In Search of Lights

February 10, 2013, was a cold, cold day – especially in Kiruna, the northernmost city in Sweden. Ninety miles north of the Arctic Circle, Kiruna is home to the world-famous Jukkasjärvi Ice Hotel and the largest iron ore mine in the world. However, we were there for something else (although we did visit the hotel and the mine) – the northern lights.

After a month of planning and anticipation, Bart, A and I finally set foot in this beautify city, where we’d stay for four nights. Everything was covered in snow. At this time of the year, the sun had already set when we arrived at the train station at 4pm. We would have been lost as soon as we left the station if our guide and host, Stig, hadn’t picked us up.

Stig's dog greeted us every morning just outside our window.
Stig’s dog greeted us every morning just outside our window

Besides running a hostel, Stig and his team lead various kinds of tours around the area, including the two-day aurora tour we joined. It was supposed to be a good time to see the northern lights because of the “solar maximum” – the peak year of the sun’s 11-year solar weather cycle. Still we were worried about our chances as it’d been snowy and cloudy that week.

“I can’t guarantee good weather, but I can tell you one thing: 80% of my guests saw the lights so far,” Stig said reassuringly as he drove through the snow-clad town.

The first evening was very eventful. After cooking a simple meal for ourselves, we learned to make Gáhkko, a kind of soft Lappish flatbread that is baked in a pan or on a flat stone. It’s made with flour, water, milk and salt only, so it’s fairly easy. We were then provided with some warm clothes so we wouldn’t freeze to death when we went out – it was around -20 to -30°C at night! We also tried snowmobiling, which was fun but I got mad nervous with the speed, especially when it was so dark. The other two did great, though!

Waist-deep snow
Waist-deep snow

The next day Stig decided that the sky would stay clear, so we all quickly got ready (bundled up!) and set off for the wilderness. We – us three along with a friendly couple from the Netherlands – were to stay in a cabin in the forest overnight; there would be neither running water nor electricity, so we must set everything up before sunset.

Before we began our adventure and snowmobiled (I was of course on a sled) into the forest though, we had to do something important first – to feed some hungry reindeer!

When not leading tours, Stig is a reindeer herder and that day, he took us to the ranch where he kept his reindeer. We got there, fed them twigs, took photos and watched them for a moment, and before long we had to go. Time was tight but I wish we had more time to spend with those adorable and gentle creatures.

Wild reindeer feeding themselves
Wild reindeer spotted just outside of Stig’s ranch
Cabin, snowmobile and our talented cook Mika
Cabin, snowmobile and our talented cook Mika
We were collecting water from a nearby stream
We were collecting water from a nearby stream

Our destination was about an hour from Kiruna, somewhere near a frozen lake (if I recall correctly). After a short break indoors, we all got to work – Mika, Stig’s partner and a very talented cook, led us girls to a nearby stream to collect water, while the guys gathered and chopped wood. It didn’t take all that long; soon we found ourselves lounging in the cozy, warm cabin living room, chatting about everything, while Mika made traditional reindeer soup for all of us. The idea of eating Rudolf’s meat was unsettling at first, but it wasn’t like we had a choice; and after just two spoonfuls of soup, I began to wonder if I could have another bowl.

Stream

Isn't that a little house cute and all? That's our bathroom.
Isn’t that a cute little house? That’s our smelly bathroom!
The cabin window was all frozen
The cabin window was completely frozen

The wait for the aurora was long. As the sky gradually darkened, I found myself stealing glances out the window more and more often. It’d be the first time for the three of us to see the natural light show, but the Dutch couple had seen it more than a few times. The photos they showed us were beyond amazing, and the anticipation was simply killing us…

After what felt like forever, but was probably just an hour or two, Bart ran back to the living room from the sauna house with the best news ever; in his usual calm manner he announced, “Hey Véronique, if you want to see the aurora, it’s here.”

I would have come up with a smart response, but instead I jumped right up and almost ran outside without putting a coat on (it was -40°C then).

Our first sight of aurora borealis. I hadn't got the camera setting right yet, but I'll post more photos next time, promise!
Finally! Our first sight of the aurora borealis!

Outside, behind the cabin and the forest was a faint hint of green, so faint that we weren’t sure if it was only our eyes tricking us.

But as we descended to the frozen lake, the lights grew stronger – it was unmistakable. From the horizon a brush of glowing colors – lime, yellow and a very slight tinge of pink if you look hard enough – wiggled toward us; like a dancing snake it soon surrounded us, accompanied by a million blinking stars. Without the moon (exactly the reason why we chose to go that week), the aurora bathed the earth with its mysterious, surreal glow.

Aurora borealis, Kiruna, Sweden
Aurora borealis, Kiruna, Sweden

As I took in the mesmerizing light show, I did not think about any philosophical questions about life and nature. I did not feel “small”, “insignificant” in this vast, amazing universe. All I did, and all I could do, was look. And pressed down on the shutter every 20 seconds. And smiled the most genuine smile I ever had. I did feel something – a surge of joy and peacefulness.

We stayed until the lights began to fade (which was within 30 minutes) and decided to go back inside as it was, apparently, freezing.

The next morning, I looked out of the window to find a blue-grey sky that looked slightly more depressing than the day before, when the sun was shinning and actually made us sweat when we walked in the waist-deep snow. It was as if the magic never happened just hours ago. As if it was merely a dream.

Only it wasn’t.

Still with the smiles from the previous night on our faces, we hopped on the snowmobiles and sleds and continued with our journey.

More photos are here.

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