The Swedish Arctic
Story by Ben Ehrenreich | Photography by Joachim Lundgren | Rhapsody, November 2016
In search of the northern lights from a base camp at the world famous IcehotelI had always wanted to see the northern lights.
I grew up in the New York City suburbs, where the only lights in the northern sky traced the flight path to LaGuardia, JFK, or Newark International. The notion of a vast, shimmering curtain of glowing green and violet falling over the sky like the entryway to some otherwise invisible reality sounded too whimsically beautiful to exist. But it did exist. You just had to climb the globe far enough north and hope for clear skies and distant storms on the surface of the sun.So in early January, as the rest of the hemisphere longed to travel south, I flew to Stockholm, and then to Kiruna, the largest town in the Swedish arctic, a quick ride from tiny Jukkasjärvi, home of the famous Icehotel, and one of the better spots on the planet from which to view the northern lights. The thermometer read seven degrees Fahrenheit when I boarded the hotel shuttle. “Perfect weather," the driver said with a grin—the day before the low had been 40 below. It wasn't yet two in the afternoon, but the sun was already setting, a thin orange light in what the compass on my phone suggested was not the west but the southern sky. I was nearly on the top of the world, and it felt like it, the landscape a study in monochrome, snow-frosted earth and snow-heavy trees, like the top of a wedding cake.Fortunately, the Icehotel's reception area, restaurant, and half of its rooms are permanent structures, well-heated and insulated against the elements. I checked into a “warm room," furnished in sleek Scandinavian style, its walls crafted of more conventional materials than ice. The hotel's bar, chapel, and 55 of its 65 total rooms are constructed of ice and compressed snow—“snice," they call it—and built from scratch each year when the cold descends. A team of artists and builders carve blocks of ice and spray snice like stucco onto prefabricated metal forms, which are then removed, leaving behind clean, silent, cavernous halls and rooms. The whole thing is destined to melt in the spring and flow back into the river Torne, which will soon freeze again, providing ice for the hotel's future incarnations. (This month, the property is adding a new solar-powered building, Icehotel 365, which will be made of ice and snow and kept at 23 degrees year-round.) The author drives a reindeer sleigh on the frozen tundra of Jukkasjärvi. This buck proved an obstinate travel companion.I took a quick walk through the ice rooms. The simplest were unadorned chambers of snow, like the inside of an igloo but equipped with a platform bed, blue-tinted lighting, and a government-required smoke detector. Individually titled “art suites" were more elaborate, and often extraordinary, designed by jury-selected artists flown in to sculpt in snow. Some were abstract. AnnaKatrin Kraus and Hans Aescht's The Flying Buttress, in which I would sleep two nights later, felt like the apse of a polar cathedral: Overlapping arches surrounded the bed, a square, ice-rimmed altar topped with two pillows and a reindeer hide. Some suites were whimsical, others surreal. In AnnaSofia Mååg's Elephant in the Room, a glassy, larger-than-life pachyderm stared dolefully down at the bed. Another guest room was lined with busts of dozens of blank-faced men in hats and a bas-relief turtle looking on from above. I peeked in at the chapel and caught a wedding in progress. The bride and groom wore snowsuits. They had to take off their ski gloves to exchange rings.“I was staring at electrically charged winds that had been cast out by the sun and traveled through 93 million miles of void. Or at the wandering souls of someone's ancestors. It didn't matter."That evening, I pulled on not one but two ski masks, or balaclavas—“the balaclava is your best friend," the guide assured me—and joined an expedition to seek out the northern lights by snowmobile. We set off in a long caravan, skirting the hotel compound and the few houses of Jukkasjärvi until the lights of the town disappeared. We sped along what looked like wide, flat plains—in fact it was the surface of the frozen Torne—onto a curving track through the forest. Spruce and pines rose frosted on all sides, clumps of snow staring down from their upper branches like an audience of silent ghosts. We sped across a lake, then back through the woods and over frozen marshes. It began to snow, dashing my hopes of seeing the lights, but the snow eventually stopped, as did we, at a camp of wooden cabins where our guides lit fires and heated meals of reindeer stew.The Sami people, who inhabited the Scandinavian arctic long before it was divided into nations, regarded the northern lights with appropriate awe, as visitations from the spirits of the dead. The contemporary scientific explanation is no less mystical: Charged particles are carried to Earth by solar winds and pushed by the planet's magnetic field to the poles, where they collide with atmospheric gases, producing colored lights, just as neon bulbs do when electricity passes through them. In other words, the northern lights really are a window onto an invisible reality, the unseen currents that connect us to the sun. Very rarely, they appear far to the south: Galileo saw the lights over Venice and in 1619 dubbed them aurora borealis, combining the names for the Roman goddess of the dawn and the Greek god of the north wind. But the closer you get to the pole (and the farther from the artificial light of human settlements), the more likely you are to see them. After that, it's up to luck and the weather on the Earth and on the sun.The entrance to the IcehotelBy the time I'd climbed back onto the snowmobile, the sky was clear, starless, and dark, a richer and more variable black than I was used to seeing. If I stared long enough, I could imagine it was tinted red in some places and green in others, but as hard as I looked, even with my imagination on overdrive, I couldn't fool myself. There was no aurora that night.I'm not sure how it happened, but the next day I ended up driving a reindeer sleigh. The Sami, who still populate much of northern Scandinavia, run tours in Jukkasjärvi to supplement their income from herding reindeer. They roped a buck for me, harnessed it to a one-man wooden sleigh, and handed me the bridle. The reindeer was a reluctant partner in the adventure, stopping whenever it could to glare at me with dull rheumy eyes before burying its nose in the snow and snarfing whatever greens it could find frozen there. We trotted out through the woods to the river. Even absent the aurora, in the middle of the short, arctic day, the sky was magnificent, pink and gold where the sun, just risen, was already setting, the air a crisp, unearthly blue.Late that evening, I bundled up and wandered out onto the icy river. It was almost entirely overcast. Again, I imagined I saw colors in the sky, but I knew it was wishful thinking. I wanted to see “the silver dance of the mystic Northern Lights," as the British-Canadian balladeer Robert W. Service put it, “wild and weird and wan … a sight for the eyes of God." Suddenly, a sharp white light illuminated the horizon and swept the sky in a long arc, but it was only a faraway car with its high beams on. The silence was so deep that it had texture—there were whole rooms in it and long hallways connecting room to room. I wandered through them for a while. It was bitterly cold and after midnight. I went inside. I had one more night.The Elephant in the Room suiteOn my last day in Jukkasjärvi, it snowed all morning and all afternoon. I trekked down to the old church at the end of the road. It had been there for 400 years, built when the town was just a seasonal gathering place for the still-nomadic Sami. The murals behind the altar were magnificent, the colors so bright they seemed stolen from some more temperate climate. Later, I let myself be convinced to try the local sauna ritual, which involved plunging into the frigid waters of the Torne through a hole carved in the ice. I whimpered, I confess, in a most unmanly way. After an excellent dinner, warm again, I prepared myself for the night I was to spend in the cold room by heading back out to the river. (It wouldn't be necessary: The sleeping bag the hotel provided was more than warm enough.)When I reached the bank, I lay down in the snow. The sky was overcast. I stared up at the shifting clouds until a space cleared just above the horizon to the north. Suddenly, without introduction, a shimmering green light appeared in the gap beneath the cloud, growing in intensity and fading and brightening but unmistakably there, unmistakably an aurora. The silence deepened. The lights seemed to dance. I was staring at electrically charged winds that had been cast out by the sun and traveled through 93 million miles of void. Or at the wandering souls of someone's ancestors. It didn't matter. I forgot that it was cold. I forgot I had a body even. And then, as quickly as they had appeared and with as little fanfare, the lights dimmed and went away. I stood, slapped the snow from my snowsuit, and retreated to my bedroom, blue and cozy, a balmy 23 degrees.
On March 19, 2020, United operated its first flight carrying cargo without passengers on board. While the passenger cabin was empty, its cargo hold was completely full, carrying more than 29,000 pounds of commodities from Chicago O'Hare International Airport (ORD) to Frankfurt Airport (FRA).
A year later, United Cargo has operated more than 11,000 cargo-only flights carrying more than 570 million pounds of freight. To support the COVID-19 pandemic recovery efforts, United Cargo has also transported more than 113 million pounds of medical and pharmaceutical products on both cargo-only and passenger flights as well as approximately 10 million COVID-19 vaccines, providing global communities access to the items they have needed most.
"At the beginning of the pandemic, we knew we were uniquely positioned to utilize our widebody aircraft and our network to keep commodities moving, so we quickly mobilized various departments throughout the airline to launch a cargo-only network of flights that would keep commodities moving," said United Cargo President Jan Krems. "Thanks to those efforts, United Cargo has delivered millions of items to countries all around the world. We would not have been successful without the steadfast support of our employees, industry partners and our customers."
Since last March, United Cargo has transported almost 850 million pounds of freight on cargo-only and passenger flights. The airline will continue to monitor market trends adjust its cargo-only flight schedules to help ensure we are meeting our customer's evolving shipping needs.
Whether you haven't flown with us for a while or just need a quick refresher before your spring trip, read this list of tips to know before your flight and arrive at the airport travel-ready:
1. Download the United app for contactless bag check, travel assistance and more
Before your flight, download the United app to view your flight status, check in, sign up for flight notifications, locate departure gates, access our free personal device entertainment when available and more. We've also updated our app with new features that can make your trip a little safer, including contactless bag check.
Don't forget to use Agent on Demand for help with any and all questions you may have before your flight. This new capability is available at all our U.S. hub airports and allows you to use your own mobile device to contact a customer service agent via phone, video or chat to help with day-of-travel questions while you're at the airport. Learn more about Agent on Demand here.
2. Check out the Travel-Ready Center
Our Travel-Ready Center makes it easy to get a personalized overview of everything you need to do in preparation for your flight. Just enter your confirmation number or MileagePlus® number and you'll find detailed information on all the documents, tests and more that you'll need for your trip.
3. Read and sign the Ready-to-Fly checklist
Before completing check-in, all United travelers will need to read our Ready-to-Fly checklist and confirm that they understand and agree to our policies. These include:
Acknowledging that you haven't had any symptoms of COVID-19 in the last 14 days
Agreeing that you will not fly if you have tested positive for COVID-19 within the last 21 days
Confirming that you will follow all policies regarding face masks, social distancing and other health and safety measures we've adopted
4. Arrive early; avoid the stress
Airports can be busy, especially during peak travel periods like spring break season. The TSA advises arriving at the airport two hours before your flight for domestic travel and three hours for international travel in anticipation of long security lines. This can help ease the stress when navigating busy check-in areas, security lines and crowded boarding gates.
5. Get familiar with CleanPlus
United CleanPlus℠ is our commitment to delivering industry-leading cleanliness as we put health and safety at the forefront of your experience. We've teamed up with Clorox to redefine our cleaning and disinfection procedures and Cleveland Clinic to advise us on enhancing our cleaning and disinfection protocols, like:
Disinfecting high-touch areas on board and in the terminal
Using electrostatic spraying, Ultraviolet C lighting wands and more advanced measures to clean aircraft cabins before boarding
Redesigning our mobile app to allow for touchless check-in and contactless payment, along with enhanced travel assistance features
Implementing high-efficiency (HEPA) filters on our aircraft that completely recirculate cabin air every 2-3 minutes and remove 99.97% of airborne particles, including viruses and bacteria
Studies show COVID-19 exposure risk is minimal when air filtration systems and masks are in use, so you can rest assured that the steps we've taken to keep you safe truly make a difference.
6. Wear your mask
Federal law requires all travelers to wear a face mask in the airport, including customer service counters, airport lounges, gates and baggage claim, and on board during their entire flight. Make sure you review the requirements for face masks, including what an acceptable face mask looks like.
7. Get ready for a safer boarding process
To make boarding even safer, we now have travelers board their aircraft from back to front. At the gate, just listen for your row number to be called – we'll ask a few rows at a time to board, starting with the last row of the plane. This helps everyone maintain a safe distance from each other during boarding without slowing things down. As you step onto the plane, flight attendants will hand each passenger a sanitizing towelette, which you can use to wipe down your seat to ensure it's extra clean.
8. Pack smart
Before packing your bags, check to see what exactly you can carry on and what you should plan to check. You can also copy your confirmation number into our Baggage Calculator tool to learn about the bag allowance included with your reservation, as well as the cost of checking any additional bags.
9. Check your flight status, important notices and weather
Check the United app regularly for the latest updates on weather conditions, flight status, gate numbers and seat assignments. You can also visit our Important Notices page to find essential information and updates about travel waivers, international travel, TSA and security, airports and United Club locations.
10. Relax and enjoy your flight
Once you're on board, it's time to sit back and enjoy your flight. Our flight attendants will be happy to help you with anything else you need.
This week, we were honored to become the first U.S. airline to join the UNICEF Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative to combat the COVID-19 pandemic by transporting the vaccine and other critically needed supplies to underserved areas of the globe.
"We are committed to helping the global community in any way we can, and we all must work together to do our part to bring this health and humanitarian crisis to an end," said Director of Cargo Specialty Products Manu Jacobs.
We will leverage our expertise to transport these critical pharmaceutical and healthcare shipments around the world safely, efficiently and expediently. We are proud to partner with the United Nations to support this global effort and provide equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.
Together, we are facing an unprecedented challenge. United Together, we rise to meet that challenge.
Calling all AvGeeks and travelers! Take your next video call from a United Polaris® seat, the cockpit or cruising altitude with United-themed backgrounds for use on Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
Newly added to our collection is a background encouraging our employees and customers to vote. Our mission is to connect people and unite the world — and one of the most important ways to do that is to engage in the democratic process. No matter which party you support, we know our democracy will be stronger if you make your voice heard and vote.
So for your next meeting or catch up with friends and family, download the app to either your computer or mobile device to get started.
To use on Zoom:
- Start here by downloading your favorite United image to your computer or mobile device. Just click "download" in the bottom left corner of the image.
- Next go to your Zoom app (you'll need to download the app to access backgrounds) and click on the arrow to the right of your video camera icon in the bottom of the screen.
- From here select, "choose virtual background" to upload your uniquely United photo.
To use on Microsoft Teams:
- Start by downloading your favorite United image to your computer. Just click "download" in the bottom left corner of the image.
- If you're using a PC, copy the image you want to use into this folder:
- C:\[insert your device user name here]\AppData\Microsoft\Teams\Backgrounds\Uploads
- If you're using a Mac copy the images to this folder on your computer:
- /users/<username>/Library/Application Support/Microsoft/Teams/Backgrounds/Uploads
- If you're using a PC, copy the image you want to use into this folder:
- Once you start a Teams meeting, click the "…" in the menu bar and select "Show background effects" and your image should be there
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