Norway – Sweden Trip (Feb 2019)

Abisko -> Kiruna [actually Jukkasjärvi] (21/02/2019)

We had a nice leisurely start to the day, with our porridge oats in a cup that we had found back in Tromsø pairing nicely with fresh blueberries and hot black currant cordial. We then went down to the lake to become Arctic explorers ourselves, traversing the expanse over to one of the islands. The stark loneliness as we walked across the ice and snow conjured images of Polar expeditions and it was freaking awesome. I felt so alive and the cold air hurt my lungs as I breathed in. The views were worth it and it felt like a mini adventure all in itself.

We left plenty of time to have a hot chocolate and some gingerbread biscuits before going to the station and getting the train. Those trains don’t hang about (no transport seems to hang about), with everyone frantic to get on board. The train pulled away from the station on time, while I was still waiting for a chance to put my bags on a rack. The journey was short and we watched the scenery speed past as I caught up on some blog writing and Katherine plied me with brown cheese and ham sandwiches.

Kiruna provides a free shuttle bus service from the temporary train station to the central bus station and we both rolled our eyes at the tourists unable and unwilling to carry their suitcases up the flight of steps to the bus. If you can’t carry it yourself, you shouldn’t have it! With time to kill for the #501 bus onwards we found a cafe up the hill (Katherine didn’t slip) to top up our hot chocolate quota for the day, pairing it with a fresh cream bun, with some marzipan goo inside for good measure. Expect to see this on a GBBO in the future.

We checked in to the IceHotel and were provided with boiler suits, space boots, little hats and giant mittens. Suitably dressed for a mission to the moon, we made it over in time for a tour of the hotel. We were given dozens of interesting facts and the sheer marvel of the construction was more prominent after the talk. We were then guided to the Ice365, a hotel section now open 365 days of the year, with snice (snow and ice mixture) compacted around a permanent structure and kept at -5* all year round by a massive array of solar panels.

We then went exploring the rooms by ourselves, with the designs just breathtaking. Some of the artists have never worked with ice before and have just proposed the ideas to the rooms, while some are clearly a dab hand at working with this raw material and showcase their talents in inconceivable fashions. Like, how on earth did someone think to create a staircase out of ice, and get it completed in the two week allotted time. Bonkers!

Cutting it tight on time again, we got back for the briefing on how to sleep in the cold rooms and frankly it was dragged out a bit. I think it was self explanatory that you wear your pyjamas, run to bed and get in to your sleeping bag. In the morning run back to the hotel. And pray that you don’t need the loo in the night.

With dinner we opted for the 3 course à la carte rather than the Ice Dinner Experience. So, with porcelain plates instead of ice, we had a meal that will make it in to our top 10, maybe top 5 ever. Sven, Katherine’s main dish of reindeer, was the star of the evening with food envy being evident across the table with my Artic Char.

We layered up a bit more to go out looking for the northern lights and we couldn’t get to a darker area quick enough to start photographing the display in all their brilliance. Setting up the main camera wrong (again), the iPhone with it’s £1.99 app seemed to be capturing images with the settings I wanted. It was spectacular. To see the Aurora borealis once was special, this was a treat.

We both lost feeling to our extremities, the temperature now at -26* (we shared a taxi to the airport with someone that said it finally dropped to -33*) and retreated to the fire in the main lobby to regain conscience and dexterity. We did one more jaunt outside and had a brief glimpse of the lights once more. Another respite in the lobby, this time bagging a spot by the fire, we were finally thawing out, camera lens defrosted and ready to call it a night when the receptionist shouted at everyone present to go outside as there was a massive display. Chasing her outside, the whole complex was abuzz with activity with people running to the river to get to a darker spot for photos. We were just crouching to the ground or huddling by the warm window panes and trying to get any shots of this incredible display. The dancing and flickering across the sky was incomprehensible and then the green hues, vibrant in their contrast to the black starry night, turned to pink and yellow and meandered across the sky with a rhythmic wave action until it faded back to green and disappeared. The show, for there is no other word for it, let us humbled and in awe of the natural phenomenon. We went to bed buzzing, which probably isn’t the best thing when you’re trying to sleep at -5*C.

Thursday, 21st February 2019

Norway – Sweden Trip (Feb 2019)

Narvik -> Abisko (20/02/2019)

The alarms went off during the night, but there was nothing visible over the city. However, upon reflection, there may have been something there, maybe even several nights and we wouldn’t have known how to spot it. The morning alarm went off and I was awake immediately, web-chatting with the train company and checking the road works progress online. The explanations we got were not very clear so we headed to the station in a hope that the replacement bus service would indeed take us onwards.

The bus did turn up and we motored out of the city, up the hill and ground to a halt. We were in a holding queue for 1hr 20min as the approaching convoy cleared and we had our opportunity to go. The bus stopped in a ray of sunshine and the heat melted the ice off the windows, with twisted formations cracking and sliding down the glass. The view was quite special with the moving sun casting different shadows on an untouched area of wilderness.

The wind turbines we passed were frozen or perhaps turned off for the winter and the blockage that had shut the road for so long, was still so tight that the right hand side of the bus scraped through. We made a few minor detours to pick up passengers from other stations but gradually made our way to Abisko. The bus stop was crowded with people desperate to get on and to Kiruna, with only space for a fraction to come aboard. One lucky passenger to get on was the French tour guide who got a taxi back at Narvik to try and get all the way to Kiruna. Not sure why she only got this far, we received a sheepish smile as she took seat, probably upset at the cost of her transport and still nowhere near her destination and clients.

The driver took onboard 4x more passengers to replace the four of us disembarking at Abisko proper and they were in our seats like greyhounds out of a trap. We checked in, wrapped up warm, out on the provided boiler suits and went ice-fishing. SPOILER ALERT: we caught fish. Jacob had a wicked sense of humour and drove us to a spot he was hoping would reap better rewards. But, the snowfall was so heavy he struggled to see the bottom of the lake in his hole or the food that would attract fish to the area.

He drilled 3x holes and we lay or knelt in our area, tiny gnome fishing rods jerking up and down in a peculiar fashion to attract the fish. What should them be a case of watching down the hole for passing fish and varying the rhythmic action of the bait, was a bit more pot luck than skill. But, there was no luck involved when Katherine felt a nibble, patiently waited and struck her catch to haul up a beautiful Arctic Charr. Jacob quickly de-hooked the little fella and Kat returned him before the cold shocked him.

With no luck for our esteemed guide, he suggested we try another site, so we did. The area, much shallower, meant I was able to watch my lure over the lake bed. The approaching monster gauged up the treat, I waited patiently and struck when appropriate. I caught a fish, ice-fishing, start to finish and he too was returned unscathed (but fed) to the water.

We bought supplies at the market to cook a nice pasta, but we’re both craving more vegetables than were on offer. We stumbled around the pokey kitchen and wolfed down our food, anticipation rising to the evening ahead. We layered up even more than before and emerged to the fore yard like two police training dog dummies, swinging our legs like a cowboy and temporarily warmer than the outside temp of -17*C. We passed our driving test, although I deliberately kicked the last traffic cone at the end, much to the hilarity of our guide, Jacob.

Yes, Jacob was our guide again for the evening and he led us up in to the mountains and forests to experience the opportunity to chase the Aurora by snowmobiles. Having missed the night before and our Sami BBQ evening, they let us choose a different activity so we upgraded this evening to do something else neither of us had ever done. And it was spectacular.

The first stop afforded beautiful views of the lake below and we were only looking slightly upwards at the acclaimed observation platform on the mountain next to us. We never got up quite so high but we did progress a bit further in to the hills. The next stop was ‘the viewpoint’.

Aptly named, the viewpoint was atop a small rise with Abisko somewhere behind us, the moon up to our left the mountain range in front of us and a sub-alpine meadow and river before us, all of which covered in a blanket of snow. Following in the footsteps (and advice of Jacob) I took several shots with the camera in a hope that in the future I could splice them together to form a high quality panoramic photo. But, each image appearing on the view screen was in itself a thing of beauty and worth framing.

We progressed deeper in to the forest after some hot lingonberry and chocolate, to be shown a cold spring: a spring of cold water constantly pushed up to the surface from warmer depths to reach the surface and form a mini ecosystem. A grove of Adler trees were alive and growing in the area of the spring and stream as the roots are never frozen over and the bacterial symbiosis able to survive the harsh temperatures.

We were discussing the options of what to do for the evening when Jacob, quite calmly and matter of factly, pointed to the skies and said the Aurora borealis was appearing. Not sure we were looking at the same thing, the wisp of cloud, that would easily be overlooked, took definition and swirled in a fashion that then started to arc across the sky.

The Indian gentleman wanted proof, so Jacob took out his camera, pointed and took one shot, to show the vibrancy of colours that were yet to show themselves to the human eye. The Asian gentleman (not sure where he was really from) didn’t believe this so much that he put the tripod and camera away. I had to properly explain the arc above his head and he raced to put his gear back together.

I messed about with camera settings and didn’t get anything worth while. But, we had seen it. And wow. It was incredible. I drove the snowmobile back, the heat from the handlebars becoming a bit too extreme at times, and Katherine caught further glimpses of the Northern Lights on the way home.

Back at the lodge the vans were also returning from their expedition and the whole lot of us were peppered about the car park, black specks amongst white snow, all setting up cameras for the display above the guesthouse and lodge.

Kat and I warmed up, and marched down – and on to – the lake for a late evening of magical displays. Totally losing track of time and feeling in our extremities, we had long trailing lights from across the lake, with some curtains above us and the mountain. We were even fortunate enough to catch some pink and yellow flickers in one display. The whole evening was breathtaking and we had to really restrain ourselves and go home before we got too cold. We had seen the northern lights and while I may not have done them justice by camera, nothing will ever truly describe the experience.

Wednesday, 20th February 2019