I recall a warm summer evening, about forty years ago, when I reclined on the rocky shore of Lake Champlain to watch a distant aurora borealis dance across the stars of the far northern sky. Ever since then I’ve held a quiet fascination with this phenomenon, determined to see the northern lights “for real” some day. I’ve longed to visit the Arctic, in part so I might see the northern lights. This weekend – capping a week of academic travel in Finland and Sweden – was my first opportunity to travel above the Arctic Circle. I flew to a tiny village in the far northern tip of Sweden – so close it was practically in Norway – and spent two nights standing in the snow, watching the sky above Abisko National Park. Did I see the aurora? yes! Was I satisfied? no; if anything, I want to return to see more! From the other people I met there, it is clear that Abisko has that affect on many people. Read on, and check out the photo gallery.
I landed just before midnight in Kiruna, Sweden, on a plane packed with a hundred other tourists. At this late hour, I was glad to catch a ride into town and bunk in at a cheap motel on the outskirts of town. I was glad to see snow – both Oulu Finland and Uppsala Sweden were basically snowless, highly unusual for mid-winter. Here was a working-class town where snowmobiles and overalls were as common as the snowdrifts.
I spent the next morning exploring the strip mall across the street, waiting for the bus to Abisko National Park. Kiruna is a mining town – with massive strip mines and underground mines pulling iron ore from the earth and shipping it by rail to ports on the Norwegian coast. (Indeed, the mining company is paying to slowly move the entire village of Kiruna two miles east, because the mines have destabilized the area and put some parts of the village at risk.) A two-lane highway, the E-10, follows this rail line and serves as the access road to Abisko National Park, close to the Norwegian border.
Abisko National Park was founded in 1909 on the shore of Torneträsk, one of Sweden’s largest lakes. There is a small (tourist-focused) village just outside the park, and a “STF Turiststation” run by the Swedish tourist association. I stayed two nights at the cozy STF hotel, with its extensive facilities and direct access to trails and all the winter activities one can imagine. Abisko has clearly been “discovered”, and was packed with tourists from UK, US, Australia, and Asia. One reason: Abisko supposedly sits in a “blue hole” – a weather window created by the local mountains that keeps the sky clear here when the region is covered in clouds. Most people, like me, are here to see the northern lights.
Here at 68°21″ N, about 195 km (121 mi) north of the Arctic Circle, the sun does rise in late January – but not for long, and it never makes an appearance behind the mountains to the south. (I’m told there is a big celebration on February 1st when the sun finally peeks above the hilltops!) This Friday, the sun rose above the (unseen) horizon at 9:46am and set at 2:10pm; for a photographer, it is ‘golden hour’ all day! My bus thus arrived after dark, two hours out from Kiruna. I was soon settled into the cozy hotel restaurant for a hearty meal of reindeer filet and stout beer. Because I was dining solo and the restaurant has only tables for six, I was asked to share a table, and ended up in a lovely conversation with a another solo traveler – a young woman from Berlin who was a computer-science major and recent graduate; now a web developer, she enjoys her job but loves to travel.
After dinner I dressed for the cold and met Allison, my photography guide from Lights over Lapland (LoL?), one of the two major photo-tour outfits in the area. This night there were nine other guests for her nightly aurora-photography tour. After a short walk beyond the edge of the TuristStation compound, we found ourselves on a hillside overlooking Lake Torneträsk. This is one of LoL’s regular locations, complete with a warming hut for those who want a break from the cold: a large teepee with interior woodstove and benches draped with reindeer pelts, a pot of lingonberry juice warming on the stovetop. As we arrived on site it was immediately clear that the aurora was out tonight! She quickly instructed everyone in the use of the cameras and tripods, and we were soon filling memory cards with the green glow of the northern lights. It was a bit cloudy, unfortunately, and the clouds grew thicker throughout the evening, so we never really had a good view of the aurora. I was glad I’d booked another tour for the next night; perhaps the lights (and the location) would be better then.
Saturday morning it was partly clear when I met Nigel, my guide for the Landscape Photography tour. I was the only customer that day, giving me a fantastic opportunity for a one-on-one lesson and control over the pace and itinerary of our exploration for the next four hours (four of the five hours with sunlight). As we stepped outside, however, the clouds rolled in and it began to snow lightly. I had envisioned sweeping landscapes of snow-covered mountains, windswept ice across vast lakes, and rocky shorelines. With persistent snowfall, there was little such “landscape” photography to be done! Nigel nonetheless guided me to some interesting scenes – the upper canyon of the Abiskojåkka river, the shoreline of Lake Torneträsk – where we could try to capture “micro-landscapes” of water, snow, ice, rock, and bare trees. Nigel – a longtime manager from the UK National Health Service, with a PhD in microbiology – decided a few years ago it was far more fun to spend his winters in Abisko pursuing his photography interest than to stay in his management job. Interesting fellow!
We followed some of the local trails – well marked and well traveled – but in one place we found no broken trail and set out to reach the lakeshore anyway. Although the destination was in sight, perhaps only 200m away, we floundered in deep snow up to our thighs (or sometimes, above our waists), and decided to turn back. Maybe today would have been a better day for snowshoeing than photography!
On the way back to the hotel we encountered a loose reindeer trotting down the middle of the road. (All reindeer are domesticated and herded by the Sami tribes. Reindeer meat is common on menus; I think I ate reindeer for at least seven meals this week.)
A heavy snowstorm rolled in, and I spent an hour in the hotel to wait it out; by the time it ended (about 2:30pm) the sun had set and the lengthy afternoon twilight set in. I set out on my own to explore the lower canyon, where the Abiskojåkka river rolls into Lake Torneträsk, and had the trails to myself. With no tripod, photography was difficult in the fading light, but I managed some interesting scenes with shutter speeds at 1/30th or even 1/8th second, handheld on a fence railing. I spent a long time watching two ice climbers scaling a small waterfall, in the glow of a bright light, not far from the hotel. It felt terribly late in the day, but it was only 3:20pm.
Soon I was back for another fine dinner (of reindeer) in the Turiststation restaurant. This time I was joined by a retired woman from Perth, who had recently settled in Izmir, Turkey. From this conversation, also delightful, it was clear she loved to travel and saw Turkey as a base from which to explore Europe for a few years, before moving on to Central America as her next home. So interesting! She also told me a lot of sad news about the fires in Australia.
I layered up and met Allison in the lobby for my second nightly aurora-photo tour. This time there was only one other guest – also a veteran of an earlier tour. We three set out on foot to the same snowy ledge where I’d spent last evening. Allison had hoped to take us to one of the other LoL locations, but apparently the teepee at that site had been temporarily occupied by two moose who were not keen on sharing it with us tonight. There was a faint green glow on the cloudy horizon, and we duly took a few photographs. I stepped off the beaten path to explore different angles – the scrubby birch trees here don’t provide very interesting foreground material – and sank up to my waist in deep powder. (I love this stuff!) Here’s a view of our site, looking back toward Abisko STF, and the bright line of a chairlift slowly bringing tourists to the hilltop restaurant.
The aurora not being very active tonight, we three spent time chatting and sharing lingonberry tea around the stove in the teepee. Allison was from Brisbane, a former nurse midwife who decided to pursue her passion for photography. After a couple of holiday visits to Abisko she felt “seduced” by the place, and signed on as a photo guide and returns every winter, like Nigel, to work for Lights over Lapland.
The other customer was a young woman from Latvia, who managed the customer-support hotline for a print-on-demand company. She worked from home – evenings, to match the US market timing – and took the job primarily to improve her English and to make enough money to feed her passion for travel. She spoke fluent English, Russian, Latvian, and Estonian – and was learning Norwegian. Wow. She had been in Abisko for a week, and had spent Wednesday night with LoL’s photo tour. That night, there was nothing to see at first, but suddenly the sky erupted in a full-dome spectacle of multi-colored dancing aurora. It was so beautiful, she said, that people wept; the guide fell down with astonishment. Gosh. I was two days too late!
So, after my two nights on Aurora Watch, my best aurora photograph turned out to be the one I took three minutes after arriving at the ledge for the first time. [Nikon D500: 6s at f/2.8, ISO 1600, 16mm lens. My later experiments led me to realize I should shoot for 15s and lower the ISO, but by then the clouds had obscured more of the aurora.]
Sunday morning I was set to leave on the morning bus back to Kiruna airport. Of course, that’s the morning the sky broke brilliant blue and completely clear of clouds. I had to be ready to hop the bus shortly after sunrise, so I had barely one hour of morning twilight in which I could dash outdoors – in sub-zeroF temperatures – to do some last-minute photography. It was a gorgeous morning and, again without a tripod, I managed some nice shots. I really need to return with more time so I can reach some better locations.
I’d love to visit again. With more time I’d like to snowshoe and ski some of the local trails; to visit the Sámi village and learn more about traditional Sámi culture; visit the famous IceHotel; and perhaps hike parts of the Kungsleden (“King’s trail”, a long-distance hiking trail starting at Abisko STF and heading south for 440km).
Be sure to check out the photo gallery for more! And, if you want to track our adventures, by email or RSS, click “Follow” at above right.
There are many websites (and apps) that offer real-time forecast about aurora conditions, worldwide. The following list is from Dave Morrow:
- Space Weather Live OVATION Auroral Forecast
- NOAA POES Auroral Activity Website
- Iceland’s Vedur Aurora Forecast
- Space Weather Aurora Forecast
I booked three photo tours with Lights over Lapland, one of the two or three major photo-tour outfits in the area. It was easy to book in advance, and very convenient because they depart directly from the lobby of the Abisko STF. You can book same-day on-site, but they sometimes fill up and so I chose to book in advance. They provide the camera, tripod, and a warm snowsuit; pretty much all you need to do is press the shutter button. I used my own camera – and their tripod – because I was interested in experimenting and learning the techniques. On Saturday morning I booked a “landscape photography tour” – and was the only customer! I had a 1:1 experience with Nigel, a guide from UK.
As preparation, I studied numerous websites to learn more about photographing the Northern Lights, including:
They are somewhat redundant but each offers at least one tidbit not mentioned by the others. Dave Morrow’s site seemed most comprehensive, and I used his video to learn how to post-process in Lightroom and Photoshop.
- Abisko STF TuristStation – excellent lodging, restaurant, nature center, equipment rentals, and access to trails and activities. An easy walk to the canyon, lake shore.
- Easy connections to Kiruna airport by the VisitAbisko bus service; or access by rail from Kiruna or even Stockholm.
- Many activities are easily booked in advance on VisitAbisko.
- I monitored the weather forecast on this site.
- You can watch the Lights over Lapland webcam, for armchair travel! The image includes the Abisko STF in the foreground.