods had turned into standing icicles, and their cameras’ frozen mirrors were making such plaintive creaks, it was as if they were breathing their last gasps.

Then, suddenly, I noticed that from the direction of the road a group of dark figures was coming toward us, aiming the beams of their flashlights straight at us. How had they found us in this emptiness? I felt we had missed our chance and that it was now too late to escape. There were at least ten of them and just six of us, and although we had two steel tripods, we would not be able to fight them off.

The strangers raised their voices, waved, and quickened their pace as they approached us. My last thought was, “I won’t get very far running in valenki.”

Valentin waved back at them and smiled. This throng turned out to be several friendly adults with various calibers of children – Valentin’s friends, acquaintances, and friends of friends. They had come to look at the Northern Lights after receiving a tip from him. We all spent a bit of time freezing in one another’s company, hopping about in the cold, tamping down a snowy dance floor, and then headed home.

Valentin drove the Muscovites to the apartment where they were staying, and then he told us that he was going back to the lake to photograph Father Frost and Snegurochka. It had been a truly unusual night, but nothing could surprise us now. Who knew where Father Frost and Snegurochka spent the third of January? Perhaps their traditional stopover en route to the North Pole was someplace in the bushes near Apatity.

We picked up Father Frost and his granddaughter in the city. Snegurochka had an unbelievably long, luxurious braid – and it was real. A braid that long would take a minimum of 200 years to grow.

Snegurochka went by the name Nadezhda and we sat together in the back seat, with Misha the photographer between us. “Make a wish,” Snegurochka said. Since my name is also Nadezhda, it turned out that Misha was sitting between two women with the same name, something we Russians consider good luck and thus an opportunity for wish-making. Father Frost proposed I grip his staff and make a wish of my own. I did not refuse.

Father Frost and Snegurochka under Northern Lights
Father Frost and Snegurochka under Northern Lights / Mikhail Mordasov

We returned to the lake, and although we had already had our fill, I could not help noticing that the sky was still shimmering. It was hellishly cold, because if you think that you will soon be home drinking hot tea before climbing into a warm bed, it feels doubly cold when you wind up being dragged back into the snowdrifts.

Misha began to long for the felt valenki and wool socks he had so hastily refused. My eyeballs began to freeze up, forcing me to constantly blink.

Father Frost and Snegurochka, standing up to their knees in snow, were smiling. The photo session against the backdrop of the Northern Lights made them very happy, and they didn’t look at all cold. If, before this, I had had any doubts that they were the real thing, now I had almost none. It even seemed to me that, once the shooting was finished, we would say our goodbyes, get back in the car, and Father Frost and Snegurochka would stay behind among the fir trees, waving goodbye as we drove off into the blacker than black night. RL

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