In the entry about the trip to Greenland I quoted a
line from a short story: "If I could freeze frame
my life, it would have been then."
After this trip, I am no longer sure where I would
like to freeze.
The first part of the trip was for a meeting in Luleå in the north of sweden. The social event for the meeting turned out to be a snowmobile trip. (There's even an article about it.) I had been on a snowmobile safari once before (about a month earlier to the north of Helsinki, Finland), which was fun, but it was purely 'follow the leader'. The organizer of the trip drove in front, and I had to follow his pace, so there was not much chance of 'fooling around' with the snowmobile. This time it started similar, with the tour guide driving in front and us following single file. But then we came across a frozen lake, and the tour guide stopped near the shore and announced that he'd put up a tent at the shore and make some coffee, and that we were free to take the snowmobiles and drive around as we liked, as long we didn't leave the lake. So we had the chance to race across the lake (which was sufficiently large) for more than one and a half hour. The snowmobiles did do about 50 miles per hour (we assumed that they were tuned down for tourists - someone was clever enough to take the tour guide's snow mobile and he easily overtook us all), which fast enough to be a fun speed. In addition to that there was a street across the lake (since the local inhabitants figured that it would be easier in the winter to drive across the lake than around it) and they had plowed the snow from the street. Not so deep that the ice became visible, but sufficient to keep a smooth and even surface on the road. As a side effect there were heaps of snow beside the 'road', which we could use to jump over with the snowmobiles (after just rushing up and down the lake became boring).
All probably not very exciting stuff for people from countries in the north, but it was a lot of fun for me.
But the really interesting stuff started to take roots in the evening. We had dinner with some colleagues from Sweden, and one of them told us that there was a thing called 'ice hotel' further to the north, close to Kiruna. It's a hotel made from snow and ice that gets rebuild every winter and is closed down in early may when it starts melting. So two of us decided that this would be an interesting place to be and (with a lot of invaluably helpful support from the swedish members of the project) rented a car and a suite at the hotel for the next day.
So after the meeting was over in the afternoon, we drove the about 280 miles from Luleå to Jukkasjärvi, the small village near Kiruna, where the ice hotel is located. We did a short photo stop at the arctic circle (crawling over fairly deep snow to take our photos at the sign) and continued to Kiruna, roughly 150 miles north of the arctic circle. We expected only some sort of large igloo, with youth hostel type of sleeping facilities, more or less just something simple so that tourists would be able to say that they slept in an ice building. We were more than a bit surprised! What they actually build there is really a hotel made from snow and ice. They have four large rooms, two themed suites, one honeymoon suite, six 'single rooms' (which are, admittedly just large holes in the ice where you can put your sleeping bag), a sauna (ok, that one is not made from ice. but it is completely surrounded by it and seems to be well insulated), a changing room, a reception room, a large main hall with a bar and a cinema. Outside the main hotel there is a small chapel, which is also build from ice and snow. [The day we were there, they had a wedding in there.]
The rooms all had furniture made from ice, even the beds were carved from ice and had reindeer skins to sleep on. (In case you are wondering: If you book a room there, the management provides you with a thermo-suit, warm boots, gloves, a fur cap and a polar proof sleeping bag to spent the night in. The temperature in the hotel is was about -5 degree celsius.) I won't describe the interior here - after all, that's what the pictures are there for!
There's one special thing I'd like to mention: The northern lights. I always wanted to see them, but my books said they were uncommon at that time of year, so I didn't expect to see them. So I was very pleasantly surprised when I went out at night to go to the toilet (in case you're wondering about that: no, the ice hotel doesn't have any, so "yellow snow" jokes are inappropriate here; the toilets are little wooden houses outside the ice building) and I did see a large green curtain of light reaching and racing across the sky. Imagine this together with the full moon, a shooting star flaring up and the Hale-Bopp comet visible in one corner of the sky and you may get an idea how fantastic it looked (unfortunately you have to imagine it, since I didn't have a tripod and the night photographs haven't come out as amazing looking as reality did that night - still, you may get the idea). Only when I got back I remembered that about two weeks earlier there was a newspaper article about a satellite (Helios?) detecting an unusually large sun flare heading towards earth, so it seems like that was the reason for the high visibility of northern lights in late april.
On the way back we even managed to catch sight of a reindeer. Not really unusual in the north of Sweden, but I hadn't seen one in the wild before, so it impressed me, even though most people from northern countries will probably find it about as amazing as if someone would tell me here that he had seen a swallow flying.
All in all it was a very memorable trip and one of my most cherished experiences.