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I spent ten days straddling January and February in one of Europe's most remote areas in northern Sweden, partly to attend UmeƄ University's Arctic Science course, which is a fantastic 6-week course with a 4-day in-situ component in the town of Kiruna. For the other six days I took the opportunity to have a short holiday!

Sleeping in planes

Emily had volunteered as a teaching assistant since she had done the course in the past and so we flew out together via Stockholm, staying in the airport's Jumbo Hotel, a converted 747. Each room was numbered 7xx, had bunk beds, and used a section of overhead luggage storage in place of a cupboard.



It was comfy and surprisingly quiet!

We arrived in Kiruna the next morning on a somewhat more modest aircraft. Kiruna airport is tiny, and everything except the main runway was covered in snow, even with the temperatures considerably above average (ie, above zero) for the first few days we arrived.




Kiruna

Kiruna itself is famous for being the town that is relocating itself due to it being undermined by the nearby iron ore works. While it's not a case of moving all the houses on the back of lorries -- instead, old houses are being compulsory-bought and demolished with new homes being built on the far side of the town -- it does mean that some landmarks are disappearing, amongst them the striking town hall and Kiruna Church.





The town itself is large, though the centre of town is really just a cluster of shops around a square near the town hall and bus depot. We stayed in a beautiful B&B called 68 Degrees, whose hosts were friendly and helpful, and really spoiled us for breakfast.

In one of the town's parks was a snow sculpturing competition, with entrants from various countries. Unfortunately we never found out who won but we got to vote at least!




Nacreous Clouds

Our first trip was a snow-shoeing outing to attempt to see the aurora (wait for it) but we only saw the faintest of faint glows that evening. However, the next day we were wondering through the park when we spotted the most stunning clouds. They were coloured in pastel rainbows and morphed slowly between streamlined shapes; first a fish, then bird, then a whale.



These were nacreous clouds, particularly high (stratospheric) clouds that only occur at high latitudes. Our B&B hosts told us they were the best ones they'd seen in the ten years they'd lived in Kiruna and were much rarer than the aurora.


Moose on horseback

We went out on Icelandic ponies as part of a elk-spotting group, which ended up a little underwhelming since, although there were elk around, we ended up in a horsey queue to see them, and at one point the ponies freaked out and ran off with us!

After we got back we went out on our own on foot and retraced our steps to where some moose had crossed the track in front of the front of the pony queue. The tracks were quite clear -- the snow was knee deep -- and we lucked out: first we saw a depression in the snow where the animals had taken a short nap, and after that we came across two of them very nearby.




Wilderness Camp

The next day we went to the excellent Taube Activity site to stay for the night. The site itself is a small collection of wood huts, including the traditional Sami huts for sleeping in. We were lucky enough to be one of only three couples on the camp; a class load of schoolchildren arrived the day we left. The idea behind the activity centre is that people staying chop their own firewood (from a log store) and fetch their own drinking water from the ice-covered river Torne the site sits on the banks of. On top of that, dinner and breakfast is provided as well as free use of any of the activity equipment there, including snow shoes, cross-country ski eqipment, toboggans, ice fishing tackle, and so on.



We drove there from somewhere near Kiruna on snowmobiles, getting a decent time behind the handlebars each, through snow-covered scenery. When we arrived Emily and I took a walk along the river banks, in an upstream area that had faster flow and so wasn't completely frozen over.

After that, the guides showed us how to drill into the ice for water. This involved using a hand drill to make four circular holes, then joining up the holes using a tool that looked like a saw attached to a harpoon.



One of the reasons we'd gone to this place was because Emily wanted to have a wild swim in frozen water, and the guides were very accommodating of this. We (and the other visitors who crazily volunteered) spent a not-insignificant time widening the watering hole into what would become known as Emily's ice bath. We were cutting into virgin ice that was about half a metre thick, and the chunks that got pulled out were crystal clear. They also made an excellent ad-hoc sculpture.




The Ice Bath

With the watering hole now just about big enough to fit a ladder and room for a couple of swim strokes, Emily and I (somehow the only volunteers for actually having a dunk despite everyone pitching in with creating the bath) were shown how to set up the sauna hut. The idea is to get the sauna so hot that you can't bear to be in there any longer. We had the thermometer on the wall reading 50C or so, so we didn't do a bad job.

While we were upping our core body temperature in our swimwear the organisers were setting up the bath, bringing out the ladder, some rope we would tie around our waists before getting in, and, unbeknownst to us, an amazing log fire and blankets for the ground when we got out (heat is lost fastest through the snow).

It was now after dark and we walked the 100m briskly from the sauna to the middle of the river in just our swimwear and boots. The air was considerably below zero outside but having emerged from stifling heat, it merely felt soothingly cool. When we reached the swimming hole we were a little awestruck at how cozy and welcoming it looked thanks to the fire and rugs.

Emily got in first, lowering herself from the edge of the ice, took a few strokes, and climbed back out using the ladder, looking exceptionally happy. After transferring the rope from her to me, it was my turn.



The water was about -1C and yet wasn't quite as big a shock as I had expected. I also took a couple of short strokes and then climbed out. My hand stuck a little to the ladder as I got out; I lost a bit of skin from my palm (I also have a scar on my left index finger from the sauna...) but emerged happy. Only after getting out did the air seem frigid!

Emily took another turn; I don't remember whether I did but I suspect not. The parts of my hair that got wet froze solid. We slipped our boots back on and raced back to the sauna to warm up before getting dressed and walking back down to admire the scene.

By the next morning the bath had frozen over.




The aurora

Nobody at the activity camp had yet seen the aurora on their respective holidays, so in the evening we agreed we would take turns at watching out for it. I think it was the German fellow, Arved, who called everyone out. We were being treated to a clear sky and a fairly active green aurora moving overhead towards us.



We went back down to the lake to get a better view. My camera picked out a small amount of red banding in this shot, showing that the aurora had got stronger.



Both these shots, for reference, were 30 seconds long. Emily and I were sharing a tripod which was well worth the extra weight in our luggage!

The next day we drove ourselves back on snowmobiles (not before enjoying a couple of rides on the toboggans) and Taube dropped us off at our accommodation for the Arctic Science course. More on that later....


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