GETTING THE GREEN LIGHT
Wanderlust Travel Magazine|January/February 2021
Lights. Camera. Action. We go in search of the phenomena, wildlife and people that make Swedish Lapland so special
MARK STRATTON

Scrunching through freshly fallen snow, I looked up at a magnificent arc of stars undergoing cosmic bad reception as the sky began shapeshifting with jerking staccato movements. A silvery rectangle materialised, then the lights concertinaed out like a Japanese sliding-screen and silhouetted the surrounding pines. The lights then reassembled, oozing smoothly like the matter of a lava lamp, before a celestial shower of stair-rods rained down. Aurora borealis had arrived.

This collision of solar-charged particles and atmospheric atoms left me ecstatic, rekindling childhood joys watching firework displays and appreciating my good fortune because seeing the northern lights is never guaranteed in Swedish Lapland. But tonight, it was -8°C and the night sky unblemished. My camera, set for long exposures, sucked out an intensely luminous shamrock-green hue naked to my eye. The aurora proved challenging to photograph, like trying to get a toddler to sit still for a school portrait yet I carried on taking pictures until my fingers froze, then watched this phantasmagoria play out until it vanished abruptly and uncloaked the starry sky once more.

I’d travelled to Swedish Lapland as the last throes of autumn transitioned to early snowfall, hoping the aurora might cast light over the darkness of a challenging year. And what better place to socially distance? Isolation is a natural state of affairs in underpopulated Sápmi, to afford Lapland it’s Sámi name, where these remote indigenes have roamed the roof-of-the-world for thousands of years. During my four-days here, I would savour this wilderness and meet the hardy souls who live off the land and ice.

But first something novel. Unfamiliar normality. Taking me to his remarkable Treehotel was Kent Lindvall. He wore no facemask and all Luleå’s shops were open. “We’ve followed our own path in Sweden,” he said. “We’ve not closed our borders, everything has stayed open. Swedes are trusted to follow the rules on social distancing.” Nobody wore a mask during my four-night stay.

Branching out

The gateway to Swedish Lapland, Luleå is an unremarkable port town on the Gulf of Bothnia’s northernmost shore, just below the Arctic Circle. It moved from an inland location to the sea in 1649, leaving behind a UNESCO World Heritage-listed town at Gammelstad. Here the 15th-century Nederluleå church remains surrounded by 405 little red cabins that once hosted the frozen faithful who traipsed across Lapland for Sunday service.

Seventy-five kilometers away in Harads, the Treehotel is up there with the Ice Hotel as Sweden’s quirkiest accommodation. We arrived at Kent’sold-fashioned guesthouse, a former geriatric home, soft furnished with touches from the 1930s. I stopped for a bowl of homemade Jerusalem artichoke soup before walking into the surrounding forest to seven extraordinary treehouses backlit by aurora borealis. Most eye-catching is the UFO, a five-bed silver flying saucer suspended by wires from the surrounding trees. It has a ladder stretching down to the forest floor and I half expected to see a little green man appear suggesting ‘he came in peace’. The Bird’s Nest took more finding, camouflaged by sticks, roomy enough for both a family of four and a pterodactyl.

“A friend and filmmaker came to explore his childhood by building a treehouse here,” said Kent, next morning over waffles and blueberry smoothie. “We asked if we could rent it out to guests and noticed those who slept in it felt connected to the forest. In 2010, I met three Swedish architects on a fishing trip and challenged each to design me a treehouse. We subsequently added four more designed by architects across Scandinavia.”

But cosmic light shows and funky accommodation aside, it was the hardy inhabitants that began to really capture my attention; inhabitants of an extreme landscape where midsummer sunshine radiates for 24 hours daily and winter temperatures plunge to -30°C.

Canine capers

“I saw the northern lights around midnight,” said Kim Jonsson, a local musher, later that morning. “But I was heading to my outhouse for a pee and felt too tired to get my camera.”

Thirty minutes from Treehotel is a farm near Krokfors where Kim runs Lapland Husky. My previous experiences dogs ledding had been unsatisfactory. I’d experienced dogs driven too hard, not least in Greenland, and seen them chained up in enclosures snarling at anybody who went near them. But any concerns about Kim’s dogs’ welfare subsided when a pretty Alaskancross with sapphire-blue eyes ran excitedly towards me and slobbered my face with husky kisses.

Softly spoken, Kim explained he has just 26 huskies. He selected eight for a morning sled-run, all of whom careened around with excitement, howling towards a non-existent moon. “I never wanted too many dogs,” said Kim, attaching their harnesses. “I want to retain a personal relationship with each dog and to care for them properly.”

Training starts at between 6-8 months, when the younger puppies are mentored by senior dogs like 12-year-old Stella. She exuded the enthusiasm of a pup but didn’t miss a trick to stretch out on the snow to conserve her energy.

Kim explained that Alaskan huskies are lighter and faster than Siberian but without their endurance, although he has driven a team 100km in 24 hours. We would just be doing a quick loop around the pine forest.

Kim handed over the dogsled to me to ‘mush’. They’re not difficult to drive, with steering handles like a motorcycle with brakes. I felt the exhilaration of speed and the rush of freezing air on my face. In truth Kim’s huskies knew exactly where they were going so it was like steering on autopilot. “My only rule is be sure you’re on the sled before taking off the brake or they’ll leave you behind. My dogs love me, but they love running more.”

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