UR PLANE NOSED down through a layer of ice fog and shuddered hard, as if at the sudden view: a mist-shredded scrap of forest, all but buried in snow. “Welcome to the Arctic,” the pilot said, as we bumped down on a runway of ice and packed powder.
It was the end of January, and we had arrived in Kiruna, the northernmost town in Sweden, 144 kilometers above the Arctic Circle. Around us, snow-clad forest spread away for nearly 390,000 square kilometers. Squalls shook the cabin as we taxied. The storm was out of the northnortheast, and I tried to picture where that wind had recently been: a strip of Finland, a ribbon of Norway, the Barents Sea, and before that, probably the polar ice cap. Brrr.
We had been traveling from Denver for 18 hours straight. “Tell me again,” I said to my wife, Kim. “Why are we coming to the Arctic in the winter?”
“To see the aurora borealis,” she answered cheerfully. She loves the cold, she says—it wakes her up.
Minutes later, we were escorted out of the squat airport building toward a pack of yelping dogs. An applecheeked guide named Espen Hamnvik, who wore a fur-trimmed parka, handed us each a coat, heavy snow pants, a hat, and boots. “There is your sled, Kim. Pete, this is yours,” he said. “There are your dogs.” After showing us how to use the brakes on our sleds, he gave a mittened thumbs-up and mushed off into the snowy woods.
Our Alaskan huskies barked and yowled and strained against their ropes. Another guide yanked the lines loose, the sleds jerked, and we were off, running free over the fresh snow, into the heart of Swedish Lapland.
What we had come for, aside from the northern lights, was a taste of the indigenous, historically nomadic, Sami culture, and an understanding of why the northern Swedes are so crazy about winter. We’d stay first at a remote lodge accessible in winter only by dog team or snowmobile, then we’d take a train some 260 kilometers south to sleep in Sami-style canvas tents. From there we’d move to the vertiginous Treehotel. We’d be outside most of the time, and we’d try not to lose any digits to the cold.
My dogs were the size of border collies—two piebald sisters up front, two brown brothers behind. Bred for