Kiruna – Part 1

January 3, 2013

I was transferred from the airport to the Ice Hotel, which is incredible.  As I was staying in one of the cold rooms, I was directed to the Dressing Room Reception where we are given lockers to store our bags and kitted out in those beautiful suits and boots.  The Ice Hotel is open to visitors so we aren’t able to have exclusive access to our rooms until after 6pm but it’s not like you are going to sit around in your room anyhow.  And obviously, you can’t put your bags in it because everything will freeze…literally. The suits here were much warmer than the ones in the Kemi, then it was off to check out the Ice Hotel itself.

The first room I checked out was my own, funnily enough.  The bed is a square box made of ice but the centre is hollow, so it forms a frame (if that makes sense).  Over the box there are wooden slats with two single mattresses pushed together to form a double bed.  There was a covering over the mattresses and then reindeer hides on top.  Each room also has a table and chairs – made of ice.  Not somewhere I was going to spend much time sitting at.

Then there are the design rooms – each one has a theme and they are all different and amazing, some more beautiful than others (personal opinion only) but all equally incredible.  There was also a deluxe suite that actually has a door rather than a curtain and it was unfortunately locked.

There is also a chapel for icy weddings and the Ice Bar.

My first activity for this section of the trip was ‘Northern Lights Tour on Snow Mobile’.   We left at 7pm and drove about 30kms, made a few stops along the way but given that it was snowing we had no chance of seeing the Aurora Borealis.  At one of the stops there was all this fresh snow around us and everyone was just looking at it, so I had to make a snow angel.  We got to the cabin for dinner and thawed out a bit.  We had a ‘sandwich’, which was a vegetable wrap (besides lettuce, I’m not sure what other veggie was in it) and then had Moose Stew.  I seemed to get a plate full of potatoes but it was ok – a bit bland but edible and a yummy apple and coconut pie for dessert.  All washed down with warm lingonberry juice.  It was great fun and managed to get up to 47kph.  Some of the tracks were fairly bumping and I got a good giggle out of watching this row of tail lights in front of me bouncing up and down as we went over the bumps.   Because I was on my own I got to ride my ski-doo the entire time….bugger this sharing caper.  As I was going as a single, I’d had to pay for solo use, so I wasn’t about to share anyway.

Now I’m back for my night in the ice room, it’s 11.45pm, I have to be up at 7am and I’m bloody wide awake.  We have to do a mercy dash in next to nothing, from the warm area to get to our ice room and if you need to pee in the night you have to do the dash again.  Alas there are no ice toilets !  I’ve had my briefing on how to survive the night, so I guess I’d better start getting ready at least.  I wanted to have a drink at the Ice Bar but I was doing anything to avoid peeing the middle of the night.

What can I say?  I was cold and uncomfortable and the first time this entire trip, I needed to pee in the middle of the night.  At home I go through 2 litres of water a day and here I’m lucky if I’m drinking 500ml and the one night I didn’t want to get up, I had to….damn it.  I’ve done a fair bit of camping and don’t have any problem with sleeping bags however I do usually have my arms hanging out.  These bags are fairly tight and for hygiene reasons you have use a bag liner or bin liner as I prefer to call them.  I hate sleeping bag liners, they drive me insane, so I was off to a bad start already, plus I’m sure they gave me a double liner instead of a single.  Anyway, I get in my liner and then my bag and I’ve got my thermal long johns, top and sox on and I zipper up.  The zipper doesn’t want to stay done up so I have to hang on to it.  There is a cord that goes around the hood that keeps getting in the way and there is Velcro that is meant to hold the zipper that is right under my chin.  I’m in the middle of the bed and all is going ok but after a while my back is getting cold and I realize the mattresses have parted slightly and pushing them back together just wasn’t happening.  So I had to sidle over to one side of the bed and I was terrified of falling out of bed because the first thing I’d hit would have been the edge of the ice bed frame and then the floor – all of which would be bloody cold.  I have heard that a number of people did actually fall overboard.  I was feeling a bit claustrophobic in the sleeping bag, especially when my beanie would fall over my eyes.

Anyway, I needed to pee and I had no idea what the time was but I also knew that if I got up, I wasn’t going back so I kept on trying to sleep.  Eventually I had to make the mercy dash and took my sleeping bag with me.  When I got inside there were a couple of other people around the place but it was only 5am and the chairs in the lounge area weren’t that fabulous for sitting in, let alone sleeping in, and I was really tired, so I put on an extra layer of clothes and a whole lot of bravado and went back in.  I did actually sleep for until about 6.30am and rolled over and was cold again, so threw in the towel.

Would I do it again….hell no!  Am I glad I’ve done it…hell yes!

My morning activity was meant to be cross country skiing but we ended up snow shoeing instead.  We went in a sledge towed by a snow mobile into the forest. The snow shoes look nothing like tennis racquets and it’s a lot harder than it looks.  It requires a wide walking stride, as you have to allow for the extra width on your shoes.  Again, we stopped at a cabin for the obligatory warm lingonberry juice and cake, back to the sledges and driven back to the Ice Hotel.

I had a bit of time to kill before my transfer so decided I’d better investigate the Ice Bar.  There were two cocktails that I liked the look of so I asked the bartender to surprise me.  The drinks are themed on the art suite rooms, so I ended up with a drink called ‘Nest’.  I was pure alcohol and it was good.  I could easily have gone through the entire menu.  That barman has the probably the cushiest bar job in the world because he never has to clean a glass, as they are all made out of ice and obviously, they don’t recycle them because once you finish your drink, you do what I did and just stand there licking the glass.

I transferred that afternoon from the Ice Hotel to Camp Ripan just on the edge of Kiruna whereas Ice Hotel is in a town called Jukkasjärvi about 20 minutes away.  Camp Ripan has 90 cabins and 90 camp sites which, strangely enough weren’t being used….these Swedes are such wimps.

My activity this evening was ‘Northern Lights Tour on Horseback’ but alas it is snowing again and we aren’t going to see anything.  Icelandic horses are quite short and rather round.  We had to help groom and saddle them and we had to try and get on the bloody things.  It’s hard enough in just normal clothes but with a suit on over our normal clothes, it took extra effort.  Having been out on snow mobiles the night before which have head lights and are just a tad noisy,  hearing only the sound of horse hooves and being in near total darkness was quite a change.  Thankfully we were wearing helmets because there were lots of trees overhanging the path.   We had dinner in a cabin at the stables.  Sitting on the floor on reindeer hides around a fire, we had moose soup (moose mince and vegetables).  It was really dark, as the only light was the fire and a few candles so we couldn’t see what we were eating but it was really tasty, I even had seconds.  On the drive back, we came across a couple of reindeer wandering down the middle of the road, so we had to sit behind them for ages until the decided to go back into the forest.

They’ve had a lot of snow here and I mean A LOT, so the trees are laden with snow and going out a night is really amazing.  Everything takes on a very ethereal and ghostly quality.  You could picture the forests to be pretty much anything with a bit of imagination.  It’s like being on another planet.

I had a late-ish start this morning…yay but I have finally driven a dog sled team.  Well, I guess I didn’t really do much driving as opposed to standing there and treading on the brake from time to time.  But it was excellent fun.  Those dogs are crazy.  They picked us up from Camp Ripan and then had a couple to pick up from the Ice Hotel.  I rode shotgun in the front seat.  It was another grey day and as we were going to the Ice Hotel we came over a rise and were looking down into the valley which is very forested and I realized it was like seeing the world in black and white or grey and white in this case.  I actually felt like I was in an old movie, it was very surreal but still very beautiful.  The guy is one-man business and there were two extra people that he hadn’t planned on so it took him quite a while to rearrange the sleds and set up another team of dogs.  As I was on my own and didn’t have a passenger, I only had a team of four dogs, whereas the others had six.  It also meant I didn’t have to share again…yippee!!

The dogs are really friendly and one of my dogs was the welcoming committee because she jumped up on each of us and would have accepted pats all day.  The dogs are not Siberian Huskies, apparently they are the poster dogs for sledding but don’t actually make good sled dogs they use Alaskan Huskies.  Not much difference in appearance but much better as sled dogs.

Because of the amount of snow, the owner/guide drove in front of us on an ATV (All Terrain Vehicle which doubled as a mini snow plough).  Dog sleds need a track or compressed snow, they can’t work on the soft stuff.  I was really excited about driving but also very apprehensive.  In Kemi, when Kristy had been driving, she was on the brake and it wasn’t doing much so I was a little worried about stopping and also about coming off because the dogs won’t stop, they’ll just keep on going.

Once the dogs are all harnessed, they get really excited and antsy to get going and bark and howl and carry on and when there are 22 all going nuts, it’s total mayhem.

Before the team is untied from the post, we had to be on brake otherwise they would have been off.  The first 5 minutes were a bit tentative, testing the brake and getting the feel of it and after that it was just brilliant.  We stopped frequently to start with, making sure everyone was ok and the dogs were working together properly and I would be standing on the brake with one foot but with most of my considerable weight on it and they could still move the sled (and that’s only four dogs), even with both feet on the brake they could still make it move a little.  Very strong dogs. The weirdest part to start with was getting one foot off the runner and onto the brake because it obviously shifts your balance.  I also realized pretty quickly that I had to loosen my grip on the back as I was hanging on for grim death.

The funny part was watching them eat the snow as they are running along or even better, face plant when we stopped.  Once of the couples at the hotel had said they’d seen dogs at the Ice Hotel and they were dirty and smelt disgusting.  When you get that many dogs together peeing and pooing, you’ll get that but they also poo on the run, which is fairly impressive in itself but it does get a little pongy.

We stopped for lunch at a teepee although it looked more like a tent-pee and again it was reindeer stew but it was very nice and the usual warm lingonberry juice.

We went for a short walk in snow shoes over the very soft snow and were sinking down to our knees and then I make the fatal mistake of losing my balance and falling forward.  Unfortunately, my snow shoes were pointing skywards.  I tried to bring one leg out and around, to get in front of me so I could stand but it wasn’t working out so well, being in hysterics wasn’t helping the matter.  Thankfully one of the guys in front helped me up, otherwise I’d still be out there, trying to swim out of the snow to the track.  I thought snow shoeing on a path was hard but in soft snow it’s damn near impossible.

Then it was back on the sleds.  Back in through the forest and unlike the horse ride, we didn’t have helmets so had to duck under branches.  There was one section where all the branches on either side of the track had grown together and formed a little tunnel which was really pretty but us drivers had to squat through to get through it.

It was a fabulous experience and I’d really like to do a few days of it.  While the noise and adrenalin of the snow mobiles was great fun and the horses were nice, nothing really beats the dogs.

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sounds like you are having an amazing trip. I was laughing at your exploits in this post …. the picture was so vivid!

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