Our Arctic adventure was about to begin and as the saying goes, “nothing good ever comes easy.” People often comment that our family travels are so cool and adventurous and they are, don’t get me wrong, but there are many parts to our experiences and believe me, not all of them are as wonderful and smooth as one might envision, even me. Yes, we like adventure but what three of the four of us really loves is home and that can become a problem sometimes.
I have become more nostalgic since we traveled together for a year. Time seems to be moving faster, I can actually hear the clock ticking down the seconds until Grant leaves for college and the reality of being home and busy with all of the things that come with home make time slip away all that more quickly. Consequently, I was really ready to take this trip, the farther away from our life the better.
In September, I started daydreaming about our next family trip and by October I had picked Patagonia. After a little research I learned that Patagonia was really far away and the five day trek that had sounded like a lot of adventure began to seem like too much planning and too much trip to take in the two weeks that the kids had off of school (I am reasonable and I miss online school like crazy). What else to do? Scott had wanted to see the Northern Lights on our travels last year but it never happened because other things sounded better at the time. However, in my travel dry spell, all of the sudden I had a very romantic idea of watching the mystical lights dance through the sky with my family. It sounded like an unforgettable trip.
Where in the world does one see the Aurora Borealis? There are options and Scott was pushing for Northern Canada with a stop in Quebec, but that sounded so easy, so unadventurous. I decided Scandinavia, focusing on Abisko National Park in Northern Sweden and so I started researching. Every time I got discouraged I fantasized about standing in the dark and seeing something so otherworldly and beautiful for the first time together with my sweet family and on with my research I would trudge.
I picked Abisko because in 2015 it was voted the best place to see the Northern Lights in the world and it showed up on most websites about the Northern Lights. Abisko is a tiny, we’re talking 150 people in the off season (summer), town near Abisko National Park. There is not a lot of population in the area and the national park adds even more dark space, an important ingredient to seeing the lights (no light pollution). There is also a large lake that helps to keep the sky clear above since clouds in the sky obscure not only the stars, but also the Northern Lights.
Abisko is hard to get to and it’s hard to find a place to stay there since everyone else who is interested in travel and Northern Lights is trying to visit Abisko. So two things were at work at this point in my planning. I had neither expectations nor plans for Copenhagen and I had been fairly successful with that, but Copenhagen was just to get our feet wet. Now we were embarking on the Arctic Adventure part of our adventure, our opportunity to find the Aurora Borealis and experience the Polar Night and our next week was “go time.” It was to be packed with complicated travel, late nights, early mornings, wardrobe malfunctions, sick children, stoic husband, and of course life lessons. At least we eased into things with Copenhagen…
Getting to Abisko is about as easy as finding a place to stay there…not. It involves a flight to Kiruna, Sweden, and then a drive or train ride or the all night train from Stockholm. As much as I hate flying. it sounded better than the alternative and would give us the opportunity to visit the nearby Icehotel.
Disembarking on the tarmac always feels like a good adventure omen. It also felt a bit surreal and very cold three hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle in quickly fading daylight at 1:00 in the afternoon.
The airport, while gateway to Sweden’s Arctic, is tiny and the arrivals area is one small room where not all of the people from the plane fit at the same time and the revolving door from the freezing cold tarmac to the warm interior has a tendency to freeze closed. I was not worried about the fact that Grant was one of the people stuck outside (wearing only his sweatshirt) because I was focused on transportation in Kiruna, something I had not been able to figured out pre-trip. How would we get from the airport to our hotel, visit the Icehotel in Jukkasjarvi and then get to the train station the next day? I had emailed our hotel before we left home and asked that very question and the reply was to call “this” number and book a taxi. Seriously? Make an international call to book a taxi weeks in advance? I assumed (don’t do that) that we’d just get in the taxi queue at the airport.
For you dear reader, I will provide more hard to find, real world, helpful travel advice…In Kiruna, one needs to book a taxi, you don’t just stand in line at the airport. There is a phone on the wall that you pick up and punch in the numbers next to the town you want to go to and someone will answer and talk to you in English and then a taxi shows up, but will only allow you in the car if your name is on the list. After the initial taxi scramble at the airport during which Scott just gave me the “you better figure it out because I’m here, aren’t I” look and I couldn’t find one person to read the Swedish signs for me, it was easy and the way to get around. You could also rent a car if you are brave enough to drive on perpetually dark and icy roads. Here is a link to the Kiruna Airport website that lists the two taxi companies’ phone numbers Kiruna Airport Taxi Info. We used Taxi Kiruna and were impressed with the very helpful drivers.
Just outside the arrivals area and waiting for me to figure out how to get a taxi.
A visit to the Icehotel in Jukkasjärvi was a benefit of flying into Kiruna. Founded in 1989, it has been rebuilt every winter with ice from the Torne River, literally in its backyard. Construction begins when the river freezes in the Fall and then in the Spring the hotel melts back into the river. This year will be the first year that Icehotel will operate year round with ironically, the help of solar panels. The hotel is a gallery during the daytime showcasing suites created entirely with ice by artists from around the world. Visitors can wander from 10 am to 6 pm exploring the different suites, hallways, Ice Bar and ethereal Ice Chapel. There are also short and informative tours of the main areas. By night, the gallery becomes a hotel with both warm rooms and cold rooms where you sleep in an ice room on ice mattresses.
As adventurous as it sounds, we didn’t stay at the Icehotel because to me staying in an ice room sounded too much like camping. Only a couple of the cold rooms have attached bathrooms and trekking to the public bathrooms in the middle of the Arctic night sounded like torture. I was curious though and just so you know, it is much more expensive to freeze your ass off all night than to book one of the warm rooms.
The doors to the Ice Chapel
This is your basic ice room.
An art suite
My favorite art suite filled with cold jelly fish and I will tell you that sitting on the reindeer skins was the only time my butt was warm for the hour or so that we looked around. And some practical travel advice, wear all your warm clothes to visit the Icehotel. I made the rookie mistake (we’d only been in the Arctic for a few hours after all) of assuming that I wouldn’t get cold walking around for an hour. I was wrong.
It was exciting to finally be in Kiruna. I felt like I had arrived at the juicy part in the book or at least the adventurous part of our trip. Although Kiruna is not the best place to see lights, it is still in Northern Lights territory. Our only night in Kiruna, Scott woke up a little past midnight checked his phone for activity and went for a walk.
He found a park with hiking trails and minimal light pollution, saw the lights and came back to wake me up and get the camera. The camera was in the kids’ room and in the process of finding it, they woke up and it turned into a family adventure. We threw layers of clothing on in our half asleep, still jet-lagged state and ventured out into the night for a long walk and our first faint glimpse (except for Ashley who had been lucky enough to see them from the airplane window on our way to Copenhagen).
One of the things that I both admire and appreciate about Scott is his ability to be in the moment. When he’s into something, he is full throttle and that usually translates into adventure and often times, adventure during the hours of the day that require Herculean effort. I can’t count the number of times I have been up walking or driving someplace in the middle of the night pulled from a sound slumber in a deliciously warm bed to look at the sky. This behavior started early in our marriage. In Australia on our honeymoon, we stretched out on a dam somewhere in the middle of nowhere to watch a meteor shower, only to make a run for the car when we heard gun shots echoing around us. A couple of years later in a new mother haze, I nursed Grant in the back of the truck parked off of a random dirt road somewhere in California, watching stars fall through the very early morning sky. There is also the hiking, bushwhacking, foreign public transportation forays and on and on that he enjoys sinking his teeth into. I grumble sometimes, I don’t go sometimes, but I always love that part of him.
Our first Northern Lights photo op!
Notice the time on the building above Ashley and I on our walk…that is a very cold 2:49 am!
It was fun to be wandering around the town in the middle of the night and it looked quite pretty with the colored houses and glowing street lights.
The night was short and we were at the train stop in Kiruna by 9:00 am to get the train to Abisko. I’ll just take a moment to mention here that this day would mark the first full day of a week in the Arctic during the Polar Night and the second day that Ashley was not feeling quite right (notice the eyes). When I planned our trip, I generously allotted four days in Copenhagen to recover from a busy Fall, finals for Grant and jet lag for all of us. For our week “up North,” I scheduled as many fun winter activities as possible for a variety of well thought out reasons: we’d just had four days of downtime (written a bit sarcastically), who knew if we’d ever be back, there are many things to do that you can’t do most places and what else were we going to do with minimal daylight and a lot of snow? I didn’t want to sit in our room all day picking our noses and staring at each other.
It was inside the train stop that I learned how either interesting the town of Kiruna is or how well advertised the town is from the very informative murals on the wall behind my family. Kiruna lies between two mountains, Luossavaara and Kiirunavaara and is home to the world’s largest underground iron ore mine. Iron ore was discovered in the area in the late 1600s. By 1890, KLAB mining company had been formed, and a decade later in 1900, the town of Kiruna was founded. Large scale mining became possible in 1903 with the inauguration of the Iron Ore Line from Kiruna to Narvik (we would ride the line to Abisko and then to Narvik a few days later). For over 100 years now, iron ore from the mine in Kiruna has been transported along this railway north to the ice-free port in Narvik, Norway. Currently, each of the twelve daily trains on the Ore Line delivers 8,600 tons of iron ore to the harbor in Narvik.
Besides interesting history, Kiruna offers both summer and winter activities. There are seven months in which Kiruna has more daylight hours than Stockholm. In the summer the Midnight Sun gives one plenty of time to check out Kebnekaise, the highest peak in Sweden, while traversing Kungsleden, Sweden’s longest hiking trail. There are 6,000 lakes and seven major rivers. In the winter, there is skiing, ice fishing, and many other outdoor activities requiring a lot clothing. You can also visit the Sami, the indigenous tribe of Lapland and meet their crazy reindeer. Kiruna also boasts the Institute of Space Physics in case that interests you. And all along I had only focused on the nearby Icehotel! We spent less than 24 hours in Kiruna, but maybe it’s worth a little more time and there is that fabulous taxi service to get you where you want to go.
The train ride from Kiruna to Abisko is about ninety minutes long. It was snowing and windy for most of the trip and it really felt like we were riding through the Arctic. There are two stops in Abisko, in town and a couple of miles north at the Mountain Station in Abisko National Park. At this second stop, one gets off of the train (above) and tromps through an empty snow-covered parking lot, under an overpass, and across the off ramp (after looking both ways carefully) from the highway and then up the access road to get to the hotel. It’s about a ten minute walk because it is slippery, mostly uphill and you’re carrying luggage.
Across the highway and railroad tracks, a view of the STF Abisko Mountain Station where we stayed for three nights.
The Mountain Station has a few options. These are the cabins where we stayed…rustic but good enough and better (in my own humble opinion) than sharing bathrooms/showers in the hostel part of the property. That is Lake Torneträsk in the background, one of the largest lakes in Sweden, that supposedly helps to create the clear skies for optimal Aurora Borealis viewing in the area. Ironically, the weather was so bad most of the time we were there that it took me until the day we were leaving to actually see the lake from our cabin.
This is the main building where the WiFi lives and Grant spent a lot of time working on an application to a summer film school program at NYU. (He got in!)
I planned our first activity, a snow shoe hike (in a blizzard, which was not planned) for a few hours after we arrived. We hiked to the top of a hill overlooking the town of Abisko. Our guide told us that this is the place where the residents of Abisko congregate to roast sausages, drink lingonberry juice and welcome the sun back into the sky in January.
It had been snowing most of the day and the snow was quickly piling up covering animal tracks (hoping for moose, but finding Arctic Hare instead) and our tracks, but it wasn’t cold. In fact, by the time we were half way up the mountain I had unzipped my jacket and was sweating under all of the layers. In the few hours we had been in Abisko, we had heard a lot about the weather. There had been snow and then a sudden melt and then rain. We came with the storm that had the locals smiling and talking about how maybe the weather would finally settle down and do what it was supposed to do.
Our guide talked about the fragile ecosystem of the snow. Because of the climate, there is a lot of low growing, brush-type foliage. These plants create a scaffolding for the snow, allowing for a layer of air and small animals, like rodents, to live under the snow. With rain or early thawing, the precious layer of air collapses, killing all of the rodents. This in turn creates a deadly domino affect up the food chain. Our guide said that there would be a lot of hungry animals in the spring because many of the rodents were killed with the thaw. She said that it was climate change…”unless you ask Trump.” And then she half-halfheartedly apologized to us, the only Americans in the group. That turned into our brief, but increasingly practiced…”No need to apologize to us…we are the ones who are sorry.”
We drank warm lingonberry juice and admired the lights of the tiny town below. No longer protected by the mountain (if you could call it that) the wind and blowing snow cooled us off a little too quickly.
Our hike down was cold and dark with a lot of snow, but felt fun and adventurous. Grant and I above…remember it is early afternoon in all of these pictures!
Dinner on our first night was reindeer! It is very tender, tasty, prepared many different ways in Lapland and even healthy which we learned a little bit later in our trip. I joked to a tough audience (my family) that it was reindeer meat for dinner and tomorrow it would be reindeer meet!
Our first night in Abisko I had booked a “Photo Adventure Tour.” These types of tours are very popular in the area and take all different forms but the goal is the same, to capture the magic of the Northern Lights with your camera. Our tour was a small group, maybe ten people. We suited up in our warm clothes and climbed into snow mobile drawn sleighs for a ride out into the dark, semi-wilderness. It was still snowing and blowing, but the forecast was calling for clearer skies later that night and I get the feeling that the tours go out no matter what. It did feel like wilderness when the guides lost the trail because of the accumulation of snow and we were stuck for about twenty minutes in the blowing snow while the snow mobile captain unhitched from the sleigh and went to look for the trail. This trail was especially important because it led to a heavy duty, tent-like structure warmed with a powerful wood burning stove. The structure provided a warm place to sit and thaw out frozen fingers and toes. Of course, it was convenient to pop back outside if the light activity increased.
The skies cleared and the lights made an appearance. It was so quiet and the stars sparked above. For us, it seemed spectacular.
The guides were great, helping everyone with camera settings and distributing warm lingonberry juice and Swedish pastries. Grant had fun drawing with his headlamp. Ashley’s not quite feeling right had turned into full blown sickness by this time and she was miserable. I split my time trying to comfort her and playing in the snow with Grant. We finished up around midnight, a very full half day.
The next day in Abisko we were up early for breakfast and then into a van for our Sami Culture Reindeer Farm experience. The photo above was our view as we drove the seventy minutes (I really need to remember to start checking travel times) to the reindeer farm. This is what daytime looks like during the Polar Night. The Polar Night exists inside the polar circles and during the winter (for the Arctic Circle) the sun stays below the horizon twenty four hours a day for months depending on how far north you go. In Kiruna, the polar night lasts about one calendar month, by the time you get to Abisko it’s a little longer and farther north in Tromso, Norway, it lasts about forty five days. At the North Pole there is 24 hour darkness for eleven weeks.
The colors in the sky are different than anything I have seen. Everything looks a little bit blue, maybe because it’s so cold.
I knew our days in Abisko would be busy but I thought a reasonable busy. I had not planned though for how much time and effort it takes to dress and undress and keep track of all of the clothes that a person needs to stay comfortable. You also have to be diligent about hanging items near heaters so they dry out overnight. In addition, it is necessary to be aware of levels of Kleenex, chap stick and hand warmers at all times and don’t forget all of the camera gear, headlamps and extra batteries that must be wrangled as well. And you still need to carry water because the cold weather can be very dry. Maybe it’s not a big deal traveling alone or with another adult, but when traveling with children, just add an extra hour (at least) per activity and save some of your travel budget for counseling when you get home. I was on the kids constantly to find their clothes, hang them up, put them on or take them off. I swear someone was always looking for a glove or a sock and the kids eventually tuned my nagging out completely. It drove Scott crazy. He couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t just let them forget something and suffer the consequences and I couldn’t understand why he couldn’t understand that if they were miserable I couldn’t enjoy myself and here is where my life lesson for the trip started taking shape.
I had been holding on to this trip like a life raft. I couldn’t wait for just the four of us together again and adventuring into the sunset (literally, we had hours of sunset with the Polar Nights). All through the days of long carpools, homework and offspring activity laden months of September and October and November and December, I looked to my shining beacon of light, the two weeks of winter break that we would fly off into the world once again. If you read the Copenhagen blog, (Copenhagen for Christmas) you will already know that I was the only one who wanted to go adventuring for winter break. I hate to admit this, but we’d even had a family vote, which I eventually over rode in a moment of desperation…it shames me to say so.
Selfish, that is what I was being, but I didn’t care. In fact, I deserved to be selfish, I relished the new feeling, it was empowering. If the kids got public school and their friends most of the year, then I deserved travel and their attention for a two measly weeks. I felt like a new person as I hit the confirm purchase button for those mostly unwanted plane tickets. I really thought that once we had left the cloying environment of middle school and high school, the excitement of new things would drown out all of the other stuff, but it didn’t. Regardless, I was resolute in my new found freedom from “making everyone happy” and so I ignored the lukewarm enthusiasm from my family during our time in Copenhagen. In all fairness, their enthusiasm came and went, there were moments that they were totally into it, but it was not often that everyone was excited at the same time. I may have been ignoring their mild discontent, but I knew it was there and I didn’t really care. I was happy. I was excited and enjoying seeing new things. I thought that they would come around, their uncaring hearts thawed by my enthusiasm and good humor if I was just patient enough. By the time we arrived in Abisko, Ashley was thoroughly sick, Grant was stuck with his family and moody (which never happens), Scott was speaking in one word paragraphs and my resolve was beginning to get a little fragile. I was starting to feel like a selfish travel bully.
So here we were on day two at the reindeer farm with our host Nils, a Sami Reindeer herder. The Sami people are an indigenous group of people living in the Arctic. There are groups in Norway, Finland and Russia as well as Sweden and reindeer husbandry is an important part of their history and culture. The Sami are the only indigenous people of Scandinavia recognized and protected under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but they still struggle with rights and prejudices. Farmers have taken them to court over grazing rights for years as the Sami have unlimited grazing rights for their reindeer and farmers think the grazing ruins the land. Nils has traveled to the United States to meet with the Sioux in the Dakotas to discuss the rights of native peoples.
First we were encouraged to catch a reindeer and lead it out of the pen to get harnessed up to the sled. Yes, Ashley was the first person of the group to catch one of these sharp prong-wielding, skittish creatures. She was sick, had been very droopy all morning but now with a challenge ahead she was not only not intimidated, but totally into it. Nils had warned us all a couple of times to beware of the antlers because they are big and dangerous and the reindeer were not calm to say the least.
I halfheartedly attempted to catch one, but they were stampeding back and forth across the pen, so I let myself out and volunteered to learn how to put the harness on one that had been professionally caught and was standing quietly. That was terrifying too, but at least I looked like I was participating.
Meanwhile Nils starts talking about the actual sledding part of the day. He said, “Remember these are animals and you are doing this at your own risk.” I thought of all of the pieces of paper I have signed for myself and my kids over the years stating that very sentiment and here in the middle of nowhere with medical facilities accessible only by helicopter, my babies were excited to be turned loose attached to a wild, knife-topped beast. Nils went on to explain the reindeer in vehicle terms; there were the safe, family friendly, Volvo type reindeer and then there were the Ferrari versions.
Let’s pause the story for a moment. I began this blog with the shocking truth that everything is not always as it seems because well, I don’t want to make anyone feel the way I do after perusing Facebook. These moments that I am sharing are, yes cool experiences, but not always easy or graceful, shall we say. Scott and the kids are exhausted and either sick or getting sick and remember Scott is speaking in one word paragraphs. The Abisko Mountain Station had a major plumbing problem overnight and the hotel was without water when we woke up way too early. Translated, that means no showers, limited toilet functionality and very little coffee all much too early after being up really late (or very early depending on how you want to look at it) on a very cold Northern Lights tour. I have just been introduced to psychopath creatures topped with razor sharp chandeliers and now my children will be sitting helplessly behind them.
As Nils our host is explaining the “brakes” on these “vehicles” I am both furiously and desperately whispering to Scott, “Ashley cannot go behind the race car!” Simultaneously, Ashley showing interest in life for the first time in two days, is jumping up and down saying, “I want the Ferrari!” At this moment Scott sweetly says to me as only a jet lagged, semi-ill and really grumpy husband can, “This was your idea. You brought her here. You can’t tell her no now.” And as only a mother about to watch her baby fly off behind a reindeer can, I practically spit the words, “Fine, you take the pictures then because I’m not watching.” See, it’s not all glamorous travel and harmonious adventure.
Scott volunteered to take the first ride behind the family station wagon.
One needs to know how to encourage forward movement as well as put the brakes on. Don’t let this video clip fool you. This was not the norm.
Ashley wanted the race car…of course
The reindeer run around a fenced-in track. The directions are to lean into the curves and pull the rope to stop. The faster the ride, the more leaning and pulling . I couldn’t watch Ashley go, but now this particular photo cracks me up. The black thing along the left bottom corner is Nil’s arm. He is putting himself in the path of the reindeer to get it to stop. At least Ashley listened to the pull and lean!
Not to be outdone by his little sister, Grant had to have the race car too. Nils runs along side the reindeer to get the motor headed in the right direction and then hands off the brakes to the driver.
That looks like some professional reindeer driving to me.
This video is a clip of Grant finishing the loop and getting the reindeer stopped all by himself.
Then there was the reindeer that was wild and needed expert driving but, “Who wants to go along in the sled?” You guessed it!
I did not want to go with a reindeer by myself. I am a big chicken, but Nils made sure I got a turn after he and Ashley got the wild reindeer calmed down.
This is a traditional Sami Lavvu which Nils and his family still use in the summer when they take the reindeer to graze in the mountains. In the winter his kids live in Kiruna and go to school. On this day, it was where Nils and his son prepared our delicious lunch of stewed reindeer meat served in a tortilla-like wrap called Gáhkko with veggies and Lingonberry jam. Nils explained how surprisingly nutritious reindeer meat is, being comparable to fish for omega-3 fatty acids, you know the “good fat.” Because of the harsh winter climate, the reindeer lose most of their fat each winter and spend the spring and summer regaining it. This results in lean, mild tasting meat that is free from years of fat build-up.
After a couple hours of cold reindeer handling, it was nice to be in the warmish lavvu. Nils talked about the history and religion of the Sami, the importance of the reindeer and his reasons for hosting tours at his reindeer farm. He said it is difficult to make a living with just the reindeer and so he began slowly experimenting with tourism as a way to supplement his income. It didn’t take long for him to realize that through tourism he could educate his guests about the Sami culture, learn about other indigenous peoples in the world and hopefully make a difference. He said he enjoyed meeting people from all over the world and invited us to ask him questions.
The fireside chat was interesting and good “people watching.” We were the only Americans and the other guests were from Great Britain, China, Singapore, and Taiwan. While the groups from China and Singapore were the largest and had been very enthusiastic with the reindeer and picture taking, inside the lavuu they became quiet. There was one man that was very outspoken about the injustices against the Sami. He told us that in Taiwan there are seats in the Legislative Yuan reserved for indigenous peoples so that their interests are represented in the government. He knew a lot about the government in Taiwan and tried to convince Nils to go to his government with this idea of representation. And then he told us that he used to be Minister of Education in Taiwan…I guess he knew what he what he was talking about.
Remember the budding travel bully? Well, she had scheduled an authentic Swedish sauna (pronounced SOW-NUH) near Lake Torneträsk. Maybe we wouldn’t go completely authentic in our birthday suits with our teenagers, but it would be nice to relax in a warm place without a million layers of wool. One of the guides had been talking about going in a sauna and how nice it is, especially if you go outside and roll around in snow or take a dip in the frigid lake. I wasn’t planning on that, but I also wasn’t expecting the short “walk” from the lodge to be a mile long hike. The cute warm looking building at the edge of the lake was adorable and a nice walk, especially since we had given the kids the option to skip this activity and stay in the cabin. They happily chose the non activity and we all happily had some non family time.
Of course it was an adventure. I didn’t know the first thing about taking a sauna and thought it might be a good idea to put a gallon of water on the rocks. I was thinking humid like a tropical rain forest, but it just got really hot really fast. It was funny though and such a pretty little house. It really was and other people obviously thought so too. We were sitting in the hot room part of the building when we heard talking outside. A couple was walking around the house talking and taking photos…forever. They even settled in with their tripod and took picture after picture. And then they got friendly and knocked on the door and asked us what the little house was and why we were in it.
And an added bonus…when we had retraced all of our steps (one mile’s worth) and were reunited with our children, my water bottle was no longer in the side pocket of my backpack. It was a very nice water bottle that I had purchased just for the trip, but more than that it was the principle of losing the water bottle that I had to face. My kids have lost a million water bottles, jackets, goggles, towels, shoes, you name it and they have lost it and I am usually not that sympathetic and I make them, “at least go look again” and if warranted, “you can ride your bike, because I’m not driving.” I want to be a good parent and I do not want to deserve the title of “hypocrite” and so I told the family that I would meet them for dinner because I was going to go back to the little cabin to look for my lost water bottle. I’m going to make this long story bearable…I chickened out half a mile down the dark and snowy trail because it was really dark and isolated and I was certain that the boogeyman was out there so I did the smart thing and turned around. After dinner I begged Scott to walk back with me and his response was, “Is the water bottle worth it?” Well, of course it is in principle. We walked back to the cabin after dinner (he was still speaking in one word paragraphs) and it wasn’t there and we didn’t find it along the trail. So, the moral of the story is that there was a boogieman and instead of getting me, he has my really nice water bottle. But at least I went back to “look again” and even though I may be a travel bully, I am definitely not a hypocrite.
Dog sledding was the only daytime (more on the night time activity later) activity I scheduled on our last day in Abisko and we didn’t need to be organized and bundled up and ready to go until a blissfully late 1:00 pm! Sounds great right? I was so looking forward to sleeping in and getting up to a leisurely breakfast with more than two hurriedly gulped cups of coffee or just one cup of coffee because all of the pipes froze and water was being slowly melted to make more. That was not to be as I woke up at 11:00 and then had to motivate everyone, myself included, to get out of bed for another cold adventure. We made it though.
Sled dogs are friendly, excited about doing what they love, and loud. It was obvious that these dogs were very well taken care of. The handler in charge of their health talked about the special high calorie diet they are fed and the constant monitoring of their paws because different snow conditions can cause sore feet and require different treatments. These teams go out twice a day during a very busy day, but usually it’s just one trip.
The dogs love attention and must be social to be a successful sled dog. Ashley gives them some love before we start off on our adventure.
The sled dogs looked nothing like I had expected. I was thinking hulking Siberian Husky, blues eyes and lots of hair but these dogs are slender like a marathon runner and look like a mutt. One of the handlers told me that pure Siberian Huskies often do not have the social skills to get along with other dogs on the team. Modern sled dogs are generally a mixed-breed and referred to as Alaskan Huskies. They are bred for endurance, strength, speed, tough feet, desire to pull in a harness and attitude. Sled dogs need a great attitude to work as a team and listen to the commands of the musher.
The dogs are so loud but the incessant barking stops as soon as they begin to run and they do everything on the run from taking a potty break to grabbing a cooling bite of snow, all mid-stride.
I was nervous about the sledding. The conditions were icy and the ride was going to be fast with less control than usual on the slick trails. We went out with one other team and rode a taller style of sled that required us to know where our feet and knees were at all times (don’t want a tree branch grabbing and twisting your knee) and the four of us had to lean together with the bends in the trail to keep from tipping over. Once we got started though it was so much fun and so different from anything I had experienced that I stopped being afraid and just enjoyed it.
We rode the sled through the quiet twilight for about thirty minutes and then stopped to give the dogs a break. It was warm by the dogs’ standards and they rolled in the snow and panted to cool off.
Our musher was sweet enough to take this picture but she did all of the driving.
We crossed a lake after our rest stop. The dim landscape is surreal and you feel like you have become part of it sliding along behind the dogs. It feels strange knowing that you are on ice in the middle of a very cold lake, but our guide assured us that the ice is checked for thickness and the trail is marked by sticks frozen in the ice which she pointed out as we passed them.
We finished our dog sledding adventure with all of our knees intact and were driven back to our temporary abode. I had one more activity planned for our Abisko adventure and that was a trip to the Aurora Sky Station on top of Mount Nuolja (our night activity!). I am still bitter, I will admit and with that prejudice I write the next paragraph all in the interest of helpful travel information.
In 2015, Lonely Planet listed the Aurora Sky Station as the number one place to see the Northern Lights in the world. After a rickety (only what I read, since I didn’t get to do it) chairlift ride to the 3,000 foot summit you will find the Aurora Sky Station which includes a cafe, souvenir shop, look-out tower and Northern Lights exhibition. There are guided tours, talks and trails for you to wander on your own and of course, shelter in which to warm up. The light pollution is negligible, the view incredible and the ticket price, painful. But, I wasn’t planning on doing it again and we had traveled a long way to get there. I read a lot of reviews that were mixed and the disclaimer that shouts, “NO REFUNDS UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES!” But the good reviews were good and regardless it would be an adventure and there was a back up plan if the Sky Station was closed for any reason.
I couldn’t get tickets. They were sold out, but I kept going back to the website and checking over and over and finally I found four tickets! I was so excited, it would be the icing (literally) on the cake called Abisko. To the point and unfortunately, the Aurora Sky Station was closed the entire time we were in Abisko because of high winds and icy conditions. The back up plan or “Aurora Lounge” was horrible, a very long dinner which we finally gave up on half way through and a presentation which we skipped as well. It was a painful, expensive and bitter pill to swallow. Of course, I wrote a number of fair, polite and honest reviews as well as responded to two surveys from the Mountain Station which is affiliated with the Sky Station. I never got a response but the thing that really sucks is that if you don’t buy your tickets before you go, you probably won’t get lucky enough to snag unsold tickets if the conditions are good. I don’t even know what to advise, besides reminding you that if the skies are clear and the lights are visible, you don’t have to be on the top of Mount Nuolja to see the show. In fact, there is a quiet and secluded trail down to the lake which would make for good viewing that I am well acquainted with.
Our very long dinner waiting and hoping that the conditions would change and we would get to visit the Aurora Sky Station.
And so on the fourth day we re-layered our bodies in wool and set out once again for the train stop to catch the train to Narvik, Norway, and another adventure… but you’ll just have to read the next blog to find out how that one turned out.
If this was a real travel blog, I would say Abisko is great if you want to feel like you’re getting an authentic Arctic experience, because you actually are, short of moving there and becoming a guide (I’d totally be a snowshoe guide for a season). There are a few guest houses and the Mountain Station. There are no grocery stores yet, but one is opening soon and the pub in town just closed after being open for a few months. There are lots of tours, but they have a very personalized feel and very few souvenirs, but you can purchase the important warm weather paraphernalia in the gift shop at the Mountain Station, like gloves when your daughter leaves hers on the reindeer bus and a new thermos if you loose yours on the way to the sauna. If you want a personal, but maybe not polished Arctic wilderness experience, Abisko is your next Arctic destination.
Travel makes me a better, more honest person. Being out of one’s comfort zone can shed some harsh light on things , light that seems to shine right down to the core of one’s being. Even in the deep, dark Polar Night, that light of self reflection can shine pretty brightly and some of it is familiar and some is not. One (I’m talking about myself here obviously) can try on a different identity (travel bully, anyone?) and see if it fits, if it feels comfortable. Regardless of the fit, trying on something that was not my style (not yoga pants, a cozy sweater and ponytail, but instead high heel, over-the-knee boots and fabulous leather pants and maybe even platinum highlights) was good for me because doing something that inspires me, even though it’s hard (on so many levels) forces me to grow.
The truth of it is that I did strong arm them all into this trip I wanted. They were all (my three year old included) sick and homesick and just tired and truly probably in need of just hanging out at home for our Winter Break. I was straight up selfish and self-serving and it was really hard sometimes when they were really grumpy and mad at me. I often will defer the decisions to them because I don’t want to be in the position of dealing with the fall out from a bad decision, but this time I took it all on and the results at the time were challenging and the week was already long and only half way over so I still had miles to go. But and it’s a big but, I was still having an adventure and it was otherworldly and interesting in the Arctic and I felt alive and excited and confident that someday they would thank me and it would be a beautiful and certainly multidimensional memory. And the biggest life lesson of all for me was that my family still loved me, even if I drug them out of what could have been a very cozy and lazy little California hibernation and into the wild, cold and wonderful Polar Night in search of the Northern Lights!