Arctic low light and the Aurora

Arktiska svagt ljus och Aurora

The wonderful Arctic low light

Visiting Arctic Sweden in winter when the sun never shines and temperatures seldom rise above freezing: crazy eh?

If you are going to the Arctic you probably want snow and something a little bit different to your everyday experiences. Abisko is probably the best place to visit in Arctic Sweden. It is in a National Park, has an Aurora Sky Station and some of the best weather to be found in the Arctic. Sure the average temperature in January is around -6°C, but with the right clothes that is not so bad. Surprisingly it is one of the driest and most cloud-free places in Sweden.


The start of the Kungsleden at Abisko

The Kungsleden (literally the King's Trail) is the most famous and popular hiking trail in Sweden. The five-hundred-kilometre path starts at Abikso, in the Arctic Circle, and winds its way south to Hemavan near Tärnaby.

Kungsleden is well signposted and extremely popular, especially in the summer. There are cabins along the route where you can take shelter for the night. There are also fell stations providing bed and breakfast accommodation.

In winter Kungsleden is exceptionally pretty, so if you are staying at Abisko it is worth walking for an hour or two along the trail, even though you would then need to turn around and retrace your steps.Distant glow in the sky on the Kungsleden in early January

During the day the sun hovers below the horizon, casting a distant fire-like glow in the sky which bounces around off the guaranteed snow.Distant mountains as seen from the Kungsleden

The Trail starts off alongside the banks of a river with the mountains in the distance. The Sámi used the mountains as landmarks for guiding their reindeer between their winter and summer grazing land. Later Kungsleden takes in Kebnekaise, Sweden's highest mountain (2114m).

Easy walking on the Kungsleden in early January

The ground is easy to walk in December and January because everything is frozen. Even in the spring walking is fairly easy as there are bridges over streams and wooden planks laid down over marshy ground.

Love views walking back into Abisko on the Kungsleden

The return walk back to Abisko gives lovely views over the Abisko National Park and the vast Torneträsk lake.

The Aurora Sky Station

Abisko is often claimed to be one of the best places on earth to see the Aurora (Northern Lights). The prevailing winds tend to push any clouds away, maximising the likelihood of clear skies. The average temperature is also higher than at Jukkasjärvi, where the Ice Hotel is located, so it is not too bad for spending a few hours at night on the mountain, hoping for a glimpse of the Aurora.

The only realistic place to stay in Abisko is the Abisko Turiststation, a kind of posh youth hostel. There are 300 beds, some with private facilities, as well as cheaper accommodation. Meals are excellent and well priced. There is a bar with views over Lake Torneträsk.

Just across the road from the Turiststation is a chairlift which takes you up to the top of Nuolja mountain (1169m). Included in the price of the chairlift is some warm clothing ready for the 20-minute ride to the Aurora Sky Station. Now I don't like chairlifts at the best of times, but there is a man who helpfully stops the chairlift to clean the chair cushion of snow and ice before ensuring you are comfortably settled into the chair. There is none of this jumping on whilst the chair is moving malarkey.

It was only during the ride that I was less appreciative of the kind man. The chairlift is constantly stopping whilst the kind man helps other people on and off.  It wouldn't be so bad if it would just stop. Those large vertical simple harmonic motions of Advanced Level Physics are less fun when clinging on to a camera bag and whilst wishing that the kind man was a bit snappier.

After an eternity I did reach the summit, the park’s highest peak. There is a cafe/bar serving hot wine and warming delicacies such as moose stew. On a relatively mild night I was content to steady my nerves with the odd swig from my hipflask, set up my tripod and wait in hope of a spectacular Aurora light show.

In an earlier life I did some research on the Aurora in Tromso, Norway. This involved setting up a camera on a good vantage point to film the Aurora. When I gave the word, my colleagues 200 miles south would launch a rocket. The idea being that we could compare my images with measurements from the rocket. I never gave the word. Despite a three-week stay I never saw the Aurora during that stay. The Aurora is an elusive lady.

Abisko is an altogether better place for seeing the Aurora than Tromso, but there is never any guarantee. The sky was clear, as it usually is at Abisko, so I set about experimenting with exposure times, interspersed with swigs from my hipflask and trying to assess when the kind man would have a quiet spell so I might have a less stressful descent.

For me there is something satisfying about photographing stars, the mountains in silhouette and even the gentle glow of a fellow cameraman's LCD screen. I enjoyed faffing around trying the get some 30-second snaps.

If photographing the stars doesn't float your boat you can always adjourn to the bar. Few people did. There is something special about being on a mountainside waiting in hope of a spectacular light show. It was romantic enough for one brave guy to drop down on one knee and propose. He was accepted. Then an Aurora appeared: a good omen we hope.

Running towards the Aurora

When the Aurora first appeared, all our stored up Adrenalin was suddenly released. Half the people on the mountain top ran towards it, desperate for a better vantage point.

Running with a tripod and camera in deep snow is not the easiest of activities, but the temptation of a better 30-second snap was irresistible for most. The group, which can be just seen silhouetted on the top left of the picture above, may have got the better snaps, but on a night when there were no good photos to be had anyway, it didn't seem worth the struggle. And it gave me time for another swig from my hipflask.

What colour that could be seen (see above) was a kind of murky green hovering low in the sky. It was a very slow flop towards the horizon, not a spectacular leg-kicking tango show. At least I saw something this time.

Of course, you can get lucky: the web is littered with spectacular shots taken by patient photographers who turn out night after night.

The chances of a spectacular shot are low, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth it. Certainly not crazy.

John Duxbury

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