After arriving in Kiruna, we just barely had time to check into our hotel and get settled before it was time to leave for our northern lights snowmobile tour with Kiruna Guidetur. Lex was still feeling under the weather and decided she shouldn’t go, but since our spots were non-refundable and this was something I really wanted to do (don’t judge us too harshly) Cory and I decided to go anyway, leaving Lex at the hotel with a laptop and a pretty decent selection of movies to keep her entertained.
The meeting spot for our northern lights snowmobile tour in Kiruna was right around the corner from our hotel, so we were able to walk there in about five minutes. As we were getting suited up in the coveralls/boots apparel we’d become accustomed to in Sweden, the rest of our tour group began arriving and we were delighted to find we were part of a group with a bunch of Americans, Canadians, and Brits. While I love meeting people from all over on our travels, sometimes it’s just as exciting to hang around folks who know where you’re from and/or currently live. I could tell right away this group was going to be a fun one!
After we were all set to go, we piled into vans and drove about 20 minutes outside of Kiruna to where our snowmobile tour would begin. The minute we got out of the van I knew luck was on our side. It was a mostly clear night and already the northern lights were out on display! We still had another van to wait on and a safety demo to get through, though, so I was crossing my fingers the show wouldn’t be over by the time we actually got out into the less light-polluted areas on our snowmobiles.
We decided Cory would drive first since the extent of my experience with snowmobiles begins and ends with watching them being given away on The Price Is Right, and that ended up being a pretty sweet deal for me. While Cory focused on making sure we didn’t crash into any trees or swerve off into a deep snowdrift, I sat in my seat, head tipped back, and watched the brilliant northern lights show unfolding above us.
After about half an hour of riding, we stopped in the middle of a frozen lake because the lights had really begun to take on a vivid appearance. I wasn’t sure how long we’d be stopped, but I set up my camera equipment anyway. The northern lights were so much bigger and bolder than what we’d seen on our first night in Abisko and even if it meant I got left behind, I was going to try to document this moment as best I could.
Now, I still had no idea what I was doing in regards to photographing the lights and anything I got that actually turned out decent was a complete accident, but apparently everyone on the tour was under the impression I did know what I was doing, so they all crowded around, asking me how I was taking my shots and oohing and aahing over the colors of the lights on my LCD screen. (This had the effect of both embarrassing me and blowing my ego up to unearned proportions.) Because, you see, the way the lights appear on camera is quite a bit different than they look to the human eye.
These pictures are mostly unedited, but the greens are greener and the light paths so much bolder than how they appeared to us at the time. Taking a long exposure is sort of like the equivalent of holding your eyes wide open for thirty seconds (or however long the exposure is) and saving up everything you see and combining it together into one moment. Since our brains don’t work that way, the pictures do a better job of capturing the lights than our eyes do. The shot where the light from the snowmobiles is shining on the snow is actually Cory’s, but I included it here because he managed to pick up some of the rose-colored lights of the aurora (right hand corner), but it was so faint we couldn’t see it ourselves until we looked at the picture later. Regardless of the fact that the colors are more dramatic on camera, nothing beats seeing the lights in person. Nothing. Because what the camera can’t capture is their movement, their dance across the sky. And that is worth standing out in the cold for, certainly more than capturing a photo that does little to recreate the actual experience of being there. I am still so freaking grateful that we got to witness this not once, but twice on our short 3-day trip.
After we got back on our snowmobiles, Cory drove again for a little while, but because I had nothing sturdy to grab onto except the back of my seat (our giant camera bag kept me from being able to hold onto Cory) and because I’m not exactly the queen of upper body strength, my arms began to give out after an hour and the threat of flying off the back of the snowmobile began to feel pretty real. We decided to switch places, which was sort of a big deal for me. Not only had I never driven a snowmobile, but I also haven’t even driven a car in close to two years, so my skills are a little rusty.
However, after the first few minutes of figuring out how not to inadvertently kill us, my fear turned into a rush of freedom and we were flying through the forests and across the empty lakes! Or at least it felt like we were, but we were probably going much, much slower in real life because while we had been staying pretty close to the front of the line when Cory was driving, we were suddenly falling much farther behind. But hey, I kept us on course and I had a blast!
Before too long we stopped at a Sami hut for a little break. Our tour guides built a fire and then showed us how to make our own using nothing but tree bark, a piece of metal, and a knife. While they heated up some food and drinks, they told us stories about living in Swedish Lapland full time and taught us a little about Sami culture. I know I mentioned the friendliness of the other visitors in our tour group, but I neglected to talk about how freaking cool our guides were. They were so easygoing, and while we were out snowmobiling, they were really great about making sure everyone was having a good time and felt comfortable. I really loved getting to know those guys.
By the time we reached the Sami hut, the majority of our time snowmobiling was over, but we still had something good to look forward to – a warm dinner around the fire. Trying to save a little cash, we had opted for the tour providing a light dinner and as it turns out, we still left totally stuffed! After passing out cups of warm lingonberry juice, one of our guides, who had recently had good luck on his last hunt, broke out four different containers of meat that began making their way around our little circle. But this wasn’t just any old meat. No. This meat came from animals I hadn’t even seen until this trip. Now, I consider myself to be a pretty adventurous eater, at least on vacation, so I tried a piece each of the reindeer sausage, the moose sausage, and the moose chest (sort of like jerky), but when the reindeer heart came around, I couldn’t make myself do it. Even just the thought of it started making me regret those earlier pieces of meat and so when it came time to choose a hot sandwich from the fire, I claimed a plain cheese right away. Dinner without a side of guilt – that’s my favorite.
So this is where we sat for the next hour, chatting, telling stories about ourselves, and filling up on meat, cheese, and bread until none of us could eat anymore. Our tour ended up running about an hour longer than the scheduled time, but that’s one thing I loved about this company. There was no tight schedule to adhere to or a rush to keep all of us moving along when we got behind. It felt like we were out for the night with friends. Of course, when your job is to ride snowmobiles and eat tasty food in a warm hut by a fire, well, I guess you probably don’t complain too much about the evening going on longer than intended! Even still, we appreciated the courtesy extended to us by everyone at Kiruna Guidetur and would highly recommend their northern lights snowmobile tour to anyone visiting the area.
Our Sweden trip got off to a stumbling start and went a bit awry at times, but getting to see the northern lights twice, going dogsledding in Abisko, and then going on this northern lights snowmobile tour in Kiruna completely turned it around. While I’ll certainly be searching out warmer, sunnier locales for our next few trips, I wouldn’t count out a return visit in the future to this land of waist-high snow, frigid temperatures, and memorable nights. There are so many more adventures to be had here!
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