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The light of the North

The light of the North
18 Jan
2018
The Northern Lights exert a hypnotic, gravitational pull on the human imagination. And it’s easy to understand – despite the merrily elusive tune to which the aurora borealis often dance – why every winter thousands of tourists head for the north of Scandinavia

I’m based at the promisingly named Aurora Safari Camp, 40km below the Arctic Circle and 80km north of the city of Lulea that sits on the Gulf of Bothnia. The camp is a collection of ultra-comfortable teepees, rising from the snow around a central mess tent where a piping hot boiler lifts the temperature to 15ºC from the unsettlingly, bone-marrow cold -20ºC outside. But here, in the emptiness of Swedish Lapland, it turns out the lights won’t dance for me. As darkness draws in, so do the clouds, shutting out any prospect of a display.

snow light

No matter, for I’m mesmerised by another, endlessly fascinating phenomenon that is everywhere: northern light. Northern Sweden is a place where you can chart the changing of the seasons with your eyes, as the light moves from one end of the spectrum to the other.

Stand on the Arctic Circle for the winter solstice and the sun stubbornly remains below the horizon as the Polar Night extends its grip. Six months later, it has been replaced by the Midnight Sun. At such times, the handover between dawn and dusk, and then dusk and dawn creates a magical light, known as blå timmen in Swedish, or the blue hours.

The further north you go, and as the planet heads towards either solstice, days can lengthen or shorten by more than seven minutes, adding or cutting daylight by an hour in little more than a week. It’s the kind of pace that, stay a few days, and you can almost feel the Earth turning.

midnight sun

The importance of light is recognised by the United Nations, which previously designated 2015 as the International Year of Light, a thought-provoking contrast to the burgeoning Dark Skies movement and concerns about light pollution. In Western, urban areas, we now crave darkness, respite from the 21st century glare of technology. In northern Sweden, you would be unlikely to survive without light of some kind.

The UN’s reasoning was that light, particularly man-made light is going to lead us helter-skelter through rapid technological advances, that development in developed countries and emerging economies is intimately tied up with the ability to light our cities, homes, schools and recreation areas. ‘The 21st century will depend as much on photonics [the science of light] as the 20th century depended on electronics,’ the UN claims, somewhat portentously.

mist

If you’re a traditional, nomadic herdsman or woman, total darkness isn’t much help. You need fires to keep warm, light to guide you. That applies to the modern world too: right across Lapland low-level lighting in windows and gardens gives off a warm glow. In cities such as Lulea, cafes and restaurants all position candles at their doors to welcome you in.

The same goes for the isolated homesteads in the countryside. Without exception, every one is lit up like an airport runway, though they must be modelled on a particularly tasteful runway. It’s something you can’t fail to notice throughout the country: wherever there are humans, there is light.

I leave the communal tent at the Aurora camp and take a wander out onto the ice. The snow on the ground, stars and the moon bring the landscape to life, rather like a night-vision camera. Big, fat snowflakes are falling from what seems to be a clear sky. You can understand how such a thing might have spooked the ancient Lapps, who thought the stars were falling from the sky. There is a childlike magic about the light of the north, and the winter cold that goes with it. I’ve never felt so keenly as thought I were walking through the pages of a fairy tale.

lake bothnia

The Swedish winter is not monochrome, even in the light of moonlight and the reflected light of ice. Instead, there are metallic shades of every colour everywhere: the flinty brown bark of tens of thousands of pine trees and the velvet, spangled green of their needles.

The view across the frozen Gulf of Bothnia recalls the static on an outdated television after transmission has closed. Earlier, the sun was yellow, then orange then deep red as it wheeled low above the horizon.

In this stilled landscape, there’s movement too: elks lumber along the sea edge, their foam rubber glove antlers nodding as they do. That distant, artificial light. Is it headlights from a car on a lonely journey, a solitary house on an island?

reindeer

The ice around me cracks as it expands. This is supposed to be reassuring. I decide it will be even more reassuring if I’m not stood on it, and return to the camp and our hosts Pa Kasberg and his daughter Cassandra. We have reindeer and mushrooms for dinner but I learn that ptarmigan is a popular dish too. Pa explains the drumsticks are best, and taste like reindeer. I explain how a British audience might react to this.

We talk about the magical light of the north. Pa tells the oddly stirring tale of how, in days not so long past, elderly people would walk into the forest, sit on a reindeer skin under a spruce tree, and wait to die. ‘The northern lights were supposed to be the ancestors taking the souls of these deceased from the Earth,’ he says. ‘I once had a guest staying here who asked me to help him do the same when the time comes.’

skiing

The next day, I go cross-country skiing through this magical landscape with mountain guides Eric Borg and Penny Martensson, who run Pure Lapland, an eco-tourism company that combines nature walks, wildlife watching and Nordic outdoor skills.

‘There are huge differences in the amount of light that you get in different seasons here,’ says Eric. ‘Some people get depressed by the darkness and the lack of daylight. It’s possible to get light therapy at the hospital if you see a doctor. You will then sit in a completely bright, white room with white clothes to get artificial day light. In general people feel more happy in the spring and summer. Then you have long days and you can do all sorts of activities even at night. But I love the contrasts in the climate here. From 24h darkness to 24h daylight, -35ºC to +30ºC.’

Yet even lovers of northern light can find the going tough at times. ‘November is usually a very dark month with short days and little snow,’ admits Eric a little sheepishly. ‘That is the month I travel to somewhere warm and sunny for three weeks and get prepared for the winter.’

tent

I think that Eric and Penny have something of the Neolithic reindeer herder about them. Whatever the cold may throw at them, they are prepared for it in the same sanguine way that I might reach for a coat if there’s a light drizzle outside my front door.

To qualify as mountain guides, they needed to study for two years and complete an Arctic weather survival course. This involved spending 120 nights in tents in all weather conditions. ‘The longest trip was the three-week winter tour, during that we spent almost 20 nights in a tent in a row,’ recalls Eric. ‘All those nights were below freezing and in total we spent about 50-60 nights below freezing. Sometimes it was a little bit weird to come home during breaks to sleep in a normal bed in a house. All in all, it was a fantastic period of my life.’

I ask him if the Swedish winter, the darkness, has ever caught him out. ‘Not really,’ he replies. ‘Most of us here in the north learn to have respect for the winter and cold. In the mountains it’s way more important to have special skills to handle the cold and the wind. We know how to act and what decisions to take in a possible dangerous situation in the wilderness. But more and more inexperienced people are going to the mountains both winter and summer, and not many have the knowledge, so the mountain rescue helicopter has had more work these last years.’

mirrorcube

Eric drops me at the Tree Hotel, an extraordinary collection of futuristic sleeping pods. Designed variously – and breathtakingly – to resemble a UFO, a dragonfly and other outlandish or imaginary shapes, they dangle in mid-air suspended and partly perched on the trunks of giant spruce.

I arrive in the dark, it’s snowing and I slither my way up the small hill on which this ensemble has been brought together. Late next morning, in the light, I study them a little more closely. The lattices of steel cables that tie the pods to the trees create the spectacle of giant space invaders. Their sheet metal exteriors are slowly turning rust brown, merging with the pine forest.

The MirrorCube is utterly mesmerising, its aluminium frame and wrap-around glass reflects the sky, now a staggering shade of freshly painted lapis lazuli, that has at last pushed through the clouds.

A five-minute walk away is Brittas Pension (pension meaning a small, cheaper form of hotel), where Tree House guests check in and unwind over dinner. It’s a wooden-framed building, though it’s difficult to pick out the panels beneath the lights that smother the exterior. Never mind landing strips for aircraft, I’m left thinking that this pension could be picked out by a passing spaceship.

blue

A trip to Lapland in winter makes it difficult to think about anything other than light, and its importance. ‘The light affects people a lot,’ says Fredrik Broman, who set up the Aurora camp. ‘Swedes in general don’t spend a lot of time outdoors say from November to early February. Daylight comes back strongly in mid-Feb, and then people start to move around.’

Did he ever get caught out by the winter cold? ‘Yes,’ he admits happily enough. ‘Ever since I was a kid I’ve been quite used to getting cold-bitten both on fingers and toes as well as on ears, cheeks and nose. It’s never gone too far, so I haven’t ended up like something from a polar expedition that went horribly wrong. My parents had good judgement, but there is no point in letting the kids up here in the north get too spoiled, a little bite from the Arctic cold is quite good.’

Sometimes, I think, it’s good to look over your shoulder, rather than too far ahead as the International Year of Light wanted us to do. Fredrik has a nice phrase for this, which fits snugly with the northern light with which I have spent three days: ‘Sakta och ratt (slow and right), not fort och fel (fast and wrong).’

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