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Saunas, snowmobiles and Sámi traditions: why late winter is the perfect time to visit Swedish Lapland

Swedish Lapland is typically visited by travellers in the depths of midwinter, but a later season known as ‘spring-winter’ provides a glittering backdrop against which to engage with the lives and traditions of Europe’s last indigenous people, the Sámi.

By Ellen Himelfarb
Published 24 May 2022, 11:00 BST
Jonas Gejke prepares an outdoor fika (a coffee and cake break) that includes waffles and cinnamon ...

Jonas Gejke prepares an outdoor fika (a coffee and cake break) that includes waffles and cinnamon buns.

Photograph by Simon Bajada

The most effective cure I’ve yet to experience for the late-winter blues is the Arctic’s spectacular, pervasive whiteness. In Swedish Lapland, with the landscape still trapped beneath a blanket of snow, it’s all you can see. By day, snowflakes glitter from the sun’s doting attention — a serious serotonin boost. 

Tonight, I’m chasing that high on the frozen Råne River, where a ‘floating sauna’ cabin is gripped by metre-thick ice. It’s an outpost of Aurora Safari Camp, an off-grid cluster of glass-topped, conical cabins and heated yurts (the latter known as ‘lavvu’ by the region’s Indigenous Sámi people) which sleep just 10 guests. With its paired-back luxuries and abhorrence of artificial light, the camp is designed to thrust travellers into the elements. Which is how I find myself climbing out of my winter layers in frigid temperatures and groping my way into the sauna’s candlelit interior.

I fill a bucket with water from the wood-burning stove, splash it over the hot rocks, and feel the vapour fill my lungs and expand my pores. Reclining on the cedarwood bench, I wonder what toxins could possibly still need clearing out of my system, given my newfound, wholesome diet of clean air, sunshine and grilled reindeer. If I were a Swede, it would be a rite of passage to next plunge into the pool axed out of the ice just outside. Padding out onto the deck, I dip a toe into the freezing water and decide I’m not quite hardy enough — yet. Instead, I scoop up some ice water with the bucket and pour it over my head. In the absence of any actual electricity, I feel positively charged.

In the distance, a wash of light has settled on the horizon, as if from a nearby megacity. Yet here in Lapland’s Råne River Valley, Stockholm is some 600 miles away to the south. As the white glow brightens and flickers, I realise the Northern Lights have come to dance behind a sprinkling of stars, tinting yellow then lava-lamp green as they swirl over the shadowy treetops. Spellbound, I sink into a snow-covered bench and watch the show, all of a sudden barely feeling the cold. 

A lavvu tent at Aurora Safari Camp.

Photograph by Simon Bajada

The bracing Arctic air is addictive, drawing me into the subzero outdoors. In the morning Aurora’s co-founder Jonas Gejke arrives on snowmobile and asks if I want to drive. I nearly crush him in my excitment to climb aboard. Together, we cross the frozen Råne, following a trail marked by hand-painted signs. We snake through birch forest, then gently climb to the summit of Snipen Hill for a panorama of spruce greens and icy blues that’s barely distinguishable from the sky. Pushing 40mph on the descent, the path opens up and we glide onto a solid, springwater lake. 

The Swedish have a saying, Jonas tells me. When it’s really freezing, we “stand in the middle of our clothes”. Today, though, is something else entirely. The sun is high, fierce and unfiltered in late February — a distinct part of late winter known locally as ‘spring-winter’. Jonas kills the engine and stretches back on the snowmobile with his boots resting on the handlebars. “People don’t know what they’re missing when they come at Christmastime,” Jonas says, “with four-hour days, at 20 below.”

A similar joy at the season is shared by the fishermen we meet who’ve just caught three Arctic char through holes in the ice, and by the Sámi family picnicking upon bearskins at a bend in the river. Glee even seems to be radiating from a reindeer calf we spot grazing in a sun-dappled glade. It’s the perfect spring-winter tableau, Jonas agrees.

Reindeer are all around — every time you venture out it’s almost impossible to avoid spotting a few of the estimated 260,000 that roam Swedish Lapland. But driving north from the camp, sightings become even more commonplace. An hour away, having crossed into the Arctic Circle, Jonas stops by the home of Lars Eriksson, a Sámi elder. Lars is dressed the part in traditional turned-up moccasins, sealskin jodhpurs and a red-striped tunic, and when he yodels toward the forest, his reindeer come running, cowbells clanging. 

Like most Sámi, Lars — one of the few remaining speakers of the native Sámi language — once herded thousands but downsized to a scant 450 a decade ago when they began suffering the effects of excessive logging. Reforestation has restored much of the lost habitat, but the aqua-blue lichen reindeer rely on prefers the moisture of old-growth woods. Lars bobs his head to mime the difficulty his livestock face trying to feed through ice cover, when the snow melts mid-season then refreezes. This unhappy consequence of climate change is, he says, another problem he’s watched snowball.

Writer Ellen Himelfarb meets Lars Eriksson, a Sámi elder, in Swedish Lapland.

Photograph by Fredrik Broman

On thin ice

The Sámi have had to get creative to survive. Another herder, Tine Eriksson, collects armfuls of hay each day, piles it onto a sled pulled behind an ancient snowmobile and distributes it to her herd personally. The following morning, Jonas and I track her down to a field by an abandoned logger’s hut. Her husband has had to abandon his chores to rescue a reindeer from a hungry lynx (a “cat problem”, as she calls it), so their daughter, Elle, a forestry student at the local university, has come to help. “She’s learning to infiltrate the industry,” says Jonas winking. Tine laughs, then invites me to hop on the snowmobile behind her.

Twenty-first-century reindeer are born into a cursed territory, she says as we putter into the woods. “Salted motorways lure the animals into the open. And if lynx don’t get them, cars will,” she says. Tine explains her “village” — by which she means a swathe of Sámi territory, around 100 miles wide — loses 100 a year to traffic. And while the young, snow-capped forest replanted by logging companies is certainly beautiful — tall, dignified, orderly — she says a “new plantation is not really forest, it’s like growing palm trees here; so foreign”. 

Lately, local Sámi have bonded with outback guides like Jonas over the common goal of conserving Lapland’s snow-melt rivers and ancient forests. Together, they make a formidable faction against Big Forestry and the steelmakers that install windmills that impede the reindeer as they head along age-old migratory routes.  

“Our northern industries are some of the world’s greenest,” Jonas says. “But they come here thinking it’s a land of nothing, when for us it’s the land of everything.” Jonas doesn’t have to sell me on what there is to enjoy in this supposed emptiness. Arriving in the village of Mårdudden, where he’s converted the general store into a homely inn called The Outpost, we wave at a neighbour on a kick sledge pulled by his husky. Noting my interest, Jonas offers to squeeze a “husky run” into my itinerary, alongside the hot air ballooning I’ve already signed up for. All these activities offered by The Outpost take advantage of the frozen lake and snow-laden woods behind the inn. All conclude with Swedish tea: waffles splashed with cream and cloudberry jam, taken in an armchair by the fire. 

When it’s finally comes time to leave, Jonas drives me south to Luleå. Exiting the charming main street, Jonas takes an unexpected turn down a peninsula on the Bothnian Bay. At the frozen ferry dock, he… keeps driving, out onto the frozen water. It all feels rather Thelma & Louise. This is the route the reindeer take in winter, from the inland Sámi villages toward richer food sources, Jonas explains, although the herds find the passage increasingly perilous as the earth warms. For us, today, the transition from tarmac to ice is seamless. 

Luleå’s ice road leads to a pine-thick archipelago that you’d need a boat to reach in summer. The crossing is blissfully luminous and — after the sun makes its vermilion descent — as dark as the hinterland. Gliding in this strange stratosphere, I keep an eye on the horizon. The Northern Lights are bound to flick on soon. I can already feel the charge.

How to do it

Original Travel has two nights at Aurora Safari Camp and one at Treehotel as part of its Arctic Adrenaline in Swedish Lapland itinerary, from £3,590 per person. Includes flights, transfers and some excursions. visitsweden.com

Published in the June 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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