#8 - Hunting for northern lights

After another 19 hour train journey from Stockholm, I pulled into my destination around 18:00. There was very little I could find about Abisko online and being in the north of Sweden in Winter, I was definitely not in the tropics any more. I was slightly concerned.

I can’t remember how it began, but I was fascinated by auroras. I remember showing a youtube video to my mom and trying to explain what it was to her. She had never heard of them before or seen them even in video. After moving to CZ, I was getting bored of visiting random cities and when I thought of something different to do, it struck me that I can see the aurora borealis (northern lights) from Europe. And then reality set in. Hunting northern lights was not going to be easy.

For one thing, the northern lights could only be seen from Scandinavian countries which were not cheap. On top of that, the northern lights were only visible during winter when the nights were long. Winter this far north was brutal. Temperatures sometimes hit as low as -40C which was more below zero that the positive temperatures I was built for.

After deliberating between the north of Norway and Sweden, I settled on Sweden since I could find more written about it. Next there was the issue of funding this trip. Even now, it still remains the most expensive trip I have ever taken. I decided on going in March so that it wouldn’t be as cold and so that I could recover my finances after the expensive skiing season. However my finances were critical when I set off due an unexpectedly long trip to Spain but that wasn’t what worried me. What did concern me was that I would be facing some of the coldest temperatures in my life which I wasn’t used to at all. Unlike my trip to the alps, I am on my own for this one.

Navigating myself to the hostel from the station, I was happy to find that it did in fact exist. I had booked through the hostel’s website directly, there was no booking.com up here. Checking in and dropping my bags by the bed, I realized I had no idea what to do next. Until now, I was only focused on getting here. I was going to be here for 3 more days and due to the lack of info online, I couldn’t plan ahead. Plus, I couldn’t find anything about how to actually see the northern lights, about where and when to go for it. There were several activities organized by the hostel itself but some of them cost more than my budget for the entire trip

Feeling clueless, I decided to ask the reception. When I got there, I found a couple asking the same questions. The guy behind the reception was super friendly and smiled widely when I mentioned that I was on a tight budget. He gave me a map and pointed out where to go to hunt for the lights and the paths where I could hike around the next day. The couple overheard our conversation and asked whether I would like to join them for the hunt to which I instantly agreed.

We agreed to set off at 20:30. Feeling like the Michelin man after putting on everything I had brought, I stepped out and glanced expectantly at the sky. I saw only darkness. Northern lights myth bust #1, the northern lights don’t show up all the time, they only appear for a few minutes, perhaps several times a night and no one knew when. You had to watch, maybe for hours and IF you are lucky, they might show up.

Walking down to the frozen lake according to the advice we got before, I learnt more about my companions. Originally from Bangalore, they had moved to Berlin around 2 years ago and were now travelling all around Europe. As we walked, I kept glancing up. At one point, I saw a faint green glow. “I must be hallucinating” I pondered out aloud. But then the glow grew a bit brighter. “You aren’t hallucinating man” exclaimed Varun pulling out his camera. Indeed, I had just caught my first glimpse of the northern lights.

I have to admit it was underwhelming at first. Did I come all this way just for this dim glow in the sky? It was nothing compared to the videos I had seen before. But according to my companions who had caught a sighting before, this was a good one. Maybe I could see more by the lake. I quickened my pace, forging ahead of my companions into the darkness. I was eager to setup my tiny tripod and try out some long exposure shots. Looking around the lake shore, I saw what looked like a parked trawler. I snuck onboard and discovered a platform in the back with a railing running across it. Perfect. I set up and starting experimenting. Eventually the lights grew brighter and formed a subtly dancing arch. Northern lights myth bust #2, the lights aren’t as bright as they seem in the photos. Instead they have a much softer green and white with a mix of bright violet. By setting a long exposure time on the camera, the camera caught more light than you could see. Where I saw plain darkness, a long exposure shot captured a green glow. This meant that sometimes even if the lights were there, you couldn’t see them.

It had been close to an hour now and I wanted to stay longer just in case the lights grew brighter. But there was a problem. My foot was freezing. While the rest of my random attire fared pretty well against the cold, the shoe I was wearing simply could not take it, especially since I was standing still. My feet felt like slabs of ice and reluctantly, out of sheer concern for my foot, I decided to return and warm up. In my excitement in getting to the lake, I didn’t realize how far it was from the hostel. I had a long way to go.

Saying goodbye to my companions who were better dressed than I was, I starting walking back as fast as I could. I hoped that I wouldn’t miss anything and I kept glancing up at the sky as I walked. My feet felt worse as ever and my only thought was getting back inside the warm hostel. Soon I was on the lit street from the station to the hostel. 200 meters more to go and that’s when it happened.

As I glanced up at the sky, I saw the sky fill up with pulsating bars of light. I was expecting to hear majestic music like in the videos I had watched before. Instead there was just silence as the lights danced away in the night sky. It was breathtaking. I have to capture this. Looking around, I saw a pile of snow by the side of the road. I leapt into the snow bank alongside the road and setup my mini tripod on the pile of snow, to capture the shot you see below.

Northern lights

A few minutes later, the show slowly faded away and I resumed my retreat while processing what had just happened. Had I stayed on the trawler, I would not have seen this. The bright street was not ideal for a sighting either but somehow I had spotted it. Getting inside, I saw some people seated around the kitchen table. “You guys should be out there!” I exclaimed. They said that they just been out and seemed calm which bothered me. I wanted them to see what I had just seen.

I set off again later that night to the helipad which was supposed to be a better viewpoint closer to the hostel. But for the rest of the night, the lights were only a dim glow. It was nothing compared to the show I saw before.

The limited guidance online recommended staying in the north for at least 4 days to maximize the chances of catching a show. I could only afford to stay for 3 days and over the next 2 days, the lights didn’t show up at all. I felt very sorry for the couple that arrived one day after me and couldn’t catch a sighting by the time I left. All things considered, I had been very lucky.