After everyone cleared out of the hostel Monday morning to attend to their various activities, I took the chance to catch up on some writing, cooking and organizing. It was that wonderful feeling of having the house to yourself, but like if you had 34 room mates. Above is a picture of my bunk at the hostel, conveniently located next to a window with a prime view of the railroad tracks. Now for most folks, that would be a detriment, but not for me! I am such a big machine geek. Every time a train or a snow blower or a plow goes by on the rails, I have to crane my neck around and watch it. This is a heavily traveled set of tracks (and the northernmost set of rails in all of Europe) and the snow has been falling consistently for a couple of days now so there's been plenty of activity to monitor. Below is the view out my window - if you look you can see the huge lake (or Trask as the Swedes call it) on the other side of the tracks, surrounded by mountains. It's quite lovely here and I'd imagine it's heavenly in the summer when you can take a dip and hike around.
When Linnea from the tour company stopped to pick me up at the hostel shortly after 7:00 p.m., the snow that had been falling in delicate whorls most of the day had increased to a steady flurry and the sky was obscured by a thick dome of clouds. Not very good aurora watching weather, obviously.
Our tour guide Tobias gave the group a quick lesson on operating the high end Nikon cameras and tripods we'd be using on the photo expedition and the six of us were soon trekking through stunningly silent woods along a narrow pathway dusted with a fresh powdery coating of snow . I remember swinging my headlamp to look at one of the silvery birches that lined the path and having an epiphany: the thin layer of ice crystals clinging to the trunk glittered dazzlingly - just like an old timey Christmas card! It wasn't some glitter diva like me that started that trend - that's the way they actually look!
We walked until we reached a large snow covered hut that had been built in the traditional style of the Sami
people that would provide us with a warm place to sit and wait for the weather to clear. Tobias removed the vent hole cover and challenged one of us to light the fire with one match. I of course waved my arm and cried, "Pick me! Pick me!" Sadly, the match went out as soon as I struck it, but I got a do over. The second match snapped in two, but since I was uniquely determined, I managed to apply the burning nub in a strategic spot and get the fire going. We sat in a circle around the merry little blaze on a carpet of reindeer skins which were surprisingly warm and comfortable. After the fire was burning nicely, we went back outside and got our gear set up and snapped some test photos to help understand the effect different settings yielded.
I was surprised by several things. The first was a costly realization: a really expensive tripod is the bomb. My cheap little Walmart model shakes enough to make a good portion of my photos tragically blurry. The high tech wonder that I was given to use was steady as a rock.
The other thing that made a big impression on me is how sophisticated cameras have become. With the light setting (ISO) jacked way up to a ludicrous 3200, the deep dark night was transformed into late afternoon twilight - brighter than any natural display I'd seen since I arrived! Check this out - these are some of my fellow photographers in the pitch black night:
Amazing, huh? Since there weren't any aurora to shoot, we practiced on the landscape and nearby structures.
Tobias volunteered to take light painted portraits of each of us. Don't I look like the kid in The Christmas Story? And doesn't the fire look compelling glowing from the doorway of the snow blanketed hut?
After a few rounds of picture taking, we all headed back into the hut to listen to Tobias explain the aurora borealis in great detail while he prepared coffee in the traditional Sami fashion. Snow is packed inside the kettle which is hung on a hook from the ceiling over the fire. Once the snow has melted and the water has begun to boil, coffee is added and cooked until most of the grains sink to the bottom of the pot. Tobias had also brought traditional Swedish Christmas cookies for us to enjoy with the strong smokey coffee. I'm usually not much on black coffee, but the flavor of this brew was complex like a scotch or a vinegar. It didn't hurt either that it was piping hot - the steam drifting from the top of the cup was positively medicinal.
Each of us made a couple more trips outside to take a few more photos, but still no aurora - just sheets and blankets and pillows of snow. I did manage to take one photo I really like, however.
Although I didn't realize it at the time, the headlamps of my fellow photographers had generated enough light to cast a lacy shadow on the outside of the hut.
After finishing our coffee, we packed up our gear, doused the fire and headed back to our starting point without the satisfaction of having photographed the aurora, but flush with the pleasure that camaraderie, coffee and challenge had provided. Just as Tobias and I headed out to the parking lot so he could drop me back at the hostel, it began to RAIN! The temperature had slipped just above freezing and the big wet drops froze instantly on every surface they touched. Being from Texas, I was a bit alarmed at the weather but of course for Tobias it was no problem. I was soon back at the hostel, feeling the effects of the caffeine and adventure and ended the evening by reading myself to sleep.