Day 160, 161, 162, 163 & 164
The day had finally arrived! After days, nay a week of planning we had finally arrived at Dogsledding. For those of you who are not aware, about a week ago we decided it would be fun to head up North... way north... about 150km into the Arctic Circle north, to a small town in Sweden called Kiruna to have a go at some dogsledding. Well that's what we initially thought we would be doing. However five days later, I am writing this blog having done that and so much more.
Now before our grueling 4 day adventure we had the little matter of getting all that way North. A 1500km trip from Stockholm to Kiruna is most comfortably taken on a plane, yet as poor Aussie backpackers this was not an option and rather a 16 hour train journey ensued. To help you grasp how far this was, from Stockholm to Kiruna is the same distance as from the South of Italy to the South of Sweden. And as i sit writing this blog i am currently on the return trip of this long ass train ride.
Leaving at 6pm Saturday night and not arriving until 10am the next morning, we were completely stuffed when we arrived. Whilst we did find some open beds (we were real cheapskates and only paid for seats) at about 1am, with a 7am change of train we only got about 6 hours of decent sleep.
Stepping off the train, the first thing we noticed besides the snow everywhere was the cold. Now this was no 5 degree middle of Sydney winter cold, this was a wearing 2 thermals, shirt and jacket and still cold, cold. As our ride arrived to pick us up she informed us that this particular day was the coldest one of season so far. Coming in at a peachy -20, this had beaten all of our previous records by about 19 degrees. We expected cold, but nothing like this. Nevertheless we were here for a reason, spent a lot of dosh on this reason and nothing was going to get in the way of it.
We were whisked away, taken for a good 20 minute drive out of town to a little village with a name I couldn't read let alone pronounce. We met Bjorn, one of the guides, who drove us to a cabin in the absolute middle of nowhere and told us this would be our residence for the next three nights. I could not have imagined a nicer location. This place was on a river (which had completely frozen over), surrounded by trees, covered in snow and at least 1km away from any other human being. We were truly in the wilderness and I couldn't have been more excited.
Now living in the outback has it's sacrifices. Our little cabin had no electricity, no running water, no showers, no lights and as we would soon find out no toilet but rather an outhouse a 20 metre dash from the closest door. Now whilst this outhouse doesn't seem like an issue, imagine waking up in the middle of the night, needing to go to the bathroom and then realizing the toilet is outside, in the subzero temperatures and there is no light or heating once you got there. Even though it did have a nice heart cut out of the door so you had a good view whilst you dropped the kids off at the pool, it was quite an ordeal just getting to the toilet. This all came as a bit of a shock to us, never having done anything like this before. Our confusion was demonstrated fantastically when we asked our guide for the WiFi password and struggled to find the tv. However over the days we made do with what we had and became pretty good at it. We used candles for lighting, fire for heat, actually turned off our phones and froze our asses off to use the toilet. It was hard to get used to but looking back it was 100% worth it.
With no dog sledding planned for the first day, it was very much a chilled one and we did what we felt like. Starting with Lunch, Bjorn whipped us up some awesome tomato soup before giving us a little bit of a tour around. He showed us how everything worked and then headed back to base, leaving us alone. Eager to explore more we got suited up and headed out, raring to play in the snow. Down to the lake we went to see some more of this absolutely incredible place and also for a little bit of fun. Never having been on a piece of ice this big we had so much to do, so much to experience. Now mothers, we were careful on the lake. We tested everywhere we walked with a big stick just like the instructor said. After we had checked however we let our imaginations run wild doing everything we could think of. We made snow angels, wrote in the snow, took pictures, had sliding competitions, chopped holes in the ice, played drawing games with snow... The list goes on. We spent hours out there only coming in when we had to as the sun set and all light vanished.
By 3pm it was dark. And not just normal dark. This was absolute darkness. No streetlights, no car lights, no stars, no moon and certainly no lights inside. It was scary yet cool at the same time. Candles were everywhere and the few torches we had were strategically placed. We then came across the little problem of "What Now?" It was still the middle of the afternoon and very little to do. We played bored games, cards, played with our lasers, read books, explored the cabin, chatted to each other and by then it was still only 5. Luckily enough Bjorn rocked up again at about 6 for dinner so we weren't bored for too long.
Our first dinner was a food none of us had tried before and that was Reindeer. Tasting similar to beef with a bit of a kick the Reindeer went down awesomely with some potatoes and veggies. We even scored some dessert consisting of cookies which we drowned in butter making for a perfect meal. By the time we had made dinner, eaten and then cleared up it was already ten (everything takes really long without electricity and water) and we were almost passed out. Bjorn wished us well for our first night and headed off once again. Whilst we did want to hit the hay, we would never have forgiven ourselves if we missed some northern lights, yet another reason we had headed this far north. So we got dressed once more, grabbed some torches and headed into the black in search of elusive lights of the north.
Going on to the lake again we were met with disappointment, finding the sky covered with clouds. We passed time by making more holes in the ice, which is much more fun than it seems. However, after an hour or so of waiting we decided this wasn't our night and headed in, wrapping up an awesome day on a bit of a downer.
Day 2 started nice and early as we were woken up by our proper guide, Sebastian, who would take care of us for the next 3 days. After a bit of a hello and a quick breakfast we headed with him to the kennels to start our first day on the sleds. We were welcomed to the kennels before we even stepped out of the car by the dogs barking and howling away. Before we got a chance to meet them however we had to get suited up in our warm onesies that we would bearly take off over the next three days. To the dogs we went meeting all of Sebastians 24 canine friends. We played with the puppies, tried to learn some of their names and began to get everything together so we could head off.
After a bit of a struggle with the dogs we got them all harnessed up and attached to the sleds, letting only three escape in the progress. We caught the escapees, were given a quick how to on sledding and that was it, we were off. With the snow at low levels unseen at this date since about 100 years ago, our journey was quite a rough one. With some places, especially at the start of the run not being covered at all, there were a few close calls. Whilst the dogs powered over the bumps and holes we felt the brunt of it on the sled, struggling at points to hold on.
We headed through the forests around our place on a good 25km ride. After a little while we got very used to the dogs and it was very easy to do. We went passed a giant satellite station and onto a lake which was absolutely covered in snow. It was probably the most enjoyable part of the ride as we could just let the dogs run without having to worry what was around the next corner. We rode past our house and soon we could see the dogs were getting a bit tired. We stopped over for a quick rest before heading back to the kennels to let the dogs sleep it off.
By the time we got back, packed the dogs away, fed them and got back to our cabin, the sun was long gone yet the time was only four. After a quick bite we were out again this time onto the lake, giving our ice fishing skills a bit of a test. So in the dark we sat, casting our rods into holes we cut, waiting around for some bites. Now whilst normal fishing is usually boring, this was a was a whole new level of boring. Sub zero temperatures, pitch black skies and no idea where your line even is makes for some uneventful times. We must of sat there for about an hour without a single bite before we called it quits. Whilst we packed up then, this wouldn't be the end of our ice fishing adventures. Seb had a whole new idea to put to us, which we wouldn't hear until the next morning.
The rest of the night was very much a kick back and chill. We had gotten better at doing nothing by reading more and playing more board games. It may have been a boring night but the day certainly made up for that.
Day 3 started extra early with Seb coming into our cabin at about 7. Seeing how depressed we were after not catching any fish the night before he had come up with a plan that would make sure we would. We were going to put down a net. So a quick breakfast and a long getting dressed later we were out on the ice once more eager to get some fish.
Now whilst normally it's quite easy to chuck out a net, when you do on the ice you have the problem of well... the ice. So to start off we cut 20 holes into the ice which took us a decent amount of time. Next we had to thread a rope under the ice so we could tie the net to the end and pull it along. Now to get this rope under the ice we had to tie it to a stick and pass the stick in between the holes until we got to the end. The only issue with that was that we would have to stick our hands in the water to do it. So, manning up all we could, we all stuck out hands in the water and as quickly as possible we passed the stick down the line, freaking out whenever someone took to long and our hands began to freeze. Eventually, 20 passes later we pulled the stick out and celebrated, knowing we defeated the cold ice water almost definitely going to eat fish tonight :).
After lunch we headed back to dogs for trip 2, which we all excited about. Knowing how much fun the day before was and eager to see the dogs again, we couldn't wait to be on the sleds. Harnessing and lining up our dogs took considerably quicker than the day before as we all had a decent feel for it. By now I had learnt all my dogs names and couldn't wait to get out there with Slatan Ibrohimovich, Frost, Miko and Elvis. We took a similar route to the day before but being the cocky bunch we are we did it much quicker and started to slide around corners. Right near the end, Seb decided to take a bit of detour that involved some real all terrain sledding. Up a massive hill with very little snow cover we went, tiring both us and the dogs out completely by the time we got to the top. There on top we were taken to a Teepee that the company has placed there permanently. So to give both us and the dogs a break we stopped inside, made a fire and drank coffee and even had a bite of our second new food, Moose. It went down just as well as the Reindeer.
By the time we had eaten and drank we realized the sun was very low in the sky and we needed to get back before dark. We raced home with the dogs trying to beat the sunset but ended up coming home in the dark. Luckily Seb had a torch and the dogs had better eyesight than us. We pretty much let them run and just hung on for the ride.
After getting back to base and packing the dogs away the sun was truly gone. However we still had to go and check what we caught. So all of us picked up torches and headed back to our net keen to find our dinner. It was then the moment we had all been waiting for happened. As we walked along the ice on our final night and looked up at the sky there was not a cloud in sight. 1000s of stars were everywhere and to top it all off the northern lights came out to say hi. I was ecstatic. I had been waiting for this moment ever since we had left home. They weren't as vibrant as I might of hoped but still, I had seen the Northern lights! We kind of just stood around for a while admiring the lights dancing above us. They moved all across the sky and with the backdrop of all those stars it couldn't have been better. As we went to go get fish they still shone above us and I was quite distracted whilst we pulled the net out.
Then came the moment of truth. Would we be eating like kings tonight, or would we be going hungry. We slowly pulled out the net, hoping to find a mother load of fish. But we ended up pulling out only three, an achievement we were still happy with. We headed back to the cabin, prepared our fish and ate them with potatoes and veggies. Although there wasn't that much food to go around, we were so proud that we had caught the food we were eating.
Whilst usually at this point we would call it for the night and be bored for a while, on this particular evening we were given something else to do. Seb showed us that right next to our place was a traditional Swedish wood fire Sauna. We could think of nothing Better. As soon as dinner was over we started the Sauna up and waited for it to get hot. Once it was ready we were in it and loving it. In the absolute middle of nowhere, in sub zero temperatures with no lights but our candles we were chilling in a Sauna. It was incredible. What made it even more fun was once we were hot, we ran out into the snow to cool off, an awesome feeling. You could only stay out there for a couple of minutes however as you got real cold real quick. It was an awesome to way to wrap up the best day of the trip so far.
Our final day started with a big clean up and pack up as we were saying goodbye to the cabin. As much as we loved the lack of electricity and running water, our time in there had come to an end and we were forced to leave. We took all our stuff headed to the dogs for our final time. We quickly harnessed them and attached them to sled as if we had been doing it for years and were ready to go in no time. Our final trip was a bit of a shorter one as we had to be back early. We headed to same lake we had been on every trip bit rather than just taking it easy we raced against each other, seeing who was the better musher. We stuffed around there for a while, took a bit of a scenic route home but sadly our time eventually came to an end and we packed up the sleds for the last time. We had a heartbreaking goodbye with the dogs knowing we would probably never see them again. Even though it was three days we felt like each of our groups were our own.
Now at the beginning of the trip we were asked by the guides what we would like to do besides dog sledding over the next four days. Knowing that we were but a couple of minutes drive for the famous ice hotel we asked if we could go see it, even though it was not complete yet. Luckily enough, Seb actually had a meeting at the hotel a few hours before our train was meant to leave. So to wrap up our epic journey in the lands of Kiruna we were taken to go see the Hotel.
Arriving there, Seb told us his meeting was about 2 hours long and we could do whatever we wanted until then. We thought that wouldn't be enough time but then we saw the hotel. Behind a whole bunch of security gates, there was a large group of people shoveling snow and ice in all directions. We could kinda see the outlines of the hotel but it would be a while before anything serious was built. To say the least we were disappointed. Not only were we not going to see the hotel but we now had 2 hours to kill looking at a pile of snow.
We began to just walk around trying to get a better look at the place. We went to the one side and saw a couple of people building a sculpture out of ice which was kinda cool, yet nothing compared to what we were expecting. Then we went around the other side...
On the other side we happened to find a break in the gate, used as a driveway for the hotel. Acting as really over interested tourists we slowly and subtly edged our way in, stopping anytime someone looked at us. After some time we found ourselves right next to the hotel, standing next to a press crew who was making a documentary. We spoke to them for a while before we ever so innocently dropped the question "can we take a look inside?". Now im pretty sure this guy had no authority whatsoever but after he took a quick look around he said "go ahead".
We were in! Thinking very little had been built we expected to see some passages made of ice and maybe some empty rooms. Little did we know that this side of the hotel was due to be finished the next day and all the artists were there putting the final touches on their rooms. It was incredible! We got the chance to go in every room and speak to every artist. We took photos, asked them questions and were even asked for opinions by some of them. (we told all of them they were fantastic). It was a once in a life time experience being able to see the hotel without any other tourists around. Whilst we did eventually get kicked out by security, we didn't really care. We had seen the ice hotel in a way no one else ever does. It was the perfect way to finish off our tour.
After two hours had passed Seb drove us back into town stopping to grab a bite to eat before the train. We said our goodbyes and hopped back onto another 16 hour train farewelling one of the most exciting parts of our trip.
I think this blog is long enough and so I'll wrap up now. We absolutely loved Kiruna and I will absolutely be back again. However for now I can't wait for a decent shower and some warmer temperatures. Speak to you all from Copenhagen.