When I step out onto the deck there's no mistaking the intensity of the Arctic chill. That's not surprising: I'm a good hundred miles inside the Arctic Circle, in fact you can't get much farther north and still be in Sweden. This is Abisko Mountain Station, perhaps the crown jewel of the storied Swedish mountain lodges. I'm back for a second time to this remote, scenic spot under the landmark Lapporten mountain, the gateway into the wilds of Lappland.
My first journey here was to sample the unique wilderness of Arctic Sweden, to hike some of the best and remote backcountry routes in northern Europe. But I come back again and again because I've found this wild landscape to be addictive.
When an early, heavy snowstorm last autumn pinned me down in my tent for days and eventually chased me from the backcountry back to the station and its comforts, I was to discover yet a different side to Abisko. People come here for many reasons--some to hike, some to climb, some to bird-watch, some to cross-country ski in the winter. But there's an entirely different allure here, and for proof, all I have to do is look up from the station's expansive deck into the night sky above the huge lake called the Tornetrask. Bright, undulating waves of light, tinged with subtle shades of green and red, ripple across the sky. The Northern Lights display tonight varies from subdued flashes to outrageously intense surges of ghostly lights rolling across the dark expanse of night sky. A new moon accentuates the mind-blowing show.
The Aurora may be old hat to the Swedes and Norwegians who live this far north, but to those travelers from afar it's a spectacle that has us shivering on the deck, bundled up in all the down gear we've brought. The lights here are so mesmerizing we quickly forget the discomfort of the cold.
"Abisko may be the best place on earth to see the Northern Lights," explains station manager Putte Eby, "and we work to make it so. The only thing you need is darkness, so anytime from September through April s a good time to see the Aurora from Abisko station." So popular has Abisko become as a vantage point for the Northern Lights, Eby kept the station opened during the midwinter solstice and holidays last year for the first time in a decade. The word is rapidly getting out, as visitors from as far away as Japan and North America now arrive here in autumn, winter and early spring to enjoy the polar light show, courtesy of the solar wind and Earth's atmosphere.
One of the factors that makes Abisko a prime location for viewing the Aurora is the Tornetrask itself. The huge lake, which sprawls more than 70 kilometers long just north of the station, creates an unusual weather phenomenon that keeps the skies above the station clear even when fog or clouds blanket most of northern Sweden. This is the famed "blue hole of Abisko," a perennial patch of sky kept mostly clear by climatological effects of this inland sea and its valley.
When this quirk of weather is combined with the comforts of the station, the package adds up to one of prime vantage points anywhere for viewing the Aurora. The Swedish Touring Federation (STF), which together with the Swedish government runs the national parks, maintains huts and trails, and also operates a half dozen mountain stations throughout the country. Much more elaborate than the many wilderness huts, the STF mountian stations feature restaurants, hot showers and other creature comforts. Abisko is the only one of these stations located on a highway, so the range of accommodations and level of service here is in a class by itself. From dormitories to private rooms to stand-alone chalets, the various lodging options and its outstanding dining room make the lodge suitable to most travelers, even in these days of a strong Kroner.
"It's frankly surprised us," said Eby, "how quickly the news has spread that Abisko is the place to be for the Northern Lights. For years in fact, the station had closed from September, when the hiking season ended, to March, when the skiing season began. But the demand from mostly international visitors who wish to view the Aurora from here has meant we're open now even over the Christmas holidays, and for most of the winter."
The station posts "forecasts" each night of expected Aurora activity, gleaned from scientific observations arriving via computer from both the United States and the nearby city of Kiruna, home to Sweden's space efforts. By predicting when solar flares from the sun will reach the earth, very accurate predictions can be made as to the intensity of the Northern Lights.
Station manager Eby adds that is was Hirohisa Makino, a Japanese photographer who called Sweden home, who helped develop the station as a center for viewing the Northern Lights. Both an accomplished photographer, and a skilled reader of the scientific information, he could predict with uncanny precision the intensitiy of the evening's display. Mr. Makino's enthusiasm was infectious. Sadly, Makino, as we all knew him, died this year, but not before his images, which accompany this story, helped to make Abisko world renowned as a vantage point for the Aurora.
More than just the lodge itself, however, it's Abisko's remote location, far from city lights, and it's unique infrastructure that make it such a prime vantage point to view heavenly phenomenon. The station operates a ski lift to the top of Nuolja Peak, more than 3,000 feet high. In summer, the lift takes hikers up to the 500-meter level for an unforgettable ridge walk (where rare orchids grow), and in winter for off-piste skiers. Eby, for the first time this year, turned the cafe at the top of the mountain into a viewing platform for the Northern Lights, called it the Aurora Sky Station.
Perched atop the 1,100 meter hill on the shore of the Tornetrask, the lift station is a made to order look-out for the Northern Lights, even if it is a chilly 15 minute trip up the mountain in the open chair lift. This may be the single best platform on the planet to watch the Aurora ripple across the heavens. The exterior decks offer unimpeded views of the Northern Lights, an unforgettable sight, especially for those who haven't yet seen them. Then, when there's a lull in the action, you can stroll into the warm cafe and enjoy a libations until you're ready to venture out again for more of natures greatest spectacle.
Abisko Mountain Station is easily reached from the city of Kiruna, home to the original Ice Hotel, just an hour and a half away by road from the station. Many international visitors combine a stay at the Ice Hotel with a stay at Abisko, which offers special Northern Lights packages in February and March. SAS has twice daily flights from Stockholm to Kiruna, providing convenient transportation to Kiruna and the wilds of Arctic Sweden that surround it. For first time travelers to Sweden, the national tourist office at www.visitsweden.com can help in planning a visit.