This is another story from the magical land of Lofoten, Norway. Get used to it––a lot happened there. This image was taken the first night I ever witnessed the Northern Lights, and it ranks solidly among the 3 coolest sights I’ve seen with my own eyes (seeing a grizzly bear and jumping out of a plane were the other two, both of which I’ll probably cover in a later issue).

It was our first night in Lofoten. We had endured 4 flights and a ferry across 48 hours, getting us to our final destination around 9 pm. As soon as we brought our luggage into the house, the only thing on my mind was sleep.

Lofoten is in the Arctic Circle, meaning daylight hours are some of the most extreme in the world. In the heart of winter, it can be dark for 20+ hours per day. This sounds gloomy, but the extreme darkness brings out vibrant and frequent showings of the Northern Lights, making it not so bad. The opposite is the case during summer, when there can be 20+ hours of daylight, but no visibility of the beautiful mystical green photon dance.

It was mid-September, which meant the daylight hours for our visit were fairly normal. The sun would rise around 7 am and set around 7 pm. We were told by some locals that this was the very beginning of Northern Lights season, so while a showing was possible, it was unlikely.

Sure, I wanted to see them, but I also wanted to sleep, so I wasn’t too upset about that. As soon as I got comfortable, Matt burst in the door and said, “Simon, I think I see the Northern Lights out there!” I was surprised, doubtful, and, yes, still tired. But I went outside to check them out. There was a faint green tint in the sky––nothing like what you see in the picture. It looked like it could have been city lights (more like village lights, considering the tiny size of the town we were in), but there was a perceptible amount of light pollution making it harder to see the stars, and equally, any sort of Northern Lights.

Despite my exhaustion, we got a camera out and took a long-exposure just to be sure. The shot brought out a lot more green than we had anticipated, leaving us no choice but to investigate further. So we packed up some camera gear, hopped in the rental car, and drove out of the village. After one unsuccessful stop, we found a second spot at the edge of the town that seemed sufficiently dark. Cameras and tripods in-hand, we parked on the side of the road and scrambled over the ridge towards the fjord, facing the jagged peaks across the water.

We saw two other photographers on that hillside, validating our choice of location and, as if we had arrived just on time for an appointment, the sky commenced its show. The faint green glow of the previous hour had developed into a tall sheet of deep green, dancing and fluttering about like a curtain in front of an open window on a breezy day. The beauty, hard to describe with words, was perfectly reflected in the peaceful awe I felt in that moment. The elegant movement of that glow pulsated deep in my heart just as vividly as it could be seen in the sky.

After maybe an hour, I looked up to find that Matt had made his way to the bottom of the hill. I went down to meet him at the water’s edge and hopped across across a few rocks sticking out of the water, and we both found ourselves on a big rock shaped like a platform, big enough to fit 5 or 6 cars.

The lights intensified, building like a symphony towards a crescendo. This was a photographer’s dream. We had front row seats to the most beautiful natural light show in the world. We took hundreds of photos, a few timelapses, and soaked it all in.

Hours later, the lights were still shooting off, and we were still on our rock. The exhaustion from our long travel stint finally bubbled back up through the stoke of the past few hours, so we snapped our last few photos and got up to leave. But something was different. The large rock platform we had called our home for the last 3 hours had shrunken to about 30% its previous size.

The tide had risen. Reality set in. The path that brought us to our current spot was now somewhere under water, hidden in the frigid, wet darkness. Shit.

We debated our options and eventually decided our only choice was to step carefully through the water back to dry land. The water along our path looked about 6 feet at its deepest, across a 6-7 foot gap. The depth, distance, freezing water temperature, slippery rocks, darkness, and expensive electronics in tow all made for a pretty stressful episode.

I elected to go first, so I rolled up my pants legs and tied my camera around my neck, hoisting it as high up as I could. Matt shone a cell phone light on my path, but the volatile current sloshing through the rocks made it almost impossible to keep my balance, and even harder to see exactly where I was stepping.

First step. So far, so good. The second step was deeper than I expected. I slowly inched my way into the freezing water, getting nudged and tugged by the current and losing some visibility with each step. With the water now above my knees, I had made progress, and the dry rock on the other side of the terror-filled chasm seemed within reaching distance.

This part I remember quite vividly. My plan was to take one more step onto a rock, and with that one last step lean my upper body across the deepest section, falling onto the dry rock. From there I would climb myself out of the water. It was a good plan, but I didn’t realize how deep that last step would be. You know when you’re walking down the stairs and you think you’re at the bottom, but when you step forward you plunge down farther than you expect and your whole body goes into shock for a moment? It was something like that, but with the cold water and all those other variables I mentioned earlier.

With that last step I plunged into the water past my belly button unexpectedly. After I recovered from the momentary shock, I realized my plan had (kind of) worked and my hands had a grip on the dry rock. I instinctively pulled myself up onto dry land. Matt was able to hand me his camera and tripod across the gap before his attempt. He went through essentially the same journey, misstepping that last deep part, and climbing up out of the water onto the dry rock, dripping wet.

We made it. I was wet and cold, but my camera was safe. The cold water and adrenaline fended off my exhaustion for another 30 minutes. I would do it all over again if it meant I could experience that incredible light show a second time.

I made a YouTube video in 2018 about this, linked here. The first 2 minutes of it covers this story, along with some footage, in case you’re interested.

Thanks for reading, and see you next Friday!


Want more stories like this? Sign up below and I’ll send you a fresh one every Friday.