I awoke early Tuesday morning in order to begin preparations for the dog sled ride I'd scheduled for later that morning and as I was brushing my teeth, a strange moaning noise that I hadn't yet encountered piqued my curiosity. Upon investigation, I found that it was in fact the wind blowing an impressive 25-35 miles per hour, essentially rendering the snow scape into something resembling a sandblaster loaded with ice pellets. I made myself a big steaming cup of English Breakfast tea and gazed out the window at the aqua drenched landscape of Arctic morning and entered a familiar conversation with myself. This time it was far easier than usual to arrive at my gut feeling, and it was not so much no, as HELL no. If I hadn't been dog sledding in February I might have felt compelled to take this opportunity, but today is was clear - a brisk ride in the Arctic blaster was not something I'd enjoy, dogs or no. All the other youngsters that were scheduled for the ride began applying various layers of warmth and objecting half-heartedly to my reservations, but that's where being older and wiser comes in handy - I had that calm certainty of what I was willing to do. I sent them away much as I'd imagine Mrs. Claus sends Santa - good luck with that darlings!
The first thing I did after the commotion had died down was to make myself a lovely breakfast of toast, bacon and a carton of rice pudding with pears. I broke my fast in the quiet twilight, devouring not only my meal but the (electronic) pages of Owen Wister's epic novel The Virginian. The Virginian is widely considered to be the first western novel ever penned, and so my expectation was that it would be simplistic and stiff since it essentially launched a genre, but it is in fact a wonderful piece of literature full of surprisingly adept character development and big thoughts. I would glance up at the billowing clouds of wind driven snow racing past my window every so often, which were made even more dramatic in sharing space with a dusty Wyoming cattle ranch.
As I was washing the last of my breakfast dishes, several of my fellow hostelers arrived reporting that their walk to the lake had been beautiful in the precious hours of daylight and I realized that if I wanted to see the lake, I should make haste before the sunlight was completely gone. It is in this way that these strange polar days affect the structure and rhythm of living - daylight becomes one of the most precious commodities and dictates the plan. Happily, it appeared that the weather had calmed a bit for the time being, so I shrugged on my ensemble of weather repelling garments and descended the hill toward the lake.
When I reached the lake, I remember meditating on the funny chastisement I gave myself for having forgotten my headlamp - not ever having had to be sure of it at the hour of 1:00 p.m. before. The view was impressive - a massive lake stretching from one horizon to the other, ringed by snow covered peaks. The lake is not yet frozen, and from speaking with locals I found that it will not freeze over for several more months - sometime in March most likely. But interestingly, once frozen it does not even begin to thaw by summer and the best season for ice skating in this frozen landscape is in fact June. I plunged through knee high drifts of fresh powder as I neared the shore and soon noticed an ominous black cloud encroaching from the west. I'm not from snow country, but I was pretty certain that meant I should high tail it out of there before those clouds caught up with me.
On my walk up the hill, I decided to stop by the local grocery store that came with such glowing reviews and was astonished at what I found. I'm guessing because most of the money made in these parts flows from tourism, a well stocked grocery store is one of the better ways to make a living. This store was at least twice the size of the one I'd visited in Kiruna. I saw haloumi cheese, dim sum dumplings, Frosted Flakes and halvah. I took these pictures to help transmit to you, dear reader, the priorities of Swedish cuisine:
The Mexican (!) food section:
The Swedish meatball section:
And finally, the fresh produce section.
See? An easy understanding can be gained through simple visual geometry! I selected a frozen reindeer burrito to have with my soup later that afternoon.
When I stepped out the door to make the short journey back to the hostel, I discovered that the weather had caught up with me and it had resumed snowing heavily and gusting mightily. After a quick salute to the nation of Coca-Cola, I hurried back up the hill to the warmth of my lodgings.
I spent a wonderful afternoon, sitting next to the window writing, reading and visiting with the steady stream of new arrivals. I will say once more I have really enjoyed the camaraderie inherent in hosteling. So many young, hopeful faces, full of life and stories.
Every time, I heard the sharp whine of an approaching train, however, I would become momentarily and rudely distracted from my conversation in order to crane my neck around and search for the elusive golden train car. You can imagine my extreme joy, I'd imagine, when only a few hours later I SPIED IT! The legendary golden car! It streaked by so quickly I had to verify with myself that I'd seen it, but sure enough! There it went! Wahooooooooooooooooo!!!
Later that evening, large knots of newcomers set out for the lake and the hill, despite the driving wind and snow, in hopes of catching a glimpse of the aurora borealis. Many of them would be here for only a night or two and were desperate enough to brave the inclement weather. I was skeptical that their efforts would yield any results, but could not blame them for their insistence. It wasn't too very much later when I leaned out the window in my room to assess the weather and saw writ large across the sky a magnificent aurora. Please forgive the wretched pictures - I have had absolutely no success photographing the northern lights this go round.
I quickly suited up (as I like to say) and headed out costumed as Nanook of the North, camera in hand. I'd lent my tripod to one of the exuberant kids, and so found a nearby structure which I could use to steady the camera. Only, there was no steadying of any camera this night - even with a large immobile structure the wind buffeted the very hands I held my camera with. I abandoned photography soon thereafter and instead set to helping folks who had never witnessed the spectacle access a suitable viewing area and walking them through the identification of just what was an aurora and what was a cloud. If I set my mind to it, I could perceive an ever so faint tinge of green to the swath of electrons dancing overhead. The show was intermittent and the weather obscene, so I returned inside and continued to pop out every now and then to assess the goings-on. The new arrivals returned incandescent from having witnessed something they had resigned themselves to missing and the atmosphere was positively giddy in the bunks.
I resumed my seat by the window, and watched an even more fascinating spectacle to me, the constant clearing of the tracks. The blowing snow had blanketed every conceivable surface and the rails must be kept clear for the constant traffic that passes through. The enormous blower on the one machine creates a skyscraper sized plume of blowing snow that I never tire of watching - back and forth, back and forth.
By the early morning (aurora watching is much like clubbing) the exhaustion set in, and the last of us clicked off our reading lamps to yield to slumber. I eagerly consumed more of The Virginian until I too could no longer keep my eyes open.