As I look around I see the fascinated faces of my fellow tour participants. We are all watching our guide, young and tough Marta, dressed in an oversized outdoor coat, shoulders hunching forward. She’s about the same age as us, and I’m pretty sure all these anticipating minds are thinking the same as I am: what a different life to lead. We’re standing on half a metre of ice, at the junction of Torne River and Rautas River, solid enough to carry snowmobiles but only partly frozen, and so Marta warns us to not venture out too far ourselves. It’s clear why we shouldn’t do so, as we can hear and see the rough waters of Sweden’s largest national river flowing just a hundred metres away from us. 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’s time for us to gather water for the coming two days in Swedish wilderness.
Earlier that morning we’d left Kiruna by car and changed to snow scooters for the last 10 km to get to the wilderness camp. As I hopped on the snow scooter I repeated Marta’s words in my mind “give only soft pressure as you don’t want to shoot off the guys on the trailer”. Right. A glance at the six tour participants on my back and off I go. Snow flakes wet my face as I carefully steer the heavy scooter through the snow, passed white forest and empty fields. This part of Scandinavia is called the last wilderness of Europe and I can see why.
I have to admit though that conditions in the wilderness camp are not exactly ‘wild’, just primitive. The toilet smells horrible and breathing 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(plenty of it in the river) and can only be heated by stoves (stuffed with wood that we first have to cut), but the traditional sauna – a wooden hut drenched with resin – warms up more vessels in your body than a hot shower could ever reach. And yes, I have to admit I chose to rinse myself clean of all the sweat with the help of a watering can hand-held shower as opposed to rolling in the snow.
Two days in the wilderness camp give you the excited feeling of a school camp. Back to basics and loads of activities screaming for your attention. I learned how to find the right spot to hit a trunk to slash it in pieces, and grilled reindeer sausages in a fire pit. I found myself on cross-country skies for the first time, wandered off with snow shoes that look like a bit like tennis rackets and got stuck all the way to my hips during a hike, and had the most childish fun since I started adulthood with the rest of the tour group sliding down the ‘tailbone breaker’ slope. Two moments on the tour were even more than good fun and just pure magic..
The skies have darkened hours ago and we decide to take another look outside. The midnight blackness strengthens the peace and calm that the surroundings ooze in daytime. It’s quiet at this hour. Our fellow tour participants have all taken in their spot in the wooden bunk beds after we had finished a photo session a couple of hours earlier during which they all wanted my partner to capture that special moment with their friends. We now take the path to the frozen river together, hand in hand, head lights on to find our way through the snow. Leaving the tree sheltered path and walking up the open spot that is the frozen river where we’d gathered our water early that morning, we are awed by the countless number of stars decorating the skies. It gives me the magical feel that I remember from the Atacama desert in Chile and the Australian Outback – no artificial lights, just thousands of stars lighting up the heavens as if spotlights in a theatre. We watch a shooting star cross the skies and know we’re both wishing for the same thing. The Northern Lights are on display, streaking white and grey flashes over the horizon. There’s no other sound than the rushing river behind us. I feel goose bumps on my arms and I am certain it’s not the freezing air that’s causing this reaction, but the serenity and beauty of this moment. It feels surreal but at the same time so real and pure as it’s just the three of us, away from the other tourists on the trip. Me, my partner and his camera.
We wake up early the next morning for another fascinating light play: sunrise over the white, wild landscape. A flare of mist floats a couple of metres above the ice of the river as warm yellow light slowly spreads out over the trees. Even the most grumpy morning person would wake up smiling by the sight of this glowing landscape. Too bad none of them are here to enjoy it – everyone else is still asleep. The perfect time for us though to make a morning walk before breakfast. Our feet leave a clear mark in the fresh snow and our eyes search for the marks of reindeer or moose but it’s the poo that gives them away. We see three reindeer 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, but even though we walk in complete silence, they head for another spot in the forest. As we make our way back to the path we see them standing right next to it, they’ve simply circled around us and are now taking off again. What a morning treat! As streaks of sunlight shine through the tree branches we make our way down to the river where ice flows pressed upon the shore glisten in the light and reflect a light pattern on the water.
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’s not sawing a circle in the ice, but drilling a hole in it. She warns 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. Although I feel completely serene by these couple of days in the snow, I imagine myself becoming like them if I would stay here an entire winter. Parted from warmth and a comfortable amount of daylight hours by weather conditions that have this part of Sweden covered in snow eight out of twelve months in the year. Yes, this is an experience I would recommend anyone who’s up for and adventure and I would’ve stayed there the entire week, but I must say the cold and remote area puts the wet Dutch city winters in perspective.
In for a wilderness adventure yourself? Check out Taube Activity.
If you prefer a more fancy stay in the cold..
you might want to skip the bunk beds in a Sami hut and choose a design room in the Ice Hotel. An overnight stay needs to be booked well in advance though and will remain bucketlist material if you’re on a tight budget. But the good news is that 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).
You can book a tour from Kiruna or venture out yourself. Bus 501 leaves from Kiruna’s bus station (and halts at different bus stops in town, so check with your ho(s)tel which one is nearest) to Jukkasjärvi and stops right in front of the Ice Hotel. 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.