The Northern Lights Hockey Tournament – 3 October 28, 2014

As a born Canadian, true north strong and free, I saw the aurora borealis for the first time nine years ago in Iceland. I was driving back to my hotel in the town of Vík. It was late, maybe 11 p.m., and I’d spent the day on location with the film Beowulf and Grendel in the mountains near the big glaciers. Now I was driving along Iceland’s national ring road, Highway #1, tired and eager to get to bed.

But wasn’t that something moving in the sky?

In fact, the sky itself seemed to be moving, and for a moment I wondered if I was too tired to be driving. Then I realized it was the northern lights, a curtain of light zizzing like a sound check against the deep black sky.

The highway was nearly deserted, only the occasional truck on the road. I pulled over onto the shoulder and lay on the hood. It was mid-October, dark and cold, although I was dressed for the mountains and felt only a pleasant chill on my cheeks as I lay looking straight up.

Northern lights as I saw them

Northern lights as I saw them

The lights were a pale greenish white and notably jagged. They seemed to move up and down rather than sideways, looking almost electronic and entirely mesmerizing. I lay there for maybe half an hour, and the aurora never grew brighter, nor did I see any of the reds and blues some photographs show. Maybe they would have appeared if I’d waited. But eventually more than my cheeks were cold and I got back on my way to Vík. The Hotel Lundi, as I recall. Hotel Puffin.

Nine years later, Roni told our hockey team that the lights are measured in intensity from one to ten. They’re caused by solar winds flowing past the earth which fling charged electrons and protons into the atmosphere, stirring up particles that form part of the air we breathe and triggering a display of lights. Roni told us that no one had seen level ten lights, and no one wanted to. The blast of solar energy powerful enough to create such a show would be enough to destroy the global electricity grid. He figured he had seen a level five display, with colours that seemed to radiate all around the sky, making a vibrant bowl in the heavens all around him. Maybe five and a half.

“A once-in-a-lifetime display,” he mused, adding that in current atmospheric conditions, we might see a level three display, a moving curtain of vivid localized colour. From the sounds of it, the whitish lights I’d seen outside Vík had been a level two. Roni was promising an upgrade, at least for me. Jane (a forward) described the extraordinary display she’d once seen from a boat in the middle of a Canadian lake, aurora in many colours dancing all around the sky and seeming to shoot down toward her.

“A five,” Roni said, sounding a little sour, and refusing to award her another half, although they sounded pretty good to me.

We drove quickly out of Reykjavik, seeing the beam of Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower in the distance as we turned into the mountains. The sky was clear and the bus full. On board with us were a few long-suffering souls who had taken Roni’s tour the previous night and seen nothing. Like other northern lights guides, Roni offers tourists a free trip after an unsuccessful night in the hopes that they’ll get lucky the second time around.

Our jetlagged team was a little restive. We thought we’d booked a private trip for our 13 players, meaning we could turn back to the city any time. As it was, the best we could hope for was to see the lights early and convince everyone to return to Reykjavik immediately afterwards. Yet Roni warned us that the show usually began after 10 p.m., and that was still two hours away.

Team bonding, I thought, as we got off at our first stop, a cold and windy hillside with a bright moon and star above. Roni set up a camera on a tripod, saying it could pick up early signs of a light show before the naked eye could detect it.

The naked eye detected nothing, as meanwhile the legs felt naked in the brisk wind blowing off the snowcapped peaks and whipping around the calves. Roni’s shutter click click clicked as he scanned the sky, but he soon had to admit that the camera detected nothing, either. We saw nothing at the next stop, or the next, standing fruitlessly on repeated little hillocks of uneven soil as the Nordic wind blew.

“We can go perhaps to the seashore, where the air is clear,” Roni said finally.

“We can perhaps go home?” somebody asked, although Roni failed to hear her as definitively as we failed to see the lights, and our quest continued relentlessly.

The Keri∂ crater

The Keri∂ crater

The night soon became a blur. Overhearing our team debating how to best position oneself for a pee break behind the bus, Roni took us to a coffee shop with washrooms. More than one coffee shop, as the night lengthened. He also took us to a volcanic cone where, unusually for Iceland, you paid an entrance fee during the day. The volcano was on private land. Seeing the sign, I got a little nervous. This was the beautiful Keri∂, which I had visited years before. It had made such a tremendous impression that I’d used the name for a character in my first kids’ book which, coincidentally, I would start publishing online as soon as we returned from Iceland.

Reason for the impression? Partly it was the soil inside the volcanic crater, which dropped down toward a glacial lake in gradations of astonishingly vivid colours. I’d also been impressed by the path itself, which led hikers very close to the edge of the crater, where no fence prevented them from tumbling straight into the lake.

It was pitch black. My teammates meandered along the path, having no idea what they weren’t seeing.

“Um,” I said, as Roni focused his camera fruitlessly on the sky.

Leaving Keri∂, team intact, we headed—somewhere. By now we were punch drunk with fatigue and the sky was notably cloudy. Deciding we needed some version of the northern lights, Jane produced her smart phone, lighting the bus with a glimmer of LED that would be the brightest thing we’d see that night.

“A reading for Roni,” she proposed, and braced herself in the aisle.

 

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun

“By the men who moil for gold;

“The Arctic trails have their secret tales

“That would make your blood run cold;

“The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

“But the queerest they ever did see

“Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

“I cremated Sam McGee.

 

“Canadian content,” she said, and we howled with hilarity as Jane continued to read the poem. As our bus swerved through the Icelandic countryside, we passed other northern lights tours fruitlessly seeking aurora, passed greenhouses lit by thermal power, and finally turned back to Reykjavik at 1:15 a.m. when even Roni had to admit defeat.

“How did you like the poem?” we asked, as Jane finished it.

“I’m sure it was lovely but I didn’t hear it,” he said.

No more than we saw the northern lights, then or during the rest of our stay—although my friend Jon photographed a display a couple of days after we left.

“You would have been just as likely to see the lights at Yoko Ono’s Imagine party,” he would tell me the next evening. “Or from your hotel.”

Who knew? That night, as we arrived back at the Hotel Frón, I told myself it was all about team bonding.

“Would you like to go out again tomorrow?” Roni asked. Amazing to me, the other tourists on the bus signed on for their third straight night. Our team declined en masse, and practically ran to our rooms. I managed to unlock my door and stumble to bed before falling asleep, vaguely aware of the new delights promised for the morning.

 

And now, for what we missed: