Seeing the Northern Lights in Abisko, Sweden

Seeing The Northern Lights In Abisko, Sweden

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.

Seeing The Northern Lights In Abisko, Sweden

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.

Seeing The Northern Lights In Abisko, Sweden

Seeing The Northern Lights In Abisko, Sweden

Seeing The Northern Lights In Abisko, Sweden

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.

Seeing The Northern Lights In Abisko, Sweden

Seeing The Northern Lights In Abisko, Sweden

Seeing The Northern Lights In Abisko, Sweden

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.

Aurora Sky Station: Website
Address: Abisko Turiststation, 981 07 Abisko

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Seeing The Northern Lights In Abisko, Sweden

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  • Hannah
    May 21, 2015 at 2:41 PM

    Amazing photos! I can even imagine it moving across the night sky!

  • Ashley | Domestic Fashionista
    March 10, 2015 at 3:11 AM

    You got wonderful photos! I’m not sure if I told you but we were able to see the northern lights in iceland so I had quite the flashbacks reading your story! Risky tickets, freezing cold…I’m beginning to think it’s a scam! Lol. We lucked out though. Pretty spectacular. Glad you guys were able to see them!

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 10, 2015 at 5:15 PM

      That is awesome!! Did you write about the experience – I think I missed it if you did! I would have been incredibly disappointed to go all the way to northern Sweden and not see them, but that happens all the time, so it’s definitely a risky trip!

      • Ashley | Domestic Fashionista
        March 10, 2015 at 9:05 PM

        Nope, haven’t posted about it yet! One of these days! Just finally finished editing them all and printed a few for around the house. :) We talked to a few people at the airport who were in Iceland for a week and never saw the northern lights. We were there for two nights and lucked out! It really is up to chance!

  • Amy
    March 9, 2015 at 12:26 PM

    This looks like such a unique trip, the kind you’ll always remember! We saw the Northern Lights in Iceland last year and I did so much research on how to take a good photo – I managed one slightly iffy picture as the light show was fleeting, but I’m pretty proud of it! The tour guide told us a story about one year where the lights were so amazing they could even be seen from Reykjavik, so the government arranged the following night to turn off all the street lights to give everyone in the city a better view. Sadly they didn’t appear, but it shows how amazing Iceland is!

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 10, 2015 at 5:13 PM

      That is really cool how the whole city shut their lights off to allow everyone to see the lights! I’m so happy you got to see the lights in Iceland! I hope to do that eventually, too. Hopefully I will be better prepared to take photos next time. And hopefully there won’t be thirty other people in the same exact spot as me trying to do the same. ;)

  • topchelseagirl
    March 8, 2015 at 7:48 PM

    Wow, how stunning! Well worth the effort to get there.

  • rorybore
    March 8, 2015 at 4:11 AM

    aren’t they glorious!!? it’s the amazing thing I’ve ever witnessed… and just like you said; I imagine it’s the closest thing to actually being in Space.
    That’s what my alias name stands for, you know? “Rorybore” is how my then 2 and half year old daughter tried to say “aurora borealis.” I can’t blame her one bit for being tongue tied under the spell of dancing lights.
    I don’t flatter myself to think people react the same when thinking of me. LOL But I do hope that I am a little bit of a colourful, dancing light in this world. mostly I am just a dork. :)

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 8, 2015 at 5:54 PM

      You know, I think that is the perfect name to describe you! I’m glad you shared that story with me. I had wondered a long time ago what the nickname was all about, but then I guess I just got used to seeing that name pop up and never asked!

      • rorybore
        March 8, 2015 at 8:01 PM

        my hubby didn’t want me to use my real name when I first started blogging — but now the cat is kinda out of the bag; but most know me by both names. it confuses even me some days :)

  • Sammy @ Days Like This
    March 7, 2015 at 4:09 PM

    I love this post, Sarah! You described the moment so well. I am so glad you got to see the Northern Lights. When I was at Abisko, I chose not to go up to the Sky Station, because the weather conditions weren’t very good. I saw the lights briefly from our accommodation and they were beautiful. Your pictures turned out so well! Those stars – oh baby!

  • Alyson Tart
    March 6, 2015 at 1:56 PM

    So glad you got to see them! We just had bad luck I suppose – but a reason to go back!

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 8, 2015 at 5:35 PM

      Or try seeing them somewhere else! It’ll be awhile before I’m ready to do another cold weather trip again, but I’d totally be up for trying to see the lights in Norway or Iceland, too!

      • Alyson Tart
        March 9, 2015 at 4:42 PM

        We saw them in Iceland in 2013, although I would love to do Iceland again anyways! We have thought about Norway as well, we’ve visited Bergen & Oslo, but I hear Tromso is good for Northern Lights!

  • Polly - Let's Love Local
    March 5, 2015 at 4:03 PM

    Wow, those photos are unbelievable. I absolutely agree, the stars themselves are show stopping!

  • The Journey of Christine
    March 5, 2015 at 8:14 PM

    Wow, stunning! I can only imagine what it’s like in person! Totally worth braving the cold weather!

  • kshakya @ thefunkybeans
    March 5, 2015 at 7:18 PM

    Watching the northern lights has been in my wishlist for a long time now!

  • Katrin
    March 5, 2015 at 6:52 PM

    Oh WOW! Your pictures are absolutely breathtaking! Thank you so much for sharing! They are fabulous! What a magical place! You are so brave, I am pretty sure I could not do this. I am always cold when others are not so this sounds like torture to me! :)

  • Emma @ AdventuresofaLondonKiwi
    March 5, 2015 at 1:16 PM

    Utterly breathtaking, just wonderful, your photos are beautiful! I miss stars, it’s probably the hardest aspect of London life!

  • Amanda @ Positively Amanda
    March 5, 2015 at 1:02 PM

    Looks absolutely lovely! Definitely something I want to see one day, hopefully soon :)