Monday, February 23, 2009

In the Arctic

I took my first real trip (i.e. not to nearby Stockholm) of my time in Sweden. After slaving all night through a paper, I walked to Uppsala Centralstation for a ride to Stockholm-Arlanda Airport. There we embarked on a plane to Kiruna, in northern Sweden, which, according to Wikipedia, is in the Arctic Circle.

The flight lasted for one hour and thirty minutes. The descent was a bit nerve-racking to be honest, as heavy winds tossed the plane quite a bit and called for some rapid adjustments from the pilot. After landing on the runway, the plane pulled off to the side where we disembarked via stairs, immediately hit by a wall of cold air. According to the locals, this was a warm day, though my skin told my brain otherwise. I believe it was about -17˚C, or about 1˚F. Apparently, the day before it had been -33˚C, or -27˚F. Needless to say, we were all really disappointed about missing those temperatures, which, even Satan would agree, would have frozen over hell.

In any case, the lodging company picked us up at Kiruna Airport and whisked us away to the local ICA supermarket and, of course, the System Bolaget (the state-run liquor store). The driver/coordinator then drove us to our cabin, which I must say, was very nice. She warned us, though, that there was a limited supply of warm water, which, judging by the end of the trip, we took to mean we shouldn't take showers.

I bundled up in two pairs of socks, my winter coat, two pairs of gloves, and my hat, and walked to the nearby frozen lake. As I started to snap pictures, I suddenly had the urge to throw myself into a fire, but I took a more mediated course of action and simply walked back inside. Damn, it was cold. I'm from Los Angeles, for God's sake.

We had planned to take a dogsledding tour the evening of our arrival, but we were phoned and told that the previous evening, some of the dog teams had run off after some reindeer and were unavailable to run us on our tour. Skål (pronounced skole), we said, and consigned our evening to utilizing our System Bolaget booty. I should add, that after much anticipation, we finally caught a glimpse of the Northern Lights, a green streak in the sky. It wasn't as luminous as we had all hoped, but it was still an awesome sight.

We awoke, most of us in a ethanol-induced haze, and readied for the long day ahead. At 9:00, a guide picked us up in a van and took us to Camp Alta, the headquarters of the lodging company which rented us our cabin. They gave us full warm and waterproof jumpsuits, scarves, helmets, goggles, and boots, and walked us to snowmobiles. I had driven a snowmobile before, but for the others, it must have been slightly disconcerting when the guide instructed them solely by pointing at three locations on the snowmobile and saying "brakes, gas, stop." Two to a pod, we sped off towards the Ice Hotel. I must say, driving a snowmobile is an absolute blast.

After about an hour drive, we came to the world-famous (or maybe not) Ice Hotel. It is a hotel constructed, with the exception of doors and bedding, completely out of ice. Each room was designed by different artists, and after paying a fee of 175 SEK, we saw all of their work. Some of the designs were incredible, and hopefully, I'll be able to throw some pictures of them on here. Unfortunately, the Kiruna Absolut Icebar did not open until it was time for us to leave, but it definitely helped avoid some nasty snowmobile accidents.

As my snowmobile partner was scared to drive for one reason or another, I was one of the only in our group that was fortunate enough to be able to drive both legs of the journey. Thanks for that. We returned to Camp Alta after a short delay caused by, what we think, someone falling off a snowmobile. There, the guides prepared a wonderful, wonderful lunch of shredded reindeer meat and potatoes. If not for the meal being outside in the snowing, freezing, windy weather, it would have been an incredible hour. The smoke from the cooking fire kept blowing in my eyes as well. I can't complain though – the meal and subsequent coffee were excellent.

The guide drove us back to the cabin for some napping and warming time. At 17:30, another guide picked us up for our dogsled tour. Again, we were supplied with warm clothes, and four to a sled, we mushed off. The guide offered us some interesting insight into the life of the Kiruna people. He – probably his mid twenties – informed us that most of his friends moved off to the big cities in Sweden as soon as they graduated from high school, and that, despite this, he has chosen to stay in Kiruna because of his love for nature. He also mentioned that it was an unusually warm night, adding that he only had dressed in one layer.

We stopped at a warming hut after a couple miles and were fed coffee and pastries, then returned back to the camp. The guide drove us back to our cabin, and we spent the remainder of the evening consuming the remainder of our System Bolaget treasures and trampolining.

After an unfortunately lazy Sunday – I drank coffee, tea, coffee, took pictures, got in a snow wrestling match, drank coffee, then packed – which could have been utilized ice fishing or bathing in the sauna, we departed for the airport. I ate a reindeer sandwich, then hopped on the plane back to Stockholm. All in all, it was a very fun trip. I'm looking forward to my next trip, to visit Matt Reardon and friends in Copenhagen.

Shocking, it is cloudy again this morning in Uppsala.

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