My first encounter with the Aurora Borealis occurred by chance during my student days in Stockholm. One chilly autumn afternoon, having finished an assignment and not in a particular mood to study, I was randomly browsing Scandinavian related topics of interest and chose ‘Aurora Borealis.’ I came across Dick Hutchison’s page. I had my first glimpse of the aurora and I was totally bewitched. Truly love at first sight. It became my infatuation and for days after I would in all my free time read articles about the aurora on the web and admire the breathtaking pictures of the phenomenon captured by mortal cameras. I decided I had to see this phenomenon in person and thus began my planning for my arctic trip. Many lovely hours were spent searching for places where the aurora could be best observed, the season for observing it etc. Due to time and financial constraints of student life, I finally decided that the trip would be a Christmas weekend trip to Kiruna.
The day of travel finally arrived and my travel partner and I set off on the evening train from T-Centralen in Stockholm on a more than 12 hour journey to Kiruna in the Swedish Lapland. Our fellow passengers in our compartment were returning to their homes in central Sweden for the holidays and were curious about where we were going.
Kiruna? Why there?
Just to experience the Swedish winter.
But it is so cold up there.
Yes. We know.
But why do you want to be so cold? There is nothing to see there.
We are interested in the Aurora.
The Northern lights.
The Northern lights? Ja väl! Norrsken! But, it is so much better in the summer.
You can’t see the Northern lights in the summer.
But it is so cold up there.
We come from a very warm country and the cold intrigues us.
You will need lots of warm clothes.
With that, the other passengers gave up on trying to convince us that we should not be travelling to the north of Sweden during winter. When we eventually arrived in Kiruna, we took a taxi to the guesthouse.
We woke up in the morning rested and looking forward to the dog-sledge ride that I had booked online so that my travel partner, who was more interested in experiencing other things besides the aurora, could be satisfied. I had chosen this particular activity as the guide’s website had lots of cute Siberian Husky puppies featured and I looked forward to meeting them. The guide came in his van to pick us up. There were four other people from the Netherlands in the van. I could hear barking from the trailer attached to the van. I realized with disappointment that, since the dogs had been brought along, we would not be taken to see the puppies.
We drove for some time and as we left the town behind, the dogs started howling with excitement. When the van stopped at Kurravaara, they were beside themselves. The guide got out and handed us our thermal suits. We had opted to use the guide’s suits as we felt the cold through our winter jackets. The bright orange suits however smelt terrible and I wondered if I would have been better off in my old jacket but there was no time to change back. The guide was letting the dogs out of their cages to be harnessed to the sledge and was deciding on the order that the dogs would follow for the day. He started swiftly handing out a dog to each person to handle. We were told to hold on to the dogs no matter what. All the dogs were by now whining and barking behind their cages. One cage door was opened and out flew my dog. There was no leash and I had to hold onto the collar. My dog was too spirited to be confined by the hand of a stranger. He flew off down the road with me running to keep up and shouting for him to stop. I finally managed to pull the collar up a bit and the dog suddenly stopped. Of course, I fell down in the snow with the abrupt motion. This amused my dog and he thought I was playing and started jumping and trying to bite me playfully. Someone came to my aid. I was very much embarrassed because everyone else had their dogs calm and quietly by their sides.
The dogs were then harnessed to the sledge. We were told that we had to win the dogs’ respect by showing them who was in control and if that key message was missing, the ride would turn out a total disaster. Two of the other passengers had requested to ride their own sled, while the rest of us had opted for the guide’s sledge. We were not confident of our mastery over the dogs. Least of all me. For the benefit of the two adventurous sledge-riders and for our general knowledge, the guide took us through the basic points of dog-sledge rides.
• Always use a tone that is friendly but firm.
Never be harsh. You wouldn’t like to be ordered about, would you? So wouldn’t the dogs. Never be too soft, either. Dogs spot weaknesses and if they think you are too pliable, they will lose respect for you and will not listen to your command.
• Always reward them with an encouraging word, after they have followed a command.
You like to be recognized for a job well done. So do they.
• Always acknowledge the leader of the pack.
Egos are fragile. If you disregard the leader, the rest of the dogs will follow suit. And, then your team will disintegrate and that’s the end of a ride.
• Always act upon perceived misdemeanour.
If you see a dog disrupting the team movement or trying to incite another dog, act upon it immediately. Make the team stop. Give a word of warning to the disruptive dog. If you let it pass, the dog will perceive your move as acceptance and continue disrupting and this may erupt in total mayhem.
With these words of wisdom, we began our ride. I can only describe the movement as akin to a roller coaster ride. Apart from the numb sensation that I felt in my entire body and icicles forming near my nose and mouth, I only recall a mad dashing through snow-covered woods, too fast to enjoy the beauty of the landscape and too cold to enjoy the ride. I only wished we would reach the hut where we were supposed to stop for lunch quicker. My head had begun to hurt. I guess I have low levels of tolerance for the arctic cold or I was not warmly dressed. Finally, the sled stopped. To my dismay, I saw no hut but an expanse of snow all around. Were we going to have lunch in the open? I could not stand another moment in the cold.
The guide told us that this was as far as the dogs would take us. From here, we would continue on our own to the hut after tethering the dogs to a rope nailed in the snow. The dogs were tired so it was easier tethering them to the rope. The guide had dug a small hole in the snow in front of each dog and we were asked to pour the contents of a bowl, filled with dog food, into the hole in front of each. After feeding the dogs, we walked on, until we came to a little river. Actually it was a big river, the River Torne, but we were walking over its frozen parts. The hut was on the other side of the river. The guide pointed to a small dinghy, covered by snow. He un-tethered it and pushed it slowly to the edge of the flowing river. Slowly he lowered himself in and taking three people at a time with him, paddled to the other end and back. The other end seemed like a tiny island. It had trees beautifully covered with snow. There was snow all around. Our feet buried itself in the soft snow and we trudged our way through the woods and reached a tiny hut, made of what looked like roots. Circular in shape and having a conical roof. This, our guide informed us was the traditional Sami hut, made of birch poles and covered with sod, and there we would be having our lunch. We could either have a nice walk and explore our surroundings and come back for lunch, or sit in the hut while he cooked lunch. The four Dutch travellers immediately set off. My travel partner and I were simply too cold and so we went into the hut with the guide. It was dark inside and I put my foot down and stumbled headlong into the tiny room. I had missed the step. A dirty looking bed occupied a narrow space. We walked past the bedroom, into another small space that constituted of the dining room. It had a small wooden table against the wall and two wooden benches on either side. A candle holder stood on a wooden stand in the middle. There were a couple of books on a tiny wooden bookshelf.
Our guide offered to make us some hot tea and we gladly acquiesced. He went into the kitchen, next to the dining area and lit the small stove and boiled some water. We sat on a wooden bench leaning against the birch poles holding up the roof. He measured some tea leaves into a pot and placed two large wooden mugs in front of us. When the water had boiled, he poured the water into the pot and brought the pot to the table and poured us some tea. Then he returned to his cooking and pulled out a sack and took out some potatoes. From another huge brown bag, he measured out some dark nuggets. We asked him what it was. He replied that it was smoked reindeer meat, the Sami staple food. Our guide informed us that it was a banned delicacy and could not be exported out of Lapland. As the reindeers were dwindling in population, they could only be consumed by the locals. I thought of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, my first introduction to a reindeer in my childhood, and here I was going to have his meat for lunch. My preference for vegetarian food aside, I was not comfortable with trying out the meat of a reindeer.
Once the Dutch group returned from their walk, we had lunch before we started our return trip. When we approached the other side of the bank, we heard the howls of the dogs who anticipated our approach. I felt really sorry for them. To wait in the cold and not to be able to run about even to be warm. They were yelping and whining when we reached them. We were asked to help untie the dogs and harness them to the sledge. As we approached the dogs, they wagged their tails so much and were very glad to see us. I guess the long wait in the cold had curbed their exuberance and all they wanted to do was go home and rest. The ride back was even colder than the morning. It was pitch dark when we reached the van. The guide wanted us to hand over the borrowed thermal clothing before we got in the van so that he could put them into his storage place. I removed my gloves to unzip my thermal suit but my fingers quickly froze. My teeth were chattering and I was practically shivering like a leaf. To make it worse, the zipper got stuck. The guide was finishing loading up the dogs and everyone else had put on their own winter jackets and got into the van. I was getting frustrated and wondered if I should simply travel back in the smelly thermal suit and attempt to remove it at the guesthouse. While I was giving the zipper a final yank, one of the Dutch travellers got out of the van, calmly told me to relax and helped me with the zipper. I did feel silly that someone had to help me out on a simple matter but when someone voluntarily helps you out in your moment of distress, his or her kindness touches you to the core.
The next morning, we walked into town to take the bus to the ice hotel. There was hardly a shop opened nor was there any sign of any public transportation. It was Christmas Eve. We finally found one florist shop open. We walked in and approached an employee to ask some information on modes of transportation but she asked us to take a queue number. We did not want to start on a bad footing, so we took a queue number and waited patiently. When our turn finally came up, we were told that while there were buses to the ice hotel in Jukkasjärvi, they probably did not run on Christmas Eve. One of the helpful young shop assistants offered to call a taxi and we gratefully accepted.
There was a pretty pale pink sky in the background when we reached the ice hotel. We decided to explore the town while there was still light and besides, we had a long wait till the evening for the aurora and could explore the ice hotel in the afternoon. So, we walked towards an old church that I had marked in the places to visit in Jukkasjärvi. We passed a heritage museum, which looked inviting with chopped wood piled in a corner. Unfortunately, it was closed. My friend was beginning to be testy about everything being closed as I was the one who had made all the travel arrangements. I was content to simply walk around Jukkasjärvi, relax in a warm area and wait for the aurora. She wanted to see more sites and tourist places. Fortunately the church was open. We walked into the little wooden church which had brightly coloured drawings on its walls and which was relatively warmer than the outside.
After sitting in silence within the church, we went out and walked around the surrounding area. The church was on the edge of the Torneälven River, or more commonly known as the River Torne, which the founder of the ice hotel was advocating to be added to the World Heritage list.
I stood on the soft snow and looked. Pure white snow. Distant hills. No sound, except for the noise of my breath. Clear, fresh air. The sky had donned a beautiful coat of greenish, red. I took a deep breath. There was a sense of exhilaration within. I could die that very minute. This was paradise. I was standing on top of a frozen river and feeling complete peace of mind and contentment.
Then the cold got to me. The freezing cold crept in and all I wanted to do was to get to a relatively warmer spot. We turned back and returned to the cozy wooden, reception cabin, which lodged the office, ticket counter and souvenir shop, and which became our pit stop for the day. After lunch, we decided to explore the ice hotel. It was dark outside and we walked towards a modest door covered by reindeer skin which marked the entrance to the ice hotel. The adjoining chapel door opened and a wedding party burst out. It was a beautiful sight. The bride in a beautiful white gown with the groom and best man on either side of her in black coats and fur caps. We learnt that this was the first wedding of the season as the chapel had just been completed. The temperature was dropping to -30⁰C outside and we felt too cold to enjoy the sight for long and walked into the ice hotel. There was a small reception desk within the entrance. A couple of hotel staff were at the entrance and offered to give us a tour of the place.
It was around -5⁰C inside the hotel but much warmer than the outside air. We walked down the passage flanked by ice pillars, over the snow floor and were shown the gallery of ice sculptures. The theme that year had been family. Our guide, who was a student, was working at the hotel for the second consecutive year. She said that each year, ice-artists from all over the world were invited to work on the hotel. Each artist was given his or her own room to work on. We saw the globe room with the round ice bed at the centre and two ice steps leading up to the bed with lighted candle holders all around. How can anyone sleep on ice? Wouldn’t it melt because of the warmth of the body? We were told that guests were given special thermal clothing and sleeping bags and warm reindeer skin blankets and that the beds were not totally made of ice. The base had a wooden contraption to hold the structure together which provided more warmth than sleeping on a snow floor.
We saw the conference room. A rectangular ice table with six high chairs around it and a huge chandelier above. The room was well-lit by the exquisitely carved ice chandelier. We were impressed. We were told that optic fibre lights were used to prevent or at least reduce the melting of the ice. There was even a comfy corner in front of a fire-place. Two ice chairs had been placed in front of an ice fire-place and a red fire glowed in its fenders. We ended our tour at the ice bar where guests were served beverages in ice glasses.
We returned to our pit stop, the wooden reception cabin. There was a coffee machine there and we gratefully had a sip of hot Gevalia coffee. After resting a bit, we decided it was time for our aurora watch. As we went out, we saw people rush out of little, steamy wooden huts opposite the reception cabin, screaming and running for a hole in the ice and jumping into it. We were astonished though we knew Scandinavians were fond of their saunas. To go out into the extreme cold needed mental disciplining. To run out and jump into the freezing cold water naked was suicidal, we felt. Especially after sitting in a stuffy, steaming room. But, apparently the jumpers seemed to be in a euphoric state. We learnt that the experience costs nearly 1000 SEK. To pay to jump into a hole in the ice. It makes you wonder at times.
We walked down past the ice hotel to the River Torne and waited. It was past 6p.m. and pitch dark. We wondered which direction of the sky we should observe. There was a faint orange glow across the horizon, in the direction of the town of Kiruna. My friend was sure that the aurora display would be on that part of the sky. There were some clouds in the opposite direction of the town. Not very good news. I had a feeling that the aurora display would start from behind the hills across the river from the ice hotel, away from the direction of the town and the clouds. I had no idea which was north, east, west or south. We waited. My friend started clapping and running about. I chose to walk briskly instead. Eventually, the cold got to me. The pain was exquisite. Despite wearing three pairs of gloves, multiple layers of clothing and even a face mask and woollen caps, there was a sharp pain in my bones.
After an hour and a half, we could not hold on anymore. We decided to return to the cabin for a brief rest and hot coffee. The tourists, the majority of whom were from the Far East that day, had left on the ice hotel arranged guided tours for aurora watching with snow mobile rides and dinner over an open fire. We sat in a warm corner, had a quick sandwich and coffee, and went back. Just in the direction that I had predicted, we saw thin rays of green light shooting up. My friend was sceptical. She felt it was kids shining green torches at the sky on the eve of Christmas. I did not think so as the lights appeared at random over the entire horizon, some fading away quickly, some staying on for some time, moving a bit. The green was a rich, exotic colour to be the work of human hands. I was convinced this was the beginning of a beautiful display but even after half an hour, nothing further developed. Besides our endurance level had dropped. Where we were able to stay for nearly an hour and a half the first time, we were finding it difficult to cope with half an hour. After 45 minutes in the freezing cold, we returned to our comfort zone. There were fewer people now at our pit stop. In one corner, a wood fire had been set ablaze, glogg (mulled wine) and peppar kakor (spiced cookies) for the visitors was set on a low table. Christmas music was in the air. We decided to try some of the traditional Swedish Christmas drink of mixed spices and wine and the ginger cookies. This time our break extended to an hour simply because it felt good to be sitting by the fire, enjoying a spicy, warming drink.
We checked at the reception desk to see if those who had gone out on the tour had experienced the aurora but they were not able to help us, as they had no phone contact with their guides. Instead, they offered us their update from the Kiruna space station on the plausibility of citing the aurora that day. It was 90%. Precisely why I had chosen that particular weekend to come up north. We went back, confident and refreshed. We were determined that we would not return until we had seen the aurora.
We went back to our aurora watch and scanned the skies. Neither of us would admit being cold. Nor would we admit that thick clouds had progressed and covered a large part of the sky during our break. The sky in the direction of the hills still had comparatively fewer clouds. We were determined. Nature is neither moved by determination nor by the statistical prediction of a space station. Therefore, despite waiting past midnight, we did not see any aurora display only the development of a dull orange glow of thick clouds. I had to admit to myself that we were simply not going to see the aurora that night. After holding on stubbornly for some more time in vain hope, we both trudged back to our pit stop. A niggling feeling was in my mind that we might have missed the aurora during our extended break over the glogg and fire. Anyway, we asked the reception desk to call a cab to take us back to town and we waited, a little dejected and sullen. In that moment of disappointment, I quite forgot the wonderful moments and new experiences that I had during the weekend.
Often things in life do not happen when you want them to happen but unexpectedly, when you least expect them to. A year later just a couple of days before Christmas, I sat at my window, absent-mindedly contemplating the church opposite my apartment in Stockholm. I had my room lights switched off as I had been about to go to sleep when I had been drawn to the window. Suddenly, my eyes focused on some movement over a little hill by the church. I held my breath. Rapid movement of green light went across the sky. Beginning as a circular green ball and moving across the sky as if it had been flung out. The intensity of the display started increasing and then there were rays of green aurora in the sky. Finally, there was a dullish green glow left in the sky for a long time – a reminder that an amazing event had just taken place in the past hour. A reminder to take the moment as it occurs and experience it.
[I undertook this special trip back in 2001 and this was the very first travelogue I was inspired to write about. I had shared this post with The Novice Gardener’s Fiesta Friday #17 group.