When we told people we were going to Sweden for the half-term break, most of them automatically assumed we’d be in Stockholm since the rest of the country this time of year is pretty frigid. Even once we arrived in Stockholm, when the lady checking our passports at customs asked what our plans were in the city and we told her we were actually headed much farther up north, she, a Swede herself, just gave us a wide-eyed look and said, ‘But it’s so cold up there!’ Everyone’s reactions to the news of us heading into the Arctic Circle in the middle of February were totally warranted – it is cold, and it is windy, and the nighttime hours are double the daylight hours, but there are plenty of pros for heading so far up north in the winter and the one that topped the list for us was the greater chance of getting a glimpse of the elusive northern lights in Abisko, Sweden.
I’d done a lot of research for this trip, even so far as to read meteorological reports for the last three years for the places I thought might be the best for us to see the northern lights from. If that’s not dedicated travel planning, I don’t know what is. I eventually settled on trying to see the northern lights in Abisko for two reasons – one, thanks to atmospheric conditions affected by the surrounding Lake Torneträsk, the Aurora Sky Station in Abisko has a pretty good track record for aurora sightings, even when the weather isn’t optimal, and two, Abisko National Park looked absolutely gorgeous in photos, so I knew even if we didn’t get lucky enough to see the lights, our trip would still have been worth it for the outstanding scenery alone.
But get lucky we did. We arrived in Abisko at 10pm and already the northern lights were starting to put on a show. I knew if we could make them out through all the light pollution from the Abisko Turiststation then if we got up to the Aurora Sky Station right away, we’d have a much better view. We dumped our bags in our cabin, threw on every single layer of clothing we brought, and ran (as fast as one can run on snow and ice) to the chair lift that would take us all the way up Mount Nuolja to the Aurora Sky Station.
We had bought our tickets in advance, which was risky since you have to select a particular night when you do that, but tickets were selling out fast due to the half-term break, so we picked our first night and hoped for the best. Thankfully, the northern lights decided to show up, otherwise we would have just paid for a very expensive chair lift ride!
First let’s talk about what we looked like going up there – underneath the padded coveralls the Sky Station supplied us with, we are wearing a thermal base layer on both top and bottom, extra thick ski pants for our second bottom later, a fleece mid-layer and a thick coat on top, thermal gloves, ski gloves, scarves, thermal socks, snow boots, and then ear warmers, a hat, and a balaclava for our heads. And you know what? It still wasn’t enough. I was grateful for every layer I had, but if they made those air-activated hand warmers in a full body size, I would have been wearing one of those, too. Nothing could have prepared me for cold like what we experienced at the Aurora Sky Station.
I noticed it immediately on our way up. It’s a little easier to ignore the cold when you’re moving, but when you’re dangling on an open-air ski lift for 20 minutes, moving up the mountain at a snail’s pace, there’s not a lot of moving you can do, especially if you’re scared you’re going to slip out of the lift and fall to your death. The cold somehow seeped through all of my layers within minutes and for the next two hours, it was a struggle for me to make any wide movements because my muscles were so tense. The only good thing I can say about that ride was that we had a front row seat for one magnificent light show. Stretching clear across the whole sky in Abisko, the northern lights were dancing in various shades of emerald, and I have never wanted my camera in my hands so badly. While I would have been disappointed if the lights had disappeared before we got our camera equipment set up, I knew I’d still be able to go home happy because even just seeing the aurora is something truly special.
Phillip Pullman describes this phenomenon better than I ever could in his book The Northern Lights, which I finished, coincidentally, just days before leaving on this trip –
The sight filled the northern sky; the immensity of it was scarcely conceivable.
As if from heaven itself, great curtains of delicate light hung and trembled.
Pale green and rose pink, and as transparent as the most fragile fabric,
and at the bottom edge a profound and fiery crimson like the fire of hell,
they swung and shimmered loosely with more grace than the most skillful dancer.
While the curtains of color we’d been watching as we rose up the mountain had largely stopped by the time we arrived, bold streaks of green were still quite prominent in the sky. Working as a team, Cory and I set up our equipment at record speed. It was clear the show was coming to an end and we still wanted to try and capture as much of it as we could. Lexie, bless her heart, couldn’t stand the cold and spent most of the time inside the heated Sky Station, watching the lights from the windows. (A very good option if you’re not interested in taking photos. I never went inside, so I don’t even know what’s in there!)
Photographing the aurora is something I had never done, obviously, and while there are many things I’d change about these photos if I could, I’m still quite proud of how they turned out considering my ignorance of optimal settings, etc. I simply set my focus to infinity – it was so dark up there that looking through the viewfinder, I could see nothing, not even a speck of light other than the stars, so focusing on anything was out. I alternated between a shutter speed of 25 and 30 seconds with as wide an aperture as my lens would go (f/4.0). The wind made it difficult to keep my camera and tripod steady, but predicting where the northern lights would show up next was the really impossible part. I’d have my camera pointed one way, when suddenly the lights would disappear and show up in an entirely different spot, requiring me to uproot my tripod and get everything set up again. Of course, by then, the lights had moved again. I only took 17 photos, and of those I was pleased with about 10. Good odds for a first-timer, I think.
Mostly, I just tried to take in the beauty of it all – the lights, the stars, the snow-covered tundra surrounding us. Maybe it was because we were on top of a mountain, or maybe the sky really is closer to the earth the further north you go, but it felt like we were so close to the stars that we could reach out and touch them. I haven’t seen the stars this clearly in years, maybe ever. I could have stood there gazing at them all night if I hadn’t been sincerely worried about going into shock from the cold.
And then just like that, it was all over. The other photographers, whose ghostly bodies and LCD screens unfortunately feature prominently in my photos, packed up their stuff right away, but since we had only just arrived half an hour earlier, we stuck around for another 15 minutes just in case they came back. They didn’t, but my goodness – would you look at those stars? Photographing them was just as fun as the lights themselves. We were the last ones off the mountain that night, except for the staff. It was even scarier going down without the distraction we had on the way up, but what an incredible start to our trip! I couldn’t sleep that first night from a combination of residual excitement and trying to get my body back up to an acceptable temperature. (It took hours for me to stop shivering!)
We would see the northern lights one other time on our trip, and even though the colors were even brighter and bolder that night, it couldn’t compete with our first sighting, standing on the top of the world, seemingly inches from the earth’s atmosphere. I’ll never know what it’s like to go into space, but this felt pretty darn close! Seeing the northern lights in Abisko was worth every minute of the eighteen hours it took us to get here.
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