Lights. Camera. Action. Mark Stratton goes in search of the phenomena, wildlife and people that make Swedish Lapland so special
Scrunching through freshly fallen snow, I looked up at a magnificent arc of stars undergoing cosmic bad reception as the sky began shape-shifting with jerking staccato movements.
A silvery rectangle materialised, then the lights concertinaed out like a Japanese sliding-screen and silhouetted the surrounding pines. The lights then reassembled, oozing smoothly like the matter of a lava lamp, before a celestial shower of stair-rods rained down. Aurora borealis had arrived.
This collision of solar-charged particles and atmospheric atoms left me ecstatic, rekindling childhood joys watching firework displays and appreciating my good fortune because seeing the northern lights is never guaranteed in Swedish Lapland.
But tonight it was -8°C, and the night sky unblemished. My camera, set for long exposures, sucked out an intensely luminous shamrock-green hue naked to my eye. The aurora proved challenging to photograph – like trying to get a toddler to sit still for a school portrait – yet I carried on taking pictures until my fingers froze, then watched this phantasmagoria play out until it vanished abruptly and uncloaked the starry sky once more.
I’d travelled to Swedish Lapland as the last throes of autumn transitioned to early snowfall, hoping the aurora might cast light over the darkness of a challenging year.
And what better place to socially distance? Isolation is a natural state of affairs in underpopulated Sápmi, to afford Lapland it’s Sámi name, where these remote indigenes have roamed the roof-of-the-world for thousands of years. During my four days here, I would savour this wilderness and meet the hardy souls who live off the land and ice.
But first something novel. Unfamiliar normality. Taking me to his remarkable Treehotel was Kent Lindvall. He wore no facemask and all of Luleå’s shops were open. “We’ve followed our own path in Sweden,” he said. “We’ve not closed our borders, everything has stayed open. Swedes are trusted to follow the rules on social distancing.” Nobody wore a mask during my four-night stay.
The gateway to Swedish Lapland, Luleå is an unremarkable port town on the Gulf of Bothnia’s northernmost shore, just below the Arctic Circle. It moved from an inland location to the sea in 1649, leaving behind a UNESCO World Heritage-listed town at Gammelstad. Here the 15th-century Nederluleå church remains surrounded by 405 little red cabins that once hosted the frozen faithful who traipsed across Lapland for Sunday service.
Seventy-five kilometres away in Harads, the Treehotel is up there with the Ice Hotel as Sweden’s quirkiest accommodation. We arrived at Kent’s old-fashioned guesthouse, a former geriatric home, soft furnished with touches from the 1930s. I stopped for a bowl of homemade Jerusalem artichoke soup before walking into the surrounding forest to seven extraordinary treehouses backlit by aurora borealis. Most eye-catching is the UFO, a five-bed silver flying saucer suspended by wires from the surrounding trees. It has a ladder stretching down to the forest floor and I half expected to see a little green man appear suggesting ‘he came in peace’. The Bird’s Nest took more finding, camouflaged by sticks, roomy enough for a family of four and a pterodactyl.
“A friend and filmmaker came to explore his childhood by building a treehouse here,” said Kent, next morning over waffles and blueberry smoothie. “We asked if we could rent it out to guests and noticed those who slept in it felt connected to the forest. In 2010, I met three Swedish architects on a fishing trip and challenged each to design me a treehouse. We subsequently added four more designed by architects across Scandinavia.”
But cosmic lightshows and funky accommodation aside, it was the hardy inhabitants that began to really capture my attention; inhabitants of an extreme landscape where midsummer sunshine radiates for 24 hours daily and winter temperatures plunge to -30°C.
“I saw the northern lights around midnight,” said Kim Jonsson, a local musher, later that morning. “But I was heading to my outhouse for a pee and felt too tired to get my camera.”
Thirty minutes from Treehotel is a farm near Krokfors where Kim runs Lapland Husky. My previous experiences dogsledding had been unsatisfactory. I’d experienced dogs driven too hard, not least in Greenland, and seen them chained up in enclosures snarling at anybody who went near them.
But any concerns about Kim’s dogs’ welfare subsided when a pretty Alaskan-cross with sapphire blue eyes ran excitedly towards me and slobbered my face with husky kisses.
Softly spoken, Kim explained he has just 26 huskies. He selected eight for a morning sled-run, all of whom careened around with excitement, howling towards a non-existent moon. “I never wanted too many dogs,” said Kim, attaching their harnesses. “I want to retain a personal relationship with each dog and to care for them properly.”
Training starts at between six to eight months, when the younger puppies are mentored by senior dogs such as 12-year-old Stella. She exuded the enthusiasm of a pup but didn’t miss a trick to stretch out on the snow to conserve her energy.
Kim explained that Alaskan huskies are lighter and faster than Siberian but without their endurance, although he has driven a team 100km in 24 hours. We would just be doing a quick loop around the pine forest.
Kim handed over the dogsled to me to ‘mush’. They’re not difficult to drive, with steering handles like a motorcycle with brakes. I felt the exhilaration of speed and the rush of freezing air on my face. In truth Kim’s huskies knew exactly where they were going so it was like steering on autopilot. “My only rule is be sure you’re on the sled before taking off the brake or they’ll leave you behind. My dogs love me, but they love running more.”
Canine deja-vu manifested again on Hindersön Island. Shortly after arriving at Jopikgården Lodge I was mobbed by seven boisterous, nine-month-old Siberian husky puppies, considerably stockier than the Alaskans. Big Leo, destined to be the size of a small horse, mistimed an enthusiastic welcome and his large front paws clattered into my groin. I staggered backwards, grimacing, nearly slipping on the ice.
Sleepy Hindersön is one of 1,300 islands that make up the Luleå archipelago in the northern Gulf of Bothnia. Hewn from the Ice Age, only a few of these flat forested islands are permanently inhabited.
“By early November the ice is too thick for boats to reach them yet too thin for vehicles,” explained Shane Doolin, who transferred me by small boat to Hindersön. “During that transition I drive a small hovercraft around the islands until the ice is thick enough to take vehicles,” said the ex-Australian navy captain who came here with his Swedish wife some years back. By January, an 8km-long ice-road is firm enough for motorcars to Hindersön.
Shane is one of a trio of co-owners that includes ex-US Army veteran of 25 years, Eric Schlemme, and his Swedish partner, Susanne. The three took over the lodge, which has four rooms, in late 2019 and opened last February. “Coronavirus closed us in March but at least it’s given us plenty of time to get prepared,” said Eric with the schadenfreude expected from a military man who once guarded the Berlin Wall.
Eric’s pet project is the establishment of a dog-pack. I checked into their converted 19th-century farmhouse with four upstairs rooms and received a warm welcome of glug, heated spiced wine. But I was eager to meet their 11 Siberian huskies, keen to understand the dogs as individuals rather than entertainment automatons.
The boisterous puppies were almost fully grown, their coats thick and silvery-grey, lupine in appearance. “Recently they performed a mass breakout causing the islanders to form search parties,” sighed Eric.
To mentor them, Eric has four older rescue-huskies, including Mimi and Guido, their parents. The powerful Guido was wary. He was found abandoned at the property of his musher, who had committed suicide. He was going to be put down.
“When we heard, Susanne and I looked at each other and thought, ‘We can’t let that happen.’ He’s nervous with strangers but everyday gets more comfortable,” explained Eric. There’s no such reticence with siblings Jumper and Juna, who bounded all over me.
Jumper was abandoned because of a minor eye defect and wasn’t considered reliable for sledding. “When we got him, he’d never been indoors but he soon discovered our sofa and now he howls until we let him inside to sleep on it,” said Eric.
Training them would recommence when the gulf froze over. But for now, I savoured the island’s evolution from autumn to winter. Evening dinner was cooked over a fire as the northern lights showed again and I toured tranquil Hindersön on a fat-tyred bike.
In the 1930s, Hindersön had around 150 residents but after the Second World War this waned until 1960 when the school closed. The handful of islanders remaining were buckling down for winter. A shop the size of a bus shelter was almost out of stock, while the wooden jetties were unattached to avoid being crushed by the developing pack-ice. The fishing-boats, harvesting Kalix caviar from a fish called the vendace, would soon be dry-docked.
I transferred back by boat to Brändön Lodge’s waterfront. Scalloped from a pine forest, the lodge has 15 cosy log cabins facing the Gulf of Bothnia. Over dinner, its owner, Göran Widén, said COVID-19 has had a big impact on numbers of international visitors. Yet because Swedes have been free to travel with no lockdown, they’ve filled the vacuum.
Peak winter season would start around mid-February when the gulf freezes solid and guests are taken out on snowmobiles to dine on the ice and dogsled. For now, lingonberries and blueberries still poked through the forest floor snow as the lodge guide Andreas took two British families and myself on a basic survival skills course.
Creating sparks from a striking-flint, we lit fires in damp conditions to boil hot water for cocoa. “You can boil snow – but don’t use it if yellow or if it has ‘Maltesers’ on it,” he joked.
The course had ended with us tasting reindeer – grilled inside the lodge’s replica Sámi tepee – yet my final adventure in Lapland would see me seeking ones with a pulse, travelling 90km north-west of Brändön Lodge to meet a Sami herder. Andreas drove me through a monochromatic landscape of snowy pines and birch until we reached the hamlet where we meet Henrik Andersson. “Don’t ask him how many reindeer he has. It’s like asking how much money he has in the bank,” advised Andreas.
Henrik eschews romantic preconceptions of Sámi being dressed in furs and living in tepees; his high-performance snowmobile was parked outside his modern bungalow and his mobile phone has an app tracking GPS collars on his reindeer herd. “It makes life easier than searching thousands of hectares for them when we round them up to start the migration south in November,” he said.
Of course, I was unable to resist asking the question. “How many reindeer do you have?” Henrik screwed up his face.
“You want to know how much money I have in the bank,” he teased? “About a thousand.”
Henrik is Luleå Sámi, they dwell in the forests and speak a different dialect to the northern Sámi living high in the Arctic; their reindeer graze amid the trees during summertime upon lichen and fungi. As winter onsets, Henrik drives them south to overwinter around the Gulf of Bothnia where foraging is easier in milder climate. Or so it used to be.
“Climate change may be the death of Sámi culture,” explained Henrik. He said wetter, milder winters lead to more impenetrable ice when the freeze comes so his reindeer cannot feed off ground moss and lichen. “Last winter was catastrophic, the ice was so thick around Luleå I brought them back here to supplementary feed them. That cost me £150,000 throughout the winter.”
A passionate advocate for Sámi culture, he was planning to head down to an Extinction Rebellion protest in Stockholm to address the crowd about existing with climate change. COVID-19 had also reduced demand for reindeer meat as hotels were not ordering so prices per kilo had fallen.
We drove deeper into the forest to his cousin’s smallholding where a fraction of his herd loitered around a feeder station. A handsome alpha male with tall willowy antlers watched us passively. Amid his herd was a sub-male along with females and several snowy-white calves. The mating season was just over.
“Males can mate with 50 females, but this drains them of energy and they’re vulnerable to losing the herd to a younger male in better condition,” said Henrik. Now 40 years old, he said he’d begun assembling his herd aged 17. “Reindeer herding has been in the blood of our people since the Ice Age,” he said.
Temperatures plummeted that evening back at Brändön Lodge. After dinner I strolled down to the gulf hoping for a farewell burst of the northern lights. Lapland’s wilderness had felt far removed from the travails facing the world and as soon as the gulf froze it would be transformed into a winter playground.
But most preciously, I’d had time to appreciate the perseverance that characterise those on Europe’s frozen margins. With COVID-19 delivering a climate of discontent, which will hopefully thaw soon, this remote region and its people were like a blast of icy fresh air.
Aurora borealis stayed hidden that night but it’s this unpredictability that encapsulates its unceasing wildness and I remembered something Eric said back on Hindersön. “It is mother nature up here that determines what we are going to do next day.” How true this was.
Mark travelled as a guest of Discover the World (01737 214291).
A four-night trip per person costs from £2,077, including international flights, transfers, three nights at Brändön Lodge, a night at TreeHotel, all meals and excursions featuring the northern lights, dogsledding and snowmobiling.
Language(s): Swedish with English widespread
Time: GMT+1 (Summer GMT+2)
International dialling code: +46
Visas: Not required
September-March The primary season for aurora borealis; look between 9pm-2am when the winter skies are dark. Allow three or four nights to maximise your chances of the experience not being obscured by cloud.
November The snow has fallen, and the Gulf of Bothnia freezes, enabling activities such as dogsledding and snowmobiling, at their peak by late Jan to Mar before springtime’s thaw. Temperatures of -34°C have been recorded at Brändön Lodge.
Early June A good time to hike or maybe join a tour to find bears.
Scandinavian Airlines new direct flight from London to Luleå was recently postponed but it’s no hardship transiting via Stockholm’s well-organised Arlanda airport. Fares from around £400 return.
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