A couple of weeks ago I went on a trip to Kiruna. This isn’t exactly what you might call a typical ‘nice vacation destination’. In fact, Kiruna is a pretty weird place. To enjoy it there, you really have to love the extremes: it is the most northern city in Sweden, about 150 kilometers north from the Arctic Circle. In the winter the temperature can drop down to -45 degrees. At the end of December the sun never rises there, leaving the city in complete darkness. So if you decide to go there, you basically sign up for freezing your balls off in the middle of nowhere!
Why did we do it then? Well, this is the part where I could tell about all the fascinating things we did there in just three days. I could write about visiting the largest underground iron ore mine in the world; I could describe what it is like to be in an Ice Hotel that gets hand-build every winter and melts away every summer; I could write about the snow mobile trip we did on a frozen river; I could share insights on how it is like to spend 24 hours in a wilderness camp, without electricity or running water; I could write about ice-fishing, jumping in the snow after sauna and cross-country skiing on skis from the second world war.
I could do all this, but I decided not to. Instead, I want to share just one experience.
The main reason why Kiruna, this small town somewhere in the middle of nowhere, attracts so many tourists is because of the possibility to see the northern lights. Everyone who goes there wants to experience the Aurora Borealis. What’s funny about this though is that people who have never seen anything like that before have no clue what to expect exactly. All they have are some vague ideas from pictures of blurry green lights in the sky and possibly friends who told them that it was “amaaaaazing”.
For us, it was the same. We were ready and prepared to spend the entire night outside if necessary, without even knowing what we precisely waited for.
For the longest time, nothing happened. We sat on a bench made out of snow, stared into the sky and tried to ignore the fact that our butts were getting cold. Then suddenly, some shimmering movements on the horizon appeared. It was hard to tell if it was just clouds or something else at first, it all seemed so blurry. But after 90 minutes without any action, you are willing to be excited about even the slightest natural phenomenon.
The lights continually grew stronger though. Soon it became clear that they were moving too, even though they were still pretty far away. It was like watching waves of stardust wafting over the sky. We were all very excited and everyone started taking pictures. We soon discovered that the northern lights in the pictures looked even more impressive, due to the fact that a longer exposure time made them look far more colorful than they actually were in real life! So we took shot after shot, glad to have this beautiful motive in the background and no clouds covering it.
Still I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed. The whole thing was nice to watch, sure, but it was not nearly as mind-blowing as the pictures implied. It seemed like nature provided 10 percent of the effects and the other 90 percent were created by the camera settings.
Of course we still kept watching though. Sometimes the lights were glimmering a little stronger, sometimes a little less, sometimes they moved more, sometimes less, sometimes they would stretch over the entire horizon and sometimes they were mostly covered by clouds.
After about an hour of this, me and a couple of friends went back to our cabin to sit around the stove for a little while and get warm again. We had just taken off our shoes and gotten comfortable when we heard people scream for us. A little annoyed and tired, but at the same time afraid to miss anything, we went back outside.
What we saw then was simply incredible. The entire sky was flooded with colour! It was not the milky fog that we had seen before, not anymore. It was a curtain of light, shining bright in green, white and red! Right above us it danced in the air, moving from side to side, as if it would rain down on us at any second.
Sometimes it disappeared a little, but only to come back stronger! It was breathtaking. People lay down in the snow to be able to watch the spectacle better, their mouths open in awe. We stopped taking pictures and instead just tried to experience and take it in with all our senses. It was a truly magical moment.
And just as fast as it had come, it all went away again. The whole occurrence didn’t last longer than a couple of minutes, leaving us all behind amazed, overwhelmed and somewhat confused.
After a few seconds, the tension released itself. We were screaming, laughing, hugging each other, jumping around, trying to make sense of what the fuck had just happened. I tried to verbalize my feelings, but was so full of emotions that I could barely speak. It was the weird, almost spiritual feeling of being in complete harmony with your surroundings. Being right there – in the cold, in the dark, only surrounded by wild nature and a group of friends, observing this natural phenomenon above us – made me genuinely happy.
As I said, there were plenty of other things we did in Kiruna and plenty of other reasons to go there. But the 500 Euros the trip cost, the lectures and meetings I missed for that, the 40 hours we spent in the bus to get there – just for those few minutes of northern lights it was already all worth it.