I yanked off my boots to feel my totally numb feet, breathing out enough heat to fog up a
bathroom mirror. After jumping in a near-frozen puddle to drag out an overturned dogsled, I went over 3 hours with barely any range of motion in my toes. The dog-sledding was exhilarating, and the feeling of taking on the elements is truly awesome. The scenery, wilderness, and experiencing the sheer power of nature made this my favorite trip of the semester. Such is life north of the Arctic Circle, where I spent Thanksgiving break exploring the wilderness of Kiruna, Sweden on DIS’s Arctic Excursion.
From Wednesday evening through Sunday, some friends of mine from Stockholm met up with other students from DIS Copenhagen to spend the holiday break in the Arctic. I had been looking forward to this trip since the fall, and I was so excited to see Kiruna! From the moment we got off the plane and drove to the cabins, I was mesmerized:
Kiruna is a born-and-bread mining town (more in a moment), but its natural beauty remains impeccable. Our week coincided with winter storm Elva, turning our secluded cabins and surrounding wilderness into a real winter wonderland. With two feet of snow on everything we could see, we were treated to a perfect Arctic experience. We took advantage of the daylight (1:30pm sunsets sneak up on you fast) with outdoor activities ranging from snowmobiling and snowshoeing to visiting an indigenous village to learn about the Sami. All our lunches were regional ingredients cooked directly on a campfire and accompanied by warm drinks like coffee and hot lingonberry juice. As fellow outdoor enthusiasts can attest, there’s nothing quite like a blazing fire and hot food after a day of exerting yourself against the elements. And the hearty meals of savory soups, reindeer meat, and melted cheese sandwiches always satisfied.
After our pit-stops to refuel and defrost, the second half of our days bled into the twilight hours and incredible sunsets. I couldn’t take my eyes off the horizon, trying to take in as much of the beauty as I could. By the time we reached the van back to our cabins, the sky was pitch black. But between lunch and the darkness, we were treated to a full array of colors playing across the open sky. Though winter storm Elva doused our hopes for the northern lights, our nightly sunsets were some of the most incredible I had ever seen. And watching them from a dogsled, as we did on our final day, was a surreal and magical experience. I can’t stress enough how invigorating and fulfilling it is to face nature with just the supplies you can carry. Your primal instincts kick in, and it ignites emotions deep within you while shifting your perspective and making you appreciate simple pleasures. I may be a food-loving New Yorker, but nothing made me happier than a hot-pocket-like sandwich and dry socks over a crackling fire.
The impenetrable snow blanket blotted out all sound, making the stillness of our barren landscape even more atmospheric. The city only exists because of a massive iron mine which is encroaching on Kiruna proper, forcing the city to physically move. We got to tour the mine, venturing over 400 meters beneath the mountain, but though impressive in its own right I enjoyed our visit to a Sami village much more. Here we learned about Sami culture, fed reindeer, and ate lunch in a tent while listening to the stories and legends of a young Sami woman. It was such a rich experience to learn firsthand from people with such a different lifestyle, and I was taken in by the simplicity and sincerity of the people we met. And of course, getting to pet and feed reindeer from inside their enclosure was really cool!
If I had to pick, my favorite activity was the dog-sledding (narrowly beating out others like outdoor hot tubs, saunas, and Sami village). We loaded our sleds at a massive base camp with over 100 dogs, all barking to announce our arrival. They were so excited to hitch up to our sleds and lead us across the tundra, (only the guide has reins, our dogs just followed the sled in-front of them. To stand behind the sled and fly through the snowy trees, bursting out of the woods to incredible white plains was indescribable. I bonded with my team, (they went so fast I had to ride the brake most of the way!) and gave them well deserved hugs and attention during our lunch stop. I did get some excitement when the sled in-front of me tipped over, as I ran into the thigh-deep puddle to drag it out and stop the dogs from taking off before my friend got back on. Though cold, it just added to the experience of having to survive in the harsh climate, and made the campfire at lunch all the more enjoyable.
There was so much more to this trip than I can share in one post, but I could go on and on about the people we met, activities we did, and sights we saw. It was a wonderful way to experience life above the Arctic circle, and not seeing the northern lights just gives me a reason to come back. As much as I love outdoor adventures, simple lifestyles, and the beauty of the wilderness I often get too caught up in life to experience it firsthand. This trip shifted my perspectives, and having it overlap with Thanksgiving was a sweet coincidence. My time in Kiruna reminded me to appreciate the little things, having what I have, and being able to travel and meet new people. And so I hope everyone had as terrific of a Thanksgiving as I had, and can remember to be grateful for what they have, what they’ve done, and who they get to be with. And lastly, try to challenge yourself to reignite those deep, primal motivators, whatever yours may be. I crave the exhilaration of pitting myself against the elements, physically and mentally. Chase after what motivates you to your core and keeps you coming back, because that’s what its all about.
Stockholm’s museums and a weekend trip to Oslo with family!
I takes someone brave of “heart” to try this Arctic delicacy: Reindeer heart (the little chunks in the tupperware). Officially the most adventurous thing I’ve eaten, (topping whale in Oslo, Norway) I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. It tasted like a mix of beets and under-cooked red meat, and though I liked it I can’t say I’d go back for seconds. My bite-size piece was just enough, but I have to say I truly admire how people in Kiruna use the whole reindeer. From antler jewelry and fur rugs to organ meat and glue, its refreshing to see such respect for an animal and such a devotion to ensuring none of it goes to waste. I’ll toast to that with some hot lingonberry juice!
Here are more photos I couldn’t squeeze in! Check out my gallery to read the captions, they’re informative and rather clever if I say so myself.