by David Evans
Published June 6, 2015 in Escape – News Corp
IN 2014, Lonely Planet named a place called Abisko, in Northern Sweden, the best place in the world to see the mysterious aurora borealis. Bucket list item No.1. I was on my way.
I flew into the Arctic Circle from Stockholm over an expanse of lakes, snow and muted green forest, glimpsed between pregnant, snowy clouds. The plane teetered from wingtip to wingtip and descended rapidly through a clearing, down on to the runway at Kiruna.
A smiling Klara from Nutti Sami Siida, an authentic Sami eco-tourism outfit, welcomed me. Her smile disappeared as she glanced at my thin jacket. “You will die if we don’t get you some warmer clothes.”
Outside the terminal, we encountered a large sled attached to a pack of whining huskies impatient to pick up a group of frozen, gobsmacked guests.
Klara took our group to a forest storeroom filled with all manner of serious polar clothing. We waddled out into the snow like penguins in bubble wrap, sweating under all the layers but not daring to shed any lest we perish on the first day.
We stayed at Reindeer Lodge near Jukkasjarvi, the small arctic village made famous by the world’s first Ice Hotel. Its picturesque lakeside setting was straight out of a children’s picture book. If Santa’s elves held team-bonding weekends, this would be the venue. Thick snow on cabin roofs, like wedding cake frosting. Icicles clinging to the eves, resembling translucent organ pipes.
Our local guide, Peter Rosen, who authored the well-known photographic book on the northern lights Aurora Borealis in Lapland, took us to the forest. We spent the afternoon photographing reindeer using Peter’s dazzling array of photographic equipment piled in the back of his van like presents in Santa’s sleigh. The air was still. Lightly falling snow rested like icing sugar on the reindeers’ antlers. The mid-winter sun, hidden below the horizon, lavished hours of soft blue, pink and apricot twilight.
The next day Nils, the owner of the lodge, took us reindeer sledding through breathtaking fields and forests of powder snow and sparkling frost, over rivers and frozen lakes. Nils’ singsong Swedish instructions to the reindeer rang out through the forest on the still air. The atmosphere was electric.
Unlike us, Nils and his assistant, Nila, wore traditional Sami clothing. With pointy, upturned reindeer skin boots and bright blue, yellow, orange and red tunics, they looked resplendent against the crisp, white snow.
“Aren’t you cold?” I asked him. After all, it was -22C. Nila laughed. “Freezing my arse off!”
Peter informed us during dinner that there was a high chance of aurora that evening, so we bundled into the van and began stalking the silent roads of Lapland.
Half an hour later, Peter parked the van and led us by torchlight down through a small valley to the shores of Lake Tornetrask, one of the largest lakes in Sweden. The lake had not yet frozen over, its only sound the gulp of gentle waves beneath a thin layer of shore ice. Frozen-fingered, we set up our tripods and cameras.
Right on cue, the curtains lifted. The show began like a tuning orchestra, softly at first with no discernible form, only a faint glow on the horizon. No, it was gone. A brief moment passed.
Then the drama commenced. The sky swelled with voluminous bands of green light, illuminating the lake and our astounded faces.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. Momentarily, I forgot to breathe. The heavens began to move – gently at first, rippling like the bow wave of a canoe, then faster, like the skirt of a cuttlefish. Colours merged and morphed from neon green to pink and crimson, and shades in between.
With so much happening, I swivelled my two cameras like a machine gunner in a dogfight. I’d seen the pictures but had no idea it moved so much. One minute a billowing silk curtain – the next, an electric scythe, flashing from one horizon to another.
After an hour of astonishment and appropriate blasphemy, we watched the sky fall into an inky black, starry sleep. In dreamy silence, we retraced our route to Reindeer Lodge.
The next day we drove towards Norway into the mountains to Abisko. The unique topography creates a rain shadow, producing clearer weather than the rest of northern Scandinavia. It’s home to the Aurora Sky Station, purpose-built for northern lights viewing.
The evening wasn’t at all promising. Clouds hung low around the side of the mountain, swallowing the chair lift within 100m. It made for an eerily quiet journey up the mountain, into the blinding fog – and out the other side into a vast, starry, obsidian sky. Within seconds of setting up our tripods, the show began again. The only thing missing was popcorn.
If the previous night was Carnegie Hall then this was Wembley Stadium, brighter and more colourful – and faster moving. The entire expanse of sky was filled with dancing northern lights.
I spent the next three hours lying on my back in the snow, gathering memories with my eyeballs.
After midnight, we descended through the fog in a state of weary, silent reflection. As I stumbled into bed in the cosy STF Mountain Station, I wondered what I would do with myself now that bucket-list item No.1 had been kicked. I felt like an astronaut returned from the moon.
The following morning we returned to the airport across a radiant landscape of fresh, overnight snow.
After takeoff, the plane ascended steeply through dark clouds. When we finally burst through, the gentle golden sun was waiting for us, low on the horizon. I opened my eyes wide, absorbing vitamin D directly into my retinas, and found myself smiling. I wanted to sleep for a million years but nothing could wipe the grin from my face.
David Evans is a Lonely Planet and freelance travel photographer and writer. He was a guest of Nutti Sami Siida — Reindeer Lodge and STF Mountain Station — Abisko