Abisko: Arctic Sweden in Winter

April 10, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

After last year's trip to Finnish Lapland, I was keen to see more of this part of the world. So this year we thought we'd try Sweden. Abisko is a national park in Northern Sweden, approximately 200km north of the Arctic Circle. It's a rugged and wild national park, best explored with snow shoes or cross-country skis during winter. However, there is a small town on the edge of the park, which is serviced by road and rail, so it's easy enough to get there. The real trick up Abisko's sleeve is it's reputation for the northern lights, AKA 'aurora'. It's guarded by the mountains which surround it in almost every direction. These typically hold back the clouds, and provide Abisko with more clear nights than other arctic destinations. But more of that later.

 

Snow-Covered Landscapes

First is a photo which will serve as my main memory of daytime in Abisko National Park - looking through trees!

Birches in SnowBirches in SnowEverywhere you go in Abisko you see this sight - birch trees in the foreground, mountains behind, and snow all around.

The image above is a snow-covered lake called Njakajaure (also known as Vuolip Njáhkájávri). I hope you're pronouncing those correctly, because I'm not. In front of the lake is a handful of the several million birch trees in the area, and behind are the glacial mountains which lie to the south east of the park. The circular walk to this lake is accessible on foot during winter, and there aren't many opportunities to get out of the trees and see a view, so this is definitely worth the hike. In fact, getting out of the birch forest, and seeing a view was the single hardest thing about photography in Abisko. In winter, at least.

Step off the path at your peril - the compacted snow on the marked trails is easy enough to walk on, but if you leave the path by just a foot or two, you'll end up in waist-high snow, which is not always easy to get out of, and impossible to walk through.

Below is a classic Swedish cabin. I grabbed this shot out of a train window, as the combination of light and the scenery as just too much to resist.

Swedish LaplandSwedish LaplandA classic Swedish cabin, painted red, surrounded by the rolling hills and birch forest. Photographed in high Arctic Sweden, March 2018.

 

Another, similar shot below, showing my memory of the vast uninhabited areas of arctic Sweden. In fact this was close to the Norwegian border in the far North West of Sweden.

Arctic SwedenArctic SwedenWinter in the far North of Sweden, as the setting sun illuminates the snow-covered hills.

 

Lake Torneträsk

Both Abisko National Park and the small town of Abisko sit on the Western shore of the enormous lake Torneträsk, which dominates the view from both locations. The lake itself is frozen, and is safe to walk across in winter. In fact since the wind rips across the lake, and keeps the snow-cover more shallow, it's easier to walk on than the other trails in the national park. Photographically, it's the mountains on the other side which interest me.

Torneträsk PanoramaTorneträsk PanoramaThree-shot panorama of the mountains beyond lake Torneträsk, Abisko, Sweden.

 

Looking North at sunset, the mountains are side-lit, which creates interesting shadows along the ridge. There was low cloud on this evening, but even the cloud turned a deep blue colour at sunset, until it was actually darker than the sun-lit land below. This always a creates a dramatic effect in photos.  Swedish FellsideSwedish FellsideThe hills at the top of lake Torneträsk, in Abisko, lit by the setting sun.
The Norwegian border lies tantalisingly close beyond this fell.

 

As the sun sets, the best view is East, towards the mountains enjoying the last rays of sun.
Frozen SunsetFrozen SunsetA frozen lake Torneträsk, in Abisko, Sweden.

 

The shade of the foreground is blue, while the highlights and the sky transition to pinks and purples. This is an effect we see in the UK sometimes (more often in the winter, I think), but I it's far more common, and far more emphatic in the arctic regions. Pink MountainsPink MountainsThe mountains beyond Lake Torneträsk, painted pink by the setting sun, as the land below sits in shadow.
Just over the other side of these mountains, you'll find the Norwegian border, which stretches over the top of Sweden.

 

Aurora

And as day turned to night, Abisko lived up to it's reputation, and duly delivered the famous 'northern lights'. We headed down to lake Torneträsk to enjoy the show. Aurora Over Lake TorneträskAurora Over Lake TorneträskThe northern lights dancing in the night sky, about Lake Torneträsk, in Abisko, Sweden.

 

This aurora was only a 4 on the Kp scale, so around mid-strength, but it warped and morphed into shapes, and at times it danced and flickered across the sky.

Aurora Sauna CabinAurora Sauna CabinA small Swedish sauna cabin, sitting on the banks of the frozen lake Torneträsk, with the aurora illuminating the night sky. Aurora PortraitAurora PortraitA burst of aurora photographed in portrait-orientation. Lake Torneträsk, in Abisko, Sweden.

 

I don't think these photos are really adding much to the world of aurora photos out there, but they're a good indication of the sort of thing you can expect if you visit Abisko yourself.

Swirling AuroraSwirling AuroraAurora over lake Torneträsk, Abisko, Sweden.

 

Recommendations

For reference, we stayed at the STF Abisko Mountain Station, which was a great choice, and I'd stay there again, for sure. It's operated by the Swedish tourist association, and offers both hostel and self-catering-cabin accommodation. We stayed in a cabin, which as well as having aurora and lake views from the windows, we also woke up to find a mother and calf moose on one morning. Top marks from me.

As for the National Park, I found it a struggle in winter. The trail maps were poor (vague, not well described, not well publicised) in comparison to those in Finland last year, and there were very few trails accessible without snow shoes or skis. Even fewer which provided views - such was the density of the birch trees. Of course, that's kind of the point. Abisko is pitched at a slightly different crowd to the more accessible resorts in Finland. In other seasons, it would be easier to get up above the tree line, so I'd like to return in Autumn one year, and see the landscape dressed in red and gold. But for winter, if you prefer snow-capped trees, fells, and hiking trails, try Finland. If your priority is aurora, or cross-country skiing (see the "Kungsleden Trail"), I'd heartily recommend Abisko.

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Post by George Wheelhouse, 2018.

 


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