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Going Besök

Arctic Winter

SWEDEN | Sunday, 21 December 2008 | Views [1011]

Time to finish off the paperwork for these blogs.  Unfortunately this is having to be written after I have returned to Australia, and so a lot of other things are happening, and have happened, to distract me from this blog. So we’ll see how we go.

Executive Summary   

On this trip we flew up to the mining town of Kiruna in the Swedish Arctic.  We first stopped in at the nearby village of Jukkasjärvi to stay a night at the famous Ice Hotel – a hotel made entirely of ice, which melts every summer and is rebuilt anew every winter (though we stayed in the non-ice part surrounding the main ice structure).  Next we had a night in Kiruna before heading out for a dogsled tour and then on for 2 nights at the (predominantly Sami) village of Nikkaluokta nestled at the foot of the Swedish mountains.  At Nikkaluokta we did some snowshoeing around the frozen landscape, caught a glimpse of the northern lights, ate some yummy local food, learned a bit more about modern Sami people, experienced minus 21 degrees Celsius and met Boris the Welcome Dog.  Then after another night in Kiruna and a look around (including their cool church), we flew back to the sunnier climes of Örebro (ie, the sun still actually rises there in winter) to prepare for Xmas.

Contents

Flight to Kiruna and on to Jukkasjärvi
Ice Hotel
Kiruna
Dogsledding
Nikkaluokta
Day 2 at Nikkaluokta:  snowshoeing around the creeks; a sauna; northern lights and Boris
Day 3 at Nikkaluokta:  snowshoeing towards the mountains in -21 degrees
Kiruna and home
Wrap-up
  

Flight to Kiruna and on to Jukkasjärvi

Our train left Örebro in the pre-dawn of 7am to take us to Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport (about 40min north of Stockholm) for our flight to Kiruna.  The flight left at about midday for the 2hr flight.  Despite the checkin person giving us a seat over the wing, despite assuring us it wasn’t (note: anything between about row 12 and 19 on a standard domestic plane will have the view blocked by the wing), we still enjoyed an airborne sunset (above the clouds the sunsets are pretty cool and worth looking out for) as we farewelled the sun for the next week.

We landed at about 2:30 in Kiruna and walked from the plane to the terminal – though the pilot did helpfully remind us to put our coats on since it was a bit chilly out.  From there we hopped on the bus provided by the Ice Hotel towards Jukkasjärvi, enjoying the sight of dark leafless dwarf birches in the Arctic twilight.

Just a quick rundown on the area before we go on.  Kiruna (“KEY-roon-a”) is a mining town about 120km north of the Arctic Circle.  It was built, and exists, to mine iron ore, sitting as it does on the biggest iron ore deposit in western Europe.  It has existed for about 100 years and, being a mining town in the middle of an otherwise sparsely populated region in a fairly harsh climate, is rather like Mt Isa in the Queensland desert.  It is the main centre in the region, with a population of about 20,000.  Its name derives from the Sámi word “Giron”, meaning ptarmigan, a white, fluffy grouse-like bird native to the area.  Jukkasjärvi (“YOOK-as-YER-vi”), on the other hand is a much older settlement, being a market town since the 1600s.  It is about 10km east of Kiruna and is much smaller with only about 500 residents.  Despite this (and because of the relative ages), Kiruna is in the diocese of Jukkasjärvi rather than the other way around.  The name of the town is of Sámi and Finnish origin (reflecting the historical demographics of the region), originally meaning something like “Market lake” or “Gathering lake”, though the name has shifted from the original language slightly.  Jukkasjärvi is also home to the Ice Hotel, the main reason for our visit there.

Ice Hotel

The Ice Hotel is, oddly enough, a hotel constructed almost entirely out of ice.  It was the brainchild of local entrepreneur Yngve Bergkvist, who took an interest in the possibilities of building with ice.  It started as a temporary art gallery as part of an ice-carving festival in the late 80s, and morphed into a hotel in about 1989 when some unexpected visitors couldn’t find accommodation in town.  Since then it has grown into one of Sweden’s premier attractions.  The various books about it (one of which was in the room we had in Kiruna later on) keep raving on about how many foreigners more readily associate Sweden with the Ice Hotel than with Stockholm, though I sincerely hope that they’re talking about the Americans.  The Ice Hotel was a vague notion we’d heard of and looked into as part of our Arctic trip, not a driving force – mind you, when we told various Swedes about our plans to go to Kiruna in winter, many did ask if we were going to the Ice Hotel, so it does have a fairly big profile.

The Ice Hotel is built in two main ways.  The main structure is made by plonking a multi-section frame on the ground and spraying a mixture of snow and ice (called “snice”) over it with something like the snowmaking machines they use on ski slopes.  This is left to harden for a few days and the frame is slid out from under it, leaving a tunnel/corridor in the ice.  The two types of frame used are a low arched one, to create the rooms (which are then partitioned off inside), and a more “kids drawing of a house” profiled one, to make the corridors running between the rows of rooms.  These main structures look a bit like military bunkers once completed.  The other main construction material is pure ice cut out of the nearby Torne River.  Since this ice forms slowly under still conditions from fairly pure Arctic mountain water, it is very clear with no air bubbles or sediment and few impurities.  This clear ice is used for the ice sculptures and bricks needed, as well as being combined with the opaque snice for artistic effect. 

The lighting is all pumped in through optic fibres since the light sources would generate heat which would affect the ice around.  Generally coloured lights are not used, as the feeling is that the natural colours of the ice are more impressive.  The sun also shines through the walls in the daytime giving a glorious lighting effect of its own, but we were there in midwinter when there was no direct sunlight.  The interior is about -5 degrees C – this is usually warmer than the outside, but while we were there they were having a warm few days with about -1 outside.  Oh, and I should mention the (possibly obvious) point that the Ice Hotel melts every spring (around about March I think is when they close it to visitors) and has to be rebuilt every winter (Novemberish).

The Ice Hotel offers 3 levels of accommodation.  Ice Rooms (also called Art Suites) are specially prepared by individual artists.  They each have their own theme and abound with ice sculptures and lighting, ranging from a treehouse to an Adam and Eve room to a modern day room. These are massively expensive.  The Snow Rooms are unadorned ice rooms, with a smaller, but still pretty huge price tag. All the cold rooms have beds covered with reindeer hides and curtains for doors.  Outside the Ice Hotel itself, but part of the same complex, are the Warm Rooms – standard hotel rooms (made of standard building materials) with TVs and bathrooms and showers and running water.  These are a more normal hotel room price.  We stayed in one of the Warm Rooms, partly due to cost and partly because all of the cold rooms were booked out anyway.  Another reason that didn’t occur to us until we were there was that the cold rooms have no running water.  The showers and toilets are in a separate, permanent wing of the hotel, along with lockers for your luggage (it’d freeze if you left it in the room).  It seems obvious once you’re there, but you can’t just hang out in a -5 degree room – you only go in there to sleep.  So, while you have the experience of sleeping in a -5 room made of ice, you can’t really relax after your trip and have to go through a fairly big ordeal for that midnight toilet trip.  Even the Ice Hotel itself recommends people staying for more than one night to stay one night in the cold room and then move to a warm room for the rest of the stay.  Ultimately it’s kind of like the most interesting backpackers hostel in the world, but with a much higher price tag.  An Irish honeymooning couple we met in the bar stayed in the ice room and said they were glad they’d done it, but weren’t rushing back to repeat the experience.  So we were kind of glad we’d got to see the amazing place without the discomfort and expense – which is not to say that it’s not worth visiting (it really is), just that we were relieved that our choices had worked out for the best for this comfort loving couple.

As for more of what happened during our stay there, here’s a rundown.  We arrived at about 3:30 – and night had already fallen.  After getting into our room, we went to see about some warm clothes that they lend out.  In the end I don’t think I needed any since it was so warm – Emma got some boots.  We did a tour of the hotel - one of the benefits of people only sleeping there at night means that the rest of us can have a good stickybeak around without disturbing anyone (or paying for the night in them).  After that we had quick walk around town before dinner – an odd experience since it was night-time and snow covered pretty much everything to a depth of about half a metre or more, so we walked up the main street to the old Sámi church (built in 1608 and oldest building in town).  Sámi churches tend to have an interestingly designed belltower/gate arrangement out the front – probably modelled on the raised storage huts used to store food and equipment out of season.  The church was, unfortunately closed, but it was a nice walk anyway.  As mentioned before, it was warm (about -1C) and cloudy, and predicted to be so for much of our stay in the Arctic.  Emma was clearly (and literally) looking on the bright side when she looked at the glow from the industrial mining town of Kiruna against the clouds on the horizon and commented “We may not see the Northern Lights on this trip, but at least the glow from Kiruna is nice.”  Gotta love that positive thinking (and I do).

After our walk, we went to the restaurant for dinner.  There were two options – go to the Manor House up near the church for a Julbord (huge Yule buffet – bit of a Swedish tradition) for about $100, or head to the restaurant across the road from the Ice Hotel (owned by them, but a normal building) for $60 mains (captive clientele).  After a quick verification that the Julbord was mostly fish, meat and potatoes, we opted for the more Emma-friendly restaurant.  I must admit, the food was expensive and served on ridiculously big plates designed to make the portions look as small as possible, but it was a pretty nice meal in the end.  With a friendly waiter (it was his 3rd day, but he was chatty and not at all stuckup) and a cool fake aurora curtain and lights arrangement on the ceiling (it looked especially good reflected in the windows) a yummy cocktail and fairly tasty food (reindeer featured of course), we really didn’t mind the $100 each bill at the end – at least it felt like it was worth that much. 

After that we went to the Ice Bar in the Hotel for some drinks.  The Ice Bar is, of course made of ice and serves cocktails made of Absolut flavoured vodkas in glasses made of ice.  We’ve been to at least one other such place in NZ, and there’s probably a few around the traps, but this one was pretty sweet.  The theme this year was Art Deco – so they had a bit of a 30s thing going, including some nice swing music when we arrived (we had a couple of swingouts, but didn’t want to break any furniture or ankles).  Unfortunately this gradually morphed into some slower music, then Celine Dion’s Titanic theme, at which point I complained (we were the only ones there) and was punished with a terrible reggae/bossa-nova version of Stairway to Heaven.  It really was the worst cover since Old Bob Dylan started singing Young Bob Dylan’s songs.  At one point, the CD started skipping, and I thought we were saved, until I realised that that was part of the song, and they continued on for about 5 more verses of that crap.  Luckily, the drinks were fan............tastic.  We got about 3 each, partly because the refills were a bit cheaper than the first drink, partly because they were so yummy.  The ice glass makes them nice and cold and also melts pure Arctic water into the drink to dilute it nicely.  The other cool thing about ice glasses was that one’s lips melted ergonomic shapes into the rims.  The only downside was that we were the only people there for most of the hour or so – it was only about 8pm, but it’s not like they get the after work crowd or anything.  This was partly good in that we had our run of the place, but just a few more people would have made the atmosphere just right – though we did get to talk to the aforementioned Irish honeymooners towards the end.  After a nice night out of dinner and drinks, we retired to our warm room for some sleep (we’d been up since 5am to get the train to the airport for the flight north).

Next day we awoke late (not much to do that day except get to Kiruna) and wandered over to the restaurant for a nice breakfast.  After breakfast we started to notice how light it was getting.  Since this was the week leading up to the shortest day of the year, a time when the sun doesn’t rise at all in the Arctic (for about 4 weeks around the winter solstice in Kiruna), I expected it to be quite dark – sort of like when you can see a glow in the sky before dawn, but still needing streetlights to see.  But in reality it is definitely daylight during the hours of about 9:30am to 2:30pm.  Emma insists on explaining that it is like the pre-dawn light, but I don’t like that description – mostly because that could be interpreted as anything from night to day, and that description would not have made me change my preconceived assumptions above.  I prefer to describe it as the sort of light levels you’d get on an overcast day – not exactly bright and no sunshine, but you certainly don’t need any extra lights to find your way around outside.

Anyway, after packing up and having a final wander around the complex in the daytime, we got a cab to our hotel in Kiruna.  This was the ever-reliable Scandic chain – not the cheapest accom around, but great quality, pretty good value and about half the price of even the warm rooms in the Ice Hotel.

Kiruna

Kiruna, as I’ve said before, is the main city in the Lappland region of Sweden.  It’s a mining town that for the past 100 years has existed to dig up the huge iron ore deposit it sits on.  In fact, they are even starting the process of moving the town since the silly twits that first settled the place did so on top of part of the ore body (though in the early miners defence, it is between the main two mines and you don’t want a long commute in the Arctic).  Substitute remote tropical desert for remote arctic tundra and MIM for the government owned mining company LKAB and you’d have Mt Isa (actually, I’m not sure the definition of “tundra” – there are still forests up there, though mostly dwarf birch).

We arrived at about midday during the short day and went for a walk while we waited for the checkin time at the hotel.  It’s a nice enough place.  The streets are a bit random and a bit interesting to navigate, though I understand that’s deliberate to prevent icy winds whooshing through long, straight streets.  The whole place was covered in about a metre of snow (except where it had been moved to create paths) so it’s hard to say what it looks like underneath.  We had been through there in summer on our way to Narvik, but only got a brief glimpse from the train station on the 20min stop.  The city centre is on top of a hill, looking down over what I assume in summer is a lake to the mine on the next hill (the road from the mine does a big curve into town around something).

We checked in to the Scandic at dusk (2:30pm) and I went to use the sauna facilities on the top floor.  It was a nice enough time, very relaxing and with a view of the mine over the lake.  I got back to the room and we just relaxed for the rest of the afternoon/night.  We went out to get some dinner at the local pizza place across the main square/carpark and that was about it -  just what we needed after such an early start the day before.

Dogsledding

Next day we were picked up by the dogsled guy to take us out to the little village of Holmajärvi, about halfway to Nikkaluokta.  The guy who drove us and the other guests (two German guys and a Japanese couple) dressed a bit Sámi, but he kind of talked like Magnus, who is from the south, so maybe not.  Anyway, it was a nice drive out through the long country roads – a bit like driving in the bush in Australia.  As an aside, that is one of the charms of Scandinavia, it’s one of the few places in Europe (apart from probably Russia) where you get that sense of remoteness and wilderness.

We got to the dog sled place and met the guy that runs it, Nikolas.  We changed into the outdoor gear provided (partly against the cold and partly against the dogs jumping up and damaging our clothes) and went out to help hitch up the dogs.  For this trip, we would be in pairs on our own sleds, with one person standing on the back driving and one sitting.  Nikolas said that he was the only operator that let you drive your own sled, and while this possibly was partly to cut down on labour costs, it was great fun.

Driving a dog sled is pretty simple.  There is no steering – the dogs just followed the sled in front (Nikolas was leading us all and he probably steered his team somehow).  To slow down, there is a brake that you stand on, which digs into the snow to provide resistance to the dogs.  To accelerate, you just release the brake and the dogs run as hard as they can (they do this when the brake is on to, but obviously, “as fast as they can” is a bit slower then).  About halfway along, we switched driver and passenger.  This was good because it made Emma have a go, and it also demonstrated how much more fun it is to be standing up, looking around and actively participating in the experience than sitting and looking around (that’s pretty fun too, but driving is way better).

We started out from the kennels and went through the forest towards the lake.  On the way we saw a couple of elk with their calves.  Then on the lake we had a long flat run, with just the sound of the dogs and the whoosh of the sled runners to frame the peace and quiet.  It’s a pretty nice way to travel and we were glad we’d shied away from the many snowmobile trips that are offered up here. 

There is one interesting result of using dog power, however.  Pulling the sled is the dog’s daily exercise, and they attack it like any other working dog – ie trying to go fast, and having their daily crap.  I noticed the odd brown spots on the snow form the sleds in front and then realised it was the dog poo that had gone under the runners.  Since the dogs were in teams of 5 (2 at the front, 1 in the middle and 2 at the back), there was no “hey guys, wait up” and they had to do it on the run.  Most dogs did a little dance (running with their legs more spread than usual), but the middle one insisted on squatting and just got dragged along.  Sounds gross, but it was actually pretty funny and better than snowmobile fumes.  Plus it all hit the ground before our sled occupied the space under it, so it wasn’t like it hit us.  Bit of a smell though.  Each dog seemed to go a couple of times during the trip.  Anyway, moving on.

After an hour and a half and a bit of a lap of a few lakes (it’s pretty lakey up there) and the low terrain in between, we went back for lunch of salmon soup.  Nikolas tried to tell a few Norwegian joke, but they were pretty terrible, despite his Sámi-posing henchman laughing heartily, but twas all mostly in good fun.  The Norwegian jokes are just like Irish jokes or Kiwi jokes, but there was a bit of jealousy there, I think, since the formerly poorer cousins to the Swedes now have a better standard of living thanks to the North Sea oil revenue.

Nikkaluokta

After the dogsledding, it was time to move on to our couple of days in Nikkaluokta (NIK-a-LOK-ta) – hopefully seeing the northern lights at night and snowshoeing during the day.  Sofie, who runs the little family company we were going through, picked us up from the dogsled place on her way home from Kiruna for the half hour or so drive to Nikkaluokta.

Nikkaluokta is a very small town at the end of the road west from Kiruna at the foot of the mountains along the Norwegian border.  It’s main claim to fame is as the starting point for trekking the 20km or so up to Kebnekaise – Sweden’s tallest mountain (about the height of Kosciousko in Australia and about as difficult to pronounce while reading).  While not on the Kungsleden (“King’s trail”) hiking path that runs along much of the mountains up here, it is a good point to enter or leave the trail for those that don’t want to do the full 440km route.

Being at the base of the mountains, at the junction of two valleys funnelling cold air down from the peaks, Nikkaluokta regularly records the lowest temperatures in Sweden.  It had been down to -35 the week before we were there, but when we got there it was only a balmy -2.  Now, recall that we’d been in Sweden up till then so -2 was nothing new to us – we wanted extremes baby.

Nikkaluokta is predominantly a Sámi settlement, in that most of the residents are of Sámi origin – and all pretty much related.  It seems to have been founded as a site where reindeer brought down from the summer mountain pastures could be rounded up and tagged, slaughtered or herded/transported to the lowland winter pastures.  The name is Sámi and means something like “Nil’s creek” after the first guy who decided to settle there about a hundred years ago.

The tour company we were with comprises pretty much Sofie and her fiancé Daniel, both in their early 30s.  Sofie is a formidably organised and extremely hard working Nordic woman (ie regular Swede, not Sámi) from the coast (near Luleå) and Daniel is a laid back Sámi (100%) from Nikkaluokta.  It was really nice to get to see modern Sámi doing their thing without getting all dressed up for tourists in their colourful clothes and sitting in a tee-pee or something.  Daniel looks more like Aussie Joe Bugner (an Afrikaans boxer who moved to Australia in the 70s) than anything else and you wouldn’t pick any ethnic difference between Sofie and Daniel by looking at them.  Though there does seem to be a laid back, she’ll-be-right kind of attitude that you seem to see with a lot of cultures that are closer to nature.  They have a baby son called Patrick.

Sofie took us to our cabin, which we had to ourself since we were the only guests at that time.  She let us get settled and then came back a few hours later to cook us our dinner.  I had elk rissoles and Emma got some nice veggie food.  Sofie had been a vegetarian for a few years until she moved to Nikkaluokta, and so was able to cater for Emma spectacularly well.  She said vegetarianism didn’t really fit the Sámi lifestyle (she joked that they practically consider reindeer a vegetable) and so now she eats local meats as well - reindeer, elk and fish.

After dinner we took a walk around the village (an extremely spread out affair since space is not a premium here – and bizarre building restrictions from the 70s prevent any more permanent structures being built) with Sofie, but it was still cloudy and so there was no Northern Lights action.  Emma and I took a quick look outside before bed and saw some dim light in the sky to the north, sort of like a dim blur.  We weren’t sure if it was the northern lights or not and concluded that it was the moonlight reflecting off the edge of the clouds and went to bed.

Day 2 at Nikkaluokta:  snowshoeing around the creeks; a sauna; northern lights and Boris

Next day Daniel picked us up at dawn (ie about 9ish) to take us to their house to get into our snowshoes.  We rode in a sled-trailer hitched to the back of the snowmobile (the main means of transport as the main road in is the only one that is ploughed regularly).  They’d provided us with warm clothing and boots, but in the end I just used the pants and hat.  My jacket and fleece were pretty good and I knew how to use them (plus it felt a bit hot for the really warm jacket they’d provided), plus my boots were comfy and I figured that my feet would not thank me for changing boots (my feet are like small children – if they get something new they start to cry after a while), and my boots had got me around Europe and were starting to wear out anyway.  They gave me some gaiters to keep the snow out.

The snowshoes were plastic thingies that fit over one’s shoes with a rubber strap around the heel and the toe in a rubber toe-space – not unlike a snorkelling flipper, but over a boot.  Snowshoes are surprisingly easy to walk in.  They are only really attached at the toe and so hinge freely at that point, so that when you walk you can push off normally with your ankle.  Then your foot kind of drags the shoe along to get it under you for the next step.  They have gaps in the surface to let snow out again – a fair bit gets on top, especially when you sink.  You sink down still fairly often, but with the snowshoe it makes a wide hole around your foot so the snow on the sides doesn’t make your leg wet and cold.  Most people know that snowshoes look a bit like tennis racquets with a handle at the back, and I tried to work out what the handle at the back does.  My conclusion is that it firstly weights the back down to keep the front edge of the shoe clear of the snow when stepping, and secondly it stops the shoe from flicking up the other way and having you step on the back edge (since the handle will hit the snow before it tilts too far).  Once walking, one looks and feels a bit like a bird of some sort (possibly a seagull).

Anyway, we walked with Daniel around the frozen waterways up one of the valleys for about 3 hours.  This day was already a bit clearer, so we got to see some lovely dawn colours.  Since the sun doesn’t really come up, you get lovely dawn colours for about 2 hours, which then turn into sunset colours for the next 2 hours – complete with purple tints and all.  We also saw some clouds with a rainbow effect a bit like mother-of-pearl.  Daniel called then something that translates as “Pearl clouds” and said they meant more warm weather was on the way.

The countryside was nice to see too, with rolling snow covered mountains and the frozen creeks, all with dwarf birches on then that looked a bit like tea trees or wattles from home.  While Sophie spoke prefect English, Daniel was a bit less fluent - Sofie says he speaks 4 languages (Swedish, English, Sámi and Finnish), but none of them well - so we got to use our Swedish a bit as well, which was always fun.

After exploring the creeks, we walked up a hillside that was a bit less covered in trees (it would be a bog in summer) to get a better view.  Daniel said that cloudberries (Hjörtron – a Swedish delicacy a bit like a yellow raspberry but with a really interesting sweet and bitter taste) grow there in summer.  We eventually came to a couple of parallel fences (about 2m high) that created a corridor that the reindeer were herded down from the high pastures into the yards near town.  Here the calves were identified while still with their mothers – so that the owners knew which were theirs and they were tagged.  Also, they might be slaughtered or transported to summer pastures.

After about 3 hours walking, we came back to Sofie and Daniel’s house for lunch and a rest.  It was nice to be welcomed into an average home in the area, and they were really nice hosts.  They mentioned that there might be (alas) cloud again that night, and would we like a sauna in their woodfired saunYa tack! I replied (the absence of a space there is deliberate to demonstrate how quickly I replied).  So we went back to our cabin for a snooze in the dark afternoon and then back to the sauna for the real sauna in the snow experience I’d been waiting for the whole trip since Finland.  And it was lovely, with buckets of water at various temperatures and a brush to scrub down with.  It was right next to their house, so I didn’t get to roll naked in the snow, but I did go out a few times to rub some snow on me, and did have a quick roll with a modestly placed towel, though the snow was hard because of the high temps – it was a bit like pumice on the face though, quite nice.

When we were finished and all relaxed, Daniel and Patrick took over in the sauna while we went back to the cabin and Sophie made us dinner – a lovely salmon fillet fried in butter for me and something nice for Emma too.  The salmon was really nice (more meaty than fishy), I shall have to look into that in future.  Sofie mentioned that she’d seen the northern lights the night before – that soft glow we’d seen actually was the lights.  After dinner, Emma and I walked out along the main road away from the (few) lights of town to try and get a better look, since that night was about the first clear night we’d had and our last chance to see anything before going back to the constant glow of Kiruna.

On our way out a playful border collie (the black and white sort, not the Lassie sort) came trotting by and decided to join us – simple as that.  He followed us out along the road, claiming pats with his head in that adorable way working dogs can, and running off to investigate things before always returning (and occasionally becoming amorous with my leg – though Emma’s “fvck off” vibes apparently work just as well on dogs as they do on other men).  We’d learned the day before from Sofie that the Sámi word for hello is (something like) “booris booris”, so we named our new friend “Boris the Welcome Dog”.  He seemed to be still a bit of a puppy (full grown, but not yet mature) and was just a local youth out looking for some excitement.

On the way out, Emma suddenly grabbed my arm and said “Look!”  We saw light cascading vertically from the sky and were momentarily awestruck ... until we realised it was just a telephone pole reflecting the headlights of a snowmobile.  As our eyes became more adjusted to the dark, we started to notice a glow in the north.  It was mostly the shape of a low, flat rainbow, but it shifted within this shape a bit, though so slowly that you could really only see the effects of the movement rather than the movement itself – it evolved rather than moved, a bit like the stars or shadows do as they change position over time.  There was no colour as such, the light was too dim to register the colour (our eyes have two sorts of receptors – cones that work in bright light and detect colour, and rods that work in low light and don’t distinguish colour).  There was also no real shape, it was just a series of fuzzy blobs of glow that grew and shrank in different parts of the northern sky, to a height of about 30 degrees or so.  It’s also a little bit like the first light of dawn starting to com eup (but in the wrong direction).  After an hour and a half, we finally decided that that was the show and walked back to our cabin with Boris.

Once back, we decided to build a snölyckta (snow lantern) on the 1m high snow drift just off our entrance.  This idea soon evaporated as Boris tried to eat any snowballs we tried to make, so we spent a few minutes throwing snowballs to Boris to catch – he never seemed to tire of it.  As he and I were grabbing for the same bit of snow, he managed to scratch my wrist me slightly with his paw.  I only mention this because I still have a faint red mark, which makes me smile whenever I see it thinking “I may be back at work in the office in Brisbane, but at least I still have a scratch I got from a reindeer herding dog in the Arctic.”  It’s just something tangible to remind me that it wasn’t all a dream.

After a while we retired inside.  We had some dessert and I had a shower ready for bed.  Emma wanted to have a final look outside at the northern lights and I said to let me know if anything interesting was happening – I didn’t want to get all dressed up again.  After a couple of minutes, Emma came back in and said “It looks a little brighter, you might want to come out.”  So I started getting dressed and Emma came back inside and said “Actually, hurry up it’s getting quite bright”.  So I threw on my clothes and boots quickly and rushed out to a spot we’d found in the shadow of another cabin away from some lights.  The northern lights were indeed brighter and were getting higher in the sky.  There was also some definition and colour (just green) appearing with some sort of vertical lines appearing and growing.  All this time I was still trying to sort out my clothes to settle in for a good viewing.  Unfortunately, after a bit of promise, it settled back into its old pattern of dim, fuzzy, evolving glow.  Emma said that while I was inside, she’d seen it suddenly ripple across the sky, but unfortunately I missed it.  After another couple of hours of watching and hoping it would reintensify (it kept looking like it was about to but never really did) we finally called it a night and went to bed.  I’m glad Boris was there to keep us entertained as the light show can be a slow affair.

All in all, I’m glad we saw the northern lights.  I think what we saw was a sort of 10% show.  I’m sure it gets much brighter than that, but at least we saw something.  On the other hand, if I was offered the same chance again with the assurance that the show would not be any brighter, I’m not sure I’d go too far to see it – it’s more the possibility of seeing the big show that brings you there.  Mind you, we have seen what a lot of Swedes say they never have.  The full show would be, or course, amazing, and I believe the reports I’ve heard about it dancing and crackling in green and (more rarely) pink.

Day 3 at Nikkaluokta:  snowshoeing towards the mountains in -21 degrees

After ticking off one of our hopes the night before (northern lights) and even realising my dream of a woodfired sauna in the snow, the next morning we were granted our other dream when we awoke to find that the outside temperature was -21 degrees Celsius.  In fact, Emma managed to get a photo of the thermometer showing an outside temp of -21.9 and the inside temp of +21.9.  I also had a lovely view of the moon going down behind the distant snow-covered mountain.  We rugged up and waited for Sofie to come past and pick us up for another day of snowshoeing.

This day we went up the other valley to the north towards Kebnekaise.  It was easier going that day since the snow was a little harder and we were going along a snowmobile track with more packed down snow.  The colours from the sun under the horizon were fabulous, with a mauve glow over half of the horizon to the south – unfortunately it doesn’t really come out in photos.  We also walked past some rushing streams and over some frozen ones.  In a few small places the water moves so quickly that it doesn’t freeze over until it reaches -30.  The scenery was just gorgeous.

We walked along in the freezing (literally) air, with Sofie stopping occasionally to check our faces for any white patches that would reveal any early frostbite (none occurred, she was just being careful).  It was also so cold that our breath was freezing and forming ice crystals on our jackets and hoods – especially on Emma’s.  I was glad I’d chosen to wear my jacket (rather than the one provided), since I knew how to snuggle my face down under the collar up to my nose and warm it up with my breath.

After an hour or so, Sofie gave us the option of climbing a small hill for a view, or walking along the flat to a more open area.  We went with her suggestion of the hill since we were feeling fit and hadn’t seen any views from high up yet.  The climb was a bit harder than we (or Sofie) thought – snowshoes are tough things to climb in and the snow was deep and the hillside was steep, even if it wasn’t super high, but Sofie made a track up and we followed her to the top.  At the top we were rewarded with a stunning view up the valley to the mountains at the end (the one from the Xmas card we sent around).  Sofie pointed out Kebnekaise, a fairly modest looking mountain surrounded by the others, but despite appearances, the highest point in Sweden.  She explained that Kebnekaise has a double peak.  The south peak is a few metres higher than the north peak, but the south peak is made of ice.  With global warming, this peak is shrinking gradually and soon the north peak (made of rock) will be higher.  This is a bit of a shame for Nikkaluokta because a big part of its tourist trade is as a base for hikers hiking up to the top, which you can do without a lot of climbing experience (you’d want a guide for safety, but it’s just a hike rather than a climb).  The north peak is reached by getting to the south peak and then climbing along a narrow ridge – a feat that requires considerably more climbing experience.  So they’re a bit worried that fewer people might want to try if the easy peak is no longer the highest point in the country.  The effects of climate change are many and varied.

The other main cool thing about that cold day was the ice crystals on the trees.  Because it had been windy the week before, the coating of snow had been blown off the trees.  Now, with the cold snap, ice crystals had formed on all of the branches.  And not little frost type crystals either, these mothers were about half a centimetre or more long.  This meant that all of the trees had an icy canopy of crystals that looked really cool.

After our view we walked back to Sofie and Daniel’s place for lunch.  We ate outside around the fire they’d built.  This was an interesting experience.  First, it was freaking cold.  Second, the fire gave out very little warmth (or at least, what was given out was swallowed by the cold).  At one point I held my bare hand about 5cm over the top of the flames and felt nothing – I had to get to about 2cm to feel the heat of the fire.  The ice and snow was still frozen inside the fire place right next to the fire.  The seats were covered with reindeer hides, once again showing how useful they are for keeping out the cold – they were providing more protection from the cold than the fire was.  It was a nice lunch of reindeer pies (though the fire was having trouble heating them), but we were happy to get inside – great experience, but bloody cold.

After that, we went back to the cabin and packed up and then Sofie came and picked us up for the drive back to Kiruna.  Along the way, I asked lots of questions about the Sámi since I was very interested in the views of someone more acquainted with their lives (southern Swedes seem to know fairly little).  Without meaning to, the discussion got a bit bogged down in the negatives.  There is a bit of a problem with alcohol (Sofie said that there are a few single old men around, when she asked she found that their families had left), and, I guess the usual problems with growing up in remote communities.  On the other hand I don’t think that there is the huge imbalance in health that we have in Australia (though I can’t confirm this).  Only about 10% of Sámi work in reindeer herding, the rest work in “regular” jobs – including a few in tourism and probably a lot in the mine and Kiruna generally.  The extended family seems important in the same way as for many traditional societies (including Aboriginals) with cousins working for other cousins and generally economic activity linked to relations a bit (though given that everyone in an area are probably “cousins” then that would be the case even if there was no “family loyalty” component).  The Sámi villages tend to be run as a bit of a cooperative.  The various “villages” herd their reindeer as a company, but “village” has a broader meaning than a single settlement, more of a large area including a number of settlements.  The economy seems fairly insular too, with the reindeer meat produced mostly being consumed by the people in the area – there doesn’t seem to be too much demand for it even in southern Sweden (though the Chernobyl meltdown might have something to do with that – it contaminated the lichens the reindeer eat and made the reindeer unfit for consumption for quite a while until relatively recently).  There was a bit of government assistance given out over the past few years due to poor conditions (so the herders could buy feed for their herds), which probably caused the same grumbling that similar indigenous welfare does in Australia among a certain type of person.

Along the way we finally saw an elk.  Daniel had been quite disappointed not to have found one to show us on our walk, but luckily one wandered out in front of the car on the drive.  This also demonstrated how dangerous the buggers are to drivers.  Given how dark it is for a lot of the time, you’ve got to be on your toes to spot their eyes in the headlights on the side of the road – Sofie said that older drivers might have hit the one we saw (not deliberately, though if they missed it they might stop the car and get out and hunt it).  We have a similar problem in country Australia with kangaroos, but although they come out of the bush onto the road a fair bit faster, if you hit one he’ll regret it more than you and you’ll still be able to drive home with just a bit of panelbeating to look forward to.  An elk is about the size of a horse and weighs 500-1000kg – so even if you escape serious injury, it’s going to mess your car up.  We also saw some reindeer – they’re a bit more common to encounter and tend to run directly away from your car along the road rather than getting out of the way, they’re probably more like roos to smack into.

Anyhoo, after an hour or so we got back to Kiruna, Sofie dropped us off at the Scandic and picked up a local teenager (actually the owner of Boris) who’s father had left him in town because he was too late getting his arse in gear than for even “Sámi time” to allow for, and they were off.  We had a great time with them and would recommend them to anyone (www.lappland-inspiration.se). 

We then had dinner at the same pizza place, grabbed a final sauna and went to bed.  We ended up getting the exact same room we’d had 3 nights previously – which was nice because it had a great view across to the mine and the hills beyond.

Kiruna and home

Next morning we enjoyed our last hotel breakfast (I piled up the meatballs and lingonberry jam...nice) and then went for a quick walk to see some sights while it was light and before we had to head to the airport.

First stop was the church.  This is a huge affair, built in the style of a Sámi church (and bearing a strong similarity to a Norwegian stave church – I wonder if there’s a link, or if the architect just borrowed from each), with a high peaked roof and a separate bell tower to match.  It was built fairly recently I think, about 2000 or so.  It was a Sunday morning and people were starting to arrive for the service, but we managed a quick peek inside before the crowd rolled in.  After that we went for a walk through the church grounds - not a cemetery, but just a park with birch trees and paths through the metre high snow.  The light by now was looking fantastic, with all sorts of purple dawn colours to the south through the trees.

After an hour spent there, we rushed over to the council chambers – voted Sweden’s best public building (they have pageants for everything), although it possibly looks better on the inside.  On the outside it is a bit of a box (a nice box but a box) with an interesting clock tower made of a big square wrought iron obelisk.  It’s pretty cool and reflects the purpose of the town, but I’m sure they’ve got at least one better public building in Sweden.  After this, it was time to rush back to the hotel, check out and cab it to the airport.

We said goodbye to the Arctic after waiting around for our plane (Emma insists on getting everywhere super early) and flew back to the south, where there was less snow.  We got the earlier bus and train back to Örebro (though the connection was a bit tight) and hit the sack.  It actually took us about 7 hours from when we left the hotel until we got to the flat – you could drive about halfway in that time (if the roads weren’t covered in snow).

Wrap-up

We’re really glad we got to see the Arctic in both winter and summer.  The midnight sun and middays without sun are certainly the most memorable parts for us and something you can’t experience unless you’re there (ie you can’t really take a photo of a short day).  The metre-high snowdrifts and frozen everything are also pretty cool.  The cold is not so bad – everything is designed so that you’re not outside to feel it much (they’re not stupid).  I did discover that my two pairs of cargo pants fit one over the other (one pair is a size smaller) to form a nice double layer that was plenty warm enough for heading out in -8C or so.  It was great to see the northern lights (aurora borealis for those still unsure) as well.  Of course if would have been even better with a full on show but we felt lucky just to see anything. 

Finally, the other big draw up there is the sense of space and wilderness.  We are used to that sort of thing in Australia (especially those of us brought up outside of cities like Emma and me), but it is a very rare commodity in Europe.  Northern Scandinavia is probably one of the few (if not only) wilderness areas in Western Europe – with few people and land not totally taken up for farming, and almost certainly the only wilderness area that is not mountains.  You’d probably have to go to remoter parts of Russia to find the next closest.  Now having seen Sweden from south to north, it’s interesting to view it as the disintegration of European mastery of the land.  The farms on the Skåne plains are just an extension of mainland European agriculture.  Then as you go north past Örebro you get into the taiga forests of pine and fir – though there are still lots of farms in between, the main industry is logging and the farms have a small settler feel (even though people have lived and farmed there for ever).  Then you get up to the north where there is still logging but fewer farms and even fewer people – the real wilderness.  Eventually you probably get to the Arctic tundra, but we didn’t go that far north and that’s possibly in Norway by then, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

 

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