Teeth chattering, I began to realize the meaning of the words the guide, who was standing, right behind my back, was shouting to the husky dog, running in front, appearing to be the leader of the group of six dogs that pulled the sled. They were behests.
“rätt” the leading dog turned right “vänster” turned left
Sometimes the leading dog would turn back to look at us, actually at the guide, as if asking for confirmation of command, all while the sled shook, turned and jumped in that snow path. Even though I had several layers of clothes, my ass was sore from hitting the wooden seat so much.
I was worried and hugged more tightly my wife who was sitting between my legs. The icy wind hit her right in her face. I felt like she was shaking too.
The dogs wouldn’t stop at anything, they’d go on barking at full speed. They didn’t even slow down to poop, they would lower their asses, like a lizard standing running with their hind legs and defecate right in front of us. A grotesque, smelly spectacle that put in doubt what we expected would be a romantic ride in the snow, through the woods.
Suddenly, we went down into a ravine and with a tremendous bump that took us high, and almost pulled us out of the sleigh, we entered the petrified ice lake.
This romantic adventure took two years to materialize. I don’t quite remember who had the initial idea, I suspect it was my own wife, who then convinced three other couples, friends to go along. The plan was to spend at least one night at the Ice Hotel in northern Sweden, about 200 kilometers above the Arctic circle and the hotel only accepted bookings two years in advance. The demand was very high, probably from people as crazy as those of our group, but surely of a few tropical freaks like me and my wife, born in a continental tropical country that when it snows, way down south, high in the mountains, makes headlines in all the news.
Planning the trip, the group came across two options to go from the airport to the Ice Hotel.
“We can go by car or sleigh” Informed one of the group who was helping to organize the trip
“Let’s take the sled, it’s romantic”
With these words, the women decided immediately. The men, I know now, wrongly, did not object. After being pulled by stressed dogs, jumping over holes and rocks on the path, avoiding trees, I think the romantic would be to have taking a car. Much faster, comfortable, warm and safer.
The small plane took us from Stockholm to Kiruna in Lapland, a city that is literally on the move. Houses and buildings are being placed on top of huge trucks and transported to a new location, New Kiruna. This move that began in 2018 should end 20 years from now.
Kiruna is a city of approximately 125 years that without much planning, spread above the largest iron mine in Europe and the city center began to sink because of the mine tunnels and caves. Houses were built in New Kiruna, but a large part of the original, old houses and buildings are being transported to the new site.
Through the plane window, I saw that the airport was all white covered in snow except for the landing runway, but I was confident. I was dressed in a ski jumpsuit, boots and had in my pockets, gloves, ear protector and a head beanie, sure I was ready to face the cold. I quickly changed my mind and realized I was totally mistaken when I got off the plane and felt the wind and cold air penetrate my bones. I ran to the terminal to claim the luggage, listening to the barking of the dogs.
After retrieving the luggage, I was pleased to realize I didn’t need to carry them to the hut that was near where the dog’s barking came from. In the heated hut, I was informed that what I was wearing was totally inappropriate for the cold of that region and I was given immediately a huge jumpsuit to wear on top of all my clothes, that covered me completely from head to toe, boot and all, I felt like I was the Bibendum , the Michelin Man and could only walk turning the body from one side to the other.
Outside the dogs abuzz, restless, electric, wouldn’t sop barking, they wanted to go, pull the sleds, run. Each couple took a sleigh and we left so fast that if it wasn’t for the back of my sleigh seat, I wouldn’t be able to keep my head.
The icy lake, although colder, was the best part of the trip, the sleigh glided softly, I even felt a little warmth, probably coming from the warm blood on the tip of the capillary vessels of my ass that should be red at that point due to the beating it took from the sled seat. As I was enjoying the ride, I spotted the Ice Hotel at the end of the lake.
The Ice Hotel is much more than a hotel it is a small village, part of the city of Jukkasjärvi, which began to be built in 1989 and is formed of temporary ice buildings that are rebuilt every year in early winter and normal heated buildings. Temporary ice buildings include in addition to the hotel, bars, a church and a small museum. Heated buildings include a hotel, called a dry hotel, restaurant, bathrooms, storage facilities, and other buildings needed to maintain the small village.
The entrance to the hotel looked like the entrance to a large igloo, we entered the lobby, all made of ice, chairs and armchairs, staircase, even the gigantic chandelier that appeared to be crystal, was made of ice. As soon as we checked in, I immediately went to the bar, also made of ice, thinking that an alcoholic beverage would help me warm up.
“Please a big glass of red wine”
“The only drink we serve is vodka”
“Just vodka, why?”
“Vodka doesn’t freeze”
“Better, please a glass of vodka”
It came served in a glass, of course made of ice, looked like a normal glass only of thicker walls. I wasn’t the only one ordering the drink, others in our group did the same and we sat at a table embedded in the ice wall. I’m glad the bench was covered in animal skin, which I would later come to know was reindeer skin, the same Santa Claus use for his sled.
The hotel rooms were only available to guests after six o’clock in the afternoon. Until then they were open to visitation, because each room was an ephemeral work of art made of ice.
Heated inside from the vodka, we went to visit the rooms. They had no door, just a curtain. Common to all, a bed, a huge block of ice covered with reindeer skin, each room, unique, exhibited sculptures, paintings and other works of art. The décor included everything you can imagine, statues of people, animals, trees, palm trees, a wonder for the eyes I’d never seen before. I learned that sculptures and works of art are redone, different every year.
Our room had no windows, my attention was drawn to a small opening in the ceiling. I asked the person who was showing it to us.
“What is the hole for?”
“It’s for ventilation and cleaning”
“Yes, as many people visit the rooms the floor gets dirty, so through the opening we dump more snow to cover the dirt”
I found this way of cleaning a room very interesting, too bad we could not use something similar in our house.
Worried, seeing the ice bed covered only with reindeer skin, I asked another question
“Are there blankets for the bed?”
“Blankets per se no, we provide sleeping bags, which you can ask for in the building attached to the hotel” Fortunately one of the “dry” buildings, meaning heated, near the common bathroom.
After visiting the hotel rooms we went to visit the church which despite being made of ice is a real church, part of the parish of Jukkasjärvi, with ice seats, ice altar, all in ice. From there we went to the little museum that exhibited artifacts of the native peoples of the region and walking around the vicinity we came across, behind the hotel, with a huge pile of ice glasses. The bar did not wash the used glasses, they simply threw them out the window, to be melted during the summer.
Exploring the place, I thought up to that moment that ice was ice, white. I learned however, that there were several types, including white and blue ice. Blue ice is formed when moving water freezes and therefore contains no air and displays a bluish color. We came to see the place where ice was harvested. Ice blocks are cut and stored in cold chambers during the winter to be used to build the buildings the following year. Early in the winter, when construction takes place there is not enough ice material available.
When it was time to go to bed, we went to the place to pick up the sleeping bags, the attendant immediately gave a sleeping bag to me and another to my wife. Thinking that it didn’t match the romanticism of that trip and the works of art in our hotel room, I asked:
“Don’t you have a double sleeping bag for couples?”
“Yes, we have, but no one asks for them, everybody prefer individual bags”
“But that’s not romantic” I argued “we want a double sleeping bag”
My wife didn’t say anything at the time, but to this day she thinks that was the biggest mistake I made on the whole trip.
While I undressed to get into the sleeping bag, my wife decided to sleep fully clothed, jumpsuit and all. The whole romanticism ended right there. In my underwear and a t-shirt, as I usually sleep, I got in the bag. Now imagine the drama, having to close the zipper of the sleeping bag that is outside, with you inside, showing only the nose and the mouth. During the night I felt that my breath passing through my moustache condensed, drip and froze. In addition, the slightest movement inside the bag caused freezing air to enter the sleeping bag. Impossible to sleep. I thought there couldn’t be anything worse.
I held the urge to go to the bathroom to pee, but it came at a point could not held any longer. As soon as I got out of the sleeping bag, as I stood on the bed, my body immediately froze, and to get my clothes, I had to get off the bed and put my feet on the ground, in the snow. When I finally got dressed, I went to put on my boot and noticed that my foot was of a purple color.
The bathroom was warm and nice. I wanted to stay right there, sleep there, but I couldn’t, there were a lot of other people who had given up on the cold room, some even sleeping on the floor or on the wooden benches available in the bathroom.
A man usually avoid admitting his mistake, but I had already passed the point of being proud. I went to get two single sleeping bags and we still used the double bag as a blanket. It got better, I was able to sleep about five minutes.
The next day early, they took us to our room at the other hotel, the dry, warm hotel. Entering the room, I fell to my knees and kissed the floor, as if I were the pope arriving at a place I was welcome.
We get some rest and before lunch we went out to visit a Lapland family, originally from the region, but who actually call themselves Sami. The nomadic Sami people have inhabited that area of Sweden for millennia and their lives revolve around the reindeer. If it wasn’t for the reindeer, these people wouldn’t exist. Of course, these days there is no need to be nomadic, but in the old days they were so dependent on reindeer, that when during summer, reindeer that preferred the cold, would move to the mountains that borders or are part of Norway, the Sami people dismantled camp and followed them wherever they went.
Reindeer provide animal traction for planting, harvesting, transportation and other tasks. Of them everything is used, the flesh, the leather, horn, bones. The leather serves as a blanket, clothing and tent cover.
We were invited to visit the Sami family tent. I was amazed at what I learned.
The tent is just like the American Indians’ teepee, round has only one room. This room serves as a living room, kitchen, bathroom for bathing and bedroom. The Sami guide prepared in the tent a delicious lunch of reindeer beef for us, and to my surprise, served us dessert and coffee!
Coffee, I know very well, does not grow in cold climate. Coffee is only grown in semitropical highlands. Nowadays it’s easy to figure that the Sami get coffee, but how about before? Mainly because coffee, from what the guide told us, is an important part of the Sami culture.
When someone visits the Sami tent, if the patriarch, owner of the tent, offers coffee to the visitor he is welcome, otherwise better to get out of there running.
Today there are several ice hotels in the world, in Norway, Canada, Japan, Finland even in Alaska, but the Hotel in Sweden was the first and is the largest. Our visit, our experience, what we learned was worth our time there.