Lapland 2014: Kiruna & Snowshoeing

I didn’t really fancy getting up this morning, so the day started slowly.

I put on the Yaktrax and instantly became a person who can walk on this lethal slippery stuff. I marched down to the main road and through the park right down to the big main road at the bottom of the hill, to the station. As I’d suspected, I’d fallen victim to the mine. Kiruna is a town built around a massive iron mine. Unfortunately, the mine is now eating the town and they’re starting the colossal job of moving the entire town away from it before it ends up in it. The station has already moved. I was already a bit grumpy about the station because the word I have to spot on the map is Järnsvägsstation, which is just a random collection of letters, totally unrelated to any word for railway station I’ve ever come across. I was doing ok with the Swedish until then, by translating via German or Icelandic or Danish (tåg = tog = zog = zug = train, not day etc). But as I stomped along Järnsvägsg. I was thinking how the g stands for gata (street) and it suddenly dawned on me that Järnsväg, just like French, translates to iron way and in fact, makes perfect sense! That kept me happy for quite a while.

I came off Station Road and back to the main road. I could see bits of railway, I could even see a goods train but these buildings didn’t look like the station. I sat down on a snowdrift to consult my map and discovered I still wasn’t even halfway there yet. Don’t sit on snowdrifts. They’re cold and wet. Well, I wasn’t walking this distance in the snow with luggage tomorrow. I would investigate buses or even get a taxi. I walked back beside the main road rather than on the “safe walk” through residential streets. It was clear people travelled along this path but the markings weren’t footprints. I puzzled over the tracks for a while and finally it clicked into place, along with the snowmobiles people have parked outside their houses as if they’re normal everyday transportation.

In the meantime, I trekked back up the hill, stopping to look at some truly great snow sculptures and then back to my room to eat and be lazy for a while. But on the way back, I made a wonderful discovery. The little old ladies of Kiruna don’t go out with shopping trollies on wheels, they go out with little sledges! I’ve been seeing them everywhere, locked to bikes racks and lampposts, with their names carved on the back.

I had to go out again. I hadnt seen Kiruna kyrka or found the supermarket – I’d started to think the locals must live out of cafes. It was colder than earlier. The church is just around the corner from my hotel so I went there first, enjoying the Yaktrax as I strode up the hill to the church while people coming down slithered all over the place.
The church was once voted Sweden’s favourite building. It’s pretty – a “bizarre neo-Gothic interpretation of a Sámi tent”, looks wooden inside and out but apparently a lot of the detail inside is wrought iron – there’s that mine again! It’s hard to forget the mine, anyway. There’s not much of Kiruna from which you can’t see the mine.
I came back via the city hall (decorative wrought iron tower on top) and the bus station and then past my hotel to where I believed I might find a supermarket. I was wrong. Up to the petrol station visible uphill from the church. No shop. I thought I’d cut through and into the centre to ask at the TIC and there it was, in the building next to mine. I’d walked past it only an hour or so ago!
I didn’t buy much. Fresh bread, cheddar slices (much tastier than plastic cheese!) and juice. Sweden doesn’t seem to like apple juice so I got pear, orange and strawberry. The pear was good – all gone with the bread and cheese, sadly. The strawberry is so watery it’s almost flavourless and I haven’t tried the orange yet. i thought that little lot would last until Monday. I sense another shopping trip in the morning.
I did stop at the TIC. I found a bus timetable for the new station and asked why so many parked cars seemed to be plugged in. They’re blatantly not electric cars. The boy at the desk didn’t know but he guessed it was some kind of engine preheater device thing.

A little before six, i made my way down to Kiruna Guidetur, where I put on high waterproof boots, fitted a set of blue snowshoes and was given an armful of poles. We drove to Jukkasjärvi to pick up the other two from ICEHOTEL. On the way, I asked Emilio, our guide, about the mysterious plugged-in cars. They’re engine warmers, they come on an hour before you go out, so it starts properly and uses fuel more efficiently. At ICEHOTEL, he let me scamper down to see the thing while he collected the others.

It’s different every year. This year it looks like several arches, each lit in a different shade of blue or green, with a walkway to the msin entrance made of the clearest, smoothest ice I’ve ever seen. It’s pretty big – definitely no mere igloo.

The other couple turned out to be a bit older, so Emilio changed his plans, to do something a bit flatter. We drove up to a campsite on the other side of Kiruna and went into a little cabin with a sloping roof that almost touched the snow, a fireplace in the centre and benches around the outside covered in reindeer skins. Emilio lit the fire (with flint, knife and birch bark and it just went!) and we put on our shoes and went outside.

Snowshoeing is so much harder than I’d expected. You do still sink, usually to at least knee depth. Then you push down on your other leg to try and step out of the hole, that one sinks too and because you’re leaning forwards, you actually fall into the snow at that point. The poles don’t help, they sink too. But even when you don’t fall in, it’s still a massive full-body effort to take each step in the deep bits and it’s exhausting and you get very hot very quickly. It feels like walking on air when you get to bits you don’t sink in. At one point, I fell in and couldn’t get up unassisted three times in a row. I felt like the only hobbit in a company of elves (see Fellowship of the Ring, the scene when they’re trying to cross the mountain in the snow). My foot got so deeply buried Emilio had to dig it out, I slid down one slope rather than fall in it six more times and I lost my right snowshoe. Well,
it was still attached to my ankle but it was flapping along beside me, not strapped to the bottom of my foot. The trouble is that often your foot sinks and slides forward. You can’t just pull it out, you have to unhook it like a cat’s claws, which can be difficult if you’ve already taken a big step with your other foot. Pulling constantly was probably what loosened it.
At last we came off the hill and onto a road. A moose had walked along the road not too much earlier – Emilio said the animals use roads because they’re easier and i can see it.

After the road was a bit more forest and then we were onto the river. It’s fine to walk on – lots of snow, then half a metre of ice. You can snowmobile on it, you can even drive a car on it. We saw a snowmobile. Emilio said there’s a 70kph speed limit and the police do come out onto the river with their speed guns to catch speeding snowmobilers. On busy days, they even have a helicopter checking up on them.
The river was mostly easier. Big deep steps but mostly no falling over. I pretended to fall over for a photo and managed to knock my right snowshoe off again. We walked back into the forest and then we were at the cabin.
I was so tired and so hot. I was already walking in just a t-shirt and thin thermal top with my coat open over the top but the coat and hat and gloves came straight off in the cabin. But within five seconds, I got cold in wet clothes – part sweat, part snow. The fire was lovely. I declined reindeer sandwiches and moose sausage but I had some hot chocolate out of a plastic container that I suspect wasn’t actually designed to be a cup.
We sat by the fire, eating our picnic and warming up – a fika break, as they call it in Swedish. Good times.
Then we were back on the road. The Swiss to ICEHOTEL, me back to Kiruna, once I had my own boots back. Into dry clothes and finally warming up.
No plans for tomorrow except taking the train to Narvik.

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