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I had no idea what to expect, but various scenarios had begun filling the void, mostly turning on the idea of abandonment and slow death. There was the story of his grandfather, who had died of a heart attack while herding reindeer and had been left in a tarp on the roadside, where his son recognized the boots sticking out. There was the whale that starved in a fjord, whose corpse had to be towed out to sea and exploded.

At the midpoint of the journey, he stopped and got off the snowmobile, to see how I was doing. We rounded a promontory with scrubby birches doubled over by snow, and came to a dark hut, raised up on sled runners, on the ice. An outhouse stood off to the side. It was cozy inside the hut, with a banged-together quality that I liked, though spending the night there still seemed disconcerting.

Jussi turned on a propane heater, which blasted ferocious heat at wooden furnishings a few feet away. He attached several spare cannisters of fuel to the heater. The possibility of being unable to tug the door back open was enough to rule out any thought of a solitary nocturnal visit to the outhouse.

1. The Puzzle

Jussi, possibly noting my anxiousness, pointed to a transparent section of roof above the bed, and told me that it was made of riot-shield plastic. I tried to look reassured. We walked about thirty feet to the shore of the lake, and set up a fire. Jussi assembled a camera tripod. The Kp numbers were promising, and a pool of clear sky had opened among the clouds, with the Big Dipper brightly visible.

Jussi programmed his camera to take a long-exposure photograph every few minutes; after a while, he checked the monitor and saw a faint green glow. It was tremendously exciting. The bar in the sky grew brighter, but a terrestrial wind had also risen, driving thick clouds straight toward it. A tense couple of minutes followed, in which we seemed to be watching an elemental standoff between darkness and light. For a few moments, the green bar was surrounded by tinges of violet: the effect of atmospheric nitrogen complementing that of the green-glowing oxygen.

But the clouds kept moving implacably forward, and, crushingly, the bar began to fade. It had been a very minor spillage of the green grail. The camera kept seeing it for a while, and Jussi was able to take some photographs of me posed against it with a thumbs-up and a grin—a triumphant bucket-list warrior. The question goes to the heart of what I was beginning to think of as the second conundrum of northern-lights tourism: its seemingly inextricable incorporation of digital technology into human sensory experience. It was time for Jussi to leave. He gave me a basket of food and a Nokia phone for emergencies.

But, just in case he does not wake up, you can call me.

Getting ready

Snow was falling. I battened down the hatches and got into bed. On the other side of the riot-shield roof, the clouds grew thicker. When an industry is focussed so determinedly on the commodity of wonderment, it spurs thoughts of resistance—at least, it does in me. Moreover, my knowledge that the lights were merely an effect of physical forces—and not, say, the souls of stillborn babies, or reflections of the armor of the Valkyries—would surely limit my capacity to be awestruck.

I slept fitfully, trying to ignore the sounds of cracking ice that I kept hearing, and was possibly imagining. In the morning, congratulating myself on not having used the emergency phone, I breakfasted on cloudberry doughnuts and homemade dried reindeer. At the appointed hour, I joined the crowds heading down to the waterfront, where the chase vehicles picked up passengers. I was about to bail on the adventure when a burly Norseman barked out my name from his roster.

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I meekly boarded his sleek black van. We headed southeast, toward Finland. The Norseman, whose name was Halfdan, kept up a jovial patter as we sped past frozen fjordscapes. At the last moment, it decamped over the guardrail, and our lunatic chase continued. An hour into Finland, we pulled off the main road and parked. Using his phone, Halfdan had gathered data indicating that the spot was auspicious. I disembarked, with fifteen companions, into the freezing night. Tripods were set up, a fire was built. Every hotel was at capacity.

Chasing the northern lights in Finnish Lapland - R. Elzein Photography

He mentioned that he had a day job, manufacturing fishing equipment, and I wondered how this might affect his night-driving skills. A second bus, twice the size of ours, pulled into the parking area. I had become highly suspicious of all the apps and meteorological charts that were being consulted, but this time my skepticism was misplaced.

A crack appeared in the clouds directly above us. It widened, showing a sprinkling of stars and then the entire Big Dipper.

There was a stirring among the photographers: their cameras had started detecting things. It grew brighter and denser, then contracted into an oval of emerald light. People chattered excitedly. I was about to warn them not to get too carried away when a streak of brilliant green shot out of the oval, at high speed, and zoomed over our tipped-back heads, corkscrewing across the sky.

Start driving

I almost toppled over while following its trajectory. The green light formed several tentacles, which twisted and writhed together and looped in circles. Astonishment was proclaimed in a half-dozen languages. The circles dropped needles of piercing brightness that travelled, in tandem, around the sky, as if tracing the undulations of a celestial shower curtain. There is something at once mind-blowing and unassimilable about the phenomenon. It does come at a price but it will boost the quality of your images to a whole new level. Join me on this nerdy journey! Not like grizzly bear angry but you know — a bit poked.

And most of them are actually quite ridiculous. Why do my images look so blurry? How do I take sharper photos? Ever asked yourself these questions? I have.

Why It's So Worth it to Chase the Northern Lights

And I still do! Getting my own images sharp is and always will be a challenge. It is a neverending, almost Sisyphus-like struggle between a man and his tool. Dramatic enough?