At the famous Ice Hotel, the rooms are kept at a frosty 23 degrees. Felix Odell Off we went. The forest shimmered with rime, and the trees cast shadows that were long and blue. We throttled out of the woods onto the white expanse of the lake, where two reindeer were sunbathing. We came to a hand-painted signpost: finland 149 km. Norway, Russia, and Finland are all close by, and the borders have always been pretty porous, at least for the nomadic Sami, who follow the reindeer wherever they go. We zoomed onto the river Torne and along a well-beaten track marked with storm poles. Our faces froze, our eyes squinted against the blast. We didn’t care. There was Kenth’s village, Poikkijärvi, just a string of small houses along the southern bank. And there, across the river, was the hamlet of Jukkasjärvi, home to the IceHotel.
You’ve heard of it: the famous hotel that melts every spring and is rebuilt every fall, when artists from all over the world come to each carve one of the dozens of rooms. There is an ice bed with a reindeer skin inside each of these ice sculptures—essentially an ice cave with a steady temperature of around 23 degrees. There is an ice chapel where guests can get married, an ice reception desk, and a grand ice hall with ice pillars and ice chandeliers. Kim and I walked into a room with a bunch of ice sheep jumping over an ice fence, their fluffy wool made of thousands of little ice balls stuck together. We laughed out loud. Jens Thoms Ivarsson, director of design, is used to such outbursts from guests. “Luca Roncoroni created it so that guests who were worried about sleeping in subzero [Celsius] temperatures could count the sheep and fall asleep more easily.”
We had a drink in the IceBar, sipping elderberry juice with lime from ice glasses while a song by Danny and the Champions of the World thumped from speakers that no one had yet figured out how to make from ice. It occurred to me, as I switched the glass to my other hand so I wouldn’t get frostbite, that the whole place was one of the most spectacular art installations on earth—and created to vanish, like a sand mandala. Like the Arctic winter itself. Pretty cool. We climbed back onto our snowmobiles and drove back as night overtook the forest. Above us, stars began to glitter like ice chips. It got seriously cold. We followed our headlights back along the twisting track. As my thumb pressed the throttle, and the machine surged, and my cheeks burned with frost, I felt a profound sense of glee. The kind that comes, strangely, only when everything is frozen.
That night, no aurora. The next morning I woke early to see if I could catch it. The Swedes have a name for the polar twilight, usually at its most pronounced around dusk, when the long shadows merge. They call it blå timmen, the blue hour.
At dawn, as I stepped out of the cabin and walked to the edge of the lake, snow creaking underfoot, that name came to me. The sky was the softest blue. And the snow. And the trees. Every tone and shade of blue, blue merging to slate beneath the trees, to ultramarine in the water-clear sky overhead. And in the southwest, a silver-blue half-moon was setting. I felt giddy, like a kid. So often, when we travel, we come for one thing and are blindsided by something else. I realized that I was loving winter again, the way I had as a child, when there was nothing better on earth than sledding, or a snowball fight.
Next stop: the Aurora Safari Camp outside of Luleå, just south of the Arctic Circle. The name of the place virtually guaranteed a sighting. It was also a chance for even deeper immersion, because we were staying in conical tepees with cloth skins, inspired by traditional Sami lavvu shelters. The mercury pegged at 10 below for two days. At night, Kim and I woke up every hour and a half to stoke the little woodstove. We poked each other and traded off, and somehow just got happier. And with every wake-up, one of us stepped outside to scan for northern lights—and saw only icy stars.
The camp was perched on a wide lake covered with fresh snow. One morning we took out powerful snowmobiles. The sun, just over the treetops, was brilliant, and it turned the distant rime-frosted ridges to gold. On the islands, the trees were completely sheathed in ice. I’d never seen anything like it. I hit the throttle and accelerated over the unbroken, glittering snow. I yelled out loud. Behind me, a plume of powder sprayed 20 feet into the sunlight, where it blazed with gold.
That night, Fredrik Broman, the camp’s exuberant proprietor, fired up his sauna: a big tent with a woodstove, on a float, frozen into the lake. Outside were blocks of clear virgin ice and a table spread with razor-sharp chisels and saws. I sweated away happily, before flipping back the cloth door and tumbling out into the subzero darkness in a gush of steam. I rolled in the snow. And as I stood and caught my breath, I saw Kim in her huge parka, bent over an ice block. In the light of a headlamp she was chiseling away. A magical, modernist shape of curves and grooves.
But still no lights. Four nights down, two to go. I was okay with it. We’d been ice fishing with Kenth, snowshoeing with Fredrik, and today we were going to see a legendary Sami named Lars Eriksson. He came out of his clapboard house in traditional dress of dark blue felt trimmed with strips of yellow, green, and red—sun, earth, fire—and reindeer-fur boots with the toes curled up. (They curl to make it easier to slip them into leather ski bindings.) He had a flowing white beard. I saw Kim’s eyes get huge; her eyebrows shot up, her mouth opened into a speechless o. “It’s Santa Claus!” she whispered into my ear. We walked in chill sunlight into a field among Lars’s reindeer, where he fed them handfuls of spongy moss and intoned his story: “My family has been here for seven generations. In 1958 I started with the reindeer….” He said that when the animals migrated up to the forests in the west, he and his family would move behind the herd on skis and camp for weeks at a time.
“When we go with the reindeer, we see the reindeer are a little tired. We stop, make a fire, make coffee. The reindeer can sleep, have a little food. We follow nature and how we feel—slow, slow, no stress.” Now, he said, the 3,000 Sami families that still herd reindeer move them with ATVs and trucks; they have to take other jobs to pay for the machines and fuel, and there is too much stress. “Not good for the deer.” He told us that he knows of only 25 or so Sami families who still make a living solely from the reindeer, and they need a herd of 2,000 to make that work. He took us into an old log cabin for a lunch of moose and reindeer meatballs. Taking off his wool hat, he talked with animation about the persecution the Sami used to experience from the Swedish government, the stealing of indigenous artifacts, the punishment he experienced in school for speaking in the Sami language. But now, he said, there is a resurgence of Sami culture, and interest from around the world in the story of its people.
Kim asked him if anyone still joiks, or practices the Sami singing she had heard about. Lars turned his gray eyes to the little window and inhaled deeply, as if taking energy from the woods. Then he looked at us and sang. A deep, strong descant with the broken melody of a forest wind. He stopped and smiled.
“Wow,” Kim murmured. “What does it mean?”
“Having friends,” he said. “The sun is out.”