Friday, February 19, 2016

An Arctic Expedition.

As per usual, it takes me at least a month to get around to writing about something, and our Christmas 2015 trip to the northern reaches of Sweden is no exception.  But that's not because Sweden is not exceptional.  It's the only place I've ever experienced a day without the sun coming over the horizon, a shower on a moving train, or a meal consisting of reindeer heart and licorice ice cream (in separate dishes, thankfully).

Getting a little dark for just
after lunch.

The Arctic Circle is just 9 degrees further north than Aalborg.  So this Christmas, we decided to make the trek up north and try our luck with seeing the northern lights.  And a trek up north, it was.  We opted for train travel again this Christmas and that meant one hour on a bus, three hours on a ferry, and about 22 hours on a train to get us from Aalborg, Denmark to Abisko, Sweden.  I have never realized just how long a country Sweden is before this trip.  Like, did you know that the southernmost part of Sweden is closer to Italy than it is to the northernmost part of Sweden?  And a journey by train makes you fully appreciate that distance (and gives you the opportunity to attempt to bathe yourself and not fall over as the train chugs around a curve).

Some website I was reading while trip planning said that Abisko is one of the places you are most likely to see the northern lights.  And on our first night there, nope, we did not see the northern lights.  Instead a storm rolled in and clouds covered most of the sky.  So there went those good odds, but we did as much exploring as we could during the semi-light hours, managed to not get too tangled up in the cross-country skis and poles, and became proud members of Svenska Turistföreningen (that is, the Swedish hiking association which ran the hotel/campground/yummy restaurant where we stayed in Abisko and was probably responsible for at least half of that village's population).

After a few days in Abisko, we moved on down to Camp Alta, a cluster of cabins on a small lake southeast of Kiruna, Sweden.  Still above the Arctic Circle, we never saw the actual sun, but the weather cleared up to give us about 4 hours of beautiful sunrise/sunset everyday and, combined with the really cold temperatures, some really cool effects from the sunlight interacting with ice crystals in the atmosphere.

AND...we saw the northern lights!  Upon arriving at Camp Alta around 4pm, we meet the lucky owner of this lovely place.  Since it's already dark at 4pm, he points towards the sky and says that he has "a good feeling about tonight".  He then leads us on a tour around the camp which includes instructions on how to get the sauna really hot and a demonstration on how to drill a hole in the lake for ice fishing.  After the tour, he points to some really faint wisps in the sky and says "oh, I think they might be starting already".  And in my head, I'm thinking "Yeah right.  You're just saying that because I came all the way up here to see the northern lights."  So we make some dinner in the communal kitchen and then end up taking a nap because, well, it's already dark out.  Waking up a few hours later, it sounds like the party is getting started in the sauna, so we get ready to head down to the lake, and WHOA...hello northern lights.  There could be no mistake.  I think I literally stopped in my tracks.

After standing awestruck for about 20 minutes, the lights started to dim, and we realized that we had been standing outside in freezing temperatures in our swimsuits but hadn't actually made it to the sauna yet.  We didn't get to test our sauna fire-building skills since someone had already taken care of that, but we did get to test our ability to handle extreme changes in temperature.  The sauna at Camp Alta is built literally on the lake.  When the lake freezes over, you can walk out on the ice to the sauna.  When you get too hot, there's a convenient trap door inside the sauna so you can jump in the barely-above-freezing lake to cool yourself down.  Just don't run into the scalding hot wood stove as you hoist yourself out of the freezing water.  (Thanks for looking out for me, David.)

Back in the cabin, we head to bed, but the silence is periodically broken by what sounds like a girl screaming somewhere outside.  I fall asleep thinking it must be someone having a traumatic experience after jumping in the lake, and it's not until the next morning that I realize that the screaming wasn't even coming from a human.  Camp Alta is also home to a pack of Alaskan and Siberian huskies, and, I didn't know this before, but when they bark, it kinda sounds like someone is dying.  We get the full experience down at the kennel when we help get the dogs ready to go out on the sleds.  And they are SO EXCITED.  We get them hooked up to the sleds, and they can barely contain themselves.  David is stomping hard down on the brake to prevent them from running away, and I'm holding on preparing myself.  You can so easily see why they are used to pull sleds because they love to run.  We take them out for a trip through the forest and take turns "driving" the sled which really just meant taking turns standing on the brake pad to stop them from wearing themselves out too fast.

The next morning we say an early goodbye to Camp Alta to check out it's much more famous neighbor across the river, the Icehotel.  That TV program that you've seen on the Travel Channel where people are drinking cocktails out of ice glasses and sleeping amidst ice sculptures in ultra-puffy sleeping bags...that's this place.  While they charge a ridiculous amount of Swedish kroner to allow you the opportunity to get a not very good night's sleep in the Icehotel, they charge a much smaller amount if you're content to only visit during the day.  Maybe this is obvious, but the whole building really is built of ice (from the nearby Torne River) and melts away every spring.  There's not really any furniture in the hotel, but artists have sculpted the ice in each room so that they have different themes.  "Show Me What You Got" had a giant peacock with LED feathers, and the "Power of Love" was setup like a power station (made of ice).  The beds are made of large blocks of ice topped with wooden frames holding thin mattresses and a reindeer skin.  If you're an overnight guest at the Icehotel, you check in at a separate heated building, store all of your stuff in a locker room, take your giant sleeping bag to your ice room, and pray you don't have to use the bathroom in the middle of the night (because there are no bathrooms in the Icehotel, only in the separate heated building with the locker room).

Since we weren't staying the night, we caught another overnight train down to Stockholm.  Due to the cheapest flights often having the longest layovers, we ended up with almost a full day to spend in Riga, Latvia as we headed from Stockholm to Berlin for New Year's Eve.  In Riga, we remembered what it was like to actually see the sun, checked out the Christmas markets still going strong, and tried the local version of Christmas spiced wine.

Berlin on New Year's Eve was just as crazy as you might expect.  Our excitement was a little subdued due to an inadvertent U-bahn ride in the wrong direction for about 30 minutes.  But we righted ourselves, picked up some walking beers, and made it to the party in plenty of time to see the streets fill up with people shooting off fireworks and the whole sky become one giant hazy cloud.

It seems a little silly to say Happy New Year in February.  So I'll just say that I hope that 2016 is treating you well so far.  We're looking forward to more adventures.

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