I’m vacantly pondering two things that help my brain to reactivate as it slowly thaws. The first is the headline in a British tabloid newspaper that’s somehow found its way to the Aurora Safari Camp, 30 miles south of the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland. ‘Britain braced for Arctic blast,’ it screams, warning of temperatures sinking to -3C.
The other thing is the index finger of my left hand, which hurts a good deal. The pain of first-stage frostbite will pass soon enough and eases as I dip it into a wooden cup of steaming lingonberry juice.
Inside our tent the temperature is a cosy 15C. On the other side of the reindeer skin, it’s a different story altogether. Outside, where we’ve spent the past five hours travelling by snowmobile, the cold has ranged from -20C to a withering, intimidating -33C. How, I wonder, might Britain’s beleaguered tabloid audience deal with the kind of intense chill that northern Sweden can rustle up in a twinkling.
It certainly gets you thinking that you really, really do not mess around with this degree of cold. We’d travelled 37 miles across frozen sea at the top of the Gulf of Bothnia, north of the town of Luleå. Every 20 minutes, Roger, our guide, had applied the brakes, and stepped out of his snowmobile, rather like a traffic cop about to book you for a misdemeanour. In turn, he inspected the faces of everyone in the convoy for what he called frostnip, a white patch on the cheek or nose that’s the first sign of the elements taking over our bodies. “Take off your gloves and just press the skin for a few seconds,” he advised a colleague.
We knew we were in safe hands. On his days off, Roger heads for the mountains with his dogs and sleeps out in ice dens. I suspect that the lower the temperature plummets, the brighter his eyes burn. With concerns that we might go the way of Captain Scott now tucked snugly away in the back of my mind, I was able to take in the utterly dreamlike landscape.
I’m surprised to see that the Arctic in winter is not monochrome. Instead, there are metallic shades of every colour wherever I look: the flinty brown bark of tens of thousands of pine trees and the velvet, spangled green of their needles. The view across the frozen Gulf of Bothnia recalls the static on an outdated television after transmission has closed. The sun is yellow, then orange then deep red as it wheels its way low above the horizon; the sky has apparently been glazed with intensely pale pigments of lapis lazuli. My breath throws a creamy sheen, like unobtrusive dry ice, on this picture. In this stilled landscape, there’s movement too: elks lumber along the sea edge, their foam-glove antlers nodding as they do so.
Then, as the sun sets, another, comforting colour floats above the treeline. Smoke from the safari camp fire.