Dog sledding in Lapland

During our travels in the Swedish arctic in search of the Aurora Borealis, we spent many days out in the gorgeous landscape. On one of these days, six dogs toured us around on our two-person sled.

The leaders of our sled day, and the dogs’ trainers, told us to wait until the dogs were silent before calling out to them to start. The dogs are so eager to run that they jump, bark and yelp in anticipation. The owners want to ensure that the dogs associate quiet and order with the pleasure of running.

Once the dogs became still and attentive, we called out and they leapt forward. They were running full-tilt instantly, tails wagging all the way.

At one point during the outing, we all stopped in an open snow-covered spot. Suddenly many of the dogs, including “ours,” started pulling to the left and barking. We held the sled in place while the owners coerced the dogs back onto the track. Apparently, a vulnerable reindeer was standing in the nearby woods, attracting the eager attention of the dogs.

Once back at home base, we were instructed to give “our” dogs a post-run massage; it is important to help relax the dogs’ muscles after the exertion and assist their circulation from feet back to heart. We were instructed to massage the front legs from feet up, then down the back from head to tail, and finally the back legs from feet up. The dogs were in heaven! They nuzzled us, licking, tails wagging furiously.

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Oh yeah, and we saw some moose sauntering by across the nearby frozen lake. Just another day…

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Dinner Time Stories

We had seen a YouTube video of the Petit Chef experience a few years ago, so when we discovered that the show was being offered in our Stockholm hotel (AtSix Hotel), we jumped at the chance to experience it.

The hosts escorted all the diners into a room with long nicely lit tables, set against a giant display screen. At each place setting was a closed leather-bound book. Once everyone was settled, we were asked to open the books to a middle blank page. Projected from above, a tiny animated French chef appeared on each book. He started to tell us all about his history as a young chef in Marseille.

(The stripes in the images come from trying to photograph the projected computer images.)

We all sat transfixed, smiling and laughing as the little chef wandered around the table and turned virtual pages in the books to show us post cards and animations of his travels across Asia.

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Images and patterns from his adventures spilled out beyond the books, coloring the entire table with gently animated patterns, like living fabric.

At various points in his story, the illustrations slowed to attractive background, and the waiters brought remarkably tasty clever dishes.

Depending on the theme of the dish, the display screen filled an entire wall with lovely evocative imagery. For example, floating candles in paper rose into the night sky as we ate our Chinese-inspired course.

The experience of the table’s coming alive with the Petit Chef’s charming story delighted us: a little theater magically appearing on the table. To our surprise, the food was good too! Highly recommended!

Reindeer Sledding & Sami Culture

During our travels in the Swedish arctic in search of the Aurora Borealis, we spent another day out in the gorgeous landscape, this time with reindeer and their Sami (Lapland indigenous people) owners.

First we fed and harnessed the reindeer. They were smaller than we expected; their backs were about as high as a table top. Our Sami guide said that, while the reindeer are slightly domesticated, they remain mostly wild. We accepted the invitation to have a young male reindeer for our sled, one that was new to going out with visitors. It wasn’t that hard to harness him, but he pushed me against a fence, and stood there with my rubbing his back. He wasn’t aggressive; he just stood there against me, waiting.

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We headed out on a long sled ride through the beautiful snowy arctic countryside. We took turns with one of us “driving” and the other enjoying the ride. There were about four other sleds on this tour, and we were in the middle. Our reindeer took off at a good clip. Once he spotted the sleds in front of us, he put the pedal to the medal. All his adolescent competitiveness and hormones surged. We overtook two other sleds. All the humans were laughing. After this sprint, he stopped suddenly, tongue out panting wildly, eating snow, and ignoring our commands to keep going. He evidently hadn’t yet learned to pace himself. As soon as the sled that he had passed passed us, he was off again, in full competitive mode. Rinse; repeat.

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A glimpse of the frozen beauty
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Our speed demon rehydrating after the run

Upon return to the reindeer home base, we learned how to throw a lasso Sami-style.

We enjoyed lunch (of reindeer meat) and coffee around a fire in a lavvu, which is the traditional teepee-like Sami all-purpose structure. Our host and his sister presented us with a flat bread filled with reindeer stew, followed by hot lingonberry juice and coffee. He explained that, traditionally, when one is invited into another family’s lavvu, one must wait quietly just inside the tent opening until the host makes and offers coffee. Only then, can the visitor enter fully and start conversing.

Our host taught us with charm about the fascinating and difficult history and current life of the Sami people. His ancestors have lived for millennia in what is currently northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Originally, they followed the reindeer to hunt them. About 400 years ago, they started to domesticate the reindeer. Since that time, they keep the reindeer in the valleys in the winter, and move them up to the mountains for grazing through the summer.

Our host had also driven the van from our lodge to his place, and I had had the opportunity to sit in the front passenger seat. Some of the stories he told me had similarities to the proud and difficult history of the Hawaiian people, as well as the Maori. Once I mentioned that we had lived for a long time in Hawaii, he told me of his travels to New Zealand to meet with Maori there. He was deeply aware of the Maori’s challenges with European invaders, and the crucial 19th century treaty between the English and the Maori that underpins contemporary Maori rights. He lamented the fact that the Sami don’t have the equivalent in the Nordic countries. The history of the Sami people includes the later-arriving Swedes’ taking traditional lands, suppressing the language, forcing duplicate taxation, and more. The clash of indigenous people with arriving peoples has been fraught throughout the world.

Stockholm Winter Days

We visited Stockholm during three days at the start of March, and three more days a week later. This city was still pretty frozen during our first days. Bundled up, we enjoyed walking through the snowy parks, along the icy waterfronts, and down the crunchy streets.

We walked from the largely 20th century commercial district of Norrmalm, across a river, to the medieval heart of the city, Gamla Stan.

Over the course of our travels, we’ve discovered that food tours are a fun way to start to get to know a new city. We were eager to join the food tour on our first morning in Stockholm. We rendezvoused with four other tour members and our enthusiastic tour leader, a young Swedish woman, at the Östermalms Saluhall; the current Saluhall is the temporary home of the 19th century Stockholm City Market while it undergoes renovation. She invited us to enjoy some popular cheeses (often eaten at breakfast), and some Swedish charcuterie, including moose and reindeer (delicious!). Of course, you must sip breakfast beer with the meats!

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Along our tour from the Östermalm district, through modern Norrmalm, to Gamla Stan (the medieval heart of Stockholm), we sampled locally made chocolates, a celebratory fish soup with shrimp canapés, and finally, Swedish meatballs! The setting for the meatballs was in a vaulted below-street-level room of a charming café restaurant. We thought we would share some bites from the first plate that arrived, but no, each one of us received a full plate. The plates included the meatballs covered with a rich cream gravy, mashed potatoes, lightly pickled cucumber slices, and lingonberries. While each family will have its own take on Swedish meatballs, apparently this combination of meatballs, gravy, potatoes and lingonberries is the classic. And both tasty and filling. Throughout, our guide was charming, full of history and stories about the neighborhoods we walked through.

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Our tour group was small. Joining the two of us was a 30-something gregarious man from Vancouver. He had attended a conference in Copenhagen, and was trying to pack in as many culinary experiences as he could before he returned home. He was far from shy, with a great sense of humor. The remaining two tour members were Swedish, around our age. We came to learn that they were sister and brother. She, who lives in Mälmo, near Copenhagen, had given this tour to her lawyer brother, who has lived in Stockholm for over 30 years. She told us that she has enjoyed food tours in other places, such as Venice, and thought it would be a good experience to share with her brother. He, on the other hand, looked like he thought this was all an enormous waste of time. Why as a Swede would he enjoy a tour of basic Swedish food with foreigners? Selfishly, we thought that this was great: We had two more Swedes who would share their knowledge about Stockholm and Swedish food. But the lawyer brother stayed pretty sullen, even when we asked open questions. As the tour proceeded, he from time to time related a little about Stockholm landmarks as we passed them. Perhaps with stereotypical Swedish restraint, he was little by little expressing pride in his city. During the last stop of the tour, in the restaurant with the Swedish meatballs, he grew a bit more open. We all spent time talking about Ikea (you can’t be in Sweden and not talk about Ikea it turns out) — the products as well as the company and its founder. At the very end, somehow we each were saying what we had particularly enjoyed about the tour. The formerly dour lawyer brother said that enjoyed meeting all of us, and sharing some of Stockholm with us. Tourist enthusiasm is infectious!

 

We spent part of a cold gray day in the Nordic Museum. The Nordic Museum is home to over one and a half million exhibits, including exclusive items and everyday objects, all with their own unique history. The collections reflect life in Sweden from the 16th century to the present day. One area of the museum was particularly interesting to us. The exhibits, of which this table setting is one, showed aspects of Swedish life, in different periods and related to different life milestones such as Christmas, weddings, birthdays and even funerals.

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A favorite simple Swedish dish is this: bleak (a white fish) roe, crème fraîche, finely diced red onions, lemon, dill, and buttery toast. We enjoyed this modest but delicious starter during a number of our Swedish meals. We enjoyed it so much that we have tried to recreate it at home. We needed to substitute trout roe for bleak roe, and our store-bought crème fraîche was a bit creamier than the Swedish version. Delicious nonetheless!

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Most lists of top Stockholm destinations include the Stockholm City Hall. Toward the end of our trip, we still hadn’t really had an architectural activity. So we gave it a shot. The City Hall’s visitor office offers an interesting and pleasant tour of the public spaces. The complex was built in the early years of the 20th century, the winning entry in a competition. The style (or styles) express a conjunction of nascent modernism, romantic nationalism, and italianate and byzantine references. A seductive mashup.

While the Nobel Prize program is not a city or even Swedish national institution, for many years, the Nobel Prize banquet takes place here, mostly because the City Hall includes a number of very large dramatic venues.

We read about and were told about a design store called Svenskt Tenn. We found a beautiful luxurious design and textile store. The store offers furniture, accessories and textiles, mostly related to a remarkable collection of printed fabrics. The following comes from the store’s own literature:

Eighty per cent of Svenskt Tenn’s range consists of products that are of its own design. Josef Frank alone left behind 2,000 furniture sketches and about 160 textile designs. The store also has furniture and other objects by some of the most skilled designers and craftsmen of our time.

IT IS NOT ONLY the aesthetic heritage that makes Svenskt Tenn so special, but also how the company is formed. Svenskt Tenn is owned by a foundation, with the goal that the company should live forever. All profit generated by the company is donated to research in areas such as environmental sustainability, genetics, biomedicine and pharmaceuticals.

Josef Frank designed gloriously bold and exuberant patterns in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. It seems that his designs remain today the heart of the collection at Svenskt Tenn. 80 years after their design, they struck us as stunningly current and vibrant. We bought some fabric with his designs to make pillow covers at home. Only after we had made our selection did we learn that the name of one of the designs is “Hawaii.” Apparently, that’s just who we are!

My (David’s) heritage on my father’s side is Swedish and Norwegian. My great grandparents came to the US in the late 19th century. For this trip to Stockholm and Sweden, I was much more focused on our goal of seeing the northern lights and staying a night in the IceHotel than on my family’s background. So I was surprised and taken aback by two things. People kept assuming I was Swedish, and would sometimes launch into Swedish conversation. Part of this was my facial shape, and part of it was when they read my family name. (While my name may have been an invention of an Ellis Island functionary, it does include “lund” which is a common Swedish name component.) The second surprise was a corny feeling of, “Oh these are my people.” Especially after having lived for so many years in the diversity of Hawaii, I can’t recall being somewhere where the people are so connected to my forebears. If anything, I had expected that I would note an intellectual connection. I didn’t expect to feel the emotional connection.

Here’s the note we found in our hotel room when we returned after our tour in the north. They obviously assumed I was Swedish! (Google Translate reveals: “Welcome back, David. We wish you a pleasant stay!”)

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We had gotten into Stockholm late the night before from a trip to the arctic of northern Sweden, and to our surprise slept until about 10 am. We headed out on a lightly snowy later morning in search of lunch (or perhaps brunch for us). Spontaneously we stopped into Strandvagen Restaurant at just after noon. Because we arrived without reservations, the hostess offered us a high bar-like table to her left, from which we could sit side-by-side and watch much of the dining room and bar. For us, this table was great since there were so many people to watch, and we could see busy Stockholm amid snow flurries just outside the dining room.

We ordered an eclectic selection: steak tartare, bi bim bop (who’d have known that there would be a Korean dish on offer?), and a white fish with lemons, capers, cheese and potatoes — all of which were very tasty.

What was most fun, though, was our server. Our raised table was considered part of the bar territory, so our server was also the bar tender. At one point we asked him his advice about where we could by some vodka to take back home to France with us (we have found it hard to find moderately priced good vodka in France). After he gave us some options, he brought three bottles of Swedish aquavit to our table, and then offered tastes of two of them (very effective up-selling since the tastes were really drink orders!). But they were very tasty and fun to try. (We changed course later and bought a bottle of aquavit to take home instead of vodka.) We enjoyed our tasty lunch, people watching, and an introduction to aquavit.

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This little restaurant is immediately next door to our hotel. Who’d have known?!

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IceHotel

Seeing and staying in the IceHotel has been a bucket-list item for us. It lived up to the anticipation.

The setting was stunning, on the banks of the completely frozen Torne river from which the IceHotel has been built each fall for the last 28 years. The builders groom the ice of the river through the winter. They sweep snow off an area of the river to prevent the snow’s insulating properties from restricting the deep freezing of the river. Before the spring thaw, they harvest huge multi-ton blocks of the clear ice for use in the next fall.

Before the hotel opens for the season in December, they reconstruct the hotel corridors, public spaces and rooms from the saved ice blocks. Each year, artists and designers from around the world submit designs for rooms. The hotel owners convene a jury to make the selections, aiming never to repeat previous designs. The artists, with some help from the hotel ice artisans, have only two weeks to carve their designs in the raw ice.

Everything is ice! The corridors, the light fixtures, the gathering space.

Here’s the main ice wall in the gathering space, from inside and from outside.

Good to know that the local building codes make it clear where to find the fire extinguisher in the ICE hotel!

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The staff explained strategies for sleeping in the ice rooms on the ice beds where it is -5C (long underwear, socks and cap; sleeping bag liner; sleeping bag; all spread on reindeer skins). Bedding down in an ice freezer was a new experience, so getting to sleep took a while as the excitement mellowed. The toilet rooms are in a heated adjacent building, so if you have to go in the middle of the night, you have to put on your coat and boots and scurry to the warmth.

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Our room was like being under the mushrooms with glowing snails!

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Insulating pad with reindeer skins — for warmth!
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Mike says Good Night

Of course we had to go to the IceBar for cocktails in glasses made of ice. With the provided arctic outerwear, we were comfortable, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience of iced cocktails (and us) on ice.

We may not have had the best sleep of your life, but the experience was extraordinary.

Abisko and Narvik

For three days, our home base for Aurora Borealis hunting was the Abisko Mountain Lodge. The Abisko region in northern Sweden offers expansive landscapes of mountains, forests and lakes, and generally dry clear weather — which is great for aurora viewing at night. During the day, however, there was still plenty to explore.

This is what we saw from our lodge room. The cone of wood poles is the structure for a traditional lavvu in the Sami indigenous culture of northern Scandinavia. While the deck chairs draped with reindeer skins looked inviting, we refrained from lounging in the -20 deg C daytime.

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We went for a short hike in a nearby natural park. The trail followed the curves of a small gorge, including rock-solid frozen waterfalls.

The interpretation center explained flora, fauna and history of Abisko. The exhibits, and some of the local people we met, expressed clear awareness of what climate change is already bringing to this region.

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Our hike took us to the edge of the large frozen lake. We were told that the ice was about two meters thick. We were also told that, starting at half a meter, ice is strong enough for the Swedish military to drive tanks on frozen lakes.

One of our daytime activities was to take the train from Abisko, in Sweden, to the town of Narvik, Norway.

The train route follows the curve of the Abisko area lakes and valleys….

…before emerging along the edge of a steep inland rocky valley that transforms into a fjord.

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The town of Narvik wasn’t particularly attractive, but it was noticeably warmer than Abisko. It was a sunny Saturday, and lots of people were out and about. We quickly noticed that many families were out strolling, dressed in what looked to us like Victorian clothing. When we asked about this, we were told that this day was the first day of a 10-day winter festival. The festival celebrates the construction in the early 1900s of the railroad from the port inland to the mineral-rich interior.

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The railroad connects the harbor of Narvik with, among other places, the huge iron mine in Kiruna, Sweden. We spent the first half of our northern adventure in the Kiruna area. While we focused on the arctic landscape and activities, we were very aware of the white mountain of the mine, and the endless rail cars carrying ore.

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Line of ore-carrying rail cars
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The mine in the distance

 

 

Aurora Borealis in Northern Sweden

Our top objective for our recent trip to Sweden was to experience the northern lights. By track record, Kiruna and Abisko, in the far north of Sweden, are among the optimal accessible viewing locations in the world. Of course both terrestrial and solar weather have to cooperate. We are happy to report that we did have two nights of aurora sighting, one of which was particularly ample and exciting.

The Aurora Borealis in the north and Aurora Australis in the south come from Earth’s magnetic field’s channeling ions from the solar wind to the poles. The ions hit oxygen, nitrogen and other molecules high in the atmosphere. The energy of the ions excites electrons, which in turn release the energy as photons. Oxygen atoms generate green light; nitrogen provides red light.

The first night was the Photo Tour. At 8 pm, along with about 18 other people, we rode in open-air trailers behind snowmobiles from the lodge out onto the frozen lake, far from the village lights. It was about -21C and super clear. With our layers of clothing and the arctic outerwear from the lodge — and some heating packets in our gloves — we were comfortable in the arctic chill. The guides had set up DSLR cameras on tripods around a small shelter on the ice. We provided our own memory cards for the cameras. The chief photographer, a truly jolly and excited young English fellow, gave us all pointers about how to photograph the aurora once they appear. The camera settings included a 25-second exposure.

For the first hour or so of our time on the ice, there weren’t any aurora. But the sky was dazzlingly full of stars. I had never seen the Milky Way before, and there it was in National Geographic splendor. The stars were lovely and myriad.

Then, gently, a band of aurora emerged from the starry sky. It was subtle. The photographs of aurora are much brighter and clearer of color than what you see with your naked eye. Slowly and gracefully over the next few hours, bands of aurora formed, intensified, and then waned. One of the strongest bands was bright enough to reflect in the icy surface of the lake. We felt that, at last, we had seen the Aurora Borealis; we had succeeded. Perhaps it wasn’t as dramatic as we’d hoped, but it was pretty wonderful nonetheless.

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The activity of the next night was labeled Aurora Hunting. Our guides would drive us to places in the area where the sky was as clear as possible on this evening. We joined others in a van. The driver stopped a few kilometers away, along the side of a highway. Despite the distracting bright light of passing traffic (not exactly a traffic jam on the arctic highway, but every few minutes a car or truck passed), we watched the bands of aurora appear. Better than the night before, but I felt a little annoyed that we were fighting the lights of the passing traffic.

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After about 30 minutes, our guide directed us back into the van. Our next stop was again out in the middle of a frozen lake. Cameras hadn’t been provided, but the setting was far from distracting human lights. This time, that aurora rose and waned, and rose again, all across the sky. There were multiple bands from horizon to horizon. Then the bands started moving quickly like curtains of light in a celestial breeze. They fluttered and shimmered above our heads, sliding across the sky. All that we — and our fellow spectators — could say over and over was, “Wow!!” The animation of the sheets of aurora was emotional.

Fortunately, our guide had his own DSLR and tripod. He captured some of our night’s aurora, and send us the images. He even had taken a photo of us with the aurora behind us. A little proof that we were really there!

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