Things are getting weird. Something has jerked me awake. Where am I? I almost mouth the words, hanging hazily in my mind. Seriously, where am I? It’s way too bright in here too, though my phone, tucked in my sleeping bag, says it’s just after 3am. My mouth has that dry, furry sensation and I turn for the bottle of water I’d brought to bed, only to curse as I realise it’s frozen full.
Wrapped in a super thick sleeping bag, I’m bedding down in Sweden’s Icehotel in the village of Jukkasjärvi, 125 miles inside the Arctic Circle, for the second night of a three-night Lapland trip. And yes, it’s cold. It’s around -16C outside and a shivering -5C in this sculpture of snow and ice. But once in your Arctic-grade sleeping bag, with just your thermals on, it’s pretty snug.
I’ve done exactly what I was told not to — steadily imbibing a stream of crisp cocktails in the Icebar until gone midnight; with toilets a five-minute dash from the ice suite, a nocturnal visit to the loo isn’t ideal. I did pay attention, though, to breathing outside of my sleeping bag. “You’ll be in for a very chilly and clammy night if you breathe in your bag,” warned a guide during a pre-sleep briefing. “Humidity is the enemy here.”
Nose poking out like a ruby red lightbulb, I drifted off quickly in my windowless, symmetrical chamber, named ‘Virgin into Space’ complete with ice chairs and a chalk board printed with the following words: ‘When you start on your journey to Ithaca, then pray that the road is long, full of adventure, full of knowledge’, from the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy.
Some of my fellow guests will be dozing beneath a sculptured ice dragon; others in the company of daleks or in a fairytale land among twisting trees beneath a thousand shards of ice. An art exhibition by day, each one of the suites is carved, primped and preened by a different designer during the unforgiving grip of the Swedish winter and opened to the public in January. And as the clock strikes six, it’s yours for the night, glowing with a brilliant blueish light as dawn breaks through blocks of ice. Poignantly, it will later be left to melt in the blaze of the spring sun.
Every serrated angle, every polished dome, every nook and cranny is crafted from the frozen water of the Torne River, lacing its way through Swedish and Finnish Lapland. It’s a ghostly, ethereal experience, drifting through the main hall, a lofty space of icy beams and pristine columns where crafted details appear here and there like rebellious odes to graffiti. And to add to the surreality, the surrounding skies are sometimes illuminated by the Aurora Borealis, though this diva of the sky was yet to make an appearance — and being my second night, time was running out.
I’d spent my first night at the Aurora Sky Station — an exhibition space and restaurant atop the Abisko National Park, an hour and a half’s drive from the Icehotel. Its website claims: ‘With its fresh, clear air and its practically permanent cloud-free sky the prerequisites in Abisko are optimal. More or less active Northern Lights can be seen almost every night.’
And according to NASA, 2013 and 2014 will see the brightest Northern Lights display for more than a decade. Scientists at the US space agency have revealed that after years of record lows in solar activity, there has been a surge in solar storms, which it is believed will result in more immense, frequent and outstanding displays of these legendary lights.
Hopes are high. A friend had described them as “like lapping up visual catnip”, having found himself transfixed by the rare and rebellious streaks of red and green in Finland years ago.
Mysterious and unpredictable, the lights have inspired generations of charming myths and legends. Lapland’s Sami people traditionally believed the lights were the energies of the souls of the departed. Whenever the Northern Lights blazed in the skies, people were to behave solemnly, and children were told to quieten down and be respectful of the fires. They also believed that if you whistled under the lights, you could summon them closer, and they could whisk you away with them.
Rumours abound too that the Aurora Borealis whisper. Witnesses have testified the sound can be likened to a small rodent rustling through dry leaves, radio static or the crinkling of a cellophane wrapper. Inuit folklore believes it’s the lost voices of the spirits of the dead endeavouring to communicate with the living.
In fact the lights, named after the Roman goddess of dawn, are created by particles on the solar wind interacting with the Earth’s atmosphere, with the effect being magnified by the magnetic North Pole.
Whichever explanation you choose to believe, Austrian explorer Julius von Payer put it best in 1876: ‘No pencil can draw it, no colours can paint it and no words can describe it in all its magnificence.’
Yet by 11pm at Abisko, after platefuls of rich, earthy reindeer steaks, and hours spent lying in the snow, straining my eyes for one fleeting glance, I wasn’t to be rewarded. Thick cloud had gathered and not even the crescent of the moon or a lonely star made an appearance.
I’m not here solely for the lights though, and as I discover, it’s not just after dusk that Swedish Lapland’s moody skies and landscapes come to life. After a breakfast of hot lingonberry juice and croissant I wrap up in my Michelin Man-style onesie and hop in a sledge for a husky ride across pristine frozen lakes and down narrow lanes of thick snow. It’s wonderfully enchanting — wiry branches of fern, coated in a sprinkling of snow, brush exposed ears; fine flakes trap themselves in batting lashes, and hot breath emerges from jittering mouths like plumes of smoke from a pipe. It’s a fantasyland — a Narnia-esque woodland where you half expect a fawn or the White Witch to emerge with offerings of Turkish delight.
“These fellas can easily munch through around 10,000 calories a day when we’re out on tour,” explains my Slovakian musher, Milos Gonda. Between his yelps and soft instructions of “Go! Haw! Gee” to his dogs, he tells me he and his hounds have just completed — and won — a long-distance mushing race, Finnmarkslopet. A 310-mile race, powered by an engine of eight dogs, it’s Europe’s northernmost dog sled contest, crossing the county of Finnmark in the extreme northeastern part of Norway.
Today though, we’re cruising at a slow and steady pace. I hug myself to guard off the bitter, chilly wind and realise the feeling in my toes is starting to disappear as we stop for hot chocolate and cookies in a tipi.
Freezing feet are a theme of the day, it seems, as that evening I swap husky sleds for snowmobiles after dusk has descended. The transport of choice for locals during the thick of winter, they’re pretty simple to navigate, weaving over frozen lakes and woodland paths caked in thick snow.
After diving into the cool, white stuff and making snow angels, my group of fellow snowmobilers are ushered into a tipi for a meal of bubbling moose stew and apple cake around a fierce campfire. And as we swap stories and wax euphoric about the Northern Lights — or lack of them — an urgent tap on the door signals something to get excited about. I throw on my boots and nearly fall out the door as we hastily desert the tipi, cups of coffee left to cool beside the fire’s embers.
I squint towards the night sky. For this evening, the stars are a support act, intensely strewn across the velvety black sky while the moon grins — almost knowingly — at us like the Cheshire Cat. And then the Aurora appears. Faint, don’t get me wrong, this is clearly her at her shyest, but she’s here alright, moving ethereally across the heavens, her green crests dancing to an unknown melody. It may not the ‘visual catnip’ my friend had mentioned but it’s spectacular nonetheless.
Tradition: Arrive in February and you can visit the 400-year-old Jokkmokk Sami market. Held from the first Thurs day of the month for three days, it’s a shopping bonanza with everything from traditional garments to reindeer skins and wooden spoons on offer
Must do: Visit the Ice Hotel Chapel. Whether you’re a believer or not, it’s a surreal experience and you may even witness a wedding or the renewing of vows
Discover the World offer the only direct flight from the UK to Kiruna from Heathrow. Alternatively, fly with SAS via Stockholm from Birmingham, Edinburgh, Heathrow and Manchester. discover-the-world.co.uk flysas.com
Average flight time: 3.5h.
There are a number of airports across the region for domestic travel, and a train and bus network runs all year round.
When to go
From December to March for the Aurora and the Icehotel, with temperatures around -15C.
Need to know
Currency: Swedish krona (kr). £1 = 10.36 kr
International dial code: 00 46.
Time difference: GMT +2.
Bradt’s Lapland. RRP: £15.99.
How to do it
Travel with Discover the World on its three-night Northern Lights trip at Abisko and Icehotel from December to March. From £1,281 per person (based on two sharing) including flights between Heathrow and Kiruna, one night at Abisko, one night in a Snow Room at the Icehotel and one night in a warm Kaamos Room, breakfast buffet throughout, chairlift excursion to the Sky Station, all transfers and the use of winter clothing. Optional excursions include Husky Sledging (from £122), Ice Sculpting (from £62) and Northern Lights Snowmobile Tour (from £159). discover-the-world.co.uk
Published in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)