Our plane nosed down through a layer of ice fog and shuddered hard, as if at the sudden view: a mist-shredded scrap of forest, all but buried in snow. “Welcome to the Arctic,” the pilot said, as we bumped down on a runway of ice and packed powder.
It was the end of January, and we had arrived in Kiruna, the northernmost town in Sweden. It lies three degrees of latitude north of Fairbanks, Alaska, and 100 miles above the Arctic Circle. Around us, snow-clad forest spread away for 100,000 square miles. Squalls shook the cabin as we taxied. The storm was out of the north-northeast, and I tried to picture where that wind had recently been: a strip of Finland, a ribbon of Norway, the Barents Sea, and before that, probably the polar ice cap. Brrr.
Video: Winter in Sweden's Lapland Province
We had been traveling from Denver for 18 hours straight. “Tell me again,” I said to my wife, Kim. “Why are we coming to the Arctic in the middle of winter? I mean, when there are places in the world like, say, Barbados?”
“To see the aurora borealis,” she answered cheerfully. She loves the cold, she says—it wakes her up.
Minutes later we were escorted out of the squat airport building toward a pack of dogs that stood, yelping, just yards from the runway. An apple-cheeked guide named Espen Hamnvik, who wore a fur-trimmed parka, handed us each a coat, heavy snow pants, a hat, and boots. “There is your sled, Kim. Pete, this is yours,” he said. “There are your dogs.” After showing us how to use the brakes on our sleds, he gave a mittened thumbs-up and mushed off into the snowy woods. Our Alaskan huskies were ready to run, and they barked and yowled and strained against their ropes. Another guide yanked the lines loose, the sleds jerked, and we were off, running free over the fresh snow. Into the heart of Swedish Lapland.
What we had come for, aside from the northern lights, was a taste of authentic Sami culture, and an understanding of why the northern Swedes are so crazy about winter. We’d stay first at a remote lodge accessible in winter only by dog team or snowmobile; then we’d take a train two hundred miles south to the coastal town of Luleå, where we’d sleep in Sami-style canvas tents—yes, tents—and from there we’d move to the vertiginous Treehotel. Along the way, we’d be outside most of the time, and we’d try not to lose any digits to the cold.
My dogs were littler than I’d expected, the size of border collies—two piebald sisters up front, two brown brothers behind. Just four. They were running so fast that I had to grip the handlebar as hard as I could. The trail was narrow and twisting, through trees with limbs that were shagged and bent with snow. There were sudden swoops and dips, branches to duck under. The dogs careened around the corners and we almost capsized; they charged down hills. My eyelashes were sticking together. “What are these beasts?” I wondered. Every time I stepped on the claw brake to slow down, one of the lead dogs, tongue out, threw a look back over her shoulder, and I could read her thought like a cartoon balloon: Dude! WTF? Let me run!
I grew up on Jack London’s tales of the Arctic, on Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf. From those books I took an image of a sled driving behind a team of 12 or 14 dogs, lined up in polar twilight. Big, fluffy dogs that looked like wolves. Our Alaskan huskies, which look nothing like the Hollywood Siberians, were bred for racing over long distances at great speed. They are the marathon runners of the dog world, and like marathon runners, they are slight and slender and swift, and can’t think of anything more fun than running for hours. Their enthusiasm was infectious. We swished out of the trees and onto a wide frozen lake. It was 10:05 a.m. and the light was muted, like the onset of dusk. The wind was driving the snow sideways, and I lost the lead sled in the squall. Then there was only white—above, below. Only the smooth slip and jostle of the wood runners underfoot, the biting frost on cheeks, the panting of the dogs. As if we had taken flight and were suspended in a storm.
The Sami people are an indigenous, historically nomadic community, and have been herding reindeer in the Arctic for several thousand years. To them, the aurora borealis has always been a solemn display. Traditionally, they’ve believed that the lights are the spirits of their ancestors, and that if anyone sinful shows his face or acts disrespectfully when the lights appear, it could anger the spirits and bring bad luck on the people. Some parents still keep their bad children indoors during the light shows.
But the aurora has gotten a lot of good press lately—perhaps because the displays get stronger in 11-year cycles, and the last two years have been prodigious. But I think it’s more to do with our visually obsessed culture. Anything spectacularly photogenic, anything that can dazzle in a single image, rises to the top. The aurora is the Giselle of natural wonders. The Grand Canyon, Iguazú Falls, Everest from Base Camp—none can hold a candle to the aurora when she’s in her full glory. She’s become a kind of trophy on social media, and more travelers are willing to brave the northern winter to capture the prize.
We followed Espen as he turned his team into the woods; a few minutes later, he raised his mitten and called a halt. In the trees there was a small conical hut with a snowmobile parked in front. Pale smoke wreathed from the stovepipe and trailed off downwind. We tied up the sleds and went inside, to find near-smothering warmth, a popping open fire, and a veteran dogsled racer and master chef named Stefan Lundgren, who served us reindeer stew and hot lingonberry cider in birch-wood cups. I glanced at Kim. Her cheeks were chafed red with cold and her smile was bright. “Magical,” she said.
At dusk, which fell at 2:50 p.m., we ran the sleds up to a cluster of low, pine-clad buildings at the edge of another lake. This was Fjellborg Arctic Lodge, our accomodation for the night. The storm had spent itself, and candles flickered in carved ice-block sconces outside the half dozen cabins arranged around the lodge. Under two feet of fresh snow, the world looked like a scene from a Christmas card. A blazing campfire burned, and there was Stefan, ladling lingonberry cider into birch-wood cups again.
What could be better than sitting on a reindeer skin around an outdoor fire in winter with the last traces of light fading behind the treetops, and the temperature plummeting? The only sounds were the crack of flames, the creak of snow-laden trees, the murmur of quiet conversation.
Stefan showed us our digs. Our cabin had a sauna, and we baked in it. Then we sat outside in a hot tub and peered into the lidded sky, hoping it would clear for the northern lights. It didn’t. I admit I wasn’t too bothered: for dinner Stefan had made us cured-reindeer brioche, arctic char, and a dessert with three kinds of chocolate, served with rich black coffee.
Swedes do not coddle neophytes or hand out liability waiver forms—at least not up the 68th parallel north. Every day is an adventure, and they invite you to bring the best of yourself and come along. When we woke the next morning, the sky had cleared and the sun had risen to the tops of the pines, where it would skirt the southern horizon before sinking back down in a few hours’ time. Kenth Fjellborg, the proprietor of Fjellborg Arctic Lodge, showed up on a skimobile, and as Espen had done with the sleds, he kept it simple. “This is your machine. Here is the ignition. The throttle, the brake. Keep your feet tucked in here in case you tip over.” Big smile. “Okay? Let’s go!”
Kenth is a master dog-sledder and a consummate storyteller. At age 19, he apprenticed under the legendary dog-sledder Joe Runyan, in Alaska. Keith ran the Iditarod in 1994—1,100 miles through Arctic Alaska—and finished in the top 20. In 2006, he guided Prince Albert II of Monaco to the North Pole by dogsled. Kenth grew up in a tiny village 10 miles from the lodge; his family has lived in the area for nine generations. I blinked. An American cannot even conceive of staying in one spot for three hundred years; for us, a one-year lease is pushing it. Kenth, of course, can navigate this country in pitch darkness, which he often has to do in the winter months. It’s second nature for him to fish for char through the ice by headlamp, or make camp at 20 below. I asked him about his favorite thing to do in his free time and he said, “Moose hunting. It’s my Arctic-male version of yoga.”
Off we went. The forest shimmered with rime, and the trees cast shadows that were long and blue. We throttled out of the woods onto the white expanse of the lake, where two reindeer were sunbathing. We came to a hand-painted signpost: finland 149 km. Norway, Russia, and Finland are all close by, and the borders have always been pretty porous, at least for the nomadic Sami, who follow the reindeer wherever they go. We zoomed onto the river Torne and along a well-beaten track marked with storm poles. Our faces froze, our eyes squinted against the blast. We didn’t care. There was Kenth’s village, Poikkijärvi, just a string of small houses along the southern bank. And there, across the river, was the hamlet of Jukkasjärvi, home to the IceHotel.
You’ve heard of it: the famous hotel that melts every spring and is rebuilt every fall, when artists from all over the world come to each carve one of the dozens of rooms. There is an ice bed with a reindeer skin inside each of these ice sculptures—essentially an ice cave with a steady temperature of around 23 degrees. There is an ice chapel where guests can get married, an ice reception desk, and a grand ice hall with ice pillars and ice chandeliers. Kim and I walked into a room with a bunch of ice sheep jumping over an ice fence, their fluffy wool made of thousands of little ice balls stuck together. We laughed out loud. Jens Thoms Ivarsson, director of design, is used to such outbursts from guests. “Luca Roncoroni created it so that guests who were worried about sleeping in subzero [Celsius] temperatures could count the sheep and fall asleep more easily.” He assured us that the cold does not keep shivering guests awake: everyone gets a thick sleeping sack and a fleece hat on arrival.
We had a drink in the IceBar, sipping elderberry juice with lime from ice glasses while a song by Danny and the Champions of the World thumped from speakers that no one had yet figured out how to make from ice. It occurred to me, as I switched the glass to my other hand so I wouldn’t get frostbite, that the whole place was one of the most spectacular art installations on earth—and created to vanish, like a sand mandala. Like the Arctic winter itself. Pretty cool. We climbed back onto our snowmobiles and drove back as night overtook the forest. Above us, stars began to glitter like ice chips. It got seriously cold. We followed our headlights back along the twisting track. As my thumb pressed the throttle, and the machine surged, and my cheeks burned with frost, I felt a profound sense of glee. The kind that comes, strangely, only when everything is frozen.
That night, no aurora. The next morning I woke very early to see if I could catch it. The Swedes have a name for the polar twilight, usually at its most pronounced around dusk, when the long shadows merge. They call it blå timmen, the blue hour. At dawn, as I stepped out of the cabin and walked to the edge of the lake, snow creaking underfoot, that name came to me. The sky was the softest blue. And the snow. And the trees. Every tone and shade of blue, blue merging to slate beneath the trees, to ultramarine in the water-clear sky overhead. And in the southwest, a silver-blue half-moon was setting. I felt giddy, like a kid. So often, when we travel, we come for one thing and are blindsided by something else. I realized that I was loving winter again, the way I had as a child, when there was nothing better on earth than sledding, or a snowball fight.
Next stop: the Aurora Safari Camp outside of Luleå, just south of the Arctic Circle. The name of the place virtually guaranteed a sighting. It was also a chance for even deeper immersion, because we were staying in conical tepees with cloth skins, inspired by traditional Sami lavvu shelters. The mercury pegged at 10 below for two days. At night, Kim and I woke up every hour and a half to stoke the little woodstove. We poked each other and traded off, and somehow just got happier. And with every wake-up, one of us stepped outside to scan for northern lights—and saw only icy stars.
The camp was perched on a wide lake covered with fresh snow. One morning we took out powerful snowmobiles. The sun, just over the treetops, was brilliant, and it turned the distant rime-frosted ridges to gold. On the islands, the trees were completely sheathed in ice. I’d never seen anything like it. I hit the throttle and accelerated over the unbroken, glittering snow. I yelled out loud. Behind me, a plume of powder sprayed 20 feet into the sunlight, where it blazed with gold.
What could be better than sitting on a reindeer skin around an outdoor fire in winter with the last traces of light fading behind the treetops, and the temperature plummeting?
That night, Fredrik Broman, the camp’s exuberant proprietor, fired up his sauna: a big tent with a woodstove, on a float, frozen into the lake. Outside were blocks of clear virgin ice and a table spread with razor-sharp chisels and saws. I sweated away happily, before flipping back the cloth door and tumbling out into the subzero darkness in a gush of steam. I rolled in the snow. And as I stood and caught my breath, I saw Kim in her huge parka, bent over an ice block. In the light of a headlamp she was chiseling away. A magical, modernist shape of curves and grooves.
But still no lights. Four nights down, two to go. I was okay with it. We’d been ice fishing with Kenth, snowshoeing with Fredrik, and today we were going to see a legendary Sami named Lars Eriksson. He came out of his clapboard house in traditional dress of dark blue felt trimmed with strips of yellow, green, and red—sun, earth, fire—and reindeer-fur boots with the toes curled up. (They curl to make it easier to slip them into leather ski bindings.) He had a flowing white beard. I saw Kim’s eyes get huge; her eyebrows shot up, her mouth opened into a speechless o. “It’s Santa Claus!” she whispered into my ear. We walked in chill sunlight into a field among Lars’s reindeer, where he fed them handfuls of spongy moss and intoned his story: “My family has been here for seven generations. In 1958 I started with the reindeer....” He said that when the animals migrated up to the forests in the west, he and his family would move behind the herd on skis and camp for weeks at a time.
“When we go with the reindeer, we see the reindeer are a little tired. We stop, make a fire, make coffee. The reindeer can sleep, have a little food. We follow nature and how we feel—slow, slow, no stress.” Now, he said, the 3,000 Sami families that still herd reindeer move them with ATVs and trucks; they have to take other jobs to pay for the machines and fuel, and there is too much stress. “Not good for the deer.” He told us that he knows of only 25 or so Sami families who still make a living solely from the reindeer, and they need a herd of 2,000 to make that work. He took us into an old log cabin for a lunch of moose and reindeer meatballs. Taking off his wool hat, he talked with animation about the persecution the Sami used to experience from the Swedish government, the stealing of indigenous artifacts, the punishment he experienced in school for speaking in the Sami language. But now, he said, there is a resurgence of Sami culture, and interest from around the world in the story of its people.
Kim asked him if anyone still joiks, or practices the Sami singing she had heard about. Lars turned his gray eyes to the little window and inhaled deeply, as if taking energy from the woods. Then he looked at us and sang. A deep, strong descant with the broken melody of a forest wind. He stopped and smiled.
“Wow,” Kim murmured. “What does it mean?”
“Having friends,” he said. “The sun is out.”
We had one more night in Sweden, at Treehotel. It’s on par with the IceHotel in terms of both its fame and its weirdness. What is it about Swedes? They have free education and heavily subsidized health care and everyone seems to be entitled to a Volvo—maybe that frees the mind, the artistic spirit. Why not build a hotel in the treetops? Kent and Britta Lindvall, the couple who own Treehotel, commissioned a handful of topflight architects to each build a room up in the pines. The most famous may be the Mirrorcube, which is skewered on a single tree, with mirrored surfaces that reflect the sky and surrounding boughs such that it seems to disappear.
But we were staying in the UFO. Kim is an actress. She shoots commercials and does plays, but her steady gig is at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where she puts on a NASA space suit and walks onto the Mars diorama to do core drilling. The little kids in the audience go berserk with excitement, and are very concerned to know how she will eat lunch and whether there are aliens out there. So the flying saucer suspended from the trees was perfect. Standing at the base of a pine tree in the subzero darkness, we pushed a button on the trunk and zmmmmm, a ladder descended. We climbed up through a hatch. I felt just a little like Matt Damon when he climbed into the rocket in The Martian. Inside, the pod had a projector that threw swimming galaxies onto the curved walls. We lay in the dark and drank tea and watched them, knowing that this might be as close as we would get to a light show.
At 10:30 p.m. we put on long underwear, boots, and parkas, and climbed down from the UFO. We tromped through the snow to a clearing. It was so cold my nostrils stuck together. Nothing. Not nothing—a billion heedless stars. We climbed back into our spaceship. “It’s okay,” Kim said. “This whole trip has been like a fairy tale, a dream—who needs the aurora borealis. Right?” “Right.”
But she woke me up at 1 a.m. anyway, and again we tramped up into thigh-deep snow. Stars, stillness. At 3:30 a.m. she started awake from a dream. She had whimpered, and it had woken me, too. We were going home in a few hours. “C’mon,” she said. “One more look.” We piled on all the clothes and trudged back up to the clearing. If Mars is colder than that Nordic morning, I pity its future colonizers.
“Oh,” I murmured. There was Orion shooting his arrow, Cassiopeia, the Pleiades. And there was something moving between us and them. A scrim of pale light, almost like a cloud, except that it was crowning over the trees and shooting rays across the sky. Slowly, without sound, it was cascading in great waterfalls of light, shimmering in curtains the color of clouds. It felt, to me, like the spirit of winter. Understated, cold, and quiet. A spirit who has sung silently to these forests since the beginning of time. Kim reached a mittened hand for mine, and we stood in the clearing, transfixed, until we could no longer feel our fingers or toes.
The Details: What to Do in Today's Swedish Lapland
Red Savannah: The bespoke travel company out of England organized the entire trip, and built an itinerary that emphasized getting outside in the Arctic winter, viewing the aurora borealis, and staying in wildly unique lodgings. Transfers between destinations were seamless, the stops and activities were imaginative and beautiful, and the guides were warm and supremely competent. redsavannah.com; seven days from $8,977 per person, including dinners.
Fjellborg Arctic Lodge: Located on the shores of frozen Lake Väkkärä, 100 miles above the Arctic Circle, this remote lodge is a beautiful place to try new adventures. Its proprietor, Kenth Fjellborg, is a legendary musher who will make sure you get behind a dog team. You might also reenergize in a wood-fired sauna, or try your hand at ice fishing, snowshoeing, and exploring the forests and lakes on a snowmobile—at night. fjellborgarcticlodge.com; two days from $1,963 per person, all-inclusive.
The IceHotel: This may be the coolest—in every sense—place to stay on the planet. This ephemeral art installation-slash-luxury hotel melts in the spring, and gets rebuilt for a new winter season every year. Every room is an ice sculpture designed and built by an artist from an international cadre. Sleep on an ice bed, drink a lingonberry martini from an ice glass, get married in an ice chapel—and chillax. icehotel.com; doubles from $227.
Aurora Safari Camp: Photographer-turned-hotelier Fredrik Broman has set up this unique camp where there are prime-time viewing opportunities of the aurora borealis. Guests sleep in Sami-style canvas tents, complete with a wood-fired stove, after days spent snowshoeing, kick-sledding, or fat-tire biking. The remote setting is otherworldy: you can see the wheeling ice chips of the constellations, and the tracks of a lone moose stringing over snow glittering in starlight. aurorasafaricamp.com; doubles from $464 per person, including meals.
Treehotel: This hotel rivals the IceHotel in magnificent strangeness. Owners Kent and Britta Lindvall commissioned several topflight architects to build accommodations suspended high in a pine forest by the Lule River; each has a unique name, like UFO, Mirrorcube, or Dragonfly. In the main lodge, guests can enjoy a breakfast spread of crêpes and yogurt and smoked reindeer, and then set out hiking to Storforsen rapids, visiting with the Sami, and snowshoeing along the Arctic Circle, before returning back to a dinner paired with fine wines. Skål! treehotel.se; doubles from $550.