“You’ll wait a long, long time for anything much / To happen in heaven beyond the floats of cloud / And the northern lights that run like tingling nerves.”
Just like Robert Frost (in “On Looking Up by Chance at the Constellations”, 1928), I had indeed been waiting a long, long time for anything much to happen. I had been lying in the snow, scanning the cloudless black of a dead polar night for more than an hour, my bones feeling as though they were fused with the frigid earth.
I was in Abisko, 150 miles inside the Swedish arctic circle. At 68 degrees latitude, with hardly any light pollution and sited within a bowl of mountains that give it precious little cloud and thus precipitation, “The Blue Hole of Abisko” is one of the best places in the world to observe the northern lights.
Not only that, but according to Nasa, we were approaching the zenith of a solar maxima, a once-every-11-year phenomenon that produces the most spectacular auroral displays. The orchestra had finished tuning up, the curtains had slipped back, the whole scene was framed by a proscenium of mountains. So why was I lying there looking only at the starry backdrop? The only “tingling nerves” were the ones in my face, now frozen into a grimace. Where was the aurora borealis, the star of the show? Nowhere, that’s where. That’s the thing with mother nature: she’s such a bloody diva.
Earlier that day my six fellow aurora seekers and I had flown from London to Stockholm, then north to Kiruna, and finally driven for an hour to the Abisko Mountain Lodge, our home for the four-night stay. We had come with a new company specialising in “aurora hunting”: getting daily updates from meteorologists and Nasa as to where the lights were most likely to turn up, then heading off there sharpish. Soon after arriving we’d been given a lecture on the northern lights by Urban Brändström from the Swedish Institute of Space Physics. “I have a tendency to get too scientific,” was his opening line.
He then talked about the sun’s complex magnetic field, the solar winds that burst forth and the charged particles that brush the earth’s poles; about electrons and protons, about auroral thermosphere models and magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling. Here, clearly, was a man of his word.
Registering our blank faces, he asked us to think of the sun as a ballerina with a big skirt spinning around, and showed us some pretty pictures of the lights. We perked up immediately. He talked about some of the legends the ancients had ascribed to the aurora borealis – named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek god of the north wind, Boreas. The Finns thought it was a fox running through the sky, its tail on fire; the Swedes imagined it as the reflection of a shoal of herring. The indigenous Sami people of Lapland reckoned the lights were spirit guides sent to help those who’d died a violent death reach a peaceful afterlife, while the Inuits thought it was some kind of ancestral football match being played with a walrus skull. All of which made more sense to me than magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling.
The optimum time for seeing the lights is between 10pm and 2am, which leaves plenty of time for other wintry pursuits. The morning after the no-show we were on the road at 10am, just in time to see the sun nearly come up – from early December to late February, at this latitude, it never quite rises above the horizon, creating four-hour days of perpetual twilight and 20-hour nights of intense blackness.
We skirted Lake Torneträsk and arrived beyond at a smaller frozen lake where our teams of huskies awaited, desperate to be unleashed. With a cry from the driver, the dogs pulled away with the acceleration of a slingshot and in a miraculous instant the world fell silent save for panting and the swoosh of runners on ice.
We slid and slipped across that crepuscular, monochrome landscape in a dreamlike state; the reverie no doubt part-induced by the grandeur and scale of the surroundings but also, having missed nature’s cues for waking up, by the odd lassitude we seemed to be stuck in.
After a dinner at the lodge of pickled fish (naturally), followed by a fortifying moose bourguignon, we each put on an entire wardrobe of clothes and thick-soled black boots and padded out into the freezing night once more. We were driven to the foot of Noulja, a 1,110m-high mountain, where the lights that night were predicted to be the strongest. We ascended for 20 thrilling minutes on an open chairlift, flying noiselessly through the dark to the Sky Station, a wooden chalet that serves up hot drinks and shelter to aurora hunters.
The temperature was nudging minus 20. Gathered on the mountain top were maybe 100 people scanning the heavens, many of them East Asian, heads tilted back like broken dandelions. But still the star turn was missing her cue. I went into the Sky Station and spoke to Chad Blakely, who had worked there since moving from Wyoming to study and photograph the lights. With the burning eyes of an evangelist, he showed me some of his photos: great spectral curtains of green and red and blue filling the skies.
“Wow!” I said.
“I know,” said Chad.
I asked him about all the Chinese and Japanese visitors.
“They consider the lights very lucky,” he said. “If a child is conceived during an auroral show, then legend says it’ll be a boy and will have a prosperous life.”
Somebody ran in and said the lights had started. We rushed out. There were indeed faint flickerings in the sky, like fine white mist eddying in a gentle breeze. One or two couples started to drift off up the mountain, into the black. We all held our breath. But then the lights dimmed and disappeared. The couples returned. It was like a party that had threatened to really kick off but in the end just fizzled out.
It was clear that nature, that inveterate showgirl, was giving us the old trick: first night, nothing; second night, a bit of a tease; the third night would be much better, of course, and the fourth, our final night, would be unbelievable.
We spent the next day snowmobiling, following tracks through dense birch forests whose ice-flecked branches looked, in the beams of our headlights, as if they were studded with rhinestones.
We ate reindeer steaks for dinner then put on snow shoes and headed out once more, this time with Klas Tigerström, a mountain guide and lights expert. That night, Klas explained, the lights would be showing strongest less than an hour’s walk away. The hunt was on again. He pointed out animal tracks in the snow – reindeer, ptarmigan, arctic fox – then started tracking the cloudless skies, looking for clues.
We crested a little butte and, fortified by hot cloudberry juice, settled in for the wait.
It wasn’t long. To the north, the billowing white mist of the night before returned, this time tinged with green, like the phosphorescence of the oceans. “The green is oxygen molecules,” said Klas, “the most common aurora. If we’re lucky, we’ll get the blues and purples of colliding nitrogen particles. But that’s much rarer.”
The display, coquettish at first, gathered in strength, filling the sky from east to west. For more than an hour we watched as the heavens danced and pulsed with ephemeral light, shape-shifting like time-lapse photography. Sinuous, stalactitic columns dropped to the horizon, caressing the mountains, then disappeared to be replaced by great verdant plumes racing upwards like the exhaust fumes from a rocket. One minute the sky was filled with fine filigree, the next it looked like a giant mackerel. We all just stared, open-mouthed, mesmerised like worshippers at a revivalist prayer meeting.
It was quite a show – and it was easy to see why the ancients had felt compelled to create their myths, lest their heads exploded. Looking up at that display, I quite envied them their nescience.
The auroral prediction from Nasa for my final night in Abisko was that it was going to be a “three” – as opposed to the “two” of the evening before (nine, the highest level of the K-index on which geomagnetic activity is measured, only occurs way up in the atmosphere. Three, we were told, has produced some of the best sightings). It would seem that nature’s little four-act drama was shaping up nicely.
We were taken back up to the Sky Station, where a palpable frisson ran through the room. It could well have turned into a mass orgy up there. Somebody ran in. Had it started? No, it was snowing. That could only mean cloud.
We went outside and stood in the blizzard. Behind the curtain, no doubt, the diva was putting on her private, dazzling performance – greens, reds, purples, blues. Ridiculously, I felt petulant, wanting to scream: “But I’ve come all this way to see you!” But then I imagined her dancing her ghostly adagio since the beginning of time and felt about as small as the flake of snow that came to rest on my nose.
Mike Carter was a guest of The Aurora Zone (www.theaurorazone.com). Its four-night aurora hunting trip to Abisko costs from £1,595 including transfers and warm clothing (or £1,895 with flights from London). The company offers a range of northern lights-focused holidays from November to April