Survival instincts? It turns out that unless you have the skills to back them up, they’re largely useless. It’s -11C, a far from perilous temperature by Swedish Arctic standards, but a fire is the order of the day nonetheless. That’s what you do, you see, here in the Swedish boreal forest, snow or shine, midsummer or in the bluest depths of midwinter. Fire signals life, optimism, and offers a blazing two fingers up to Mother Nature, who can be a harsh mistress in these parts.
Building a fire is also a basic survival skill, one I’m aiming to learn in an afternoon’s crash course. Only I’ve busted several flints in my attempts to ignite papery scrolls of birch bark kindling, and my arms are getting seriously fatigued from all the elbow work. The upside? At least all the frantic flapping about means I’m keeping warm.
“Do you know about the man who survived for 70 days in a snow drift, in his car?” asks my guide, Robert Lundgren, cheerily. “All you need is shelter and water, and you can go on for weeks.”
In Robert’s case, producing this is not easier said than done. He’s already found us a shelter of sorts, in the lee of a towering pine, and two sharp strikes of his flint produces a spark, then smoke, then a roaring fire fed by ‘crow’s twigs’ (the small, dry, lower branches of the spruce tree). Pretty soon he’s brewing tea — melted ice with spruce fronds — and we settle back on the reindeer skins he magics up from his backpack, sipping while sighing at the wonder of it all. Snow-shrouded skirts of trees, blousy white boughs and knee-deep drifts roll away to the bank of the frozen Torne River below us. All’s silent apart from the crack and spit of the fire.
The river runs from the Arctic’s Scandinavian Mountains 500km south to the frozen Bay of Bothnia, a wild expanse that in winter shows few signs of life but is, in fact, a source of civilisation. And here in the little Sami village of Jukkasjärvi are its very building blocks. Each winter the Torne gives birth to both art and accommodation in the shape of the Icehotel. Blocks of ‘snice’ (river ice and snow) are crafted by an international army of hard-hat-wearing, chainsaw-wielding sculptors, their creations drawing tens of thousands of tourists to this tiny one-church village, to overnight in what is essentially a sub-zero art gallery. Such has been the success of this bucket-list novelty, one season isn’t enough and now sister Icehotel 365, aided by clever insulation, solar power and turf roofs, offers a -5c arty igloo experience year round.
After a somewhat surreal night in 365’s Don’t Get Lost Art Suite (bed positioned in the centre of an ice-carved maze), I’m ready to get lost in that boreal forest again. A couple of hours snowmobiling into the hinterland on a group ‘safari’, I’m thus rewarded. We follow almost invisible trails through narrow forest tracks, and once I remember to loosen my grip on the handlebars and trust the snowmobile to find its groove (there’s rudimentary instruction for the uninitiated), this is a brilliantly mindless pleasure. Our little cavalcade of six Ski-doos judders across tiny wooden bridges forging almost iridescent turquoise blue rivers, out onto white, wind-flattened sheets of lake, the engines’ growl flushing out pairs of moose and calf that cast comical skinny-legged silhouettes against fast-impending boreal night.
There’s perch, grayling and pike, too, revealed to us during a fishing tutorial led by local hosts Andreas Sarri and his father, Nils. This unflappable pair produce a mammoth bore drill out of their trailer to cut metre-deep holes into the ice, where we sit with basic line and bait waiting for a bite. One of us gets a catch: a three-inch perch deemed “food for the foxes” by Andreas. “It’s always good to give something back,” he says with the calm of a man who knows there’s a warm oven nearby.
It’s not yet evening but the Nordic sky has cast its eerie winter half-light out of which, ahead of our roving snowmobiles rises Enoks camp, its central wooden cabin cutting an elegant Sami-tent-like shape against the slate grey backdrop of Mount Kebnekaise. “Sweden’s highest mountain seemed a good spot for a camp,” smiles Andreas. It’s a modest term for somewhere that comes with a traditional wood sauna, five tidy en suite cabins, and that central Sami-style building, housing a restaurant with vaulted ceilings. The latter is a fitting setting for a surprisingly grand menu of lightly smoked reindeer carpaccio, pink strips of reindeer steak followed by a delicate panna cotta with cloudberry jelly.
Warm and well fed, it’s hard to remember we’re off-grid, off-map (no public roads come within several miles of Enoks), somewhere deep in the Arctic. A timely display from the Northern Lights provides a hair-raising reminder, summoning us from the beds we’ve only just fallen into. Scrambling back into thermals and boots, we stand under its white-green, shifting, smoky display — and whether this is a first or 15th experience of the aurora, all of us are silenced. The Arctic always has the final say.
Scandinavia Only has a three-night Icehotel and Overnight Wilderness Experience, from £1,980 per person including return flights from Heathrow, transfers, two nights at Icehotel, B&B (one in an Art Suite, one in a ‘warm room’), survival skills session, one night full board at Enoks wilderness cabins, ice-fishing and self-drive snowmobile transfers. scandinaviaonly.co.uk
Published in the December 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)