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  • Meagan Butler

Hunting Or Becoming The Hunted? The Search For Icelandic Northern Lights

What do Iceland, the Northern Lights, and Axlar Björn have in common?

As it turns out, slap-happy women can make connections to the strangest things: even Icelandic axe-murderers.

It is our first full night in Iceland. My friends and I have been awake for nearly twenty-four hours. We are running on fumes and gas-station hot dogs. Delirious and hangry, we are searching for our first night’s accommodations. We have booked a place on the Snæfellsnes peninsula at the base of the Kirkjufell mountain located just outside of the small town of Grundarfjörður in Western Iceland. Our cottage is picturesque–exactly as the booking website described. We have Icelandic horses on the waterfront property, farm dogs that greeted us upon our arrival, clear skies for viewing the Northern Lights, and a prison just up the road from our cabin.

What? Prison?

Perhaps this wouldn’t have been such a big deal if we would have known we were just meters away from a prison before we booked our stay.  Perhaps we’d be less freaked out if we hadn’t just read about Iceland’s only axe-murderer, Axlar Björn, and then comically joked about him for a good two hours earlier in the day. Perhaps, the whole thing would have been a little less funny if the door to our cabin would actually lock, but, it wouldn’t. And funny enough, even if we did feel safe because a prison is meant to keep criminals in, this particular prison doesn’t even need bars or fences because the flight risk is deemed minimal. 

All of these things made for a toxic combination. Our weariness and uneasiness didn’t stop us from planning our night, strategically, to hopefully get a glimpse of what we came to Iceland to see: the Northern Lights. We set our alarms for different times of the night to take shifts to see if the sky would glow and dance for us. With our windows wide open, we waited for the next alarm to wake us. We’d sit in the dark and stare out the window wondering if the shadow in the sky was a sign of Aurora, or just our eyes tricking us to think that Axlar was outside our window. Sadly, we didn’t get a whole lot of sleep that night, and we never once saw lights in the sky.

Funny enough, we never really understood how the Aurora Borealis worked. I think we just thought if we visited Iceland in the late-winter where the sun set before 6 pm and rose after 9 am, that we would just see the phenomenon. We knew that we had to be away from city lights and light pollution, and of course, we knew we needed a cloudless sky, but other than those few things we just expected to wake up and see the lights.

After the disappointment of a lightless sky, we awoke to a cold, cloudy day. The next few days would prove to be similar conditions with skies almost always overcast. We knew our chances at seeing the Northern Lights during a full-cloud night was impossible. We began to track the weather as we moved to the northern portion of Iceland, and we found an app called Aurora that can actually predict the probability of seeing the Northern Lights. We began to read about the Aurora and how the conditions have to be perfect for the lights to appear. Scientifically, they just don’t appear at certain places in the world: the atmosphere needs to be just right. We started to discuss the scientific terminology and decided our last night in Akureyri would be our best chance during our four-night stay in Iceland.

We chose our accommodations outside of Akureyri intentionally. We wanted to be away from the city lights in hopes to see the Northern Lights. The vacation home in Fagravik was close enough to eat and wander around Akureyri, but far enough away from the city that the lights shouldn’t hinder our chances of seeing the Aurora. Our little cottage sat on the Eyjafjörður, the longest fjord in Iceland. We found a website called Northern Lights Iceland that gave us an up-t0-the hour forecast on cloud cover in Iceland. The Aurora app and the website began to give us a glimmer of hope that we might see something, so we sat in the dark, drinking Icelandic craft beer, getting our cameras ready, and listening to Katie tell us cockamamie stories of Axlar Björn and his jilted lovers.

Like before, our silliness got the best of us. We sat in the dark with every window shade open. Creeping on the frat boy party up the road (a serious drinking party was under way), we jumped at every glimmer in the sky. We’d check the app (then look for killers) and then check the app again. Sometime around 10 pm, the app alerted us that the chance of an Aurora sighting jumped from 19% to 23%. That was good enough for us! Erin, our group’s eye to the sky finally saw what she thought was something. We flew to the windows, and sure enough, white streaks began to form and then disappear in the sky. I’m not sure what happened after that–but I do know it was a cluster of us running into each other in the dark, grabbing hats, coats, vests, gloves, and cameras, and practically falling out of the house to see the Northern Lights.

We stood outside in awe. We forgot about the tales of the creepers and we were mesmerized by the small clearing above our cottage that allowed for a little light-spectacle above our heads. We stood outside until our fingers felt like falling off, taking as many pictures as we could. Since Katie and I are novice photographers, we hoped that our tripods and minimal experience with shutter speed would allow us to capture something in the night sky to remember this moment. The Aurora was beautiful, but not as enchanting as many of the photos circling the internet depict them to be. I know the glowing and the dancing Aurora of our dreams happen, but they just didn’t happen for us this time. Regardless, we saw what we had hoped to see. We saw the twinkling, we saw the spinning, and we saw the intermingling of green and white in the night sky. Nothing, not even axe-murderers, can take that experience away.

** I was lucky enough to travel with my friend Katie: a fellow blogger. She blogged about the Northern Lights, too. Same event, different perspectives! Check out her blog here:


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