We really had not planned to leave the country in 2012, but we didnít want to miss seeing what may be the best Northern Lights activity this decade. Or not; solar activity has a cycle of approximately 11 years, but itís an average rather than exact number. Still, the future is hard to predict, so we decided to go while weíre still physically capable of undertaking an arctic astrophotographical expedition.
The next step was deciding where. We wanted to go to Greenland, but logistics would have been difficult (we didnít really want to organize an expedition!). After looking at Norway and other possibilities, we chose Abisko, Sweden, a small village (population 150) about 120 miles north of the arctic circle. Located right next to Abisko National Park, it boasts clear skies (the Abisko "blue hole") due to being in a storm shadow; cold, but a dry cold.
After spending 4 days in London (about which more here), on December 13th we left our hotel around 5am, finally arriving at the Abisko Mountain Lodge about 10 hours later. After orientation, getting outfitted with snow gear, and having a nice dinner in the lodge, we were off on our first adventure: a 3-hour aurora snow trek (complete with lightly falling snow!).
Due to the latitude, not only had it been dark since about 2pm, it had never gotten light. Above the arctic circle, the brightest it gets in winter is a polar twilight. It never got really dark in Abisko, however, because although the village is very small, it has an incredibly large number of street and building lights which they left on all the time. Fortunately, total darkness is not required to view and photograph the Northern Lights, but light pollution will light up any clouds which may be present.
And present they were. On the first night, it wasnít until 3am that the sky finally became somewhat clear. Our trek ended before midnight, but the two of us were the only (fool)hardy souls to brave the polar night. We stayed out from about 3am to 6am and saw a good number of meteors (the Geminid meteor shower peaked that night), but unfortunately there was only a tiny patch of auroral activity visible on the northwest horizon.
A few short hours later we had our next activity: 3 hours of dogsled driving. Dave had signed us up for a full schedule of half- and full-day activities, including snowmobile driving, ice climbing, and a visit with a Sami reindeer herder family!
It was fortunate that we only spent 5 days at Abisko, otherwise we might have collapsed from exhaustion! But it was even more fortunate that we spent 4 nights there, for it wasnít until the 3rd night that we were treated to a spectacular auroral show. Even the locals said it was amazing.
During all 4 nights, Dave had a camera set up to take 15 second exposures every 20 seconds, usually from 7pm to 6am. In addition to tending it to prevent freezing and loss of power, Dave had to restart the camera during the night, because it stops when the shot counter hits 999!
Our luggage included a hard case, two lead acid batteries to power the camera (each lasted about 5 hours), dozens of packs of chemical hand warmers (to keep frost from forming on the lens), a couple of hot water bottles (to keep the lead acid batteries warm), and a special camera hood (to keep frost off the body), not to mention 4 cameras, 2 heavy duty tripods, lenses, etc. Thank goodness the cameras were all digital, so we didnít have to try to get lead bags of film past airport security; the batteries and chemical warmers were bad enough! But it was worth it!
One of the day trips out of Abisko was a tour of the original Icehotel. First we drove over an hour to Kiruna, the largest city in Swedish Lapland (pop. 23,000), and then a short way to the Icehotel. It was clear it had been snowing very heavily outside Abisko, so the "blue hole" effect did seem true.
The Icehotel was stunning. It is rebuilt from scratch every year using snow and ice harvested from the nearby Torne River. Selected artists create unique art suites, each with their own theme, design, and sculptures. We booked way too late to be able to stay overnight, but it would have been fascinating. Next time!