Chasing Aurora Borealis in the Arctic

Two women’s journey to Swedish Lapland to search for the elusive northern lights ❄️

3 mins
Written by:
Tess Marslen

I had been studying in Uppsala, Sweden, for eight months before I decided to visit Lapland. It was one of those journeys my fellow exchange students spoke of with wide eyes, weaving tales of Santa Claus and the elusive aurora borealis. I was on a tight budget and had reservations about my chances of seeing the lights. Chasing a delicate blend of solar activity and a sky devoid of clouds during the winter months seemed improbable at best.

"Get a grip. We're going to see it," said Isa, my new Kiwi roommate. "Just book the train."

The evening we left was still and cold, even for March. Spring was late to settle in Stockholm and buses had been delayed all week due to late snow. We funnelled into the Central Station, trying to balance our bags as we munched cheap kiosk kanelbullar (cinnamon buns) and eyed off the trekking jackets hanging fashionably from the shoulders of passing Swedes. The 14-hour overnight journey ahead would take us into the heart of Swedish Lapland.  

Photo by Phil Hearing

Excitement crept in as we waited on the platform. Even without the aurora, we were about the enter a landscape I only knew from the BBC Chronicles of Narnia.

Our snug cabin, while not extravagant, provided solace amid the winter wilderness. We had managed to secure a second-class private compartment with two beds and a lovely view of the Swedish woodlands.  

First stop was Kiruna, Sweden’s most northern city, famous for being moved building by building after the iron ore mine beneath it created subsistence risk. Like many isolated mining towns, the atmosphere in Kiruna was at once homely and gritty. Isa and I had arranged to couch surf with some local women, whose home smelled of roast potatoes and was decorated with reindeer skins.  

“If you like architecture, make sure you see our little church!” they said.  

We found the Kiruna kyrka (Kiruna church), built in 1912, to be one of the most beautiful wooden buildings we had come across since traveling in Scandinavia. The church was created as a "sanctuary for wanderers" to welcome individuals of all beliefs, containing only a single cross without any paintings, symbols, or religious icons.

Photo by Shashidhar S

A further hour-long train journey took us into Abisko National Park. The area claims to be the best place on Earth to see the aurora borealis due to its "blue hole": an opening in the clouds directly over the park. I sat next to a 70-year-old solo traveller and we shared black coffee from a thermos she had brought. “I can’t wait to see a moose!” she told me. “And I hear it is worth coming back in summer. There is a fantastic hike here for the fit ones."

The park offers many accommodation options, and we decided on a simple guesthouse – wooden and cozy. Our host gave us snow suits to protect against the -30-degree weather, and encouraged us to borrow both snow shoes and cross-country skis to explore the territory. (I might add here that cross-country skiing is nothing like the downhill experience – setting out on a lakeside trail around our accommodation, we were confronted with a need to develop balance and fitness, and fast!)

Photo by Nikola Johnny Mirkovic

As the sun went down in the early afternoon, we ate Swedish fika and watched as wild reindeer and a pregnant moose fossicked for grass around the guesthouse. After an early dinner, we were invited for a traditional Swedish sauna – cedar-scented, unisex, and involving a mandatory nude roll in the snow between the wood-heated sessions. The experience was as respectful as it was rejuvenating. We loved it.  

Coming out of the sauna, wet hair wrapped in the hood of my snow suit, I noticed excitement among the other guests as they pointed at a clear sky tinged with a strange green.  

“See,” Isa grinned.  

And there it began – a dance of green, blue, and purple lights, washing the skies like a Monet painting above us. It was pure magic. The guesthouse staff, despite having witnessed the aurora countless times before, shared our excitement and joy at its beauty.

Photo by Jian Liu

The following morning, we opted to join a dog-sledding expedition, which turned out to be the most fun I have had on a tourist activity. Greeted by our human guide, Anders, we were introduced to our ‘real guides’: an excited team with thick, fluffy coats and bright eyes, their bodies suited perfectly to the frozen wilderness.  

The huskies’ enthusiasm was contagious. After learning the basics of controlling our sleds, we were taken on a half-day exploration of the park, both exhilarating and deeply peaceful. As the dogs settled into a steady pace, we had an opportunity to take in the quiet beauty and rugged, untamed grandeur of the winter landscape.

Tess with the huskies

Moved by the experience, it felt fitting to pick up an ancient copy of Walden back at the guest house and re-read Thoreau’s words: “We need the tonic of wildness… that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us. We can never have enough of nature.”

We woke on our final morning to find heavy snow drifts and a message that all trains and buses out of Abisko had been cancelled. Buoyed by the hospitality we had received from everyone so far, we decided to try our luck with a cardboard sign by the side of the road, and were promptly picked up by an out-of-service bus heading to Kiruna. The driver laughed when we explained the trains had stopped.  

“Unusual for us Swedes to ever be late”, she said, “but this is the top of the world.”

Isa on a mission!

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