Midwinter Above the Arctic Circle

Today’s slide show: Snow Fest

Sunrise (at 9 a.m.) in Samiland

Midwinter above the Arctic Circle in Sweden isn’t everyone’s idea of the time or place for a holiday. Scandinavia’s not cheap, and getting about in snow and ice isn’t easy. On the other hand, packing’s simple: You’ll wear everything you brought, most of the time. For some of us, the mystique of a polar winter is worth any inconvenience. There’s magic in the disappearance and reappearance of the sun, the abundance of snow, the northern lights, as well as in the festivals that take place in January and February.

I’d come to the northern Swedish towns of Kiruna, Jukkasjärvi, and Jokkmokk this year to take in a snow festival and a famous winter market, as well as a performance of Macbeth in a theater built entirely of snow and ice. Although the northern reaches of Fennoscandinavia have often been called Lapland, the more ancient term, recently resurrected by its indigenous people, is Sápmi, or Samiland.

Samiland stretches across the borders of four countries, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia. The Sami, now numbering around 60,000, lived for millenniums from fishing and hunting. The nomadic lifestyle that evolved from following reindeer herds on their routes lasted only about 500 years, but it’s still what most of us think of when we think “Lapland.” Most Sami these days live in houses, drive cars, and work ordinary jobs, while reindeer husbandry is controlled and restricted, but Sápmi is still partially defined by the old migration routes and by the role of reindeer in Sami memory and culture

Kiruna, in the far north of Sweden, is a town that I’ve come to find fascinating. It sits next to the deepest iron ore mine in the world and has an unusual history. When the LKAB company started mining the mountain of Kirunavara at the tail end of the 19th century, it brought in a manager, Hjalmar Lundbohm, to run the mine and develop a town nearby. Lundbohm turned out to be an arts patron with a social conscience, who believed that the better you treated workers, the better society would be. He built houses, schools, and a massive church; set up a streetcar system; and gave workers laundry facilities and hot food—all very progressive for the time. Lundbohm’s legacy lives on in Kiruna, where he’s recalled as the “Uncrowned King of Lapland.” The first time I came to Kiruna, two years ago, it was late November and twilight when it wasn’t night. All I was able to see was a clump of modern buildings on a hill facing a small mountain that looked like Mordor, with steam spouting from it day and night. “Visit the mine,” I was told then, and I thought, What for?

This time I took the two-hour tour. “Do you feel all right?” asked Lars Aili, my guide and a former mineworker. “Have you ever been underground before?” “No,” I answered, trying to quell a sudden panic.

A century ago, the miners started from the top of the mountain; these days the mine extends a half-mile below ground, with plans to excavate twice as deep. The mountain is granite and very stable, which has made it possible to create an entire infrastructure of tunnels, shafts, and paved roads—there are 250 miles of roads inside the mountain. Still, even though Lars assured me that granite goes nowhere, for a moment, I did feel a queasy claustrophobia as we circled downward in his tourist van. I soon adjusted, since there was plenty to do when we stopped. To my surprise there was a whole complex at the visitors’ level a quarter-mile down. I watched a stirring film of the history of LKAB, went through a historical museum about the mine, and even had coffee and cookies in the cafeteria (something that struck me as incredibly Swedish). Once we’d surfaced again, I had a new appreciation for Kiruna—a rocking town, especially at 1:30 a.m. when the blasts are set and everything shivers for five seconds.

There’s no central museum in Kiruna, but you can visit the Bild Archiv, which houses a collection of photographs by Borg Mesch, who came to Kiruna with his camera in 1900. His photographs of the railway workers, the miners, and the Sami and their reindeer chart the growth of this pioneer town. The Sami Parliament is located in Kiruna as well as a small Sami museum featuring displays from the past that emphasize this land was once Sami territory. “Their needs have no limit,” says one display. It echoes a line (“Their greed has no limit”) from a poem by Paulus Utsi, a reindeer herder whose grazing land abutted one of the region’s many hydroelectric plants. The fact is, Sweden’s need to exploit its northern natural resources happened at the expense of the Sami traditional way of life. Both the mining concerns and emerging tourist industry prefer to describe this vast land of tundra, forests, mountains, and rivers as “wilderness,” a claim its native inhabitants patiently dispute.

Kiruna is here to stay, however (though some buildings will go when the mining deepens), and it has a small-town exuberance that’s enjoyable to see, especially at this time of year when people celebrate the return of brighter days with a snow festival. For a few days, eight teams of snow sculptors from Sweden and around the world gather around specially prepared blocks of snow at Railway Park and start hacking at the frozen cubes, using only shovels and hand tools to create their visions. Today was the final judging—I was rooting for the Polish team and their monumental sculpture, “The Slaves.”

I headed to the Reindeer Race. The car park in front of the community center had been turned into a snow-packed raceway and, seemingly out of nowhere, a thousand people bundled up tight against the minus 20 degrees centigrade temperatures materialized for a dozen races. Reindeer don’t have horses’ competitive spirit. They tossed their antlers when put into harness, and none of them looked very happy. Still, they gave the racers, lying stomach-down on wooden sleds, some wild rides. We applauded in a thunderous muffle of mittens.

Kiruna’s snow festival comes to an end with a flourish

The strongest man in Kiruna contest came next, and the judging of the snow-sculpture contest. But first, a handful of local performers bravely took the stage: a bevy of cheerleading girls with pom-poms who flung off their jackets for a moment and let us see their midriffs (two wore long underwear), and then a chorus of women in full winter gear, who entertained us with a bossa nova in Swedish (“to warm you up”). The sculpture winners were announced, and Swedish teams took first and second place, which pleased the crowd. “The Slaves” won the popular vote, though, which pleased us too. My feet had turned to ice, but I noticed a baby in a pram nearby smiling sweetly in her pink polar fleece. When you grow up in the north, this must feel absolutely normal.