According to Nasa, 2012 will see the best Northern Lights activity for 50 years. Matthew Brace takes his family to northern Finland to see what all the fuss is about.
Chasing the Northern Lights in Finnish Lapland
We travellers are a hopeful breed. We hope that trains run on time and we hope that hotels have remembered our reservation and not given us a room above the nightclub, but most of all we hope that the natural world performs when we want it to.
We want dolphins to leap from the waves as we pass by on a dhow in the Musandam Peninsula, kangaroos to box in full view in the dusty Australian outback, and bright sunlight to follow deep snowfall and turn Scandinavian landscapes into winter wonderlands.
So it was with the traveller's hope in my heart and no fewer than eight layers of clothing, two pairs of gloves, a thermal balaclava, two hats and an Arctic survival jacket that I waited on Platform 6 at Helsinki's central train station as the temperature plummeted to -23°C.
I was off to Finnish Lapland, inside the Arctic Circle, on a mission to see the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, one of the most magical but least predictable natural phenomena.
With me that evening were most of Helsinki's families, kitted out for a school holiday week of activities in the snow. The station's cathedral-like concourse echoed with the rustle of a thousand skisuits.
Because punctuality is not a luxury but a right in Finland, the double-decked P265 night train (return fare costs about €150 [Dh733] per person) left bang on time and slipped almost silently out of the station and through Helsinki's frozen northern suburbs. As it cleared the city's outskirts, sped up and plunged into the first of numerous snow-laden forests along the route, the families gathered their excited broods, settled into their sleeper compartments and fed and showered their children who, in their youthful imaginations, were already sledging with abandon on the Arctic slopes.
I sat at the window and gazed at a ghostly landscape in which endless lines of pine and birch trees stood stiff and weighted down by feet of snow, stoically waiting out the long bitter winter and yearning for the freedom of spring. Above them the sky was inky black and free of clouds, but the Northern Lights were not firing. Would this be my second failed attempt to see the aurora? An earlier adventure to Iceland in the depths of winter had resulted in a week of sleep deprivation as I sat at the north-facing window of my small hotel - the Northern Light Inn, no less - through the long polar nights, struggling to keep awake to see the lights billowing across the sky. My only reward was a single line of dull green, low in the sky, looking vaguely like a smudge of toothpaste and lasting for less than a minute. By that time I was so delirious with exhaustion that I was not entirely sure if it was the real thing or a figment of my imagination.
From the lower bunk of the sleeper compartment my wife reminded me to have hope - the traveller's hope - that we would witness the lights.
The next morning, as the grey of the slow winter dawn turned to blue and then snow-white outside the window, my BlackBerry's message light was flashing: it was an alert from the aurora-watchers at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. There had been a solar flare on the sun, it said, and a significant auroral display was expected imminently.
The sun occasionally spits out these gigantic solar flares that emit billions of charged particles called ions. As these ions hit the Earth's magnetic field, they are directed to the North and South poles and, as they collide with gases in our atmosphere, they glow, not unlike a neon light tube. Voila, Northern Lights.
According to Nasa, the sun has been quiet and boring for the past few years but now is entering a period of high activity - the sun is "waking up from a deep slumber", the agency has said - which means that the prospect of seeing magnificent auroral displays through 2011, 2012 and 2013 is higher than for many years.
Before we could put the scientists' predictions to the test that evening, we had to reach our destination. Our train terminated at Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland and the semi-official home of Santa Claus. The town has a Santa Claus Village, Santa Technology Park and a large post office where, apparently, all letters to Father Christmas end up. But it was another sight we were most excited about: just outside town, near Rovaniemi Airport, is a road sign letting travellers know that they are officially inside the Arctic Circle.
Another two hours north by bus, driving over snowy roads and dodging the odd reindeer, was "home" - a log cabin in the woods at the small ski village of Luosto.
When planning this trip we had drawn up a checklist including "absolute" items (cosy log cabin with log fire, cooking facilities and sauna plus lots of snow, skiing, walking and a restaurant serving meatballs - the local favourite) and "hopeful" items (Northern Lights). Our cabin at the Scandic hotel ticked all the absolutes - now we just needed the lights.
I did what thousands of guests before me have done and asked the hotel's receptionists if the lights were going to glow that night. So often are they asked this that they have come up with a witty response: "Which button would you like me to press tonight for you? You like green lights or red or the white ones? I have the buttons here. You let me know and I'll press them. Is 10 o'clock OK?"
The fact is that nobody really knows. Even in the Arctic Circle, at the right time of year (October/November and February/March are best) with a clear sky and after a major solar flare, the lights can fail. They did that night, and the next. The green glow was there, brighter than Iceland, but there were no dancing curtains or great columns of light resembling corrugated iron sheets or organ pipes.
In the mornings we slept in, catching up on the sleep we had missed in the night as we had gazed skyward out of the windows of the cabin in the hope of seeing something spectacular. To wake ourselves, we downed coffee, porridge, berries and Scandinavian pickled herring, wrapped ourselves in multiple layers of clothing and threw ourselves into snowy activities.
We took a cross-country skiing lesson from a local instructor who laughed so much at our early wobbles and falls that his tears froze on his face.
We shot off across a frozen lake on snowmobiles, whooping with excitement and feeling the breathtaking rush of the polar wind blowing our cares away. We took a magical husky sleigh-ride following a trail through hillside forests deluged with more than a metre of pristine snow, blinding white against an aquamarine sky.
Our boots crunched satisfyingly as we walked along trails that were deserted apart from the occasional snow bunny and a lone Siberian Jay, one of only a few birds to over-winter in Arctic Finland. In the depths of the forests we paused, closed our eyes and smiled at the soft woollen silence. Beneath our feet and beneath the many eiderdowns of snow, Finland slept deeply through the winter, dreaming of spring.
After a sauna and supper on our third night I took the first watch at the window. The green glow was there but nothing more. Fighting off fatigue and the mesmeric lure of the log fire, we once again donned our polar gear and trudged out into the night, ever hopeful of success. It was around 10.30, the temperature had dropped below 28 and, as we stepped outside our cabin, we were hit by a biting, swirling and altogether inhospitable wind. Then we looked up.
Directly above our cabin and filling the northern sky was the Aurora Borealis. A great sheet of white silk was thrown from left to right, billowing and rippling, its lower fringes reaching down and turning crimson and purple. We watched its skirts flip and twirl, its colours raining down, just for us.
We gazed in amazement, mouths open and all thoughts of the cold and discomfort instantly forgotten.
We ran and slithered down the path we had made earlier that day through a snowdrift to a small clearing in the forest, away from the porch-lights of the cabins. The aurora faded and waited, somewhere off-stage before, bounding back stronger than before, fiery red in the north-west and mellowing to cream and light blue as it danced westward across the treetops.
The green glow was brilliant now, growing, spreading, contracting again and then spreading itself thinly and vividly right across the sky, throwing the pines into silhouette. The trees swayed violently in the Arctic wind, reaching up to the lights and encouraging them to dance some more. They jolted left and right, flashing almost, and then flooded the sky in a magnificent flourish, like the finale of a royal firework display where every last gram of pyrotechnic material explodes in rapid succession.
A surge of white turned to orange and red and left behind it a distinct rust-red swishing tail, and I remembered that the Finns call the aurora revontulet, or "fox fire".
Finally our lights dimmed and danced off into the atmosphere. I struggled to pull back my many sleeves to see my watch. We had been outside for an hour in seriously cold temperatures and yet it had seemed like just a few minutes. The lights had come and gone, each display lasting about five minutes, the intervals punctuated by our screams for more.
Along with the traveller's hope, there is the realisation that few things are truly as wonderful as they appear in the imagination, but the Northern Lights must surely be the exception. They really do dance across the sky and much faster and more dramatically than I thought. It's no graceful ballet; it's Gene Kelly at his twisting, spinning, prancing best. They really do flicker brilliantly through the spectrum. And they really do leave you speechless, thrilled and eternally grateful.
We stayed for an encore but maybe this had been just the dress rehearsal. If the scientists are right, our show may have been merely a precursor to a two- or three-year cavalcade of displays that will thrill millions of people.
We can hope.
If you go
The flight Return flights on KLM (www.klm.com) from Dubai to Helsinki via Amsterdam cost from Dh2,440, including taxes
The hotel A seven-night stay for two in a log cabin at Scandic Lodge in Luosto (www.scandichotels.com; 00 358 16 3667 400) in mid-November costs from €700 (Dh3,396), including breakfast, Wi-Fi and taxes
The info For more details, go to www.visitfinland.com