During the Fall 2022 semester, three DIS Stockholm students, Ange, Bradley University, Eva, Denison University, and Gabby, Colby College, slow traveled via overnight train to the Arctic community of Kiruna in northern Sweden. In and around Kiruna, they used their opportunity to engage with local culture and nature by dog sledding, hiking through snow-covered forests, and staying with a Sami guide who taught them some of the history and culture of the region’s indigenous population.
This blog post was authored by all three Slow Travelers. It tells several scenes from their journey along with their reflections and takeaways from their time in Kiruna.
Bright and Early
The bright white sun of an early morning gently pries open my eyelids, and I stir to the same gentle sway that had rocked me to sleep just hours earlier. Hearing movement, Eva turns towards me lying in the bottom bunk of the overnight train, and excitedly whispers, “Ange! You’ve gotta see this!”
Groggily fumbling around for my glasses, I inch forward to investigate. To my surprise, the stark white is not the sun at all. The sky itself, a baby blue blending into the pale yellow orb on the horizon, is not nearly as bright as the miles of pure white snow flying past the train window. We whisk past spruce and pine trees seemingly frozen in place, submerged under thick layers of snow and ice. Despite the cold creeping closer from the window, the landscape lights a spark of childlike wonder in my heart that warms me from the inside out.
Stepping off the train and into this winter wonderland was like taking our first steps on the moon. Snow crystals lightly crunched under our weight, and the icy-cold air felt as though Jack Frost himself was biting at us all. Our first time in the piercing air of the Arctic Circle was freezing, but it was also love at first sight (or bite haha).
In the short walk from the train station to the hostel, our toes were already numb to the cold. Having arrived on Kiruna’s coldest day of the year, we quickly learned not to underestimate the temperatures. After defrosting, we wasted no time in dressing under as many warm layers as we could. Eager to venture back out into the frosty terrain and explore, we were a lot more prepared the second time around. The cold still threatened to chill us to the bone, but the forest was full of life. Birch trees jutted out from the ground, untouched frosted snow clinging to icy branches. Strong rays of sunshine glowed brightly behind icy branches. The warm glow shimmered and danced like a freshly shaken snow globe as it reflected off the pure white of the forest.
A Warm Welcome
The sun had set by early afternoon, and the time came for us to meet our Sami host for the night, Ylva. Spring-loaded with questions that we had stored throughout the day, we finally had the chance to release them on our drive to Nikkaluokta village. Upon our arrival, Ylva happily showed us the route we would later take to her place before dropping us off at our cabin along with clothing fit for subzero temperatures .
Dinnertime came, and the frigid air was still as sharp as icicles. Our snow pants swished, and our headlamps flickered, guiding us through the stark darkness of Nikkaluokta. We shuffled towards the front porch, bundled in our best winter gear. Ylva swung her door wide open, wearing her gákti (a traditional Sami outfit) and a smile as warm as the crackling fireplace within. The silver brooches faintly jingled atop her intricately woven traditional Sami dress of blue, red, and yellow. We practically floated toward the toasty heat radiating from the fire, gliding past tapestries, candles, and a lifetime’s collection of artwork. Warm berries and savory reindeer meat wafted from the kitchen as we admired the house’s cozy interior. Traditional handicrafts, reindeer antlers, and portraits of various sizes adorned the walls. Everything in this house embodied Ylva’s pride in her home, her family, and her heritage.
Ylva poured us cups of piping hot glögg, a tangy white wine with notes of sea buckthorn berry, as we took bites of dried meat from a block of smoothed birch. We were delighted by how flavorful they were, and Ylva was proud to share that all the meat she had prepared was from one of her own reindeer. Eva remembers at first feeling a momentary shock followed by sadness at the news. But as Ylva told us stories of her people, the Sami, and their generations-long relationship with the reindeer, that sadness gradually eased with the knowledge that the life of the reindeer had not been taken lightly. The reindeer are deeply important to Sami culture and are treated with respect. When she does kill one, Ylva said, she stores and prepares reindeer meat for herself and her family so that they don’t need to rely on any store-bought meat. Over the course of our stay, Ylva served us reindeer prepared in five different ways, showcasing both its versatility and also its historic importance to survival here.
We laughed, learned, and ate deliciously; dinner was followed by a dessert of cloudberry compote poured over vanilla ice cream and pie with a drizzle of dandelion syrup. We also tried coffee cheese for the first time, a delicacy traditionally reserved for celebrations and special occasions. Ylva explained how the hard cheese was only softened by adding it to freshly brewed coffee, and, as we ate, she told tales of people making days-long mountain journeys with this cheese in tow. That night, the food was memorable, but the stories were unforgettable.
Navigating Northern Lights
Trudging through freshly-fallen snow, wearing more layers at one time than we all thought possible, the bitter cold tried its best to permeate our clothing. Creating a trail of only footprints, Ylva led us through pristine snow. With the darkness and the snowfall, we were unable to see much past the tiny snowflakes swirling around us, but Ylva and Eva set up their cameras, attempting to capture the Northern Lights. Gabby and Ange laid down in the powdery snow and gazed up at the stars. It wasn’t a night of high visibility, but even still, the moment inspired an overwhelming sense of gratitude and appreciation for the day, for the beauty from before, and for Ylva generously welcoming us into her village and her home.
Embracing the opportunity to learn about Sami stories and traditions firsthand before venturing out on our night walk allowed us to create a more heartfelt connection to our surroundings. The idea of following in Ylva’s ancestors’ footsteps while hardly leaving footprints of our own was really profound. The concept of leaving no trace was impactful, having briefly borrowed clothes and bedsheets and returning them the next day, as we would ourselves return with memories and meaningful experiences. That night, cozied up by the fire, sleepily sharing stories and tea, we reflected on what brought us to this moment. Deepening our friendships during this truly one-of-a-kind trip was something we were all especially grateful for that first night.
The following morning, we were slow to rise. But, being in the Arctic Circle during the winter, the sun was still rising when we made it outside. Seeing Nikkaluokta in the daytime was like having a million thoughts but none at all. The untouched beauty of the natural world left us speechless. Among snow-topped mountains, a pastel pink strip of sunrise illuminated tufts of wispy clouds.
Walking through the crystal spruce trees was an absolute fairy tale; even more magical was the flurry of wind that dusted the ground with tinkling icicles. It was strikingly reminiscent of a forest fairy’s windchimes dancing through the air. At one point on the walk, we caught a glimpse of a something large in the distance, darting between trees. Peering between the gaps of a snow-dusted chain-link fence, we saw two reindeer, a mother and her calf, prancing over snowy bushes and into the hills. Our eyes welled with tears — spotting reindeer roaming through the nature was a childhood image come to life. It was not the first time shedding tears that day, and it wouldn’t be the last, either.
Giving Thanks on Thanksgiving
Coincidentally, we shared our heartiest meal together on Thanksgiving. The tasting menu at Camp Ripan blended foods and flavors representative of Swedish, Sami, and Tornedalen Finnish traditions.
The dinner experience was spectacular, but the main course and dessert were by far the richest. The juiciness of the reindeer sirloin and the creaminess of the hunter’s gravy melted on the tongue. We were amazed at how creative they were with simple ingredients, especially the sweet blackened onions and crunchy cabbage.
Chanterelle mushrooms were an excitingly delicious addition to dessert — paired with cloudberry preserves and panna cotta, it was a delicious experience unlike any we’d ever had. The tasting menu’s slow rotation of dishes allowed us to question and learn the origins of each bite. The night was full of mindful eating and appreciation for everything that brought us to the present moment. When we suddenly noticed that we were the last table left, we knew it was time to bundle up and begin another journey on the trails outside. Roaming the trails at night was strikingly beautiful.
We heard the dogs before we saw them. We rounded the corner as they were barking and playing, signaling to the musher they were excited to mush and ready to go. It was surreal meeting them; while they were still cute and playful, they were clearly working dogs. Sure, they could get a little rowdy with restless energy; but when we were gliding on snow atop a frozen lake, their proud obedience shone bright. Our guide and musher explained that these dogs were specially trained for long distances. She described some of their previous multiday races, working together to cover 20,000-30,000km of Arctic terrain as quickly as possible. The focus and adrenaline coursing through the dogs was tangible, and leading the team was Bebe, the oldest lady of the pack.
It’s moments like these when I realize how little I know about the world. As I listened to our musher, I was in awe at how intertwined the dogs’ lives were with hers. She has dedicated her life to a sport, lifestyle, and community of dog sledding, something I didn’t even know existed beyond a vague idea. To live and breathe for the lives of another species is a beautiful thing.
The Long Way Home
Slow travel has gifted us with an abundance of conversations that have expanded our worldviews and widened our perspectives. Both environmentally and interpersonally, we’ve seen a glimpse of co-existing worlds within one city.
It’s a theme we’ve collectively encountered across all of our travels over this semester – how new places and people can teach us new things and change our lives for the better. But this Slow Travel experience, with its emphasis on sitting in a place with the goal of processing and understanding it on a deeper level, through its history, its people, and the community they have built, has brought us to a new understanding of what travel can be, and how much of a mark a place can leave on you. This is an experience we will all carry with us for years to come – yet we also know that the more we learn, the more we understand just how much more is out there to know.
More student experiences with Slow Travel in Scandinavia:
>> Get to know the spring ’23 Stockholm Slow Travelers
>> Off the Beaten Track in Sweden: DIS Slow Travel Initiative
>> A Bornholm Experience: DIS Slow Travel Initiative