An outdoorsy type
We are standing on half a metre of ice, at the junction of Torne River and Rautas River. The ice is solid enough to carry snowmobiles but the river is only partly frozen. Our guide has warned us not venture out too far ourselves. It is clear why we shouldn’t risk it. We can hear and see the rough waters of Sweden’s largest national river flowing just a hundred metres away from us. And we have just gone back to basics in the Swedish wilderness.
Gathering our own water
Our guide is young and strong Swedish woman named Marta. She is dressed in an oversized outdoor coat, shoulders hunching forward. Me and the rest of the tour group is gathered around her. We are all watching her in anticipation.
Marta unfolds her ‘magic wand’ out of its cover and starts the show that we were waiting for. The vertical saw makes its way through the ice as she slowly makes a circle. It is time for us to gather water from the river for our two days in Swedish wilderness.
Riding a snowmobile in Lapland
Earlier that morning we had left Kiruna by car. For the last part of the ride to the wilderness camp we changed to snow scooters. Hopping on the snow scooter I repeated Marta’s words in my mind like a mantra. “Give only soft pressure as you don’t want to shoot off the guys on the trailer”. A glance at my partner and the five other tourists tightly gripping the sides of the trailer, made the importance of that advice quite clear. Driving the scooter was great fun and heavy on the arms as well.
During the ride snow flakes wet my face. I carefully steered the heavy scooter through the snow as we passed white forest and empty fields. This part of Scandinavia is called the last wilderness of Europe. Coming here I could see why. Having arrived, I am experiencing it.
Back to basics
Conditions in the wilderness camp are not exactly ‘wild’ though, just primitive. The toilet smells horrible and breathing in is definitely not recommended inside the wooden cabin with dump hole. But the common hut is cosy and filled with the smell of Marta’s delicious meat soup.
Outside it’s freezing minus 14 degrees Celsius but inside the traditional Sami hut our wooden stove radiates comfortable warmth. Water is relatively scarce and freezing cold. Although there is plenty of water available in the river, it can only be heated by stoves stuffed with wood that we first have to cut ourselves. Luckily, the traditional sauna – a wooden hut drenched with resin – warms up more vessels in your body than a hot shower could ever reach. The tough rinse off the sweat from the sauna by rolling through the snow. For the not so tough (or crazy), there is a watering can that functions as a hand-held shower. I have to admit I chose the latter.
These two days in the wilderness camp give me the excited feeling of a school camp. We learn how to find the right spot to hit a trunk to slash it in pieces. In the evening, we grill reindeer sausages in a fire pit.
I find myself on cross-country skies for the first time, and have the most childish fun since I started adulthood while sledding. The slope is a true ‘tailbone breaker’. Luckily for everyone in the group our tailbones remain intact.
During a snow walk, both my partner and I get stuck in the snow all the way to our hips. The snow shoes that look like tennis rackets are useful, but are not capable to perform miracles on the loose surface of the metres-thick layer of snow.
Mother nature however, does seem able to perform miracles.
Night time in the wilderness
Some hours after the skies have darkened, we decide to take another look outside. The midnight blackness strengthens the peace and calm that the surroundings ooze in daytime. All is quiet at this hour. Our fellow tour participants have all gone to sleep in the wooden bunk beds of our hut.
We take the path to the frozen river together, hand in hand. Our head lights help us find our way through the snow. The tree-sheltered path brings us to an open plain. It is the frozen river where we had gathered our water earlier on.
A sky full of stars
A countless number of stars decorate the skies. It gives me the magical feel that I remember from the Atacama desert in Chile. There are no artificial lights on the horizon, just thousands of stars lighting up the heavens. Like spotlights in a theatre. A shooting star crossses the skies and we know we are both wishing for the same thing.
The Northern Lights
Shortly after, our wishes are granted. The Northern Lights are on display. White and grey streaks appear in the night skies. I feel goose bumps on my arms. I am pretty sure that its not the freezing air that’s causing this reaction, but the serenity and beauty of this moment. Flashes of light dance through the skies. The only sound we hear is that of the rushing river behind us. And every now and then the sound of the camera shutter. Out here, it is just the three of us. Me, my partner and his camera.
Morning glory in minus 14 degrees
The next morning, we wake up to to another fascinating light play. The sun rises over the white, wild landscape. A flare of mist floats a couple of metres above the frozen river. Warm yellow light slowly spreads out over the trees. It is the perfect setting for a morning walk.
Our feet leave clear marks in the fresh snow. Our eyes search for the marks of reindeer or moose but there is no track of hoofs to be seen. It is the poo that ultimately gives them away.
Three reindeer are standing about 15 metres away from us, hidden behind the trees. We follow their marks and leave the walking path to watch them more closely. Even though we walk in complete silence, they quickly head for another spot in the forest. A pity, but this brief encounter still makes this my most exciting morning walk ever.
We turn around to make our way back to the path. And there they are again, standing right in front of us. And jumping away just as quickly. What a morning treat!
The sun has risen some more and streaks of sunlight shine through the tree branches. We make our way down to the river where ice flows are pressed upon the shore. The white ice glistens in the sunshine and reflects a light pattern on the water. This Winter Wonderland continues to amaze me.
Back at the camp we see Martha explaining another couple how to go ice fishing. We join them to the frozen river and find ourselves watching her with fascination again. This time she is not sawing a circle in the ice, but drilling a hole in it.
She shares her local knowledge with the couple as they lay down on reindeer skins, their heads hovering over the hole. “If you don’t catch anything within half an hour then forget it. The fish are in a coma state so they might not even notice the bait.”
I imagine the numb fish in the water, divided from the above-water world and sunlight by half a metre of ice. I imagine myself becoming like them if I would stay here an entire winter. This part of Sweden is covered in snow for eight out of twelve months in the year. I am pretty sure that the cold and low amount of daylight hours would make me gloomy.
I am not the cool outdoorsy woman that Marta is. But these couple of days in the Swedish wilderness have been an unforgettable and energizing experience.
Say yes to a Swedish wilderness experience yourself!
How can I arrange a wilderniss adventure in Sweden?
We booked a tour through Taube Activity and can highly recommend them. Go for a 2 or 3 day tour and book in advance. Taube Activity offers a reduced price for students. Check out their website for all information on transportation and what to bring along.
What is the best accommodation in Lapland?
For me, sleeping in a Sami hut in the wilderness was a bucket list experience. If you prefer some more comfort or would like to make a perfect combination, you can book a design room in the Ice Hotel. An overnight stay here needs to be booked well in advance and will remain bucketlist material if you are on a tight budget.
Visiting the Ice Hotel in Lapland
You can always visit though. You don’t have to be a hotel guest to marvel at the ice sculptures and impressive ice architecture of the world’s first hotel made of ice and snow (since 1989).
Construction of the Ice Hotel starts at the end of November and is ready for visits mid-December. You can walk around the terrain by yourself and enjoy a drink from an ice glass in the Ice Bar, or join a guided tour for the story behind the uniquely themed rooms designed and sculpted by some 40 artists.
You can book a tour from Kiruna or venture out yourself. Bus 501 leaves from Kiruna’s bus station to Jukkasjärvi and stops right in front of the Ice Hotel. The bus halts at different bus stops in Kiruna, so check with your ho(s)tel which one is nearest.