(Northern) Lights, Camera, Action!

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Third time lucky? Sue and I were certainly hoping so as we blearily pulled on our way-too-warm-for London-winter puffy coats at 4AM, and dragged our bags to the waiting taxi. This would be the third consecutive year that we were to venture to the Arctic Circle in search of the Aurora Borealis, commonly known as the Northern Lights. The previous winters, we had travelled to Norway and Sweden, where we did encounter teases of nature’s awesome night time light display, but although the trips were very enjoyable, they hadn’t satisfied the desire, the lust, the need to experience this incredible natural phenomenon in its full glory.

So here we were, in mid-December, creeping towards the shortest day of the year, venturing north once again. We chose Sweden, but this time a different location: Abisko, in Swedish Lapland. This tiny village and adjacent National Park is known as one of the best places in the world to spot the lights due to its location in the middle of the Auroral Oval, and the generally clear weather conditions, both important factors in Aurora spotting. Abisko also boasts the Aurora Sky Station, a mountaintop destination that, at 900 metres, offers amazing viewing. But more on that later. First we had to get there.

The flight portion of our trip was fine. There’s really something to be said for travelling at an ungodly hour during an off-peak time of year. The airport was a breeze, and our first leg to Stockholm was practically empty. It left us wondering if budget airline Norwegian could even be making a profit on this flight. Perhaps they sold enough crisps and instant coffee to break even. After a brief stopover in Arlanda, we boarded a much fuller flight to Kiruna, a city literally on the move (and home to the famed ice hotel). Whereas the scenery flying into Stockholm was grey with only a smattering of snow on the ground, the area around Kiruna was a winter wonderland, a veritable sea of white. Unfortunately, the sky did not look so inviting. In fact, we were quite concerned as the local forecast was clouds, snow, more clouds, and even more snow. Not conducive at all to sky-watching. But we couldn’t back out now, so we hoped for the best.

By the time we picked up our rental car at the airport, it was nearly 2pm, and already pretty much dark. At this time of year so far north, a few hours of light a day is all we were going to get. When planning the trip, we actually considered this a potential benefit, as it meant more night time in which to see the Aurora. However, the reality is that it’s unlikely to see the lights until ‘proper night time’ anyway, so we were left with much of the day to spend in the dark. Therefore we were going to need lots of food and drink!

We’ve travelled a lot in Norway and Sweden, so learned a long time ago that self-catering is the way to go when travelling here. Restaurants are usually very pricey and not terribly good value, and booze, when you can get it, is shockingly expensive. I mention ‘when you can get it’ because we only remembered when hitting the supermarket in Kiruna, that you are only able to purchase wine and spirits in special state-owned stores called Systembolaget. Fortunately, with the help of our old friend Google, we were able to track down the town boozery, and stock up on enough red wine for the trip.

The drive from Kiruna to Abisko, whilst only about 100kms, turned out to be a bit hairy, with icy roads, occasionally blinding snow, and a moose that fortunately just got across the road before I had to seriously test the anti-lock brakes. We passed another car that hadn’t been so lucky, but at least a passing truck was giving them a hand pulling them out of a snowbank. Needless to say we were very relieved when finally arriving intact at the Abisko hostel (oddly named Abisko.net) where we were to spend the next four nights. We had been fairly ambivalent about accommodation prior to the trip, as the small handful of options in town had some quite mixed reviews. In the end we settled on the hostel as, at least if we were going to have pretty basic accommodation, we wouldn’t be paying through the nose for it. In the end we were very happy with our decision. The staff was super friendly and helpful, we had a private room with a toilet, the kitchen was reasonably well equipped (though I always bring my own sharp knife when self catering) and, perhaps most importantly, they gave us warm snowsuits, boots and mittens!  As the temperature was forecast to be -2C to -14C, we would be practically living in these.

A short recce around town clarified that Abisko was truly a one-horse town…assuming that horse could wear reindeer skins and thermal underwear all winter. It was cold! And not a human in sight. This was fine with us, though, as it was nature we came here to see, not people. We couldn’t avoid them at the hostel, though. When making dinner (which seemed to be quite a gourmet standard compared to the frozen pizzas everyone else was eating), we encountered a number of our fellow tourists. It seemed that nearly every guest was either American or Chinese. A little odd, although I suppose somewhat understandable given the size of both countries’ populations.

Afterwards it was time for our first Aurora hunt. We bundled up, and trudged across town to the lakeside, where supposedly viewing was good when the lights were shining. Lo and behold, the clouds of earlier dissipated, the stars came out, and brought with them our first Aurora sighting of the trip. Yes! We hung about for an hour or so, snapping oodles of pictures, trying to remember how to work the camera that we last used the previous winter in Norway. Experimenting with various ISOs, shutter speeds, etc., all the while trying to keep my fingers from getting frostbite. The convertible mittens/fingerless gloves Sue bought me last year worked well, but could only do so much. What I really needed was to stick my hands in the sliced-open belly of a dead tauntaun. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the Star Wars reference)

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I should stop here and say a few things about the Aurora Borealis. The lights are formed by collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere, and are seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. They are known as Aurora Borealis in the north and Aurora Australis in the south. Auroral displays can appear in many colours, depending on the types of particles. Green is the most common, caused by oxygen molecules.

It’s also worth noting, as people always ask, that the experience of seeing the lights with the naked eye is different from what comes out on film. When the activity is strong, you can see the lights ‘dance’ as they shift and pulsate, but the colours seen are rarely as intense as they appear on photographs. They are fainter, and more greyish/white. Still magical, though. And there’s the added surprise, when after 30 or so seconds, the beautifully coloured Aurora appears in the viewfinder and you know you got the shot!

The next morning was to be our dogsledding experience, which we had arranged with the hostel, as they own their own dogs and sleds. We had a wonderful time dogsledding on our previous Sweden trip, so were looking forward to it. We were slightly nervous, though, as some other guests had said they had fallen off the sleds repeatedly in their go at it the previous day. Ah well, if we were going to fall, at least it should be on to soft snow.

There were 12 guests for sledding – quite a big group – and we were each to get our own sled, so it took some time rounding up the 48 huskies required and harnessing them to the sleds. In teams of 4 to a sled, they needed to be arranged in a specific way so as not to try to fight or fuck each other as we were sledding. To prevent the latter, most of the teams were single sex. As it would turn out, the female teams tended to be the fastest. Girl power!

We were all in a line, brakes firmly applied as the dogs were really raring to go. When given the go-ahead from the staff, we were off. Almost immediately, a driverless sled shot past. The girl behind me had apparently fallen off right at the start, but the dogs had no interest in waiting for her to get back on, so dashed on ahead. This didn’t bode well, but as it turned out, this was to be the only separation of sled and rider for the trip.

We spent the next hour and a half zipping along the trail through the beautifully peaceful snowy woods. One of the great things about dogsledding is the absence of noisy vehicles you would have if you were, say, snowmobiling. Kind of akin to sailing vs. motorboating. It really makes you feel at one with nature.

Sue was riding ahead of me, and her enthusiastic team of bitches (can I say that?) kept running right up behind the rider in front of her, so she had to apply the brakes frequently. Therefore, we were never quite able to build up the head of steam we had in our previous sledding experience two years previously. Also, because there was only one person per sled, the sleds were lighter and less stable, so we had to brake more going around turns and down hills. Still, it was great fun. Pretty hard work, too, holding on for dear life, operating the (very!) manual brakes with our feet, and helping the dogs up hills by pushing along with our legs. When we returned to the kennel, we got to bring the dogs back to their pens, unharness them, have a little cuddle, and get in some photo ops. All in all, a good morning.

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We spent the remainder of the day lunching and then exploring the outskirts of the village. The latter was much slower going than expected as walking in our super heavy (but very warm!) snow boots felt like we were wearing ankle weights. We hiked to the edge of the National Park, but as it was mid-afternoon, we were losing the daylight, so decided to save the park for the next day, and head back to the room for some warmth and to catch up on some videos.

After another gourmet-by-hostel-standards-dinner, we indulged in a Scandinavian institution: the sauna. The word sauna is of Finnish origin, and the Finns are perhaps the most obsessed with them. Supposedly most Finnish embassies, even in hot countries in the Middle East, are equipped with saunas. Not sure how nice a sauna in Saudi Arabia would be, but hey, I’m not Finnish so who am I to say?

Though not quite as ubiquitous, saunas can still be found around the rest of Scandinavia, and we were fortunate that our hostel had their own. They run it quite strictly: showers before entering are required, your own towels and swimsuits are forbidden, no bare bums on the benches, etc. And in proper Scandi style, use of any towels other than to sit on are discouraged. So essentially you’ve got a mixed-sex nude sauna. Shyer people (and never-nudes!) can rent a towel to wrap around, but many people didn’t seem to bother.  The best – and perhaps worst as well – part of the experience was running outside every 15 minutes or so to roll in, or throw snow all over oneself. An intense experience, but one that left us incredibly relaxed afterwards. Supposedly good for the immune system too!

That night we once again ventured out in search of the Aurora. We did see a little activity, but not enough to keep us outdoors in the bitter cold. The following evening was to be our big night out at the Sky Station, and we were banking on some quality viewing, so decided to save our fingertips for then. So back to the room for more wine and videos!

Friday was new moon day, particularly good for Aurora spotting, as there is minimal moonlight to obscure your view. That said, it’s a misconception that you can’t see the lights when there’s a large, or even full moon. The real enemies are clouds and, much to our chagrin, they were out in great numbers again. The weather forecast for the evening didn’t look brilliant either, but one thing we’d learned in our brief stay in Abisko so far was that the weather could change quite quickly, sometimes for the better, so we weren’t panicking yet.

We spent the (vaguely) sunlit portion of the day hiking through the National Park, along the snow-covered Kungsleden trail. King’s Trail in English, it runs about 440 kms from Abisko in the North to Hemavan in the South. It’s a popular through-hike route, but not so much this time of year. Still, the snow-covered woods lit by the pink twilight, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, were beautiful, so we spent a couple of hours enjoying traipsing through the winter wonderland.

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That evening we scraped the ice and snow off our rental car and drove the whopping 3 kms to the National Park to the lower base of the Aurora Sky Station. Here’s where guests get kitted up in extreme cold weather gear to board the chairlift for the 20 minute ride up to the 900m high upper station. We already had our snow suits from the hostel so we didn’t need to take advantage of this, but it’s important to be prepared as there are no cozy gondolas here, or even one of those pull-down covers some ski lifts have. This is a proper old school, fully exposed chair lift, and, given that it was about -10C, those 20 minutes could seem like an eternity if one was underdressed. Fortunately we weren’t, and there wasn’t much wind, so our ride up was quite peaceful and pleasant.

Arriving at the top, there was no Aurora activity visible through the clouds so we went inside to get the lay of the land. We had opted to splash out on the exclusive dinner offered at the station partly in celebration of our anniversary, and partly because, if the weather turned out miserable, and we couldn’t see the lights, at least we would have a bang-up meal to show for the evening. We stripped off some of our layers, and were treated to a welcome cocktail of warm lingonberry juice with vodka. A perfect way to take the chill off, but just as soon as the last of the drinks were sliding down our gullets, somebody came inside and informed us that there was some Aurora action happening outside. Thinking it would be too slow to fully kit back up again, we grabbed hats and gloves and dashed outside. Lo and behold, the now familiar electric green was dancing right above us. Cool! I was fumbling to open my tripod and get the camera settings right, so didn’t really get much in the way of photos by the time the lights faded, but it was good to see that there was activity happening, and that, if we got some more clear skies that evening, we were likely to be in luck. So back inside for the start of our four course gourmet dinner.

And gourmet it was. As we had hoped, the menu was a modern twist on some Nordic classics. For starters there was cured arctic char (similar to smoked salmon) on crisp bread with pickled onion and scallop cream. This was followed by a scrummy mushroom soup with juniper fried pork and pickled chanterelles. The main consisted of topside of moose with potato puree, black kale and sea buckthorn sauce. The dessert was vanilla pannacotta with cloudberry cream and chocolate crisp. Yum! I should also mention that everything was prepared in a tiny open kitchen with minimal supplies, not even any running water! Pretty impressive.

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All through the meal, we were peering out the window, checking the station webcam, and occasionally peeking out the door to see if there were any lights action happening. But, in the middle of the main course, the waiter informed us all that we might want to get our gear on, as there was definitely something outside worth seeing. So we did, and boy, was it! The sky directly above us was on fire, bright green beams dancing across the sky. They felt so close we could practically touch them. One of the local guides said this was an extremely powerful display, one of the best he had seen. We were ecstatic. Months before we had taken a punt on booking our sky station trip for this evening, and our timing couldn’t have been any better. The Aurora was magical. After all these years, we were finally experiencing the Northern Lights as we had dreamed of.

I was snapping away furiously, or at least as fast as one can when having to wait 30 seconds between shots. The lights were actually moving so fast at times that the slow shutter speed caused quite a blurring out of the patterns, creating some rather impressionistic photos. Plus, the red lights shining out from the station gave a colorful contrast to the electric green of the oxygen particles. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, the Geminid Meteor shower was at its peak, so there were also occasional shooting stars skating across the sky. I’m always torn at moments like this between getting the shot and enjoying the views with my eyes. Ultimately I settled for doing a bit of both. Eventually the lights faded a little, and we returned to our now lukewarm, but still delicious, filets of moose.

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After dessert we headed back outside for more fab lights action. Perhaps not quite as intense as the ‘main course’ show, but still beautiful and satisfying. By this point the station had opened up to the general public – diners can arrive three hours earlier than standard visitors – so lots of people were milling about. There are limited tickets sold each night, though, so it never gets too crowded. We stayed for a while longer, and finally headed back down the chairlift around 11PM, as the clouds had rolled in so there was nothing much to see anymore. We were still buzzing from the experience by the time we reached the hostel and crawled into bed.

For our last full day in Lapland we decided to try our hands (and legs…and feet) at cross country skiing. We had done this a couple of times before, but were still pretty green. The hostel provided free skis and boots (another plus of staying here!), and there was a skiing trail right in town, so all very easy. We spent an hour or so sliding around the snow, working up quite a sweat and an appetite for our last hostel lunch of the trip. We agreed that if we lived in such a climate, cross country skiing would definitely have to be a main form of exercise during the winter. But we would most certainly need to learn how to go down hills properly!

After dinner we hit the sauna again. This too, is something I could really get used to. Feeling calmed and refreshed, we ventured out for our final evening of Aurora spotting on the trip. Once again we were rewarded with good activity, and some good photos to show for it. For some reason, I didn’t feel the cold much that night. Perhaps it was the residual effect of the sauna. Or perhaps just the warmth of contentment.

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Sunday morning brought the brightest sunlight we’d encounter on the entire trip, so I used the opportunity to shoot some pics of the village and its surrounds. Then we packed up and drove back to Kiruna, guided by the pink-orange dawn light seamlessly transitioning to red twilight skies. Although we could have easily stayed longer, we were extremely satisfied, having achieved all we’d hoped to on this arctic adventure. As it turned out, three was indeed the magic number. But I’m still looking forward to four…and five…and beyond.

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4 thoughts on “(Northern) Lights, Camera, Action!

  1. Is it possible that I recognise that wooden sign in the first picture from the climb towards the top of Mount Nuolja in the Abisko Valley :)? Nice to see it with these fairytale-green lights instead of the usual circumstances I got in summer 🙂

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      • Depends a bit, I have been going back there for 4 years in a row, two of which had almost not a single drop of rain, but the summer of 2015 and 2012 were pretty wet. But even then, there are plenty of days to admire the midnight sun, so definitely worth it!

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