Action Packed Doesn't Even Begin to Cover It

As I was preparing for my day Thursday morning, I looked out my hotel room window about 11:30 a.m. to check the weather and spied this amazing sunrise (above).  Today was the last day for a while that the sun will actually rise, tomorrow being the first day of polar night.  Polar night is defined as a 24 hour period in which the sun does not top the horizon and at this latitude, there will be 28 continuous days where this is the case.  That is not to say that it will be total darkness the entire time because even though the sun doesn't rise above the horizon, light is refracted from below during daytime hours (currently 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., shortening 10 minutes each day until December 22).  But the entire region dwells in a sort of deep blue Maxfield Parrish colored twilight for this handful of hours each day for the next month.

After running outside to take a picture of the last Arctic sunrise of 2013, I headed off to the first stop on my itinerary for the day: Kiruna Church.  I'm not usually much for visiting churches, but the things I'd read and the pictures I'd seen of this place made it sound so very compelling.  For example, in 2001, the people of Sweden voted Kiruna Church the most beautiful public building in the country - and it is in fact quite lovely to behold.

The church was constructed between 1909-1912 as a gift to the city from the management of the iron ore mine.  It was built in the style of a Sami hut using strong Jugendstil (the Teutonic term for Art Nouveau) and Gothic Revival influences.  Like a good number of the buildings in northern Sweden, the exterior of the church is painted a color called falu red (the traditional paint is made of  rye flour, linseed oil and tailings from the copper mines of Falun) and crowned with twelve gleaming gold leaf covered statues representing the range of human emotions.  It's hard to describe how incredibly effective the glowing gold is in contrast to the rich oxide red.  Very striking.

The interior is an ingenious combination of light and dark, open space and intricate structure.  The large open atrium in the center of the sanctuary rises the equivalent of about 4 stories and is topped on each of its four sides with a large bank of windows that allow the soft blue Arctic light to seep in. The space is lit primarily by a grouping of simple yet elegant chandeliers, dangling from the ceiling like a school of luminous jellyfish.  The wood is all stained the same deep dark walnut color making it feel a bit like Rothko Chapel if you've ever been there.  Because of its dark color and geometric simplicity the space feels very somber, but the amount of light and openness counteracts the effect, creating an impressive balance of opposing forces. In the 1950s, a huge organ was installed and the massive groupings of pipe introduce yet another source to reflect the light.

I walked around slowly, absorbing the myriad subtle details that weren’t particularly obvious to the casual observer and eventually chose a pew near the center of the sanctuary where I could sit for a few moments and contemplate the space in the soothing quiet that had developed in a pause between the frequent waves of tourists that were continually arriving.  Suddenly, a mournful wail pierced the deep silence. emanating from an open door on the side of the altar that led to an adjacent chapel.  It was followed by a series of wracking sobs that cut me to the quick in that amazingly dark and somber space, listening to sorrow pouring unselfconsciously from a woman I could not see and did not know.  I can only guess that the sadness stemmed from loss, at least that's what it stirred deep within me.  A plaintive piano melody started after some minutes, suggesting a funeral service of some sort.  The door was quietly closed shortly thereafter adding to the awkwardness of the moment.  That unbridled expression of grief stayed with me the rest of the day and I'm sure I’ll remember that moment for many many years to come.  As I walked around the grounds of the church after departing I spied this forlorn plant jutting above the snow and it seemed to capture the sadness of loss for me perfectly, even more so than the designated golden statue on the roof of the church.

I next headed toward the center of Kiruna to grab a hasty lunch and queue up for my next adventure: a tour of the LKAB iron ore mine.  The LKAB mining complex was opened at the dawn of the 20th century and has become the commercial backbone of not only Kiruna, but also a large part of the area including the port of Narvik in Norway.  It is the largest and most modern underground iron ore mine in the world and produces enough of the intriguing little iron ore pellets seen on the ground in the picture at right each day to fashion 6 Eiffel Towers.  Each day.  The cars that carry those pellets to port are the very same ones that I spent so much enjoyable time watching from the window of my hostel.

The Malmkroppen – or ore body in English – slants between two mountains descending to a depth that has been mapped to at almost 2 kilometers, but that’s just as far down as they’ve test drilled – the actual depth of the deposit is unknown.  There are over 400 kilometers of road that snake back and forth under the mountain to support the mining operations.  After boarding a bus at the tourist center, we were driven down to the 540 meter level through a series of tunnels that are reputed to contain the heaviest traffic in Kiruna.  It’s wonderfully strange to be barreling along a dark road passing oncoming vehicles and realize you’re almost 70 stories underground.

Another interesting thing to note about the drawing above left is that due to the techniques used in mining the ore, a large part of the city of Kiruna will be in jeopardy in the next few years.  The mine is funding the move of most of the city to a new location and has already relocated the train station and a few other buildings.  The beautiful church I describe above will be moved in one piece on the back of an enormous trailer.  I might have to fly back to Kiruna just to see that!

Upon exiting the bus, our first stop was an enormous rack of mining helmets which we were instructed to put on for safety reasons.  Our friendly and knowledgeable guide transmitted an enormous amount of technical information that I won’t trouble you with here while leading us past displays containing examples of machinery used at every stage of the mining process.

One thing I thought was interesting is that all the motors that run underneath the mountain must be either diesel or electric to help protect against spontaneous explosions.  The enormous ore moving machines with tires as tall as tour guides are all electric and have a cord the size of Hulk Hogan's wrist that sticks out the back.  The cord is spooled on a mechanism that is essentially the same as the take up on a vacuum cleaner, pulling out as needed and automatically rolling back up when it's not needed.  The outlets the plugs fit in are pretty Land of the Giants themselves.

Just a few more pictures and words and I'll stop geeking out about the mine tour (I really loved it - can you tell?).  The ore in the body is loosened with blasting.  If you listen carefully each night between 1:15 and 1:30 a.m., you can feel more than hear a rumble when the detonation is initiated.  Long narrow holes are drilled into the ore body, filled with a special explosive gel and then wired up for action.  Here's one of the blasting cabinets (i.e., the button that gets pushed to initiate the explosion):

And here's one of the enormous drill arms that is fitted with a special rock bit to make the long channels for the explosive gel:

Last but not least - remember when I mentioned that almost every window in Sweden has a candelabra or such to celebrate the holidays?  Well this is the window of the underground cafe where we paused to have some hot beverages and Swedish holiday cookies during our tour:

It's not very often that I want to pout after a tour has concluded, but I could have spent hours and hours more hearing about the process and seeing the tools they use to accomplish the feat of moving a mountain, 6 Eiffel Towers worth a day.  I really liked the attitude of the company that runs the mine, too.  They're very progressive and community oriented (and have been all along) and I think it's very generous of them to let the public take a gander at what they do.

When I was forced to get off the bus back at city center, the tour guide hollered, "Tell Texas hello for me!" since she'd told me during a conversation we had when I was peppering her with questions that she'd been an exchange student in Grand Prairie many years back.  It's a damn small world, isn't it?

At the self same building where my mine tour concluded was the final item on the agenda for the day - a concert put on by the local high school called "The Music of Queen".  When I saw the poster advertising the event the day before, I excitedly purchased a ticket without hesitation feeling confident that it would be the sort of thing that tickles me to no end and sure enough it did!  Glee, Swedish style!  What a hoot.

When I left the auditorium, I bundled up to face the cold night air for the short walk back to my hotel and was greeted with a sight that I cherish.  The falling snow had reached just the right temperature so that it sparkled under the street lights like a million diamonds and was blanketing every limb, twig and blade.  I'll conclude the account of this action packed day with some photos, none of which even come close to doing the glittery winter wonderland justice.

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