Simone accompanied a small press trip to Swedish Lapland showcasing one of our client Simply Sweden’s new trips to explore the Iron Trail in Luleå.
It resulted in a few fantastic articles, including Mark Rowe’s piece for National Geographic Traveller Magazine and Nick Redmayne’s article for The Independent on Sunday. Meanwhile, here’s Simone’s take on the experience…
You can Walk on Water in Swedish Lapland
I’m driving on water. Well, not exactly. The sea is frozen and I’m carving a pristine path with my snowmobile through a layer of virgin snow. Four kilometres into my Arctic ride, a new confidence has tempted me to venture briefly off the tracks ploughed by commuting locals and the dedicated volunteers that maintain them.
It’s a strange sensation knowing that just a few months earlier all would have been liquid beneath me. But I relish the oddness and pull up my mechanical steed so I can dismount, stretch my limbs and take in the scene.
The white wilderness dazzles. Only the odd clump of trees defines the horizon. And as the sun finally struggles to peep above the treetops – its highest point in winter –the ground glistens with a million ice diamonds.
I’m deep in Swedish Lapland, and I’m here to explore part of the Iron Trail, or Malmens Väg – a 210km winter route used for walking, skiing, snowmobile and husky-sled expeditions. Opened by King Carl Gustav XVI in 1995, the origins of the trail stretch back to the early 1700s, at least, when the route was used for the transportation of iron ore from the mines of Gällivare, north of the Arctic Circle.
Industrialists employed the indigenous Sami people to make the five-day journey down the frozen Råne river to the sea, hauling their precious load south-east to a smelting facility in Strömsund. Lead by a man on skis, the renrajd, or reindeer caravans, consisted of eight to 12 animals tied together, each pulling a heavily laden canoe-like sled called an ackja.
But I’m lucky enough to have this state-of-the-art snowmobile for my trip and I’ve just clocked up an impressive 60kmph across this brilliant-white canvas. For as far as I can see, the vast expanse is furrowed with lines that occasionally meet – where paths have, literally, crossed.
The gouges in the snow bring to mind the ancient songlines of the indigenous Australians – this extensive network of tracks also helps the locals to navigate vast distances, connecting communities, neighbour with neighbour, even the past with the future…
It had taken a little while to get used to handling my 21st-century mount. Earlier, as our small group had set off in the dusky mid-morning, I’d missed the gap in the hedge and careered £10,000-worth of metal at significant speed through the shrubbery at Pine Bay Lodge.
“You need to be masters of these mean machines!” Roger, a survival guru and our expert guide had asserted. I was his example of how not to do it.
“This is an intensely physical activity. You will need to use your full body strength for the next three hours to maintain control so that you can enjoy the experience without getting hurt.”
Jerking and jumping along a magical forest trail, I had gradually gained control, relaxed my white knuckles and begun to enjoy myself. Increasingly exhilarated, I ducked and swerved to dodge whipping branches and boughs bent with snow. I whizzed past one of our group, who’d accidentally gone off-piste and was trying to reverse out of the icy undergrowth.
An hour or so later, I’m no longer a novice. And I’m standing on the frozen sea, gazing out over the Gulf of Bothnia, the northernmost arm of the Baltic. Thankfully, the powdery top coat covers at least 50cm of ice, gradually formed over previous months. Though I do hear the occasional, disconcerting, cracking sound.
“Don’t worry,” says Roger, trying to calm my fears. “The upper layers need to give a little under pressure.” Right.
In summer, this body of brackish water gently laps the shores of the 1,300-plus pretty islands that make up the Luleå Archipelago. And it’s the minimal movement of the sea between them that turns this into a traversable route come winter. There are temporary ice roads, too, and this archipelago is home to the longest in Sweden, at 15km. From January to April, it provides an essential connection for some of the larger islands. (Months later, I hear that no road was constructed that winter – the ice wasn’t thick enough. In such situations, a strictly timetabled helicopter or hovercraft service is provided.)
Only the largest 10 islands are populated – by fishermen and a lone cattle farmer says Roger. But even most of these hardy souls make the pilgrimage back to the mainland when the big freeze sets in. Earlier, he had told us how two groups of four or five Sami had recently herded some 1,000 precious reindeer back off the frozen islands so they could forage and survive. Despite being accomplished swimmers, the reindeer are also at risk when the thaw comes. Boats full of reindeer are not an unusual sight.
It’s late January – deepest winter in this region – and “freezing” doesn’t quite capture the essence. This is no time for vanity, so I am seriously layered up against the Arctic extremity. Temperatures can vary from Roger’s “positively balmy” -15°C to a potentially dangerous -40°C. Add in a possible wind-chill factor and the cold is simply incredible.
I have massive, barely flexible, army-issue gauntlets to protect my hands, which at first they prevent me from applying a light touch to the throttle. If I stand still, it doesn’t take long for the cold to penetrate my padded snowsuit and inch-thick boot soles. Only my eyes and cheekbones are visible through the slit in my helmet. My breath freezes on the inside of my balaclava. My eyelashes twinkle with icicles – I could be an extra from Frozen. Roger stops frequently and shows us how to check each other’s faces for early-onset frostbite.
There are more survival essentials: “Try swinging each leg while stationary – it keeps the blood flowing,” he counsels. (The following day another guide teaches me “the penguin dance”, which can stop your fingers and hands feeling like they’re going to fall off.)
This is an extreme place in winter. But that’s undoubtedly what makes it extremely beautiful. There’s a big, swaddling silence, like someone’s pressed the mute button – yet you know there’s noise out there.
Behind me, the mouth of the Råne beckons. And I’ve more to see before the short-lived daylight disappears. So it’s time to get the motor running and turn up the river valley for the last leg of our expedition. Little in the frozen landscape appears to move, but I slowly train my eyes into snow-vision mode to spot the wildlife that Roger points out.
On our snow safari we see reindeer, but we also spot a dozen or so shy moose, snuggled under the trees, which turn tail into the forest as soon as they spot us. We inspect the tell-tale evidence of beavers, too – newly gnawed-and-felled tree trunks along the river’s edge. Here, we come across only the second person in four hours – he’s one of those locals who reploughs the tracks (earlier, we’d also encountered a man who was marking out the Iron Trail with saplings).
We stop for an al-fresco pre-prepared feast, which is cooked by Roger over a fire pit. There’s a wooden shelter – a bit like a bus stop – too, for the convenience of passing adventurers like us. I lay out the reindeer skins that have been my cargo, which act as a protective layer between our feet and the frozen ground. We crowd around the fire to watch the reindeer and potato stew bubble. Hot lingonberry juice slips down nicely, its warmth quickly enlivening my toes.
But we’re lingering too long over lunch. “The sun is going down and we don’t want to be out here in the dark,” Roger says. Agreed.
We lose the light quickly. All around us is fading to grey, though the full palette is in use – from metallic silvers, to dark gun-metal, and dusky blue-pinks. The temperature drops suddenly, too. We quicken the pace and Roger herds our group of snowbeasts, their shining eyes guiding us towards our destination – the Aurora Safari Camp, a rather unique cluster of wilderness lodgings, hidden in the forest.
Darkness has fallen. But there are lights in the trees ahead – flickering candles, illuminated cone-shaped tents and, after a long day out in the cold, the welcome sight of a roaring fire.