About a year ago, my wife, Courtny, and I began planning our northern lights trip. The night sky has always been a passion of ours. We’ve witnessed stunning meteor showers, gorgeous blood moons, and skies so clear that the glow of the Milky Way cast our shadows. But one phenomenon still reigned at the top of our bucket list: the aurora borealis.
With just over one week of traveling time, we decided to start our adventure in the frozen tundra of Abisko National Park. Abisko is world-renowned for being one of the best spots on the planet to witness the aurora. Lake Abisko provides the area with a microclimate; this microclimate, we were told, gives Abisko more clear nights than anywhere else in the Arctic Circle. The forecast was telling us otherwise. Still, we remained hopeful, and, after one night in Stockholm, we were off to the arctic.
“Welcome to Abisko,” our shuttle driver sarcastically announced. “Since we can’t see much out the window, just imagine buildings, a frozen lake, and mountains.” We watched as other tourists got off at their stops and rapidly disappeared into the blizzard. “Next stop: Abisko.net.” Courtny and I hopped off the bus. The driver looked down at my Converse shoes. “Sneakers?! You’re hardcore! You just need to walk up this driveway until you run into a building. ENJOY THE ARCTIC!” And just like that, Courtny and I were standing in the flurry. We looked up the driveway, still not able to see anything more than five feet in front of our faces.
Fortunately, soon after check-in at our hostel (which was only about 30 feet from where we were dropped), the weather began to clear. Outside, we could hear the sled huskies barking. That’s Courtny’s version of paradise, if you were wondering. That was also our first activity we had planned for our time in Abisko. We quickly changed clothes - no, I didn’t wear the Converse kicks - and met the tour guide in the hostel lobby. After a few minutes of walking and rounding up the dogs, we were off on our dog sledding adventure.
As the huskies pulled us through the wintry landscape of Arctic Sweden, the words of a local man played through my head: “Take a moment to breathe. You won’t believe how fresh the air is up here.” What an interesting, and beautiful, recommendation that was. The dogs whisked us through the woods and out into an open field, where the wind picked up and created small snow drifts. The peace of this frozen desert was enough to calm any busy mind. This is everything I hoped it would be.
When our tour concluded, we went back to the hostel for an afternoon nap. Spoiler alert: a trip to hunt the northern lights includes a big adjustment to your sleep schedule. After our midday rest, we got ourselves dinner and bundled up for our first night of looking for the aurora. We took a step outside and… snow. Snow falling everywhere. With thick clouds and heavy snowfall, I was already assuming we would get no northern lights on night one.
We piled into the snowmobile-attached sleds and our guides drove us out into the wilderness. Occasionally, we caught a glimpse of the aurora, but the snowfall and cloud coverage was still a huge obstacle. “Take a moment to breathe.” I realized how little I actually cared. Yes, I wanted to see an amazing northern lights show from the ground. After all, that was what we traveled 4,000 miles for. But I was in the arctic. At midnight. Bundled up in a blizzard with my wife. And we had already made some amazing new friends on this trip. I couldn't complain. It came time to head back from the wilderness for hot drinks and snacks in Abisko. As we arrived, we noticed the snow suddenly stopped. Looking up, the clouds began to quickly part. Maybe this whole “microclimate” thing is real. Out of nowhere, a faint gray cloud appeared above us. It was moving quickly and without pattern. Before we knew it, this "faint gray cloud" had turned to a bright green. The aurora danced above us for about 15 minutes, and it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.
After getting a few hours of sleep, Courtny and I were up and at ‘em the following morning with the Sami Reindeer Experience tour. The half-day tour gave us a glimpse into the fascinating Sami lifestyle and culture. We interacted with the beautiful reindeer for a couple hours before taking turns riding a reindeer-pulled sleigh. Some went fast, some took their time - these are still wild animals, after all. Before we knew it, it was time to head back to the hostel for another arctic nap.
When we woke up from our afternoon sleep, we had no idea what kind of emotional roller coaster the evening would provide. We layered up and headed off to the meeting point for our second northern lights adventure in as many nights. As we cruised across the frozen tundra of Abisko, a magnificent green ribbon formed in the clear skies above us. This is going to be a good night. We arrived at our tent, unpacked the cameras, and got ready for what was going to be an amazing show. Unfortunately, the clear skies were covered by clouds within minutes.
Everyone on the tour went into the tent, occasionally popping our heads out to see if the skies had magically cleared. They had not. We spent our time talking, eating, and drinking hot chocolate. Eventually, I made my way back out into the freezing cold to stare at the sky and hope for the best. Suddenly, about 30 minutes before we were scheduled to head back to town, the clouds began to part. We caught the glimpse of an occasional ribbon above us, so we knew the aurora had made an appearance. Clouds dissipated more and more; as they cleared, both the sky and the snow in front of us glowed a vibrant green. As we gazed toward the heavens, the northern lights danced and lit up Abisko. This is the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.
It was one of those nights that I remember every detail from. I remember shivering in the silent darkness of Abisko, looking at the sky and hoping I would see this stunning show. I recall the taste of the lingonberry juice and the way the hot chocolate warmed me. I remember the childlike bliss that overtook Courtny and me when the clearing clouds revealed a bright green light. I remember getting back to the hostel, with a smile permanently glued to my face… in fairness, the arctic chill may have frozen that expression, but I believe it was more due to my genuine satisfaction.
Our time in Abisko was brief. But our aurora-hunting holiday was far from over. Up next: chasing the northern lights through the dramatic, otherworldly landscapes of Western Norway. Thanks for reading!