• The Ice Hotel

    Ever since I heard of the existence of the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, I wanted to visit it. I'm not sure why, because I'm not particularly fond of the cold. I must be drawn to the beauty of ice and snow, particularly when it sparkles in either sun or moon light.

    The Ice Hotel is in northern Sweden (image from Wiki). Since 1990–the official start of the Ice Hotel—numerous other copycats have arrived on the scene. Canada, Norway, Finland, and Fairbanks, Alaska all have ice structures, while Harbin, China hosts the "world's fair" of ice display. None of these hold the fascination for me as does the one in Sweden.

    The Ice Hotel is rebuilt annually, starting in November, when ice blocks are cut from the local Torne river. The hotel gets bigger each week, reaching full capacity in February, and then melting in the spring.

    I wrote this post before I left for the Ice Hotel. I am staying in the actual Ice Hotel for two nights, and warm accommodations across the street for three nights. When I return, I'll have a first-hand account.

  • When Minus 5 Degrees C Feels Warm

    Jukkasjärvi, Sweden is far north, close to where Norway, Finland, and Sweden intersect. If it weren't for the Ice Hotel, very few people would know of, or care about, this small village. The Sami (Sweden's native people) named the town and have inhabited the land for generations before anyone ever thought of building the hotel.

    I traveled to Jukkasjärvi thinking the trip would be all about the hotel—the experience of tossing back a vodka in the Ice Bar, of crawling into a cold bed, and of perhaps seeing the aurora. There was so much more. Yes, the hotel is amazing. It was much bigger than I expected. the hotel is built around a long hall, with chandelier and siting areas that most people don't sit in because they are ice.

    There are six corridors off the main hall, each with about 12 rooms. Half the rooms are standard ice rooms. They are each decorated with the same small ice sculptures. So each room looks alike, much as you'd expect in a Hilton, but with ice.

    The other half of the rooms are art suites. Each one is designed by an artist from around the world. Each features a unique, elaborate design. One night I stayed in the Dragon Suite. Another the Bedroom Story suite. To get an idea of what it looks like, watch this music video of the Ice Hotel that I made.

    The bed is a normal mattress that's placed on wood slats and then covered with reindeer skin. The room is "yours" between 6 PM and 10 AM, which is when tours for non guests are over. In reality, no one stays in the room unless they are taking photos or in a sleeping bag.

    The outside temperature in Jukkasjärvi varied between –25 and –30 Celsius, so the the inside temperature of –5 degrees C felt relatively warm when I first went into the ice building. Still, –5 is pretty cold. The trick to being perfectly comfortable when sleeping is to wear long, wool underwear, socks, and a hat to bed, and nothing more. Otherwise it's too hot. I got my sleeping bag from the warm hotel when I was ready to sleep. That way, the sleeping bag was warm when I crawled into it. It stayed warm all night from my body heat. In the morning, a staff member woke me with a cup of hot lingonberry juice.

    I found two "problems" sleeping in the cold hotel. The first is that the room is so beautiful that I found it difficult not to want to stay up and gaze at the art. The second problem is needing to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, which I did on both nights. There are no toilets in the cold hotel, so I had to walk to the warm hotel. It's not that far, but the thought of leaving the warmth of the sleeping bag can make it difficult to get up. My advice: Just do it and get it over with. When I got up on the second night, I noticed the aurora, so I went to the roof of the ice hotel where they have an aurora-viewing porch. Spectacular.

    What I didn't expect on this trip was to learn so much about the Sami. I went horseback riding twice with Sami women and reindeer mushing one day with a Sami man. Those stories I'll leave for another post.

  • Getting a Reindeer to Pull a Sled

    First you have to catch one, which turns out to be pretty easy if the reindeer are in a corral. The Sami people of Sweden have an agreement with the reindeer. They track and tag the wild heard year round—thousands of them. In the winter, when it's more difficult for the reindeer to survive, the Sami take in the weaker and older reindeer. The reindeer stay in a corral and are fed by the Sami. In exchange, some of the reindeer pull sleds.

    In times past, the Sami actually used reindeer to pull loads from place to place. Nowadays, reindeer sledding is a tourist activity, done to educate people like me about native life. Reindeer aren't inclined to pull a sled. They will do it only if there is a set track. Otherwise, I think the reindeer would just run off in some random direction.

    My Sami guide handed me a rope and led me into the corral with the reindeer. After he lassoed one by the antlers, I had to attach my rope to the reindeer's collar. Then I carefully led the reindeer to a sled. The guide's assistants attached the reindeer to the sled, and I was told to stand firmly on the brake and not let the reindeer take off. My reindeer didn't actually seem like he was going to run off anywhere, but I didn't want to find out.

    To drive the reindeer, the driver stands at the back of the sled, on the runners. The rope serves as a way to coax the reindeer, although it's difficult to see how such a lightweight rope can be felt through the thick skin of a reindeer. Mostly the driver shouts "Hut, Hut" at the reindeer and hope he goes. You need a lot of hope to get a reindeer going!

    The track was several miles long. It went through woods and out onto a plain flooded with sunlight and pristine, sparkling snow. The scenery was spectacular. At first I wondered how I would stay on the back of the sled, but my reindeer slow. He was so slow that I jumped off the sled and pushed occasionally—not so much to help the reindeer as it was to keep myself warm in –30 Celsius. When I finally got my reindeer to speed up, I realized it wasn't anything I was doing. The corral was in sight. He wanted to be home.

    After the one-and-a-half-hour sledding adventure, our Sami guide took us to a canvas tepee and cooked a lunch of reindeer meat served with lingonberries on traditional Sami bread. Delicious!

  • The Vanishing Town of Kiruna

    Every place that draws travelers, like the Ice Hotel, has a main attraction and at least one lesser known back story. Kiruna is the small town that you fly into to get to the Ice Hotel. Like me, most people hop off the plane, walk past the "welcome" ice sculpture, and into baggage claim. Then, after collecting luggage, they get into a bus or taxi and leave Kiruna behind. Kiruna, however, is also leaving itself behind. I learned this from a Saami guide who drove us between the Ice Hotel and her farm on two different days so we could horseback ride and learn about Saami culture. The story I relate comes mostly from the guide, a young (20-something) woman whose family has been living in this area for generations, along with other Saami.

    The life of the Saami is inextricably bound to the wild reindeer of Sweden. The animals (estimated to be more than 10,000) migrate throughout Scandinavia. The Saami follow the migration, managing the herd in the process. In the old days, they followed the reindeer on foot. The Saami would gather and corral the reindeer, mark them as to which family managed them, count the herd, and kill what they needed to survive. The reindeer are used for meat and clothing. The Saami traveled in the back country for long periods of time following the reindeer.

    With the introduction of the snowmobile, the Saami have a much easier time of managing the herd. They don't need to be away from their family for so long. The migration of the reindeer has also speeded up. When the Saami were on foot, they steered the reindeer at walking pace. With snowmobiles, the reindeer are allowed to move more quickly.

    The Saami don't feel they own reindeer. Nor do they feel they own the land. So years ago, when the King at the time tired to give the Saami land, they replied that they don't own the land. The King either didn't understand this noble philosophy or chose to take advantage of it. He gave the land around Kiruna—or at least the mining rights—to Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara Aktiebolag (LKAB), a Swedish mining company. Started in the 1890's, the ming produces iron ore pellets. Since the mid 20th century, the company is owned by the Swedish government.

    I sat in stunned disbelief when my Saami guide told me how much iron ore leaves the mine each day. But with a revenue of 31.133 billion SEK, that comes out to more than 82 million SEK per day (13 million USD), with the net profit of one-third that.

    Imagine how much iron ore has come out of the ground over the past 125 years. It is so much that the mine has been extracting from under the town and plans to continually expand under the town. Hence the need to move the entire town. In fact, LKAB is in the process of buying the town, home-by-home, a process that has been going on for a few years and will continue until each property is bought. One of the main highways will close soon due to undermining.

    The Saami aren't happy with the mine and town move because it interferes with their age-old reindeer herding practices. It's my understanding that the vibrations, land deformation, and other mining side effects disturb reindeer migration routes. Saami won't be allowed to herd in these areas.

    My Saami guide has been fighting as best she can against the unstoppable forces of mining and the Swedish government. It was heart breaking for me to hear her tell of when she learned her father took a job in the mine so he could make a better life for his family. He did this while she was away at school. I'm sure it tore him apart to do it. He is probably like many Saami of his generation.

    I admire my guide's courage and spirit. I hope she continues to fight for her culture.

    More on Kiruna and the Mine

    Sweden: Saami communities say NO to mining on traditional lands
    Entire City of Kiruna, Sweden to Relocate
    LKAB Mining Company
    Saami Council