Northern Lights in Jokkmokk at The Arctic Colors Gallery in Porjus Lapland.
It’s 10.30pm and Patricia Cowern has just put the telephone down. One of her neighbours has called to tell her there is an incredible northern light. ‘I ask everyone to call me if they see some colour in the sky, I don’t care what the time is’ she explains. ‘Some people will ring me at 3am if there is a good display.’
She throws the camera bag over her shoulder. The bag is always ready and consists of a Canon EOS5D loaded with a 16GB Scandisk card, a Canon EOS10D, two fixed lenses - a 20mm and a 55mm, a Manfrotto tripod strapped to the side and of course some extra memory cards and batteries. Patricia informs me we don’t have much time, so within a couple of minutes we are on our way out of the Railway Station House she has called home for the last 14 years.
As we exit the building we pass through two doors, one after the other, a sort of ‘air lock’ arrangement that is in many houses inside Sweden’s Arctic Circle. In mid winter heating a house is expensive, so it’s important that the warm air is kept inside and the double door arrangement does the job admirably. A few seconds later we are crossing the railway track and taking our first steps onto the frozen river. The last door has a return mechanism and simply shuts itself. Few people lock their doors here in Porjus.
Patricia loves the Aurora Borealis, or Arctic Colors, the name she adopted for her photographic gallery, motel and photographic course centre. She moved to Porjus in 1997, two years after her first visit in 1995 for a holiday. She had visited at the request of her 18 year old son who now at nearly 30, has moved here himself and who had fallen in love with the idea of visiting the Porjus Hydro Power Station after finishing an energy project at University.
Patricia thought it would be a great opportunity to return home with some interesting pictures for her ever growing collection of slides, not realizing the profound impact the trip would have on the rest of her life. After three weeks, hundreds of slides, and an overwhelming feeling of peace she had not experienced before, Porjus was firmly secured as her holiday destination for the next two years. Each trip became longer and longer, until the pain of leaving was just too much.
“In the second year, I knew it was time. I returned to England, resigned from my job, sold my house and moved out to Porjus the same summer,” she says. “I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, but I knew it involved photography, and the northern lights.” Patricia had a soft spot for the old Porjus Railway Station situated almost on the bank of the Luleå River. She had stood and gazed at the building many times while enjoying the previous three years holidaying there. Fate stepped in and after spending an initial three months in the forest, sleeping in a small cabin with no water or electricity, the old station house came up for sale.
She jumped at the chance and made an offer which was accepted. At the beginning of 1997 she found herself sitting in the entrance lobby, pondering the huge renovation job ahead of her. The best part of the following year was spent renovating the old building, with much of the work completed by herself while listening to ‘teach yourself Swedish’ CD’s. The ground floor became her gallery with three large exhibition rooms and three smaller rooms, one of which is still her photographic office today. Upstairs became her living area, complete with a sauna.
With the gallery ready and open for business in the summer of 1998, Patricia began pursuing her passion, photographing the local wildlife, scenery and of course the Arctic Light, pretty much the way we are tonight. We have walked for 10 minutes now. The snow crunches underfoot like soft beach sand, but my feet feel anything but warm. I begin to feel a little uneasy as we walk even further towards the centre of the river. Patricia assures me that the ice is a metre thick and tries to move my thoughts on by explaining how difficult it can be to take a worthwhile shot of the Northern Lights.
“They are an element of a process, part of a reaction between solar winds and the Earths magnetic fields. Charged particles fly from the Sun at different speeds, the electrons and positive ions become super hot ionized plasma clouds, thrown into deep space. These plasma clouds travel through space at varying speeds from 300 to 1000 kilometres per second and can take two or three days to reach Earth. There is no colour at this stage but as soon as the plasma clouds hit the Earth’s magnetic field a complicated process of particle collision takes place, and the Northern Lights are born.”
“The intensive colours range from a yellowish green through to hues of red. Most people will see yellow or green colours, sometimes the red, but although the blues and violets are present, they are hard to see with the naked eye. Strangely, they show up through a camera lens. That’s what I find so exciting” Patricia exclaims. ”You never know what you will end up with!”
Another 5 minutes and we are nearly at the middle of the river where a small tent has been set up. I can now see swirls of amazing green ‘smoke’ in the sky. Suddenly, Patricia starts to run, and as if loading a small rifle, pulls, clicks and locks the Manfrotto Tripod while still running to the tent. I take the hint and follow her as fast as I can, but by the time I get to the tent the Manfrotto is set firmly in the snow, the Canon EOS5 mounted and pointed skyward and with remote control in hand and control dial set on ‘B’, Patricia stands counting gently out loud.
The green mist is now touching every corner of the night sky, swirling around like a giant green, Chinese paper dragon. It is an amazing sight. Patricia tells me to lie down on the snow and take in the view. Instinct screams at me to grab my camera, but having heard stories of people staying here for a week and not seeing anything, I can’t ignore the advice. Patricia has already promised me plenty of pictures if I want them.
It’s cold, -27c or more. But when l lay down and look up at the deep night sky, filled with the incredible, beautiful green haze crackling and writhing in total silence, physical discomfort is a secondary issue. Mesmerized, I am motionless for what feels like thirty minutes, but is actually nearer ten. I am vaguely aware of a shutter firing every now and then and Patricia counting quietly, but I can’t take my eyes away from the shifting colours in the sky and then suddenly, as if I had been dreaming, nothing is left but stars.
I realise that Patricia has only just fired off the last frame. She used the 20mm lens and had set an aperture of 2.8 exposing each frame for 20-30 seconds. “Never mind, I think we had some good shots there. What did you think?” I try to relay my intense feelings, but it’s hard to find the words and I can feel myself talking very quickly, excited far beyond my expectations. She smiles and explains that most people feel the same way. It is truly a unique experience.
Patricia digs out a small gas stove from the tent and brews some fresh coffee. As we wrap our hands around the rapidly cooling cups, she tells me about her Hostel building which is now next to the main station house. It has been moved, fully renovated, and was used originally by the national electric company, Vattenfall. They used living quarters like this to house some of the power station workers many years ago. As her gallery and home lie on a main trunk road, the E45, she thought it would be a good idea to offer accommodation to tourists and photographers alike.
After coffee, as we walk back to the station house, I can’t help but wonder if Patricia’s life is much harder now than it was in England. In summer she runs her 12 room motel. She also puts on a photographic exhibition every year as well as running very popular photographic courses. She is out on the frozen river most winter weeks, always late at night, always when its cold. Finally last year, her labour of love was finished, a book on her photographic experiences in Porjus and of course, the Arctic Light. On top of all of that, she has been heavily involved in the community issues of Porjus, and sits on several committees.
I ask her if she finds all this work too much, compared to the office job she had back in England. She smiles, and asks me to look around. “You can do anything in this place. You just need to look at the landscape, the sky and the forest. It’s incredibly inspiring, wondrous even. To live here every day, and be able to photograph so much beauty, right here on my door step….it’s probably why I wake up smiling each morning”.