In Sweden, some people say you can hear the northern lights.
Some say they whoosh like the wind. Others say they crackle like pine needles on a campfire.
After a week in the far north of the country, I still hadn’t even seen the lights, let alone heard them. I kept hoping for a sign – any kind of whoosh or crackle would do – but apart from the gentle patter of falling snowflakes, everything was quiet.
Winter had come to Kiruna, the small city near the very top of Swedish Lapland, and a popular base for tourists hoping to see the northern lights. Arctic air had frozen everything, and the sun sent pale fingers of light across the icy streets for just a couple of hours each day.
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Locals did what they could to make the winter brighter. Candles flickered in snowy doorways, the smell of fresh coffee wafted out from cozy cafes and star-shaped lamps illuminated every window.
But cracks had begun to appear beneath the city’s happy facade. Literally.
Kiruna was one of the last stops on my road trip through the ancestral lands of the Sami, Europe’s northernmost indigenous people, whose reindeer still roam the frozen forests. The plan was to travel from place to place, catching glimpses of the aurora along the way.
Warm, old-fashioned hostels with wooden bunk beds provided cheap accommodation, but because of good luck or bad weather, I never once had to share a dorm. I drove around with my coat on, nervously watching the roads for wild elk and reindeer. And I stopped to take pictures whenever the snowy trees parted, revealing pink skies and ice-white rivers that seemed to be stuck on pause.
The northern lights regularly flicker to life across central and northern Sweden, and the displays are stronger and more frequent once you cross the Arctic Circle. The long nights of winter, I reckoned, would only increase my chances of seeing the lights.
Night after night, however, the sky had been heavy with snowflakes, blocking any signs of the aurora. I knew that Kiruna – the biggest city for hundreds of miles around, and regularly treated to powerful light shows – would be the best place to wait for a gap in the clouds.
Founded in 1900, the city began life as a small mining outpost. In the years that followed, thousands of workers arrived to exploit the huge body of iron ore that lies deep beneath the ground. As the mine expanded, so did the city, providing steady jobs and warm homes in one of the coldest parts of the country.
Moving to the east
But the long decades of intensive mining have left deep cracks in the earth beneath Kiruna, and soon, large parts of the city center will be at risk of collapse.
For the Swedish government and the state-owned mining company LKAB, which earn handsome profits from extracting and exporting the iron, there is only one solution. The whole city center – including apartments, hotels, even the local church – will be relocated 2 miles to the east, allowing the world’s biggest iron-ore mine to expand even farther.
The mine is the reason for Kiruna’s success, and it remains one of the region’s biggest employers. But its continued expansion is also bringing about the end of an era for some 18,000 or so residents.
“We’re not staying,” one restaurant owner told me. “We’ll move south,” she added, running her hands along the counter. “I think lots of people are moving away.”
And then she mentioned the noises.
Those low rumbles from deep within the earth, which many locals report hearing after dark, are caused by explosive charges detonating hundreds of yards below the surface. Every night in Kiruna, miners blast their way through around 25 tons of explosives as they attempt to get at the valuable ore.
Walking the snow-packed streets of the downtown, where old ladies scoot from shop to shop on stand-up sledges called sparkar, it seemed hard to imagine landmarks just … disappearing. The shoebox-shaped town hall, previously a protected building, is now deemed too expensive to save – only the clock tower will be spared, and architectural plans show it will end up on the new city square as a kind of symbolic nod to the past. The rust-red church, meanwhile, once named Sweden’s most beautiful building, will be taken apart piece by piece and rebuilt across town.
The first buildings are already being pulled down; by 2035 at least 2,500 homes will have been affected. Despite the scale of the project, and the fact that the city may end up encroaching on traditional reindeer migration routes, protests have been few and far between.
Planners say the new city center, parts of which will be finished by 2017, will be greener than the one it replaces. It should also be better equipped for tourists, who are already attracted to Kiruna by the northern lights – and, yes, the prospect of visiting the mine. Such is the interest in underground exploration that LKAB runs tours of its 590-yard-deep “show mine,” with tickets sold at the local tourist office.
Enter the Icehotel
My sights were set on a better-known attraction. The famous Icehotel, carefully carved from frozen water each winter, was just a 15-minute drive away from Kiruna in the riverside village of Jukkasjarvi. But it felt like I’d traveled farther. The sky in Jukkasjarvi seemed wider, the surrounding forests looked denser, and apart from the distant hum of snow scooters – the favored method for getting up and down the ice-covered Torne River – there was barely any sound.
Decades ago, when an enterprising Swede called Yngve Bergqvist came up with the idea of a hotel made from ice, no one knew that it would transform the local tourist industry. It was always the long days of summer that lured people to Swedish Lapland. But now it’s winter that pulls in the big money, with people from all over the globe arriving to eat reindeer and wild berries, ride dog sleds, take ice-carving courses and learn about Sami culture. For many, the icing on the cake is spending a night on a reindeer skin in a hotel made out of ice.
I watched on as artists in high-visibility jackets put the final touches to this year’s hotel, ready for the first arrivals. The building’s design is always different, and sculptors from all around the world spend the darkest part of winter creating themed rooms and suites, which cost upwards of $300 per night to sleep in, and are kept at a teeth-chattering 23 degrees. Reindeer skins and high-quality sleeping bags help keep late-night shivers at bay.
As night began to fall at the Icehotel, so did plenty of snow. And with just one day left in Lapland, I still hadn’t seen (or heard) the northern lights.
The tiny outpost of Abisko, often described as the best place in the world for aurora spotters, seemed like my only hope. Around 60 miles northwest of Kiruna and surrounded by a national park that’s home to bears, waterfalls and snowy hiking routes, it’s largely untroubled by light pollution.
But the best thing is this: The bald mountains that surround Abisko create rain shadows that keep the clouds at bay, increasing the likelihood of clear night skies and visible auroras. In recent years word got out among international tourists and to cater for the increased demand, a special “sky station” was built atop a nearby mountain, providing dizzying views of the aurora for an equally dizzying price.
The aurora for free
Stepping from the car at Abisko Guesthouse, a little yellow building by the village’s only supermarket, I knew that I probably wouldn’t need to pay to see the aurora. The blanket of thick snow clouds had been pulled back, leaving the night air even colder than usual. But the stars were twinkling overhead.
“Do you know a good place where I can watch the northern lights for free?” I asked Klas, the welcoming man who ran the guesthouse. “I don’t really want to pay for the sky station.”
“You don’t need to go up there,” he smiled. “The sky is the same everywhere. I usually send people down to the lake. Just drive down and keep warm in your car until you see something.
“Oh,” he added. “And keep your lights off. It can take time for your eyes to adjust to the dark.”
So I drove along the potholed lane that Klas had recommended and pulled up at the edge of Tornetrask, a big, inky-black lake framed by distant peaks. I killed the lights, and I waited. And before long, the show had started.
First a wispy green genie of light appeared on the horizon, and soon it was spreading right across the black sky, forming huge columns of color that danced between the stars.
The aurora’s slow waltz went on for at least 15 minutes, but there was never any sound. Then as I started the car and drove back for my final sleep in Lapland, with the last glimmers of green light still drifting through the sky, the radio began to crackle.
That, I thought, would do.
If you go
Where to stay
Abisko Guesthouse Kalle Jons vag 5, Abisko, 60 miles northwest of Kiruna.
Modern guesthouse with comfy private rooms. Doubles about $144.
Mattarahkka – Northern Light Lodge Along the E10, 2 miles northwest of Kiruna.
Slick lodge away from the city’s light pollution. Doubles about $240.
Hotell Vinterpalatset Jarnvagsgatan 18, Kiruna
Cozy alpine-style hotel in the city center. Doubles about $192
Where to eat
Spis Bergmastaregatan 7, Kiruna
Tasty Arctic food. Main courses about $30.
Restaurant Kungsleden At Abisko Turiststation, 60 miles northwest of Kiruna
Great-value organic lunches. Full meal about $11.50.
What to do
Icehotel tours Marknadsvagen, Jukkasjarvi
The famous hotel made out of ice. Open10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily for visitors. $40.
Aurora Sky Station At Abisko Turiststation, 60 miles northwest of Kiruna
Panoramic views of the northern lights. Daily 9 p.m.-1 a.m. About $84.
Sami Museum At Hotell Samegarden, Brytaregatan 14, Kiruna
Small museum dedicated to Sami culture. Open Monday to Friday 7 a.m.-noon and 1 p.m.-4 p.m. About $2.40.
Regional info: swedishlapland.com