Chasing Aurora Borealis in Kiruna

Like other travellers, hunting the majestic light dance of Aurora Borealis in the sky is on my bucket list. Every winter travellers get behind the sport of chasing Northern Light. There are very few places to witness nature’s own light show. Obviously, all of them are inside the Arctic Circle. Standing on a freezing temperature of Tundra Region, waiting for a clear sky and finally witnessing the natural phenomenon is a lifetime experience.

The Aura of Aurora Borealis

I got a chance to fulfill my dream of witnessing Aurora Borealis during my stay in Stockholm. On a dark afternoon of early winter, my friend Sourav and I decided to chase Northern Light. Obviously, Swedish Lapland was the nearest option for us. So, we decided to visit Kiruna in a long weekend.

Kiruna is the only city in northern Sweden. Geographically it is located inside the plateau Lapland – The plateau spanned between the northern part of four countries – Sweden, Norway, Finland and a little bit of Russia. This area is also known as Sapmi. Because this area of the world was originally habited by the tribe Sami. Lapland remains under the snow for eight months. Kiruna is the most important city in the whole of Lapland. Just north of it is the famous Abisko National Park.

Sami life

As “there are always many slips between the cup and lips”, we were concerned about the success of our plan. My colleague, who has in-law’s house in Kiruna, suggested us about a mobile App – Aurora. The app gives the live status and forecast of both Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis. Checking the forecast, we booked over night SJ train from Stockholm to Kiruna and reserved an Airbnb in the outskirts of the city, so that urban light doesn’t hamper our photography.

Finally, on a Friday night, we boarded in the train for Kiruna. Next morning, I got up at 9 am and after dawn, I saw the train was running through a wonderland where everything was under ice.

“See the condition outside.” Sourav said after a sip in coffee cup. There was a clear touch of anxiety on his throat. I nodded in a positive manner. I was also thoughtful about the upcoming trouble that we were going to experience after getting down. Or maybe there was a little concern. I love snow but never seen such thick layer of ice. The branches of the leafless tree were covered with ice. The river looked like a sheet of ice. The fields were all under the ice. It seemed like a time travel to the “Ice Age”.

As soon as the coffee was over, the train driver’s voice on the loudspeaker of the train, “Nesta Kiruna, Taget I Tid“. (Next station is Kiruna, the train is running on time).

We got off at Kiruna at 9 AM. Needless to say, the station is covered in ice. Despite having the thick down jacket, the chilled air of the Arctic Circle was freezing us. I lighted a cigarette first. A handful of passengers got out of the station and stood in line. Seeing our bewilderment, a middle-aged female passenger explained, “Stand in that line, you have to get to the city from Kiruna station. It doesn’t cost money. The government provides this bus service free of cost considering the inaccessibility.”

Meanwhile, a beautiful red bus came. Standing in line with the rest of the passengers, we also got on the bus. Or better said, we were relieved to get on the bus!!! All buses in the Nordic countries have government-controlled room heating systems, like homes.

Kiruna lifestyle during winter

The bus dropped us off at Kiruna City Centre. From there we reached the hotel with the help of Google map. Somehow, we left our shoes-jackets and made two cups of coffee and sat down with the itinerary.

In addition to the Aurora Borealis, there are several attractions of Kiruna. One of them is Kiruna Church, the 1000 years old Iron Mine. The famous Ice Hotel is 17 km away from Kiruna. Further north is Abisko National Park. and a little to the south is Jokkmokk– a village of Sammy people. The world’s most famous “cross country ski” takes place in Lapland – across Norway, Sweden, Finland. Sledge ride is also a major attraction at Kiruna.

“It would be the best if you hire a car for visiting Abisko National Park. Public transport is not at all frequent, rather I would say, there are very few options”, said by the receptionist lady of the hotel, “In fact, the tourist season has not started yet. So on-spot booking is almost impossible if you don’t book in advance.” We also learned that the tour at the Ice Hotel was closed that week.

Roads were almost empty

“Don’t worry, we are here to chase for Aurora Borealis. Let’s don’t cry over the spoiled milk, instead, we can head towards Kiruna Church.” I said to Sourav who was also thinking the same.

Kiruna Church was few kilometres away. Roads were uninhabited even during the day. Although both of them have ice running shoes, but still felling down frequently as we did not have experience to walk on the ice.

The city in a cloudy afternoon

Roads were almost empty. People of Lapland have government-provided heated houses. Government service, reindeer farming, trading, tourism are the sources of bread and butter. Earlier farming, hunting, fishing served the duty of filling stomach. From the Viking Era, people worked in the mines.

Meanwhile, we reached Kiruna Church. Built for about three years, Kiruna Church was opened to the public in 1912. The church is currently one of the largest “wooden architectures” in Sweden. From the outside, the church belongs to the “Gothic Revival” architectural genre. The red architecture created a lovely contrast with the snow-covered field. We took some time to take pictures of the church.

Kiruna Church

We met the father. He said, in the 2001 referendum, the church gained the most popularity in the “Pre-1950 Architecture” category. He suggested to have reindeer meat the most popular Sammy delicacy. For authentic test a nearby food truck would be the best option.

Showing gratitude to the father, we followed the way suggested by him and reached in front of the food truck.

Food truck

We had lunch with Reindeer Kebab Platter and hot lingonberry juice.

Reindeer Meat

After lunch, we started walking outside the city. The boundaries of the city ended a short distance away. There was a ski ground. Since there would be no urban lights there, that would be the best place to see the Aurora Borealis.

It was near about 3 PM. The dusk was about to set in. I was watching the “Aurora” app on my mobile. This app gives an hourly “forecast”. According to the prediction of the app, luck could favour us within three hours but the sky was still over casted.

“We’d rather go back to hotel and again come here after a few hours.” Saurabh said. I agreed. Because, I needed to bring tripod, lens filters and had to be equipped with winter cloths.

Lapland during Golden Hour

On the way back we witnessed a lovely sunset on the Iron Mine. In 1696, the presence of iron was first reported. Soon after the news, Swedish senior enforcement officer and cartographer and mapper Anders Hackzell mapped the Kiruna area in 1736 and gave the mountains of the area their Swedish language names Fredriks berg (original Finnish name still in use as well: Kiirunavaara) and Berget Ulrika Eleonora (original Finnish name still in use as well: Luossavaara), after the King of Sweden Fredrik I and his wife Ulrika Eleonora. Despite the findings of large amounts of ore, no mining was initiated because of the remote location and the harsh climate. Some ore was extracted in the 19th century. It was extracted in summer and transported in winter, using sleds drawn by reindeer and horses. However, the costs were high and the quality of the phosphorus ore poor, later the separation of phosphorus from the ore was invented and nowadays, the mine contributes a huge percentage in the revenue of Sweden.

During Fall and Early Winter, Sunset in Arctic region is always magnificent. The colour changes in every single second. And the earth looks so dreamy in the last light of Sun.

Iron mine before dusk
Sunset in Arctic Circle during Winter
Kiruna as seen in nautical twilight

In the evening we went out. The temperature was -10 degrees but felt like -16 degrees, the chilling air of the Arctic Circle. My feet were slipping on the frozen ice, I fell a few times but finally managed to arrive at the skiing ground. The layer of cloud was removed by then. Stars were out by twos and threes.

There was nobody on the street – a completely Phantom environment. Even if we fell into the ditch, none would be there to rescue. I was watching forecasts and graphs on the Aurora app, and Sourav was looking at the Cloud Forecast and Compass.

We were praying to the God for some luck. With an impulse of the sixth sense, I looked up and saw a green beam of light in the sky. Then the dance of light began.

First glimpse of Aurora Borealis

It was so beautiful, so divine that nobody could express in words. I was watching, just watching. The aurora borealis was purifying my soul.

Dancing Aurora Borealis

The light is not continuous. Usually it dances, stays for few seconds in a shape. Then changes the shape. It fades away. Again, a new ray appears in the sky.

The majestic Aurora Borealis

The light is eternal. The world changes. The ruler changes. Yet the light of the two poles enriches the lives of the lucky explorers of the region in the dark, and in the midst of the darkness the “rare fragrance of courage” of the indigenous people of the polar region.

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