At the end of our arranged tour in the arctic, Norwegian Airlines cancelled our morning flight from Kiruna back to Stockholm. They booked us on an evening flight, which, once we thought about it, gave us another full day in the beautiful landscape. We checked with the activities desk at the IceHotel where we had just spent the night. Happily, there were available places in the afternoon snowmobiling activity for the two of us.
At the appointed meeting time and place, we were standing with about a dozen other people, assuming that we all were waiting for the snowmobile tour leader. Right on time, a young woman walked up to the group, calling out “Bylund?” in the Swedish pronunciation: Beeluund! We assumed we were just the first name on her list, but that was the only name she called out. Smiling, she, Beatrice, said that she assumed that based on my name we were Swedish, and she said that we were the only two people on this day’s activity. She was excited because she could take us to a special location that she can’t take larger groups to. Sounded very good to us too! She was full of good cheer and excitement to be out on an afternoon’s snowmobiling.
Beatrice walked us over to three snowmobiles; we each got our own. I’m a complete novice; Mike, because of his many years’ experience of motorcycle driving, finds a lot of familiarity. We headed out with Beatrice in the lead, me in the protected middle, and Mike finishing our little convoy. It was a gloriously sunny day with vivid blue sky and no wind. Our route started on the frozen Torne River (which provides the ice for the IceHotel). The river was covered with at least a half meter of super dry snow powder. While riven by lots of snowmobile tracks, it also still offered big expanses of untouched powder. Beatrice instructed us to drive through the fresh powder to enjoy the float and glide. Each time we crossed an existing track, which is really just air, the snowmobile sped up just a bit. It revealed the fact that the snow powder is only slightly more dense and substantial than plain air.
Beatrice watched over us to make sure we were comfortable with the snowmobiles. We stopped at the edge of the woods where she explained that we were going to go to the top of the mountain above us. She said that some of the track is steep, but not to worry because the snowmobiles are powerful. Was she reassuring us, or warning? But she was so happy that we followed her eagerly.
The trail wound through a gorgeous snowy forest. The sun shone brightly between the tree boughs.
Then, as she had explained, the track turned straight up the hill amid the trees. I kept her in sight while concentrating as hard as I could on the track, trusting the power of the snowmobiles. We ascended for what seemed like quite a while. Then Beatrice stopped, exclaiming, “We made it!” We couldn’t see Mike behind us so we waited a few minutes in the sunshine. And a few more minutes. No Mike.
Beatrice said that she would go see if he needed help. She bounded back down the track on foot, and disappeared around a bend and into the forest. I took some photos and just soaked in the cold beauty. I was wearing a balaclava for warmth and the helmet for protection, both of which made it hard to hear much. After a while, when the time seemed heavy, and I started to wonder if something was wrong, I could barely hear a voice. I pulled my helmet off and called out. I still couldn’t make out the words, but if someone was calling out, then they definitely were calling for help. Now it was my turn to bound down the track. Even though it is was a track over which snowmobiles had obviously previously run, it was still only lightly packed powder. Bounding down the hill was more of a controlled fall.
After what felt like a long distance, I found Beatrice and Mike standing by the snowmobile which was on its side just off the track. Beatrice was laughing and positive; Mike looked more serious, obviously feeling guilty for having slid off the track. In fact, in the first minutes after the overturn, he had been pinned under the snowmobile. It was the very deep powder — up to our hips — that had caused the tumble, but it also had kept the full weight off of Mike’s leg. He had been able, with effort, to squirm out from under the snowmobile without its falling further. Other than a bruised knee, he was OK.
The snowmobile was also deep in the powder and would require at least all three of us to get it back up on the track. Part of the approach was to pack more snow under the main tread of the snowmobile, while digging out the front skis. The snow was so powdery that, when we packed it with our feet under the snowmobile, it just flowed back out again, like water. It was also almost impossible to get sturdy footing in the powder from which to push on the snowmobile. While it was still a really beautiful day, we were working up a sweat packing snow, trying to rock the snowmobile, and attempting to get traction again. Beatrice said a few times that, “This happens all the time. Don’t worry!” We weren’t so sure about that!
At last, she said that we should leave the snowmobile where it was. She would call her colleagues who would come to pull it out of the snow. We then trudged up the snowy track which seemed even steeper now that we were on foot. Beatrice, fit outdoorsy twenty-something that she is, sped up the hill. Mike and I, not quite any of those attributes, took the ascent in segments, working up a good sweat. (Notes to selves: Must exercise more at home!)
After a few minutes to catch our breath and cool our clothing layers a little, Mike and I hopped on the snowmobile that had been mine, and Beatrice on hers. We proceeded further through the forest, which was now almost level. Very soon, we emerged on the top of the mountain. A glorious immense view lay out before us: The frozen Torne River and its islands, the IceHotel and village off in the distance, snowy mountains and forests as far as we could see. The view, the setting, the shiny day, and the arctic landscape were all stunning. We couldn’t stop saying that we now understood why Beatrice liked this spot so much. We were very grateful!
She asked us if we’d like some hot lingonberry juice. Of course! She lay two reindeer skins on the snow. In between them, she lay down fresh evergreen boughs, followed by an alternating grid of logs and birch bark. She knelt over an unrolled portion of bark, with a knife in one hand and a small rod of magnesium in the other. She scraped the rod with the back of the knife blade repeatedly until a spark leapt onto the bark and ignited it. Within a few seconds, the wood construction was fully ablaze. The metal pot of lingonberry juice heated up in a matter of minutes. We knelt on the reindeer skins, sipped the hot juice, and enjoyed the glorious view and setting, and Beatrice’s animated company.
Except for our conversation and the crackle of the fire, it was very quiet on this summit. So we could catch the distant sound of snowmobiles long before two of Beatrice’s colleagues arrived. Two handsome young men pulled onto the summit, with our snowmobile and one of their own. They had towed the fallen snowmobile back on the track. We all joked about all the drinks that Beatrice would have to buy her colleagues to atone for our having tipped over one of the snowmobiles. She grimaced and said that yes, in fact, at least 24 drinks, one for each of her entire team. The two guys bounded past our fire and reindeer skins to peer over the edge of the snow field and down the steep side of the mountain. I thought they would tumble over and disappear. They were just excited to see if there were good skiing slopes and conditions up here. All five of us chatted for a while. One of their colleagues back at the hotel was French; he was trying to teach them some French. In their funny accents, they shared a few of the expressions they were learning. I wanted to know if their colleague was teaching them phrases that were funny or obscene while telling them that they meant something innocuous. Fortunately, there wasn’t any of that. But he was teaching them some pretty direct pickup lines.
The two guys finished their lingonberry juice, got back on their original snowmobile, and headed back down the mountain, waving goodbye. We put out the fire and stowed the supplies.
We were back to our three-person convoy. We were out in the open snowfield. Beatrice headed out, with me back in the second spot, and Mike in the third. Within about four seconds, it was now my turn to tip into the deep powder. It only took being a little bit to the side of the track. I wasn’t under the snowmobile, but it had definitely sunk deep into the snow. Now Mike and I could feel equally guilty about our snowmobile performance. The three of us applied the packing, rocking, and pulling techniques from the first time, with exactly the same results: no movement! Beatrice finally said that we should just leave this one here like we had done with the first. She stayed positive the entire time, remarkably! Mike and I definitely worried that she was going to have a difficult reception once she got back to her boss. While these mishaps were not what we anticipated, we were safe and sound, and having an adventure. We explained as clearly as we could that, while perhaps Beatrice would have problems with her boss, for us, we were having a great day and had zero complaints. She, even with her cheery demeanor, looked a little relieved.
Once again a convoy of two snowmobiles, we headed down the mountain. Mike drove (much better to have the experienced driver at the handlebars). Downhill tracks look even steeper than uphill tracks. You have to balance a mixture of gentle breaking and keeping the snowmobile going fast enough to stay atop the snow. We were both pretty gun-shy by now. Mike did great. I did great too, saying, “You’re doing great!” a lot.
Finally at the bottom of the forested hill, we emerged back onto the frozen river. Mike could relax a bit and enjoy floating over the untouched powder. The snowmobile was still rather hard to steer precisely; it tended to float to one side or the other even while speeding over the snow. But it was a wide river with only our two snowmobiles on it. Glorious sunshine and landscape. Really beautiful.
After an outing of almost four hours, we pulled into our starting place. We reiterated how much fun we had had, and how sorry we were for having gotten not one but two snowmobiles stuck in the snow. She gave us big hug. She took a deep breath, and said, “Now I’d better go talk to my boss!”