A Touch of Frost: A little Christmas Adventure in the Arctic
By Andrea Kaucka and
It seemed to us like the end of summer when we heard Wham’s “Last Christmas” blaring out of a speaker for the first time.
Hadn’t we just run around in T-shirts, soaking up the sun, and spent a lot of time by the pool?
It seemed like yesterday that we had our last ice cream and a serious suntan. And yet…Christmas was approaching big time, scaring us with its advertisements of family gatherings, turkeys, and most of all a looming shopping madness ahead of us.
Leave Everyone at Home
That´s when we decided that this time it would be different. We would leave everybody at home and go somewhere. It would have to be a wintery landscape with a chilly cold and a nice, romantic log cabin to spend Christmas eve in front of a crackling fire.
The Arctic Far North
Scandinavia came into mind, but not just any part of Scandinavia, if at all, then it had to be the Arctic, far up North where Norway, Finland, and Sweden meet. We had heard about Northern lights, huskies, snow scooters, and arctic cold, so our decision was made.
Now, the only thing to decide on was to either fly there or drive. Flights were quite costly so the only option we had was our trusty old VW T4 Syncro. As it was a long-wheelbase we decided to take a few Christmas refugees with us and make it a great journey.
So we started preparing the Syncro for the long trip, we planned a good 6,500 km in roughly two weeks. Because of a leaky radiator, I had to put in a new one, as well as buying snow chains, proper winter tires, and some recovery equipment.
Forests, mud and a teepee
Most of the roads into Sweden were quite good, driving was quite smooth. As our final destination, Kiruna in North Sweden was about 3000 km from home we had to have some stops in between.
One of those was a big farm in South Sweden where we had rented a cabin.
Little did I know that this would be our first encounter with Swedish forests, ending up in a near disaster for the car and for me (getting myself killed by Andrea, my partner!).
There were a few things to see there, so after this 1000 km journey from home, instead of getting some sleep, we wanted to see some of those runestones and old prehistoric burial sites.
Unfortunately, those were deep in the forest but with a lot of exaggerated enthusiasm, I saw no problem in taking the Syncro for a little ride.
I had clearly miscalculated the water and the mud. And faster than I could even think I saw four wheels spinning and the car sinking into the ground. What I hadn´t considered was taking a shovel with me and so I took my jacket and shirt off and started digging with my hands.
It wasn´t too bad, except for the way I looked afterward. To cut a long story short…it didn´t help. I was getting the car out of one mud hole and into the next one. No way we could ever make it out of there alone. Luckily, I remembered seeing an old Volvo C303 somewhere on the farm, so I started walking to the next house and calling our farm host for help.
It took a while but finally, that old thing arrived. And I am telling you, what took me 5 minutes (to get stuck) took him 1 hour to winch me onto stable ground. Our car and I looked exactly the same – just like pigs!
Well, after this story and a few more beers I slept like a baby, ready to roll towards the arctic circle the next morning.
We made good progress at first, but suddenly the roads changed. Snow everywhere, the roads absolutely white – covered in ice and snow.
It took me quite a few km to get used to it, especially around bends and downhill. I always wondered how someone could overtake me with a good 100 km/h on roads like these. Until I found out about spikes. That´s their secret to speeding on ice and snow!
No Sudden Movements
We had to make do with our set of winter tires and the all-wheel-drive. I got the hang of it after a while – go fast on a straight, long before curves take your foot off the pedal, and brake very lightly. No sudden movements and you are fine. The funniest thing on those roads is this: One goes at, say, 90 km/h, and all is fine, then stops to get out of the car to take a photo and nearly breaks his neck because of a slippery road surface! It somehow doesn´t make sense.
We were slowly closing in on the arctic circle, but I had found something very special for us on the way up. About 300km south of the Arctic I had booked an overnight stay in a teepee. Yes, you heard right, we were expecting a good -20 degrees but I thought that a tent might be a good idea.
So there we went, left our Syncro at random parking next to the main road (you would not do that in Europe), took the most important stuff out and got transported to this tent thing by snow scooter. What an experience!
It was such a peaceful, quiet night in the middle of a Lapland forest. One just had to permanently keep that little stove going inside the teepee to make sure no one would freeze to death and the reindeer skins under us kept us relatively warm too.
Sleds, Scooters, and half-naked Northern lights
Kiruna is a big mining town in the North of Sweden, probably THE biggest town in the area. Not much around except forests, reindeers, lakes, and solitude. I personally don’t really like towns, nor does Andrea, we are outdoor people. We’d rather sit around a campfire than in front of a flatscreen.
We wanted one thing in Kiruna though: local meat for our Christmas dinner. We didn´t want turkey, no, it had to be reindeer and moose and we wouldn´t settle for less!
With this added to our already overloaded car, we made our way out of Kiruna and into that Camp where we had booked a house for all of us. Lovely, a frozen lake next to us, lots of snow, forest, a fireplace, and a huge sauna…what else can one ask for! Plus on top of it, we hadn´t heard one single Christmas song till now!
I was a bit worried about our Syncro, someone had warned me that in temperatures well below -20 we would have serious problems with our battery and the glow plugs in general, so the least I could do was take the battery inside the warm house.
We would not really need the car in the next days anyway as we had other activities in mind: doing a husky tour and taking some snow scooters for a spin!
Lapland in winter is beautiful, there is just one little thing to keep in mind: sunshine, or rather, the lack of it. In summer Lapland boasts 24 hours of sunshine, in winter it´s close to none.
Arctic Sunrise / Sunset
We were shocked to watch TV and see the sunrise/sunset times: 12.16 pm sunrise, 12.32 pm sunset! That was a full 16 minutes of sunshine.
Well, in winter one doesn´t even see the sun. It becomes daylight (that type of neon light daylight) at around 10 am and starts getting dark at around 1.30 pm.
It really does not surprise me that the suicide rate in Lapland is quite high, the same as alcoholism. There is nothing else to do!
But for us photographers, it meant that we had very low and soft light which gave us really good photos. The first thing we did was take these snow scooters down a frozen river to try and get to the Ice Hotel, a world-famous hotel made of – yes, you guessed it – ice.
We had never tried those snow scooters but fell in love straight away. The traction of the chains in the back really catapult that thing forward, it´s amazing!
I have never ridden a motorbike before (you know, I like 4-wheel fun) so going from 0-100 km/h in just 6 seconds did my head in!
Especially seeing the front skis lift into the air when giving it full speed! Forget about traction in the front, just try and concentrate on the track which is more or less just a white mass and try not to get your face frozen completely!
The gas on these things is lever-operated by the thumb. What I didn’t know was that they even have a heater in that lever…so your gas thumb doesn´t freeze off. Clever idea! We were at the ice hotel much too quickly, I wouldn´t have minded keeping racing across that river and lake.
The Expensive Castle of Ice
Well, instead we had a look at this “castle of ice“ – what an absolutely out of this world place – we really felt like we were on a different planet. Everything was made out of snow and ice, the bar, beds, walls, shelves, lights and nearly every room had a different decoration – there was the elephant room, the peacock room, the „nightmare before Christmas“ room, etc.
In the beginning, we had had the crazy idea of staying in this place for one night – but after being told it would cost each of us a minimum of 200 EUR for the cheapest room we scrapped the idea. The concept of paying a high sum for a freezing night wasn´t very appealing.
We rather preferred to spend our evenings in our sauna right on the frozen lake by our cabin. With a hole to the lake inside the sauna. Having a beer and chilling out was the nearly perfect end to an adventurous day. Why I say “nearly“?
Well…we had just brought more beers and relaxed when the doors were flung open and someone screamed: ”
“Lights…THE lights! Northern Lights! Come out, quick!“
Now, you should have seen those naked and half-naked people rushing out of the sauna and into the cold, grabbing their cameras. But they were right because it was an absolutely beautiful, goosebumps-type experience. Imagine green lights dancing above your head in the sky, for maybe half an hour they were there, whirling, twisting, and dancing.
It was breathtaking. Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis is a common occurrence in the arctic area of the Northern hemisphere, they are sun particles that hit the Earth´s atmosphere and bounce back, the energy of them hitting the atmosphere can be seen like green lights.
There is a scale from 1 to 10, it´s most common to have a 2 or 3, which means they are hard to see with a naked eye, our cameras´ sensors are more likely to capture them than for us to see them with our eyes, but the one we experienced was a 5 – and that is a pretty good value!
Basically, the Northern lights had been our main reason to come to Lapland. When the lights stopped we noticed our naked feet turning blue and quickly made our way back to the Sauna, feeling very happy and elated.
Dog Sledding in Norway
One more thing we wanted to do before heading off to Norway´s coast was doing mushing, dog-sledding. What do you think, can you get anything with better offroad traction than 5-6 energetic, unbreakable huskies? 20-24 strong legs to pull you forward, going through nearly any kind of terrain? Well, riding with those huskies proved the point!
We have never seen a more energetic dog than these. Whenever we stopped our sled, they would howl, bark and try to pull us away, eager to run, dreading the stops and breaks. It felt very different to stand on the back of a sled and steering these dogs through a winter wonderland!
We can now fully understand why people fall in love with this, why they go on week-long tours, drive competitions, etc. Once a husky looks at you with his steel-blue eyes you´ll never forget it!
Fjords, mountains, and dramatic landscapes
Sweden is a relatively soft landscape, with lots of forests, rolling meadows, thousands of lakes, and just a few higher mountains. Norway is different. Norway is the rough, the ragged, the dramatic and impressive scenery. There is a photo stop every few meters. Huge mountain panoramas and vistas. We wanted to do a little detour through Norway before having to return back home.
So from Kiruna, we drove another 120 km to the Norwegian border, and immediately it started – winding roads, lots of curves, inclines, and declines.
Believe me, around every bend there is something spectacular waiting, be it a bay, a fjord, a ragged mountain, or a troll crossing the road.
We hadn’t booked anything so went to Narvik and tried to find a camp or a cabin.
What we didn´t know was that Scandinavia is not such a 24-hr society as we are, they keep their holidays, so when arriving at the tourist office at 3.30 pm we found it closed – they only work till 3 pm over Christmas and new years.
Well, people in this part of the world are very friendly and helpful, someone let us use their internet and we found a refurbished “Rorby“ – an old fisherman´s cabin in some nameless bay North of Narvik. It was only 90km away but took us about 2 hours, the roads white and icy, and the usual winding around mountains and bays.
Actually, that night, which was our first one in Norway, we got greeted by more Northern lights above the mountains on the other side of the bay. Quite impressive. Another impressive fact was, that we tried to buy more beer here but quickly left that idea. One bottle of beer for around 5 GBP. They must have gone absolutely mad! We would have to survive with what we had left.
A Little Bit of Norway
Basically, Norway for us was just a very short visit and a quick opportunity to pass through and soak up the mountain landscape. One needs much more time here as travel times are very high due to the road conditions. We thought it better to cross back into Sweden and continue South there as the roads are wider and straighter.
I must say that I gained a lot of confidence when it came to snow and ice driving, even without spikes. The only luck we had was that no animals crossed our path. If you drive 70-90 on a road you just can´t break anymore. But otherwise, driving in arctic conditions was well worth it, I didn´t exactly feel like an „ice road trucker“ but started to understand their mindset.
So my question to you is: what are you doing next Christmas? Waiting for Wham to drive you mad or going for a little adventure on the other side of the arctic circle instead?
More about Swedish Lapland