Travel, and specifically, solo female travel, has been a passion for me for some time. It probably stemmed from necessity after getting divorced a decade ago and finding that my friends often weren’t available or didn’t have the funds to join me on trips when I was ready to go. I’m sure my first true vacation alone was to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I traveled for work alone on occasion, but that felt far more “acceptable” than traveling alone to a resort town. Even though I had accommodations for a week beginning on Saturday, I booked my return airfare home on Wednesday, positive that I would be bored out of my mind by being alone with myself. Fast forward to Tuesday, and I absolutely wasn’t ready to leave my little paradise! I changed my ticket that night, and spent the rest of the week in complete relaxation and happiness.
Since then, I’ve gone on quite a few beach-y vacations by myself, even after finding myself back in a long term relationship a few years ago with my current significant other. Even though traveling with others is fun, sometimes you just need to disconnect and be with yourself to recharge and de-stress from life. This was extremely important for me over the years, as I had a very stressful job that consumed me. I was stuck in a vicious cycle of working long hours, fighting to find work life balance, and running off on vacations (both solo and with others), but never finding true peace and happiness. In November of this past year, I was on a long weekend with girlfriends in Mexico, complaining about the stress of my job, and they told me something life changing (and extremely simple)… That I was the only one keeping me from happiness and that I did not have to stay in a career that was no longer feeding my soul. They reminded me that my skills and experience could translate to numerous industries and that I could still be successful, but doing something I love. So I did the unthinkable (for me) when I returned…I quit my job without having another job to go to (or any idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life!!!) and booked a trip to northern Sweden to photograph the Northern Lights. After a month of going through various stages of emotions related to walking away from my successful career…relief, fear, sadness, fear, acceptance, fear, and finally, happiness, the one thing that was unwavering was my excitement for my first adventure-type solo trip and off to Sweden I went!
Photography is something I have always enjoyed, but I didn’t get serious about it until four years ago when I purchased a really, really good camera. Unfortunately, I could go through long periods of not taking pictures because of work and life in general getting in the way and making me “not in the mood” to go out and shoot pictures. I knew when I left my job, part of my healing process had to be enjoying two things I love…travel and photography. I started looking for photography related tours or workshops that were in December, and found a lot of them to be African safaris. I’ve already been on safari in Africa, and while I want to go back, I needed to do something different. The Northern Lights have been on my bucket list for some time, and after a little bit of searching, I stumbled upon Lights Over Lapland. Based in the Arctic Circle town of Abisko, Sweden (population 200), I found I was in luck and they had one spot left in their four-night Northern Lights Aurora tour the first week of December. While not specifically a “photography workshop”, the company actually provides camera equipment, arctic gear, and instruction on how to capture the aurora, this actually seemed perfect as I didn’t necessarily want to be with a bunch of far more experienced photographers for my first trip like this. I told my boyfriend about the workshop, and being the super supportive person that he is, he told me to book it and enjoy this time for me and me alone. I didn’t waste any time!
I arrived in Stockholm on a Sunday evening after nearly 14 hours of flight time and additional travel hours due to a long weather delay in Frankfurt. I spend the night in the hotel in the terminal, and set out the next morning in the 1.5 hour flight to Kiruna in the far north of Sweden. From the Kiruna airport, it was another 1.5 hour drive to the hotel, the STF Touristation Abisko in Abisko. Abisko is a tiny, tiny village, and there are only a few places to stay. The hotel accommodations were part of my package, as were the meals, which made travel planning very seamless. We were greeted by our guide, Sarah, and sent off to our rooms for a rest before our first group dinner at 5:30pm. After dinner, we returned to our rooms to put on our layers, and meet up again at 7:30 to get our “arctic suits” and for the rest of the group to obtain and get instruction on their camera gear (I brought my own camera equipment). After this was complete, we set off for our first night of aurora hunting, which was to a location a short walk (or wobble in our suits and layers) away from the light pollution of the hotel. Within a few minutes of setting up my tripod and camera, the lights started to appear faintly in the sky. The excitement of our group was electrifying! I suddenly felt like a little kid again. We all started snapping pictures for fear that this would be the only display we would get to see, as the aurora is never a guarantee with variable winter weather. Little did we know that we would be lucky more than once! I stayed up late into the early morning editing photos and posting them on Facebook and Instagram, because I was so excited to share what I had just witnessed with my eyes.
On the second night, we took a 45-minute ski lift ride to the top of Mt. Noulja, over the quiet, snowy landscape to the Aurora Sky Station. Just as the evening before, the light show began literally as I set up my camera. But this time, it was absolutely spectacular and magical. The auroras were green and pink and extremely bright, and they moved across the sky in a dazzling display. Sarah said that this was a result of a powerful solar storm, and that this was the best aurora of the season so far. It was easy to forget that it was -14 degrees Celsius and windy on top of this moonscape-like mountain as I went between snapping as many shots as I could and staring at the sky in awe. I literally had tears in my eyes, because I realized how fortunate I was to be able to see this beautiful phenomenon that many people will never see other than in photographs. I understood in this moment that I was on the right path, even though my path isn’t clear to me yet, and that I was experiencing pure joy without a worry in the world.
I stayed up very late again editing and posting on social media, as I did on the following nights. We saw the auroras again faintly on the next evening, but the final evening was a huge snowstorm, and I ended up making a wise choice and staying in and curling up with a glass of wine and my laptop, while the group sat around a fire for hours outside that resulted in no reward. I was surviving on very little sleep from the late nights on my laptop, and days filled with activities such as dogsledding and trips to the Ice Hotel and Norway. I was sad to leave this little arctic town, the cozy hotel, and the little group of us who came from all corners of the globe to witness the Northern Lights, most of us for the first time.
I left Abisko with my heart full of love for both nature and myself, and spent the next few days exploring Stockholm, which was already in the full swing of the Christmas season. I wandered through Gamla Stan, dined on Swedish meatballs, visited the ABBA museum, and took many, many photographs, and probably seemed like I was spamming the heck out of my followers on Instagram! But I happy that I was finally finding joy again in photography and that I had taken the time to find myself and my passion in one of the most magical countries and landscapes!
Follow more of my travel and photography adventures on Instagram at www.instagram.com/michellekenyonphoto/