Northern Lights, Dog Sledding and Sámi
Abisko — Sweden, 2012
Treading alone through the fresh, heavy snow in the shrouded dark of a late Arctic afternoon, in Abisko National Park, with mighty winter winds barreling down deafeningly from the sky and having just come across fresh moose hoof-prints without a hope in the world of deliverance if attacked was where we found ourselves on the first of the new year in 2012.
Yep, we were in for another adventure!
Sacred, wild, harsh, beautiful and seated at nearly the real life throat of the world in the province of Lapland, about 195 km (121 mi) north of the Arctic Circle and resting just below the Lapporten Mountain Pass, you’ll find Abisko.
She rules her land with a variety of extremes. Her solstices make you realize that the sun truly does “stand still” in these rotational phases. For three months out of the year, the Midnight Sun welcomes you with it’s nearly continuous illumination of the land in Summer. During the three months surrounding winter’s reign, the land is graced with about three full hours of sunlight per day (on average). One month out of that time, there is no official sunrise or sunset; you’ll see the sun’s rays at about 9:30 AM and it begins to recede again at 2 PM, leaving the land completely dark before the hands on your clock reach 3 PM.
She is one of the northernmost cities in Sweden, just on the border of Norway within the largest, northernmost municipality (Kiruna). She is what is considered an Arctic Desert, boasting the least amount of yearly precipitation in all of the country. However, don’t let this classification fool you! In late spring and summer she sheds her snow gown revealing beautiful green grass, juniper shrubs, and birch trees among the rocky hillsides and river streams that bend across the mountains.
Most the snow that you will see falling in Abisko will not be drifting peacefully down from the clouds above but flying in sideways with the heavy winds as her infamous U-shaped valley sanctions off most the torrential weather from herself leaving it for nearby cities like Kiruna, Björkliden, and Narvik to receive (some of which boast the highest precipitation and snowfall). Within her breadth, you’ll find the remnants of one of the oldest and most studied indigenous people still flourishing- the Sámi. These formidable and peaceful ancient boazovázzi (reindeer walkers) are posited to have followed the receding ice from Karelia at the end of the last ice age in between 9.500 and 10.000 BC, but little is still truly understood of them. This was (and still is) originally their homeland, called Sápmi. It is here, in this seemingly harsh realm, that we found some of the warmest hearts full of the most admirable passion for their history, land and the nature within it.
After an heavily delayed 18-hour train ride that was, albeit, well compensated for with free quality food and drink (coffee and reindeer meat on Swedish bread) and many Bud Spencer and Terence Hill movies later, we began our first night in Abisko.
When we arrived, the official train station was under construction, so we stopped at a temporary platform leading to two small structures serving as the apparent replacement station for the time being. Our luggage wheels tracing paths behind us in the snow, we walked the way up to our Hostel whose rustic entrance (complete with mounted Moose/Elk antlers above the doorway) we had only previously viewed on the booking website. There was something very satisfying about seeing it physically there in front of us, a sense of satisfaction that made us feel like mighty vikings. I could tell this was definitely going to be one of my favorite housings we’d ever had.
We made our way inside and found our room via our printed reservation name. Second floor, Room 5. As we climbed the short, winding stairs with our luggage and backpacks, about halfway through, I heard some loud, enthusiastic steps coming from above us. Upon opening the door to the second floor, we were greeted with a very happy host descending the staircase that was now behind us. I say “host” because I honestly can’t remember if it was Tomas or Andreas as these brothers are not twins but seem identical if you don’t have them in the same room together to discern which is which. But, they both share an adventurous, welcoming, and jovial disposition so it is a delight to be in the presence of either of them. He introduced himself, and quickly inquired about us with a joyful curiosity, asking when we were scheduled for the dog sledging, where we came from, and so forth. I was soon dubbed “Miss Texas” and he showed us to our room. Informing us he wasn’t the owner, he told us he would call him to let him know we and two other guests had just arrived.
While we waited, we got accustomed to our little personal space, put our luggage away and discussed some of the trip thus far. Soon after, a polite knock came to our door. This is when we met, as nearly everyone called him on our floor, “Grandpa” because, at this Hostel, you feel like part of a big family and the proprietor carries a strong elder paternal air about him. He then informed us of some of the conditions to be considerate of, asked how many days we would stay, which activities we had planned, and wrote down the details for his receipt. He then told us, in his kind, detectable Swedish accent, to meet upstairs in a few minutes where we could pay. Acknowledging us with a smile, he left.
Five minutes later, we grabbed our wallets and climbed the other half of the stairs to the top floor where I assumed Grandpa had his office since I glimpsed a PC in the adjacent room. There were two others before us that were going over the details of their stay with him like we just had, figuring out a total for the expenses. We waited politely in the narrow, attic passageway Grandpa was conducting his business in, but couldn’t help noticing they were staying the same amount of time as us. Ste and I exchanged a glance, both thinking it kind of fortuitous. Meanwhile, I was trying to place their country of origin by attempting to pick up on an accent. I can sometimes place it, but couldn’t here. When they finished the transaction and were turning to make their way back down, we greeted one another briefly, diving right into discussing an upcoming Black Sabbath tour-date and this is how we met our Parisian -as they would say it, “Bad Ass”- friends Benjamin and Camille with whom we would share the evenings in the coming days after great times of adventure out in the wilderness of Lapland.
3. Northern Lights Tour
Our first planned activity was set for the same day that we arrived -Chasing the Mysterious Guovssahas (“The Light that Can Be Heard”).
Scheduled to begin at 9 PM, but with our guide ready by 8:45 PM, we hurried down the stairs outside. It was nice for us to be in a country that took promptness seriously for once, but we couldn’t help feeling bad for being the ones that were “late”. That guilt, however, quickly receded when in the presence of the passionately excited nature of our guide, Klaus, as we stepped foot outside and began “suiting up” with our snow-shoes. We were a nice sized group of five (including the guide) and, much to our delight, we found that we had two familiar faces in our expedition group; our Parisian friends from before!
Former to our departure, Klaus introduced us to his dog that would be coming with us this evening, a beautiful female husky named Silka complete with a little backpack and all! He then asked us if we all had warm enough clothing equipped, warning us that our hike would see us out in the wilderness for about two hours so it was important to double-check this detail. Frostbite and hypothermia are not things to tempt.
Setting out, we walked for a good ten minutes and stopped at a clearing that saw us overlooking the town of Abisko. What a great way to introduce ourselves to where we’d be staying! Our guide informed us that we would stop like this several times throughout the hike and form a circle so that we could discuss the conditions with which one can see the Aurora, talk about some of the animal tracks we stumbled upon, or other natural conditions and facts. Every time that our guide would speak of the Aurora, his eyes lit up with a magnificent spirit of fascination and reverence. One could tell that he had some great memories with this natural beauty. When it seemed that you could just see something through the clouds above, he would point enthusiastically and tell us how normally one can spot the initial signs of the phenomena so that one knows where to keep looking and waiting for something to happen. The catcher about seeking out the Northern Lights is that you can’t just expect to see it so easily like lightning in a storm or other natural displays. You have to know when the conditions are right, have little to no cloud cover, and devote the whole night to hunting for this rarity.
After an hour of mild hiking, we arrived at our destination- a small cliff overlooking some forested area which was well removed from any light-pollution. This was a place fit for optimal viewing of the Northern Lights… in most cases. However, this night remained quite cloudy and we could only see what seemed like glimpses of very faint activity; an enigmatic face behind a pale, smoky veil. Things weren’t looking too promising.
Nevertheless, we watched the skies in silence for a while, all of us, while Klaus made a fire over which we could talk. All throughout the hike he had finished most of his explanations with, “…ahh, but… hmm! I tell you later!” as if to remind himself to save the best lecture for last. Silka, meanwhile, kept a safe distance. She didn’t much care for fires. Once the fire got going, our guide gathered us nearby to explain what exactly comprises of the Aurora Borealis, both scientifically and folkloric. These are two very important parts of the whole that is her mystery.
What breathes life into any given Aurora is the Solar Wind first and foremost which is a cosmic river of ions whose particles flow into the Earth’s magnetic fields and then become concentrated around and accelerated toward the poles along magnetic-field lines. The stage upon which she ultimately performs is the thermosphere (about 100 km/62 mi above us), a layer within our atmosphere that is divided into sections based on molecular mass. What determines the birth of an Aurora is the constitution of the atmosphere at the time of the particles’ arrival on Earth.
At any given moment, our atmosphere has a fluctuating concentration of nitrogen and oxygen among about seven other elements, but the former two are the ones that play the biggest roles in this production due to their instability. When atoms of nitrogen or oxygen become excited by the introduction of ions from the solar wind, nitrogen might gain an electron in the process and they will begin to emit photons of light (which is a form of released energy), henceforth the Northern Lights! The enchanting colors that we see are the overflowing or exchanged energy of the particles from earth frolicking with (reacting to) the particles bestowed from the sun. When you have mostly oxygen emissions taking place, the Aurora will appear green or auburn. When you, more rarely, have nitrogen gaining that electron we talked about before, you’ll see a blue or red Aurora depending on the state of excitation from which the particles are ascending or descending.
What causes the shimmering, ethereal Northern Lights to suddenly brighten and dance in a spectacular burst of colorful…www.nasa.gov
Now, for something very intriguing! Not only can you see the Aurora Borealis, but some people along with many throughout history, have claimed to have heard the Aurora too. Sounds of far off radio static, leaves rustling, or distant footsteps in the forest have been ascribed to it by eyewitnesses. It is posited that something called “electrophonic transduction” is what most likely causes these unique and beautiful “Auroral Whispers” to take place. The idea behind electrophonic transduction is that some low frequency radio waves could also have the same frequency of sound waves. Physical objects that serve as make-shift antennae (like wire eyeglasses, grass, hair, etc…) become conductors for these potential radio waves. When received, these waves vibrate those objects which produce the sound that is heard. This happens often in our galaxy, too. Not quite in the same exact way, mind you- we can only hear the following based on what satellites have picked up, but many planets in our solar system (especially Jupiter) emit radio waves at certain frequencies which have been recorded.
The whole mechanism through which the Aurora operates is truly fascinating which is, with all this activity and energy taking place and being interchanged, truly like a chaotically choreographed molecular ballet in the sky.
These magnificent displays above us have lead many people in the past to explain her in their own ways. From it being an omen of war (Fox Indians) to dancing human or northern animal spirits. Some Point Barrow Inuit believed it to be something wicked that could take you away, so they carried knives to protect themselves from it. Still others believed it was the dancing light of children’s spirits who died at birth (Inuit), a fire in the north for dwarves to boil whale blubber over or for great medicine men to concoct their remedies (Makah). Some felt they were torches carried by friendly giants to the north (Menominee), to it being a reminder that a peoples’ creator still thinks of them (Algonquian).
However, the Sámi, who are a big part of our experience in Abisko, hold some of the most enchanting beliefs. For them, the Lights were there to guide the souls of the lost dead away from the physical world and on to the next. When the great fires were alive in the skies, it was custom for everyone to behave stoically and parents made certain that their children were taught from an early age to remain quiet so as to show their respect or perhaps to not distract the wandering spirits from their elusive and resolved path. Maybe the whispers and hums from the Lights were telling them delicate directions that excessive noise would drown out, leaving the spirits trapped here. This was a very serious matter as it was believed that disrespect would acquire bad luck, sickness, or possibly even death. Shamans of the Sámi, Noaide, inscribed their drums with runes regarding the mystic lights so as to bind its energy to themselves and believed that invoking it allowed for a soothing tranquility to flow freely throughout oneself, perhaps divining the energies of those very heavens the dead sought; thinning the veil. Also within this idea that one can interact with the Aurora, they believed that if you whistled during its display, it would be capriciously drawn down to you and sweep you away. How simply delightful!
The Labrador Eskimo
In Ernest W. Hawkes’ book, his account reads
“The ends of the land and sea are bounded by an immense abyss, over which a narrow and dangerous pathway leads to the heavenly regions. The sky is a great dome of hard material arched over the Earth. There is a hole in it through which the spirits pass to the true heavens. Only the spirits of those who have died a voluntary or violent death, and the Raven, have been over this pathway. The spirits who live there light torches to guide the feet of new arrivals. This is the light of the aurora. They can be seen there feasting and playing football with a walrus skull. […] The whistling crackling noise which sometimes accompanies the aurora are the voices of these spirits trying to communicate with the people of the Earth. They should always be answered in a whispering voice. Youths dance to the aurora. The heavenly spirits are called selamiut, sky-dwellers, those who live in the sky”.
The Labrador Eskimo by Ernest William Hawkes, 1916,Government printing bureau edition,openlibrary.org
We discussed some of these points further with Klaus and among ourselves, still keeping a hopeful eye on the horizon, but didn’t end up seeing anything happen that night. What we took from this experience was still very valuable as we now knew not only what to look for on our own, but understood all the qualities that surround this breathtaking occurrence in nature so that we might respect it all the more. Actually, I might have been personally more disappointed if we had witnessed the Aurora on this night, so seemingly easily, unlike when we did finally get to see her in all her glory a couple days later.
4. The Actual Sighting of the Aurora
Waking up later than usual and looking out our window during that momentous day, we could see so clearly the mountains surrounding us in the distance that, until now, seemed not to be present due to the cloud cover which did obscure the land since we’d arrived. For me, the masked details around us didn’t dampen my experience of Abisko as it felt like a distant dream whose ethereal landscape reflected the history and spirit of this place. The province, the unique animals, the people, the way of life all felt so precious and sacred. And, like all things sacred that hope to survive in this modern world, it must be oftentimes hidden from the naked eye, kept safe in its seclusive nest from the excessive profane. This clarity was like waking up from that dream, only to find yourself in a new, more lucid one and each moment of it felt like a gift.
We went out shortly after having our coffee to survey the breathtaking location. Heading from our Hostel to the lake we had the rolling mountains on our left and the U-Shaped “Gateway to Lapland” on our right. The Sámi name for it is Cuonjavággi. It’s unique shape is reminiscent of the last ice age’s glaciers which carved the formation in the land via a process called “scouring”; a testament to those unforgiving times of earth’s history. Night soon fell and the cold came with it, but the clarity remained. We returned to our Hostel and this is when the real magic outside happened.
All the evening it remained clear so we checked the skies every fifteen minutes for about the duration of an hour or two. Finally, for the last time, we donned our jackets, scarves, gloves, second jackets, and hats to survey once more after our fruitless attempts before. Descending the stairs routinely, and opening the door without any expectation of catching her at this point, we soon realized we were in for a surprise.
As soon as we opened the door there was an instant of vivid shock, intrigue, and acute curiosity. For, above and just in front of us, there seemed to be a strange, unassuming light shooting across the night sky. It looked as if someone in the distance had suddenly turned on a searchlight and was aiming it into the vastness of nowhere. There was no specific colour, just a faint gray. Despite it being very weak, it was absolutely entrancing, knowing what it took for nature and the cosmos to produce this sight made it an object of exquisite artistry conceptually. However, like all ugly ducklings, a swan was preparing its debut. If there’s one thing the Aurora likes to do, it’s to surprise you when you have removed all your presumptions.
Slowly, the great band of light began to expand and undulate like an immense ribbon being slowly teased at one end. For a long time, it gradually transformed, gaining a small amount of green as it formed its legendary curtain right above our heads. We called to our friends to come quick and see! In the span of 30 minutes, the Lights snaked with a devoted listlessness, growing in some places, becoming brighter, then receding and recrudescing like a long introduction to an album or film, setting just the right mood for the crescendo. After all, one cannot appreciate a grand magnum opus without the accompanying state of mind.
It wasn’t long after another recession of color and light that she exploded into a luminous mass of green that started to suddenly and quickly curtain brightly, colorfully, brilliantly! Then, right before our eyes, she began to coil and serpentinely move across the sky with the precision of an emotionally charged interpretative dancer whose motions seem chaotic and unbound, but are ultimately ruled by a rigid and disciplined control through years of practice.
It’s length and breadth morphing constantly, sometimes it would stretch so far that it was blocked by the branches of bare birch trees around us. It was astounding to witness this display and seemed it couldn’t get any more stunning when, in the next moment, the great curtain at the end directly above us glowed a vibrant green, more lustrous than even before, and broke away from the rest of the ribbon by turning outward very visibly, as if on an axis from within the main band with a much greater speed than we had seen before. It wasn’t a languid and delicate process, but an elegantly outright, stark and beautiful rebellion against the main piece which was maintaining its uniformity to the calm, spiraling rhythm from before. If this were a song, it would be the guitar solo. This rotating arm continued to fan out in the opposite direction of the slower ribbon until it collided again with it and the entire piece seemed to break magnificently into multiple curtains like the imprints left by a snake in the celestial desert sands. These living, huge, imposing green wave crests in the sky overhead then began to slowly fade, losing their color and then slowly their luminosity until there was only a mere trace of them left.
We stood in absolute awe, bearing witness to this incredible event, that we didn’t even care that our hands and feet were burning with pain from being motionless out in fifteen below zero (Celsius) for so long. Everything, absolutely everything, was worth this supreme experience; worth witnessing this mighty river of energies flowing from the mouth of the sun and clashing with our receptive little blue sphere. Inspired, I began to ponder… was it guiding lost souls home this night or was it guiding our minds to the hearth of understanding something more recondite?
For many Northwestern Native Americans, the Aurora is referred to as “The Dance of the Spirits“. If one considers that, when our physical bodies reach their tethered end and begin to decompose, the basic components of us we no longer use get re-dispersed into the earth to nourish the land, then they go up and away into the atmosphere to share a little more energy, and, perhaps after some time, even further away from this lonely blue marble, into the eternal vastness of space to serve some other transcendental purpose. Well, maybe, just maybe some of our beloved that have passed before us share some of their energy with our closest star and maybe on those dark nights when we’re longing for them they make their way back to visit us, riding valiantly on the Solar Wind, exploding excitedly into the atmosphere and dancing more freely than ever before they could in what we so narrowly deem life. Perhaps that is the essential nature of the Aurora, that Goddess of [perhaps not the physical] Dawn, and why she only comes to those who really wait to see.
5. Dog Sledging
In between all our awesome journeys with the Northern Lights, we had some other equally marvelous, but more physically active experiences we participated in as well. One of them was our chance to really feel like a big part of a team, experience traversing the land in a unique, exhilarating way, and make a bond with an old friend of man’s. That’s right! Dog Sledging!
At 9:15 AM with barely any light in the sky, we were given the run-down on how to operate our sledges by Tomas and Andreas (the brothers who take care of their some 60 husky dogs near the Abisko Fjällturer Hostel), telling us how to operate on hills, how to brake, turn, what to do in the event that we fall, etc. What really made this unique was that we also got to equip four lovely, exuberant, and well-behaved dogs with harnesses which we then attached to our sledges. What was even cooler was that we got to drive ourselves! This gave us a chance to participate in an action passed down to us from our distant ancestors when they first formed their bonds with canines.
It is widely speculated that since man formed his connection with the animals he observed and studied as he developed, gaining them first as “living tools” (a term offered by Professor Pat Shipman, Penn State Anthropologist) and then forming stronger, more emotional bonds with them later, he has greatly increased his rate of success in a number of fashions. This has made this behavior a key trait in the human species and has been deemed by some anthropologists as, unsurprisingly, the “animal connection”. Not only is this a key advantage in terms of physical survival (being able to rely on your dog’s senses or strengths that you lack), but it allows for a unique, soothing camaraderie as well as an opportunity for introspection, effectively aiding in psychological survival, which can also greatly support the former.
Even in today’s society, our dogs serve as a helpful companion for those with medical needs, a loving addition to a family, or, for those with more reclusive lives, the introduction of a dog (or other animals as pets) into the home acts as almost a replacement for the human relationships that individual can’t or doesn’t wish to sustain. In effect, we feel either connected to another being via an old skill our species developed for what was (and still is) ultimately survival. This is a beautiful example of macrocosms of organisms coming together to help one another altruistically; ie, friendship. Something which, seen for what it is, is the most redeeming quality of ascended consciousness in all its forms.
We, as a species, have a tendency to personify emotions in the actions of others (human and other animals alike) so as to attempt to fill in the blanks that we don’t know in order to understand and relate to them, maintaining an, albeit sometimes illusory, accord allowing for empathy to take place. But, perhaps when we do this we are imparting and exchanging more than we rationally think. This allows us, in basic cases, to communicate compassionately since we form an emotional bond to that animal or person. Thus, so we have done just that with the soon-to-be domesticated wolf since he started to hang on the outskirts of our communities thousands [and thousands] of years ago, observing us the same way we observed him. Perhaps this has lended the dog, a survivor by similar means as man (hunter/scavenger), to likewise seek its continuance and preserve its status for posterity as well as seek emotional/psychological/physical comfort. Through picking up on the signs that we have so faithfully given them in the distant past regarding our emotions and state of mind they learned how to react in ways that were beneficial to themselves and to us, eventually developing centers of the brain more prone to understanding communication with humans over the years. Perhaps it is in this way that we have formed the incredible symbiotic relationship that we all know and love today. Perhaps this is what kept early man stable mentally, physically, and spiritually through the hard times that may have seemed ceaseless or impossible without a helpful friend. When you get to be so close with these highly intelligent animals, to direct them, to communicate with them as you are preparing them and sledging, you become connected to these ingrained traits.
There is a part of you that feels somehow whole and adventurous; not just because you are dashing wildly across the terrain of the Laplands, sight-seeing in probably one of the coolest ways, relying on your own dexterity and strength (to hold on, drive, brake), and having an incredibly fun time, but because I think it speaks to a fundamental aspect of ourselves that often lies dormant in our modern, easy lives today. You begin to feel an old concept of freedom arising and a primordial affinity and bond to the past (listening to the cadence of an old song of memory written in our DNA) opening its heavy eyelids. In that sense, it awakens an old part of us that still knows what it is to appreciate and taste the supple delight that is nature whilst respecting that gritty, raw reality behind it. Because, yes, sometimes we’ll fall, but even that fall is necessary (sometimes even exciting!) and we get back up again to chase that wavering, elusive elation that is always waiting for us if we know where and how to find it.
6. The Market
The Lapporten Stormarknad located very near to the Fjällturer Hostel we stayed at is a surprisingly diverse resource for food.
There, you’ll find all the ingredients you could ever need, ranging from your traditional Swedish items to Japanese and Southwestern U.S ingredients with everything in between. Here, you can also find a substantial supply of candies and chocolates. However, with great variety comes short hours of operation. In the Winter, they can close as early as 3 PM, so make sure to get your shopping done early!
7. Kind People and Friends
In Abisko, it is hard to not make friends. Everywhere that you venture to, there will be a warm, welcoming person waiting. It is a harsh and extreme land in many ways, but it’s people are infinitely kind and accommodating (so long as you show the same respect in return).
We were lucky enough to have made some fellow-traveler friends at our Hostel with whom we shared the delight of making a few dinners, granted we had to share most our ingredients for concocting our meals based on our limited supply (over New Year’s Eve holidays), but that made it all the more fun! And, after, we would share endlessly entertaining stories about our grand day of adventure! The friends we made in Abisko, Ben and Camille “The BadAsses”, made our experience come full circle.
8. The Sámi and Our Self-Guided Tour of Abisko National Park
Above the Arctic Circle in the Northernmost lands of Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, Finland) and Russia, there are a very ancient, arcane, wise and peaceful people called the Sámi. They are the remnants of a population that migrated with the melting glaciers at the end of the last ice age in approximately 10,000 BC. Their existence predates this migration and genetic research has linked them to a much older race whose details, it is postulated, could very well be lost to time. They are truly a living treasure walking upon this earth whose enigmatic contents may very well hold answers to what inspired much across the world in terms of civilization and the knowledge hidden within our mythologies as related to anthropology and history, providing us with further insight into ourselves. They are a people who believed to have come from the sky, they are the People of the Sun and Wind.
These were the people about whom we wished to understand more through our “Sámi Camp” experience we’d planned in Abisko National Park through the STF Mountain Station. The description itself, when we found it online as one of the offered activities, was thus:
“Come to The Sámi Camp, an exhibition displaying how the Sámi lived in the late 19th century. The camp is a reconstruction of a spring and fall residence. After a tour around the camp we enter the hut to gather around the fire, sip coffee and have some reindeer meat. We drink the coffee while discussing the life of the Sámi people.“
Initially, in my mind, I imagined meeting an old Sámi man in traditional attire, accompanied by his best adorned reindeer and welcoming us to his gamme (or, turf hut) where he had prepared coffee for everyone. Of course, this was but a brilliant and likely, arrogant fantasy. Upon reality settling in and re-reading the words used in the description, I realized it was more observational/museum oriented. This didn’t ruin my excitement as all knowledge is salubrious, I was just hoping it would be straightforward now. I’d read about some problems for the true Sámi community with non-Sámi people dressing up for the sake of tourism and divulging inaccurate information, dispersing imitative Duodji (handicraft), and so on. But, it was doubtful this would take place as far north as Abisko. Actually, my hopes of what it could be before were more at risk of being inauthentic, so it was good all around in the end!
9. The Adventure to the Camp Site
Before departing from our Hostel, we looked up the directions and map of the path we had to take from our current location to the Abisko Turiststation which was where the group was set to meet before walking to the camp site. Without a printer, I drew the map crudely myself. The estimated commute time by foot was thirty-five minutes. We were set to meet there at 3 PM. Planning for the worst case scenario, we left at ten minutes until 2 PM and thank goodness we did!
Outside, the sun wasn’t in the sky, but her rays of light were; visibility was good. It felt like late afternoon. We set out, following our map across the train tracks, through the village, and to the highway (E10). From here, it wasn’t too clear where the designated path began as a line of trees between us and where we should’ve been obscured our line of sight. We walked for a while on the side of E10 which made me feel uneasy, despite traffic being very sparse. After some minutes, when no path seemed to come into view, we decided maybe the walkway we’d seen the day before, near the camping area, was the one our map depicted. Concluding this together, we back-tracked to that location for ten minutes to check. Finding a small, snowy path outcropped through the trees, it seemed this was it! Moments later, we met a dead-end of dense subarctic forest. To our left was an apparent way back to the thoroughfare, judging by a set of human and dog footprints leading up a small hill in that direction. It was hard to tell where you could step safely if outside a path, I must note, as you could not be certain that your next step wouldn’t be seeing you sinking half your leg into the snow. It’s good fun for that to happen when it does, yes, but if you’re going to be walking outside in negative temperatures, like we were in, for an undetermined amount of time, it’s wise to avoid this if possible.
Climbing back up to E10, we decided to keep walking on until a discernible path diverged from the highway. Lo and behold, one eventually did. With the wind picking up strength and the moon rising brightly in the sky at a little past 2:30 PM (but looking more like 7 PM), we exited the highway to what we soon discovered was a scientific research area with various old, dark, abandoned complexes complete with cars out front covered in snow; they seemed they hadn’t been used in a while.
There was a single streetlight with directional signs in Swedish underneath it and not much else in the way of information. Everything looked and felt like a haunted old town from a horror film. The entire area gave me the creeps and my imagination was sent soaring with images of various undead bursting forth from the doors or windows of the buildings. After not finding a path going in the direction we needed, we quickly found our way out of this area (alive) and returned to E10.
2:45 PM, no sign of sunlight in the sky and on the highway again. We notice a trail separated from us by 3 meters (9 feet) and quite a bit of potentially deep snow along the way. Realizing this has to be the designated path to the Turiststation, we desperately opt to take it. After wading through knee-deep snow, we check the GPS to see if we’re on track. The good news was that we were. The bad news was that we weren’t even at our three-quarter mark (within Abisko National Park’s boundaries) going toward our destination. With subarctic forest all around us, even eventually between us and the highway, we walked quickly ahead, determined to reach the Turiststation, even if we were late and missed our group’s departure. Along the way, I remembered what our Northern Lights tour guide told us our first night in Abisko and the sentence repeated in my head a few times:
“The most dangerous animal that kills more people every year is not the brown bear or the grey wolf, but the moose!”
Realizing we were in the territory of these noble, often aggressive, unpredictable giants (adults are upwards of 2m [6–7ft] tall), my hairs stood on end a bit. But, still feeling the burning flame of adventure, I trudged on with enduring confidence, never forgetting to be cautious.
Triumphantly, at a little past 3 PM, we made it to the Turiststation! Not only that, but our considerate guide had the kindness to give us a 5 minute grace-period, so we weren’t left behind. He was happy and welcoming despite our tardiness.
Leaving the Turiststation, which was like a huge hotel with a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, our group walked along a footpath through the forest and up a large hill that was part of the mountain for about five or ten minutes until we came to a clearing with what was an apparent open-air museum like we’d thought. Only it didn’t have just the gamme, but various skeletons of lavvu (structures akin to the Native American tepee or wigwam) showing diversity in structure based on region, two other structures which were used to store food and supplies, and a more modern dwelling from the 1800s made from wood with a structure like a one-room house with a small door.
Our guide informed us that this location was actually built with the help of some Sámi in the past, so all the configuration was authentic. He directed us to each structure and explained its usage and significance, then gave us our own headlamps, and told us we could look around for ourselves if we liked while he started the fire in the gamme in preparation for our discussions.
Of course, we took a look around the area while waiting, Stefano took some photos as best he could with only the light of the moon, and I read some of the additional information posted by each structure. Soon, we were called to the gamme, everyone entered, and we shut the small door behind us, leaving the now roaring winds to the outside. It was already quite warm inside. The space was larger than it seemed from the outside and the reindeer pelts that blanketed the earth underneath us were accommodating. The roof above us had a small opened area at the top for the smoke to vent outward.
Our guide made some coffee over the fire and informed us that, when it was introduced to the Sámi, it became to them a favorite beverage. He passed around some traditionally dried reindeer meat (like [true] beef jerky) and we began to discuss the details of their way of life, history, and much more.
Our discussion would not have been as interesting and lively as it was without the presence of a magnificent older gentleman with a longish white beard, glinting blue eyes, glasses, and a charmingly kind smile who not only shared some excellent information about the Sámi, their reliance on reindeer, and life in this region, but made me feel more comfortable to share my thoughts on them as well. This made for a great forum to take place in the fire-lit gamme.
10. Our Return to the Fjällturer Hostel
All in all, we left our experience at the Sámi Camp very enthralled, fulfilled, and in a state of deep thought regarding this captivating and secretive people. For me, it confirmed many speculations I personally had about them and enforced me to seek further understanding of not only their origins but the manner in which their practices affected the face of mythologies and European Shamanic practices that are more widely known today throughout many old societies who seem but youths compared to the Sámi. This adrenaline of acquiring and sharing knowledge helped to fuel us on our arduous journey through the wilds of the Abisko National Park to the safety, camaraderie, and tea… oh, the brilliant tea that awaited us at our Hostel.
Back down that same path we took to get there, we walked in darkness like that of midnight even if it was only 5 PM to our watches. The mechanical whine of our dynamo flashlight was the only other sound beside the near-constant roaring wind, and our footsteps crunching the snow on the footpath. On either side of us there was deep snow and tall trees made barren by the winter whose branches, reaching towards the sky, seemed to be raking desperately at the stars. Sandwiched between the forest and the snow-covered hill leading up to the thoroughfare, we trudged in cautious fear of that which we couldn’t readily see, but there was something incredibly exciting about it all at the same time. That innate thirst for adventure and thrill was being quenched and we felt like we were truly living in this moment, that we had earned our experience and knowledge this night. I was on constant alert for sighting the hulking form of a moose, my hand clutching Stefano’s arm tightly as the snow became deeper and deeper. Even the scratching sounds of those bare branches were exaggerated by my adrenaline that was fueling my body for the potential need of self-preservation maneuvers (that is, running away).
In the desolation of it all, between these high frequency, buzzing, thoughts I considered when the next time may be that an opportunity for raw, natural adventure in Scandinavia might present itself to me again and became motivated all the more to enjoy the moment, despite the possibilities of danger which, I thought, were probably unlikely in reality. Then, as if on cue, the light fell on some fresh moose hoof-prints that were the size of my entire hand and advancing in the same direction as us. My heart pounded heavily and my brain couldn’t decide if it was excited, intrigued, or scared witless. Stefano retained his stoic resolve as usual. We walked on a while until the path turned in the opposite direction we needed to go and seemed to be leading into even more wild forest. Realizing this was probably where our moose was headed on his way home, this promptly caused us to scurry up the inundated hill and to the highway for the rest of our walk.
Up on the road in between walking rejoicingly, we had to embrace in order to protect ourselves from the powerful winds that often and unpredictably whipped up from Lake Torneträsk carrying with it much snow that pierced with cold and speed the skin of our faces if we didn’t cover. Sometimes, though, we’d throw caution to the wind and exclaim elatedly our sensation of triumph.
Soon, we made it back to our Hostel, met with our friends, made a meal of massive proportions, and shared some stories for a while together.
We had spent our last night in Abisko well… and we just knew that we have to come back someday.
Written by my wife, Alexa Renée Smothers , who also wrote Sápmi — an introduction, check it out!