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.