Chasing the Northern Lights in Kiruna, Sweden

by Thom Brown

In the latest installment of Thom Brown’s ‘On the Edges of Europe’ column, the author ventures to the far north of Sweden to fulfill a promise to his girlfriend.

On the day we met, I promised we’d see the northern lights. Now, I was here with my girlfriend, on our first anniversary, standing beneath the grand 19th-century archways of Stockholm Central Station. The plan was to head north, as far north as possible. Sweden’s northernmost city is Kiruna, so that seemed the obvious place to try and catch a glimpse of the mysterious, elusive aurora borealis.

The heavy, gray, metal train arrived with noise and gusto, confidently rolling onto the platform to greet crowds of intrepid winter wanderers. We stepped inside the carriage and, seemingly, back in time. The dark, narrow corridors were more comforting than claustrophobic.

There’s nothing like the feeling of rattling through the landscape, lulled into a calm and tranquil state by the sense of movement soothing your solar plexus. Seeing the northern lights was far from guaranteed, so in the case of a disappointing destination, we might as well enjoy the journey.

We counted the doors to find our room where we’d be sleeping on this 15-hour journey. Inside the compartment were six beds – known as berths – three on either side separated by a metal ladder. A small table placed beneath the ladder would become our spot to gaze in awe as the snowy landscape swept past the window.

I took the clean sheets from the foot of the middle bunk and did my best to make my bed cozy. A couple of straps held the bed up and presumably ensured that I wouldn’t roll out and end up in a crumpled heap on the train floor. Outside was already dark, as it would be for the majority of this trip to the Arctic Circle. Therefore, it made sense to make the most of my bed, getting warm and snug, ready to wake up on the northernmost edges of Europe, refreshed and ready for adventure.

Lying in the pitch black, I listened to nothing but the shaking of this powerful locomotive and its wagons as they rattled down the tracks. The rolling motion soothed me, impossibly reminding me of being a fetus in the womb, surrounded by the calming darkness and distorted whooshing of blood and stomach fluids that engulfed my prenatal environment. That night, my dreams were filled with fairytale images of snow-covered forests and dancing green lights that skipped and twirled through the sky, in a dazzling display of sensory overload.

Thankfully, stops were few and far between because at each one, I would awaken with a jolt, disturbed by the sudden cessation of movement. At the station before Kiruna, during a brief period of sunlight, I got up to sit by the window. The snow-dusted trees whizzed past in a blur and I felt a tinge of excitement knowing we were closing in on Lapland, the promised land of the northern lights.

We arrived early afternoon, in total darkness. From December 11 to New Year’s Eve, the sun in Kiruna doesn’t rise. We got there in late November, meaning we’d enjoy the sunrise mere moments before it set. We grabbed our backpacks and stepped off onto a modest platform. Humble and functional, this was the polar opposite of the grandiosity of Stockholm Central. A bus waited by the exit and we were dropped in the center of Kiruna.

While it attracts tourists from across the world, Kiruna is hardly a resort town. It was built in the 1890s for workers in the Kiruna mine, the planet’s largest underground iron ore mine. Today, just 17,000 people call this city home. The whole place has an industrial air, with rectangular, concrete apartment blocks and mining buildings in various states of disrepair. Added to this is the fact that the entire town is being moved two miles to the east to accommodate the mine, creating a half-destroyed, half-rebuilt city that exists in a confusing state of flux.

How an entire city can be moved brick-by-brick is beyond me, but Kiruna is on a mission to move and Swedish ingenuity will make that happen. Meanwhile, the local economy relies on tourists who come to eat reindeer meat, drive dog sleds, and spot the northern lights displays that occur once every few days. We had three nights to play with and hoped to do it all.

As the sun began to set in the middle of the day, we walked through the small forest that surrounds Kiruna Church, one of Sweden’s biggest wooden buildings. The golden light pierced through the gaps in the trees and bounced off the light dusting of snow that had settled on the ground. It was a worryingly small amount of snow, given we were in the Arctic in the depths of winter.

Near the center of wonderfully walkable Kiruna, there was a roundabout, next to which was a large, brown Nordic tipi and a black food truck. We were assured this was the absolute best place to eat in Kiruna. Armed with a mix of reindeer, moose, and a side of fries, we entered the warm embrace of the tipi. Alone in the tent, we huddled by the fire, reindeer skins draped across our shoulders. It was, by far, the best street food I’d ever had.

Full up with calories to burn, we went to the pickup point, where a dog sledding instructor was waiting to meet us.

“Bad news guys,” he said in an Australian accent as we got into his truck. “As you have probably noticed, there’s no snow, which makes dog sledding bloody difficult. But don’t worry, you can still meet the dogs and we’ll take you out on an ATV. The dogs will pull us along. You’ll just be on a quad bike instead of a sled.”

We drove toward the dark wilderness as the driver told us his life story.

“To be honest I hate it here. I hate the politics. I’d rather be in Alaska or somewhere. But I’ve gotta make the most of it because my girlfriend lives here. Hey, do you guys know of any student parties tonight? I think I can still get away with going to student parties, right?” said the man who was clearly in his late thirties.

We arrived at the dog kennels to an ear-splitting symphony of howls. The driver unlocked one cage at a time, explaining how excitable the dogs were and how disastrous it would be if they ever escaped. As I entered the enclosure, a large wolf-like hound sprinted full speed towards me, knocking me sideways and making for the small gap between my arm and the open gate.

“No, not Misty!” the driver yelled and ran after the dog into the shadows of the compound while I grinned nervously at my girlfriend as she sighed and rolled her eyes.

Several minutes later, the driver returned, dragging the dog roughly by the collar.

“Don’t worry, mate, it happens.”

Once we’d met several hyped-up canines, it was time for dog sledding… erm, dog biking. The dogs lined up like Santa’s reindeer, two-by-two in front of the quad bike, bouncing and yelping with joyful anticipation. We hopped on the back and the driver gently pressed the throttle, the dogs running toward the woods.

“One time, I let my girlfriend drive this bike,” the driver shouted over the noise of the engine and the ferocious wind. “She accelerated too hard and ran over all the dogs. It was carnage! I won’t do that, don’t worry.”

“That’s crazy,” I responded. “Hey, do you know where we could see the northern lights? Do you think they’ll be visible tonight?”

“Yeah mate, they should be visible. You just need to find a dark place outside of the city. If you like, I can drop you off somewhere?”

We zipped through the woods at speed, which would have been fun had I not spent the entire journey worrying about the welfare of the dogs. We took the driver up on his offer and he dropped us off on the outskirts of town in what can only be described as a construction site. I walked three steps, hit a sheet of hardened ice, and fell flat on my ass.

“Let’s not climb up there,” I said, rubbing my aching tailbone. “I think there’s another way around.”

We stuck to soft powdered snow and tried to get to a good vantage point. There was a metal fence but it had mostly collapsed and there were no signs to suggest we were trespassing. Awkwardly clambering across a mixture of mud, ice, and snow, we made it to a clearing, which was empty but for a large, yellow JCB.

We hauled ourselves onto the hood of the tractor and sat, staring at the sky, waiting. Barely a few minutes passed before a green smudge floated above the horizon. The smudge grew and morphed like a festive ribbon being blown around the wind. For several minutes, we watched it twist and twirl. It never grew into the dazzling display of my dreams, but it was enough.

From the hood of the tractor, I leaned over and kissed my girlfriend.

“Happy anniversary.”

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