Back in November, I agreed to do something ridiculous: go to Sweden in the dead of winter. While this wouldn’t be too bad if we were just staying down in Stockholm, the group I was going with had one goal in mind: see the Northern Lights. To do this, we would have to venture into the Arctic Circle. In January. Average temperature: -16 (not including the wind chill factor).
After a short trip back to the United States for Christmas and last minute scrambling to get assignments completed on time in England, eleven of us set off for Sweden. One massively delayed flight and bus ride later, we made it to Stockholm where we slept, walked around and boarded a train to Abisko. It should have taken us 16 hour to reach the small town, but due to an accident the previous day, we had to disembark hundreds of kilometers from our final destination and take a bus the remainder of the journey. There are only single tracks in the northern part of Sweden, so rather than diverting other trains and making them late as well, they chose to stop ours and find us alternate routes. It wasn’t too bad; we got to see more of the country, including herds of reindeer! Sweden is gorgeous; everything was blanketed in mounds upon mounds of snow and the sun stayed extremely low in the sky, making the world pink and orange.
We did eventually reach Abisko. The Abisko Tourist Station is located in the middle of nowhere, two kilometers away from the village of Abisko (population 80) and one kilometer away from a lake; it’s also just down the road from the Aurora Sky Station – supposedly the best place to view the Northern Lights. That was unfortunately closed every single day we were there because of high winds. Speaking of winds….they were killer. It’s already well below freezing in the Arctic Circle, but add in the wind chill and you find yourself never wanting to go outside. I believe the coldest we experienced was -40. The warmest was -17…after a few days, this really did feel warm. Everytime I went out, I put on two pairs of tights, a pair of jeans, a pair of sweatpants, three pairs of socks, insulated boots, a tank top, at least two long sleeve shirts, a sweater, two sweatshirts, a coat, a scarf, a balaclava, a hat (overtop of the two sweatshirt hoods and underneath the coat hood), two pairs of gloves and a buff. While this was effective in the short term, after 10 minutes my fingers and toes would go numb if I wasn’t moving. I also got to experience my eyelashes freezing together for the first time in my life. It’s an extremely strange feeling; it’s even worse when the upper and lower lashes start freezing together, forcing you to hold your hands over your eyes until the ice melts.
We wouldn’t allow the cold to ruin our fun, however. Every day, we found something to do. One day we walked to Abisko to buy groceries as we were quite literally in the middle of nowhere and forced to cook for ourselves. One night we made reindeer curry; it was one of the most delicious meals I have ever had. We all also tried reindeer heart (much to my mother’s disgust); it tasted a bit like juicy beef jerky… it wasn’t bad, but I wouldn’t eat it again simply because I know it’s a heart. Another day we walked down the lake; it was frozen solid, so nearly everyone walked on it. I refrained; my mom’s lessons of never walking onto a frozen surface when you don’t know how thick the ice is didn’t go to waste. The lake was gorgeous; in some place you could see straight down to the bottom; in others, the ice was rippled because the waves had frozen. On our last full day, we went to Norway as it was only an hour and a half train ride away.
You are probably wondering what happened to those Northern Lights and if we ever saw them. We saw a brief glimpse our first night there; it only lasted a minute. It was just a brief streak of green painted on the sky. Over the next few days, people did catch tiny glimpses of light, but nothing spectacular like you see in pictures or films.
I mentioned we went to Norway. Well,the trains in the Arctic Circle aren’t very prompt. Our train back to Sweden was delayed by an hour and a half, so by the time we got back it was about 8pm. We made dinner, and had just finished washing up when a Polish man walked into the kitchen, calmly said “The Lights are out,” and walked back toward the entrance. Everyone threw themselves toward the only window that opened; I got there first so stuck the upper half of my body outside so people behind me could see….I probably ended up with 3 people basically lying on top of me. The Northern Lights: bringing nationalities closer together since forever.
When the man said the Lights were out, he was not kidding. They were spectacular. A huge green streak ran across the whole entire sky and was constantly undulating and growing. Part of it would disappear, but another blur would appear out of nowhere to race across the sky and paint it green. After a few minutes of watching one of the streak curl itself into a circle, we decided to make a run for it and throw on the rest of our clothes to get outside before the show ended. It’s amazing how quickly you can throw on 7 layers when you know a phenomenon is occuring just a few feet away. When we got outside, the Lights were gone….just kidding. They were still in full swing. They would start just behind the mountain, so you could see this bright green glow peeking out from around the corner. Then suddenly, a light would just streak out from the glow, flow across the sky and stop and linger there for minutes. At the other end of the sky, there were always a few streaks appearing and sometimes the streaks would meet up in the middle of the sky. We thought it was the most amazing thing ever, but then the Lights amazed us even more. At the bottom of the streaks these waves started to appear and they would ripple out, but they weren’t green lights anymore! They were pink!
It was…so amazing. I’ve never seen anything so inexplicably cool in my life. Ever. It’s just…it’s so miraculous how they do that. I know the science behind it and everything but…what did people think caused it a thousand years ago? If I didn’t know what it was, I would think it’s magic or a sign from God….they were so…so amazing. I don’t even know how to describe the feeling you get when you see them like that. It lasted for half an hour. We stayed afterward, hoping there would be another spectacle but there were just a few streaks….it was….it was the most perfect way to spend our last night. Because it was our final night in Abisko, and our final chance to see the spectacle. It was such an amazing send off. And such an amazing way to connect with people…everyone was grouped in the same area, just staring at the sky and exclaiming whenever a new streak or ripple appeared. It didn’t matter that none of us spoke the same language and didn’t know each other; we were united by something we will never forget.
A few things about the trip didn’t work. First of all, there were far too many people. Everyone wanted to do different things, so no one was ever completely happy. We could split up into separate groups, but because we weren’t willing to pay to use cell phones (there is a surprisingly strong signal up there), we always had to know where the groups were. Secondly, we were there for far too long. Eleven day of traveling with the same people causes you to quickly grow weary of them (especially when they are only interested in getting drunk). Thirdly, Swedish trains are never on time…fortunately our schedule was flexible. Despite these mishaps, the trip was perfect. I have seen a miraculous thing and will always cherish that memory. I’ve wanted to see the Aurora Borealis ever since I first heard of it, and I’ve now fulfilled that livelong dream. It was such a fulfilling experience, and I would recommend the trip to everyone (although because it is now summer, Abisko has the midnight sun…making the Lights a bit hard to see).
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