To See the Northern Lights

It was my final night in the Arctic.

We hiked for two miles through heavy snow under the bent limbs of silver trees. At around midnight, we reached a high clearing, where we only paused to catch our breath and readjust our snowshoes, all the while making quiet, solemn jokes to lighten the mood. Because of the cloud coverage the night before and the seemingly heavy clouds we were having that night as well, it seemed that our chances of seeing the Northern Lights were quickly fading. I'd emptied my pockets to spontaneously fly 4,000 miles to spend just shy of a week in Sweden's Abisko National Park, high above the Arctic Circle where the sun never rose, with the ambitious hopes of seeing the Earth's spectacular natural light show. The aurora borealis has held a rather significant hold on my heart since I was about 11 years old and I became mesmerized with surreal photographs of the Northern Lights in a National Geographic magazine. 

Fast forward to January, 2015, and there I was. Under heavy gray clouds, we paused. Looked at each other, wondering whether to go on or turn around.

But then, out of the corner of my eye,
I saw that the clouds had cleared.

I always told my family that if there was one thing on this planet I had to do before I die, it's see the Northern Lights.

And I did.

The aurora that night was so unusually spectacular that we ended up making a campfire and sat in the snow for four hours as we watched the rays of color streak across the sky. Aurora Borealis doesn’t just sit there and fade. They are exactly as you've dreamed. They dance. They literally dance. They shimmered, they rippled, they waved, they exploded. Exploded. We saw emerald greens, reds, and turquoise woven into white. At one point, and only for a few seconds, right above me was the heart of it all; the epicenter where the aurora explodes on to the earth's atmosphere, where light was radiates streaks in every direction from a center ball of light -- the eye of the aurora, locals told me, which is rare to see. Colors illuminated the sprawling lake at the base of the mountain we sat on, and they touched the jagged snowy horizon from the north to the south, west to the east. Over the fire, we boiled hot lingonberry tea, and as we sipped it out of paper cups and laid with our frozen noses pointed up towards the stars, a local man sat by me and told me, “I have been living in Lapland for almost a decade. And these lights tonight are the best I have seen in years.”

For four hours, we stayed quiet. We sat still. Listened to the fire; listened to a pack of wolves or dogs, somewhere, howling. And we watched the lights.

I can’t possibly put into words what this experience was like, and all this time later, I'm still fathoming how to describe it.

Hours later, I stumbled in an ethereal stupor back to my guesthouse, smelling of campfire smoke, my hair tangled in icy knots, sweet berry tea on my lips, and my cheeks damp and salty from frozen tears.

That night I dreamt of green; of red; of howling wolves; a ribbon painted with color, appearing before my eyes.

I still do.

 

If you want to see the Northern Lights yourself this winter, even if you're on a tight budget or schedule,
here's how I did it.
  • Tickets to Oslo from the U.S. are generally cheap in January, so use that opportunity. Once in Olso, spend a full day or two in the city getting acquainted, adjusted to the time zone, and enjoying the quiet, clean, colorful streets of the Norway capital.
  • From Oslo, take a quick flight to Narvik, a small city far above the Arctic Circle.
  • Daily trains depart from Narvik's main station to Abisko National Park, on the other side of the border, deep in Sweden's frozen tundra. The train trip is about 3 hours, but the journey is unforgettable. (Also, don't be surprised if you're the only one on the entire 8-car train).
  • In Abisko, stay at any of the hotels, but I recommend the Abisko Guesthouse. Next to a decent grocery store, small pub, a lovely 30 minute walk on a moonlit path to the main tourist center (although you can arrange car transfers if you don't want to walk), and 5-10 minutes walk to the massive Abisko lake (excellent for aurora watching). The Guesthouse is reasonably priced for its clean (and warm!) facilities, full kitchen with adjoined large common room, reception area where you can book any activity imaginable, and mostly, a fantastic staff. I really have yet to stay at a guesthouse or hostel where I've adored the staff as much as I did here.
  • Spend at least 3 nights in Abisko. This will give you three chances to see the Lights, and will give you time to get your feet on the ground. I'll be honest: Abisko is extremely disorienting. By noon, the sky is already sinking back into darkness from its steady bluish-mauve tone that it takes on between 10 AM and 2 PM, so it feels like you've wasted the day even if you've only had a cup of coffee and taken a short walk. (If you come in late January or February, you may get some sunlight reflecting on the trees as the sun almost crests the mountain horizon, but you won't actually see the sun for some time).
  • Because of this, I recommend booking plenty of activities before you arrive to be sure that your schedule is full, and to be sure they don't fill up. (Activities such as: dog sledding, snow shoeing, visiting the Sky Station, ice climbing, meeting a herd of reindeer, or even taking a day trip to Narvik or nearby Kiruna to visit the famous Ice Hotel and meet the inhabitants of Sweden's northernmost Arctic city.
  • Bring spare fully-charged camera batteries with you, as the -28*F drains batteries within an hour; and, bring your warmest gloves, hand warmers, face masks, boots, socks, and hats imaginable. The Guesthouse will supply you with heavy-duty Arctic suits to withstand the extreme temperatures, but your extremities will be at risk, and there is a very real possibility of frostbite; consider your face, hands, and feet when packing. You want to be warm and dry.
  • If you want to get photos of the Lights, don't forget your camera tripod. And practice learning how to take long exposure star photos so you can be sure to capture the landscape. (Hint: ISO 1200, f/stop 3.5, shutter speed 30 seconds, lens on manual and focused on furthest point, and if you don't have a cable release, turn your camera on a timer so when you press the shutter button you don't cause camera shake)
  • After Abisko, back track down to Oslo, and fly home. If you want to extend your wintry stay in Scandinavia, you can spend a night or two in Narvik, or explore Norway's Lofoten Islands (although they are notoriously cloudy in the winter, so be sure you get your fill of the Lights in Abikso in case you see none in Lofoten), or stop over in Stockholm; there is nothing like that city in a light snowfall with a cup of hot chocolate in your hands.
Flying into the Arctic. Narvik, Norway.

Flying into the Arctic. Narvik, Norway.

A lone house in the tundra. View from the train to Lapland. This is the sky at noon.

A lone house in the tundra. View from the train to Lapland. This is the sky at noon.

Reindeer spotted in the forest between Abisko and Narvik

Reindeer spotted in the forest between Abisko and Narvik

A dog team pulls his musher

A dog team pulls his musher

After being outside in -30*F for three minutes, everything starts to freeze

After being outside in -30*F for three minutes, everything starts to freeze

Frozen forests of Lapland

Frozen forests of Lapland