Our plane nosed down through a layer of ice fog and shuddered hard, as if at the sudden view: a mist-shredded scrap of forest, all but buried in snow. “Welcome to the Arctic,” the pilot said, as we bumped down on a runway of ice and packed powder.
It was the end of January, and we had arrived in Kiruna, the northernmost town in Sweden. It lies three degrees of latitude north of Fairbanks, Alaska, and 100 miles above the Arctic Circle. Around us, snow-clad forest spread away for 100,000 square miles. Squalls shook the cabin as we taxied. The storm was out of the north-northeast, and I tried to picture where that wind had recently been: a strip of Finland, a ribbon of Norway, the Barents Sea, and before that, probably the polar ice cap. Brrr.
We had been traveling from Denver for 18 hours straight. “Tell me again,” I said to my wife, Kim. “Why are we coming to the Arctic in the middle of winter? I mean, when there are places in the world like, say, Barbados?”
“To see the aurora borealis,” she answered cheerfully. She loves the cold, she says—it wakes her up.
Minutes later we were escorted out of the squat airport building toward a pack of dogs that stood, yelping, just yards from the runway. An apple-cheeked guide named Espen Hamnvik, who wore a fur-trimmed parka, handed us each a coat, heavy snow pants, a hat, and boots. “There is your sled, Kim. Pete, this is yours,” he said. “There are your dogs.” After showing us how to use the brakes on our sleds, he gave a mittened thumbs-up and mushed off into the snowy woods. Our Alaskan huskies were ready to run, and they barked and yowled and strained against their ropes. Another guide yanked the lines loose, the sleds jerked, and we were off, running free over the fresh snow. Into the heart of Swedish Lapland.
What we had come for, aside from the northern lights, was a taste of authentic Sami culture, and an understanding of why the northern Swedes are so crazy about winter. We’d stay first at a remote lodge accessible in winter only by dog team or snowmobile; then we’d take a train two hundred miles south to the coastal town of Luleå, where we’d sleep in Sami-style canvas tents—yes, tents—and from there we’d move to the vertiginous Treehotel. Along the way, we’d be outside most of the time, and we’d try not to lose any digits to the cold.
My dogs were littler than I’d expected, the size of border collies—two piebald sisters up front, two brown brothers behind. Just four. They were running so fast that I had to grip the handlebar as hard as I could. The trail was narrow and twisting, through trees with limbs that were shagged and bent with snow. There were sudden swoops and dips, branches to duck under. The dogs careened around the corners and we almost capsized; they charged down hills. My eyelashes were sticking together. “What are these beasts?” I wondered. Every time I stepped on the claw brake to slow down, one of the lead dogs, tongue out, threw a look back over her shoulder, and I could read her thought like a cartoon balloon: Dude! WTF? Let me run!
I grew up on Jack London’s tales of the Arctic, on Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf. From those books I took an image of a sled driving behind a team of 12 or 14 dogs, lined up in polar twilight. Big, fluffy dogs that looked like wolves. Our Alaskan huskies, which look nothing like the Hollywood Siberians, were bred for racing over long distances at great speed. They are the marathon runners of the dog world, and like marathon runners, they are slight and slender and swift, and can’t think of anything more fun than running for hours. Their enthusiasm was infectious. We swished out of the trees and onto a wide frozen lake. It was 10:05 a.m. and the light was muted, like the onset of dusk. The wind was driving the snow sideways, and I lost the lead sled in the squall. Then there was only white—above, below. Only the smooth slip and jostle of the wood runners underfoot, the biting frost on cheeks, the panting of the dogs. As if we had taken flight and were suspended in a storm.
The Sami people are an indigenous, historically nomadic community, and have been herding reindeer in the Arctic for several thousand years. To them, the aurora borealis has always been a solemn display. Traditionally, they’ve believed that the lights are the spirits of their ancestors, and that if anyone sinful shows his face or acts disrespectfully when the lights appear, it could anger the spirits and bring bad luck on the people. Some parents still keep their bad children indoors during the light shows.
But the aurora has gotten a lot of good press lately—perhaps because the displays get stronger in 11-year cycles, and the last two years have been prodigious. But I think it’s more to do with our visually obsessed culture. Anything spectacularly photogenic, anything that can dazzle in a single image, rises to the top. The aurora is the Giselle of natural wonders. The Grand Canyon, Iguazú Falls, Everest from Base Camp—none can hold a candle to the aurora when she’s in her full glory. She’s become a kind of trophy on social media, and more travelers are willing to brave the northern winter to capture the prize.
We followed Espen as he turned his team into the woods; a few minutes later, he raised his mitten and called a halt. In the trees there was a small conical hut with a snowmobile parked in front. Pale smoke wreathed from the stovepipe and trailed off downwind. We tied up the sleds and went inside, to find near-smothering warmth, a popping open fire, and a veteran dogsled racer and master chef named Stefan Lundgren, who served us reindeer stew and hot lingonberry cider in birch-wood cups. I glanced at Kim. Her cheeks were chafed red with cold and her smile was bright. “Magical,” she said.
At dusk, which fell at 2:50 p.m., we ran the sleds up to a cluster of low, pine-clad buildings at the edge of another lake. This was Fjellborg Arctic Lodge, our accomodation for the night. The storm had spent itself, and candles flickered in carved ice-block sconces outside the half dozen cabins arranged around the lodge. Under two feet of fresh snow, the world looked like a scene from a Christmas card. A blazing campfire burned, and there was Stefan, ladling lingonberry cider into birch-wood cups again.
What could be better than sitting on a reindeer skin around an outdoor fire in winter with the last traces of light fading behind the treetops, and the temperature plummeting? The only sounds were the crack of flames, the creak of snow-laden trees, the murmur of quiet conversation.
Stefan showed us our digs. Our cabin had a sauna, and we baked in it. Then we sat outside in a hot tub and peered into the lidded sky, hoping it would clear for the northern lights. It didn’t. I admit I wasn’t too bothered: for dinner Stefan had made us cured-reindeer brioche, arctic char, and a dessert with three kinds of chocolate, served with rich black coffee.
Swedes do not coddle neophytes or hand out liability waiver forms—at least not up the 68th parallel north. Every day is an adventure, and they invite you to bring the best of yourself and come along. When we woke the next morning, the sky had cleared and the sun had risen to the tops of the pines, where it would skirt the southern horizon before sinking back down in a few hours’ time. Kenth Fjellborg, the proprietor of Fjellborg Arctic Lodge, showed up on a skimobile, and as Espen had done with the sleds, he kept it simple. “This is your machine. Here is the ignition. The throttle, the brake. Keep your feet tucked in here in case you tip over.” Big smile. “Okay? Let’s go!”
Kenth is a master dog-sledder and a consummate storyteller. At age 19, he apprenticed under the legendary dog-sledder Joe Runyan, in Alaska. Keith ran the Iditarod in 1994—1,100 miles through Arctic Alaska—and finished in the top 20. In 2006, he guided Prince Albert II of Monaco to the North Pole by dogsled. Kenth grew up in a tiny village 10 miles from the lodge; his family has lived in the area for nine generations. I blinked. An American cannot even conceive of staying in one spot for three hundred years; for us, a one-year lease is pushing it. Kenth, of course, can navigate this country in pitch darkness, which he often has to do in the winter months. It’s second nature for him to fish for char through the ice by headlamp, or make camp at 20 below. I asked him about his favorite thing to do in his free time and he said, “Moose hunting. It’s my Arctic-male version of yoga.”