|Pulley wheel at Aurora Sky Station lift station|
One of the things I'm learning in the Arctic is an entirely new rhythm of life. By the time you wake and have a nice hot cup of tea, a marzipan cake and a $5 pear, what little weak daylight that has managed to collect is starting to ebb. I knew the limited light would be a new experience before I arrived, but I had no idea how much it would affect my perceptions. On this blustery, dark afternoon it encouraged me to remain tucked into the cozy hostel because I knew I'd be engaging in a flurry of activity later that evening.
Soon after I arrived at the hostel, I met a perfectly delightful woman named Simmone from Perth, Australia. I love her story: she is a project manager in the construction industry and recently decided to quit her job, sell all her earthly possessions and go on the road (for the next couple of years even!). She's been finding hostels in different corners of the globe that she likes well enough to scout out a temporary job and had been working at the Abisko Fjallturer (where I am staying) for five weeks. She generously and patiently answered all my questions and rendered lots of valuable advice on navigating this strange-to-me environment (e.g., it was Simone who tipped me off to the helipad above the hostel).
Later that evening, I was booked on a local attraction called the Aurora Sky Station. The Sky Station is essentially a ski lift that whisks you to the top of a mountain, where there is a warm lodge to use as a base for venturing outside to observe the heavens, high upon the mountaintop. I had been looking very forward to the excursion, and really, mostly the ride on the ski lift in the vast darkness and quiet, hovering high above the snowy mountain. One of the logistical elements of this trip that still needed to be settled was transportation both to and from the Sky Station which is a little over 2.5 kilometers from the hostel. I found myself feeling very anxious a good part of the morning trying to puzzle it out since there aren't really trains or buses to speak of, so I'd either need to find a ride or walk.
Simmone stepped in to save my day, helping me figure out a plan and reassuring me that the walk was no big deal. She even went so far as to invite me to join her on the train down to the Sky Station (one of two trains that runs each day) where she could show me how to find the path. Simone was headed out of town the next day and was staying at a hostel that was a 10 minute walk from where I'd need to be. I gratefully accepted her invitation.
Late in the afternoon after rounding up everything I'd need for the evening's adventure, we headed down to the train station and made the ultra-quick 5 minute journey to the Turistation. Simmone dropped her things at her room and then walked me around to show me exactly how to get on the trail back to the hostel later that evening. It was such an act of kindness on her part - I feel well and truly fortunate to meet people like Simone who are such faith restorers in the field of humanity.
Simmone retired to her room and I sat down to wait for the dinner I would be enjoying before my appointed time on the lift. The waiting area had a large stack of incredibly beautiful books that were a collection of pressed flora from the area. I very much enjoyed looking through them in the warmly lit and tastefully designed room.
I am really loving the Scandinavian design ethic in a whole new way. It is so modest, elegant and clever. One thing that I really like is the seasonal tradition the Swedes follow of putting welcoming lights in their windows. Almost every window you pass is lit with a glowing candelabra, Moravian star or other decorative shape, warming the spirit from afar. The window in my cozy nook at the restaurant was no exception.
Dinnertime soon arrived and I was delighted when I read the menu board:
Tomato soup with basil cream and tiny sprouts (Look! a vegetable!) I sampled a local dry apple cider that was excellent, and augmented the tasty soup from a basket of fresh breads and the cultured butter that Europeans eat that is so delicious. Bonus points for the ultra-cool bowl.
Saithe (a fish, similar to cod) with dill served with horse radish and brown butter and roasted potatoes. The saithe had a wonderful texture and different parts of the fillet yielded different flavors. The combination of all the ingredients (dill, onion, egg, horse radish, brown butter and lemon) was like a fishy poem.
Cloudberry ice cream with cognac and a crispy biscuit for dessert. A cloudberry (my charming waitress informed me) is a golden raspberry but with an infinitely cooler name.
I had no idea that the dinner option I had added when booking the Sky Station tour was going to be so fabulous. I really, really enjoyed it. After a few minutes to collect my courage and scarves and hat and gloves after dinner, I set off down the snowy path to the Sky Station. Because I seem to be thinking in lists this trip, I will now transmit to you all the items that were attached to my body upon departing:
Two pairs of pants (one thermal and one fleece)
Two blouses (one made of thick fleece)
Two pairs of socks (silk liners and thick wool hiking socks)
Face warmer for the nose and mouth
Fake fur Trapper's hat
I was glad for each and every article as the blowing snow swirled around me on the dark road to the lift. Midway, I crossed over a bridge that spanned a small canyon and heard the familar sound of flowing water which it turned out had created a setting punctuated by gorgeous ice covered waterfalls. It was stunningly beautiful in the dimly lit arena created by the lights from a nearby bridge. Beautiful but ephemeral, I might add - because I'm not a talented enough photographer to have successfully recorded it.
When I arrived at the Sky Station, I was outfitted with thick warm coveralls that went ON TOP of every article of clothing mentioned above - mandatory for riding an open ski lift up the side of a wind scoured mountain in the Arctic. The sign board at the entrance listed the temperature at the top as -10 Celsius (14 F) which ended up at -19C (-2F) with the wind chill added in. And the cold season hasn't yet arrived for this area!
Anticipating the drama of the ride, I had brought music with me - Philip Glass's Koyaanisqatsi. The cheerful attendant bundled me into my lift chair and I hit the play button as the chair dipped upward and away. As I dissolved into the darkness all I could see was a dome of stars overhead and flurries of snow through the opening in my layered coverings that made a sort of viewfinder. It was still damn cold, but I only suffered a little for the majesty I experienced. Not far from the starting gate, I felt the tears welling inside me, but quickly reproached myself saying aloud, "Tears are not allowed! Recipe for frostbite." When we reached the midway point, I thought the journey had ended, but we continued on to my surprise, even further up the mountain. The trees fell away and all I could see was a sea of white, a large ocean below me and a continual spray of flakes in the air around me.
Much as I enjoyed the ride, I was awfully glad to reach the top. I couldn't help thinking, "Mark would be absolutely miserable if he were here." I'm pretty tough about cold weather and I even I was a tad astonished at the brutality of it.
I hurried into the lodge to wait as the wind seemed to have picked up quite a bit at the top. I was struck by the thought that the movies set in the Arctic that I'd seen before weren't far off the mark. After idling about inside for a short while, I ventured back outside to see if there was any chance of viewing anything from the deck, and alas everything was a blur of hard charging snowflakes. Which was not as big a deal as it sounds since the aurora was not choosing to be active this evening and as I said before, what I really came for was that magical lift ride.
I opted to head back down the mountain after steeling myself for the extremity of the thing and found myself thinking of the dog sled drivers I had observed in February at the Yukon Quest dog sled race. They don't get to step into a warm lodge after 30 minutes in much colder weather than I was braving. What fortitude they must have!
I decided not to listen to music on the way down so I could experience the sounds of the wild and woolly night, and quickly realized I needn't even bother to open my eyes. I burrowed deep inside my large fake fur trimmed hood and could feel the wind and snow buffeting me from behind. It was delightful being ensconced in that envelope of warmth while the wild weather raged around me.
When I reached the bottom, it was psychologically difficult to remove the coveralls and leave them behind for my walk home. Not that it was too cold, mind you, I had just come to believe that I needed the protection. Amazing how quickly that feeling develops!
Before setting off on my walk, I decided to pay a visit to the outhouse, just outside the Sky Station base camp. I was tickled at the concept of an unheated outhouse in the Arctic, but I REALLY started to laugh when I got inside and saw a pile of snow that had drifted onto the top of the toilet tissue roll. I've seen some intimidating port-o-potties in my day (Saturday night at Burning Man springs instantly to mind) but I've never seen snow covered toilet paper.
I set out in what felt like comparatively warm weather for the trek back to the hostel, following the route that Simmone had shown me earlier. I put the headphones back on and dialed in Radiohead's Amnesiac album - perfect in my mind for a nice long hike along a dark Arctic trail at midnight. The headlamp beam illuminated a cone of white in front of me, with glittering flakes dancing in front of me when I raised my eyes to see the dazzling star encrusted sky overhead. I took a few minutes to presence myself to how utterly alone and far away from civilization I was - even though there were plenty of humans both behind and in front of me. It was a lovely walk and over before I knew it. When I arrived back at the hostel, I felt like an overworked draught horse, drenched in sweat as I was. It's the conundrum of dressing for this crazy Arctic cold for me: to be warm enough, you are too warm and sweat like the devil unless you're uncomfortably cold.
It suddenly struck me, as I returned to my bunk that this would be a wonderful time to take a nice long hot shower. It was well after 1:00 a.m. and I had the shower room to myself. It was one of those soul satisfying showers that are created by extremity. Delightful.
When I returned to my room and was preparing quietly to slip underneath the covers, I noticed from my window the repeated passing of special train engines that are outfitted with snow plows. Because the snow had been falling all evening, they were clearing the tracks for the frequent trains passing to and from the iron mine in Kiruna. Being the large machinery geek that I am, I sat and watched them work the stretch of track outside my window for about 5 long minutes. That was the last thing I remember before my head hit the pillow and I lost consciousness in a delicious cocoon of cleanliness, warmth and having exercised vigorously.