If you’ve got “See the northern lights” on your bucket list, you may want to start planning a trip to Swedish Lapland later this year because your chances of catching the aurora borealis are pretty high. NASA is predicting that the strongest solar explosions of the last decade (called “solar maximums”) will happen this fall and winter.
But that’s just one of many reasons to explore the region. Here are three stories that capture why I love coming here:
Chasing the northern lights
“This is incredible,” said Peter Rosén as he trudged through calf-deep snow to join his students — Henrik, Yvonne, Una, and me. We were close to the top of Mount Nuolja with our cameras trained on the sky, which was alive with twinkling stars and dancing ribbons of green light. Peter had positioned his tripod directly behind the Aurora Sky Station and was recording a time lapse of the aurora borealis swirling and folding over Abisko National Park, Lapporten, and Lake Torneträsk.
“The last few days have been incredible,” he repeated, his eyes shimmering in the moonlight. “I couldn’t have asked for more.” Peter’s energy and excitement were infectious. Even though he has been professionally photographing the northern lights in Swedish Lapland since 1999 and is a local legend around these parts, he seemed to welcome every display with fresh, appreciative eyes.
These natural phenomena are wildly unpredictable, but chasing the lights with Peter meant that we were able to avoid tourists, head deeper into the wilderness around Kiruna and Jukkasjärvi, set our own schedule in terms of where and how long we wanted to photograph, and find the clearest views.
Soaking up Sámi culture
“We don’t herd the reindeer. They herd us,” said Sámi elder Anders Kärrstedt. At that moment I began to understand the deep intrinsic connection between the Sámi and the great antlered beasts before us.
We were chatting in one of Nutti Sami Siida’s rustic lodges. Its rooms are minimalist, with drinking water in a jug and sleeping bags and a small wood-burning fireplace to keep you warm. The toilet is an outhouse where you have to switch the water pump on and off to wash your hands. Yet these amenities seemed more than adequate — if not unnecessary — in the rustic and ethereal Sápmi landscape.
The Sámi are an indigenous people who live in parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Russian Kola peninsula (collectively known as the Sápmi region). About a third of the total population of 70,000 resides in Swedish Lapland. And while the reindeer has remained a strong symbol of their culture, it by no means defines it.
Our group would be trying out the centuries-old Sámi tradition of reindeer sledding. A few meters away from us, 28-year-old Jakob Cederang was busy feeding about 100 reindeer. Thousands more were deep within the tundra between Norway and Sweden. Our guides (who happen to be brothers), Nils and Per-Anders Nutti, helped us pick strong male reindeer from the group, then showed us how to gently yet sternly guide them through the boreal forests and frozen lakes.
Running with the huskies
“We met online,” Matti Holmgren openly shared with our group as we roasted sausages over the fire. We were sitting in a Tentipi near a very frozen Lake Skabram just outside the small town of Jokkmokk. “She fell in love with the outdoors, too,” he continued.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Matti had moved north from central Sweden to study ecology, but his passion for the outdoors kept him in Swedish Lapland. He started training his first Siberian husky in 1994, a year before launching his adventure company. When they started dating, Stina Svensson had never been to Lapland. But after her first trip, she was smitten with both Matti and the landscape. She moved in with Matti in 2004 and they’ve been partners — in life and at Jokkmokkguiderna — ever since.
These days, they’re up to about 40 Siberian huskies and run one of the coolest year-round routes in Lapland, including multi-day camping trips through spectacular Padjelanta and Sarek national parks in Laponia. Top race dogs can run up to 250 kilometers in 24 hours, but Matti and Stina mostly raise working dogs which they use for expeditions and tours — with a few long-distance races thrown in for good measure. “It feels like I have found a home here,” Stina said.
Lola Akinmade Åkerström is a Stockholm-based photographer and writer who contributes to National Geographic Traveler and other travel publications. See more of her photography from Lapland and follow her story on Twitter @LolaAkinmade.
- Go on an Aurora Photo Adventures expedition with Peter
- Go exploring with Matti, Stina, and their huskies
- Check out Nutti Sámi Siida’s reindeer lodge and sledding activities