Return to North: a long read

“After 3 months of constant grim and travel
I went snivelling
I went grovelling ’round to my girlfriend’s house
she came down hard upon me
ground her finger into my breast bone
and she said …
… you don’t make me feel like I’m a
woman anymore … “

I didn’t make that up. Hunters and Collectors, a seminal Australian band, made that up waaay back in the 80s sometime.
Check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pp6hniAKHw

Thirty months I’ve been a way. That’s a long time. My version of a mid-life crisis. Skip the motorbikes – did that in 90s, skip the boat, the going out to nighclubs and trying to be trendy and contemporary and ‘in’. My version involved 14000 km on a bicycle and a lot of desert.

During that 30 months my girlfriend had, on more than one occasion, ground her finger into her breastbone and basically said you don’t make me feel like I’m a woman anymore

It became clear that after 30 months of constant grime and travel/I should go snivelling/I should go grovelling back to my girlfriend’s place/and make her feel like a woman.

So I did.

Bali & Gili Meno
A two week cameo in Bali and Gili Meno watching Mt Agung smoke a little and terrify potential holiday-makers across the world with the distinct possibility that their tropical getaway from the grime and torture of daily commutes in fetid weather dedicated to padding out their cozy niche all the while contributing to some shareholder getting ever more rich may come to naught.

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Sunset from the appropriately named Sunset Bungalows. Agung bubbling quietly just where the sun’s going down

Hanging around the Swiss-Belinn Hotel on Jalan Padma Utara. I like the area. The last remaining warang on Jl Padma Utara, run by a really camp and delightful guy. A bit of a walk to Jalan Legian and the inestimably delicious food at Minang Permai. The former is best for dinner and the latter for lunch.

 

And Tez, of course. The last Wanderer standing, still holding out in Bali.

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Tez the Legend, perhaps pondering his future

He too though struggles with What Comes Next. Bali is no longer a paradise. Rampant development permitted through corrupt practices with no regard to any building or development plan, let alone environmental concerns has destroyed the place he fell in love with thirty years ago. His options are limited: return to the UK and try to live a lifestyle he’s no experience in. Or go where? I feel his pain.

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Hi-tech Kuta may be but sometimes low-tech is juuust fine for the task
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My ‘return-to-Europe’ haircut. I could even get a massage with a ‘happy ending’ if I wanted

Netherlands
A week in the Netherlands as a sort of half-way house. Indulging in superlative beer – Westmalle Tripel, and an endless supply of joints and cigarettes – I picked the last week before my superlative friends Mike and Remke are to give up cigarettes. A small gathering of my eternally faithful friends. Collecting hard-core winter gear that I’ll need for the months to come.

Ram meeting for the weekend. Just to make sure it’s real, that I am coming home. To make sure I don’t mistakenly get on a flight to Brazil.

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Banja, with friends Remke & Mike

And finally, ultimately, at 2310 on Oct 24 2017 after six flights five countries countless last blast attempts at denial, all failed, I walk down the steps of SK 1048 and get a good solid whiff of the blast wave from hell already froze over of that chilled fresh air unique to the Arctic. -3 as I step onto ice covering the asphalt. No one speaks. Grey of dress grey of demeanour, no ‘land of a thousand smiles’ here, no one says a word.

Welcome Home My Son … what am I doing here? Yes, yes, the girlfriend and that finger and my breast bone. I am here because it is time to repay Ram’s stoic commitment in the face of quite a degree of adversary. I am here for love. Hers’ and mine.

Here a taxi cost more than a week’s accommodation in Lombok. It’s beautiful and clean. VEHICLES GIVE WAY TO PEDESTRIANS. Organic food everywhere, everything recycled.

Sapmi & North
Sàpmi, the traditional land of the Sami – Europe’s only recognized Indigenous People. Sàpmi means ‘Our Place’. And it is. I call it North. North recognizes no border. I’ve lived in Arctic Norway, Sweden and Finland. All of it in Sàpmi. Different countries, but North transcends them all. Sàpmi comes closest. The rules, the way of life the culture the nature the weather the light dark air are all vastly different than any of the capital cities and southern areas where the vast majority live.

 

 

Puoltsa vs Europa
Our Place. In North

In preparation for my arrival Ram has found a house for us to rent. Not an easy task in a mining-town that’s being relocated since the ground beneath it has been turned into knives and forks and steel-girders, the odd-railway track and the remaining bits of cars which are still made from steel.

Why Kiruna has to move: BBC article

Mining-towns are rich. Or at least the miners are. Land and property prices are high and owners and landlords like to rent to companies because of higher rents. Not much remains for people who work around the mining jobs, or, like Ram, who work in another industry such as tourism.

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Our house, and the area I have to keep clear of snow

Our house is not in Kiruna. Puoltsa is a settlement with perhaps eighty permanent residents thirty-kilometres towards Nikkaluokta (yes, that’s the name of a village. I did not make it up. I promise. Check out nikkaluokta.com/en).

Thirty kilometres to the nearest shop. Thirty kilometres km to the nearest bar. Thirty kilometres to the nearest anything. A handful of neighbours. Forest everywhere, except for the massive lake and river. Snow capped mountains 50 km away. Tree line just above my head. Spend the day clearing snow. Welcome home Son. Välkommen tillbaka min son. Välkommen verkligen

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Puoltsa, the main part, looking south (at midday) over Kaalasjärvi and the sun soon to not appear for many weeks …

We are not even in the main part of the village. Instead you have to go another kilometre towards Nikkaluokta, take a track to the left and a hundred meters further there we shall live.

It’s a lovely place. Immediate nature. No need to walk anywhere to get into nature. It starts immediately once out of the house. Surrounded by forest on three sides and Kaalasjärvi – Kaalas Lake – on the other. The mountains forming the border between Sweden and Norway start at Nikkaluokta, and Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest, is visible from where we live (although we don’t have a view of it from our house).

Four other houses share the little track. Non of them permanently occupied and only one visited on occasion by its owner. We are alone here, with whispering mountains and snow. And a lake. And a river. And trees.

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The eight seasons of Sápmi. mazkros.blogspot.co.uk

The Sami recognise eight seasons in North. I recognise ‘times’. Late October is tjaktjadalvve – autumn winter. I call it pre-dark. The leaves are gone from the trees. The björk, birch, stand naked and stark and make you wonder whether they ever had anything so cheery as a bright green leaf, among which the disir rest and play and lend their skills to life, and from which summer nymphs with playful smiles hide a cheeky manner. All gone now. Dark elves hide indistinguishable from dark branches as they await their moment. The gran, Picea abies, an evergreen, takes on a malevolent tint, the joyous faeries of summer lost to hardened goblins with eyes a-glow with barely suppressed belligerence, wispy daimens flit and fly distracting and disarming tempting the unsuspected into venturing into a vast world of endless homogeneous grey from which there is no return. Whereas the Valkyrie shift through the impressive boughs of tall, Pinus sylvestris, driving out the new-born trolls to find their permanent homes on the tunturis and ancient black granites, or in the frozen marshes which extend for kilometres.

The forest itself is the child of the marriage of Æsir with Ásynjur. In turn the faeries, disir, daimens, Valkyries and trolls are children of the forest. Combined, during the pre-dark, tjaktjadalvve, they slowly but surely suck the light from the world. The forest’s imposing darkness extinguishing even the most powerful of lights. Later, the sky itself sucks the remaining light from the world. But that’s another time, another season.

It doesn’t rain anymore. It’s frozen and becoming much more so, ice on the lakes thick enough to walk upon. With care, great care. Temperatures are still mild. In comparison to what’s coming.

Survival here, emotional survival here is a matter of attitude. And clothes. Not for no reason is this time of the year also known as The Great Melancholy. A sadness pervades the people. Smiles are rare, and there’s none of that wonderful Australia friendliness and openness. We are at war here, against the weather, the ever-expanding darkness the ever colder temperatures. My approach is simple: spend at least two hours per day outside, being in it. Whatever ‘it’ is.

I go to Ofelas one day. Ofelas is a Sami-run outfit offering tours on Islandic horses based in the village 1200 m from where we live (ofelas.se). Surely, thinks I, they godda have a myriad of tasks that’ll need doing.

In my best Swedish I front up and try various buildings until finally someone answers a door.

I explain I live in the village, know absolutely nothing about horses (but are willing to learn) and are after whatever work they may need doing.

Kirsten looks at me with a bemused smile on her face before finally saying “We may have something. I’ll let you know”

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May (summer) view of the repairs I had to do to the Blå Hus, just before I start painting it

A week later I get a call. They need a chunk of the larger of the houses re-cladded. K, no problem. Just coz I’ve never done that before doesn’t mean I can’t do it. My work day is dictated by available light. I start at 10 and finish at 1400. Below -25C I don’t work. It is damned cold stuck up a ladder screwing new cladding on the outside of a house. Below -25C it’s simply too cold. No gloves suitable for working can protect my hands from the cold. Even above -25C I have to rotate gloves. One pair kept warm deep inside at least two layers of clothes on my chest. When my hands ache from the impending onset of frostbite and can’t be resuscitated, I swap to the other pair.

I am now outside for a good number of hours per day.

Pre-dark moves into The Dark time. The sun fails to appear and won’t until early in the New Year. The four hours of light is a euphemism for ‘just-enough-to-see-by-without-the-need-of-artificial-light’. By 1500 it’s dark again. The ice is thick on the lakes, and it’s cold.

And it snows. It snows a lot. Up to half a meter overnight. Ram works in tourism for White Trail Adventures (whitetrailadventures.com), a Senior Guide leading husky-dog tours. She starts at eight and needs to leave Puoltsa by 0720. Half a metre of snow means it’s above the running-boards of her Volvo V40. We’ve one chance to get out. Park the car so it’s kinda pointing towards the track, get it going and keep the momentum as the V40 carves a path through the powder and don’t dare stop, not even to check for oncoming traffic as she pulls onto the road. Fortunately, since it’s The Dark Time if there is oncoming traffic we’d see their lights. It’s a bit hairy nonetheless.

It’s also the start of The Cold Time. Minus 20 Celsius is common. Which means it’s often below -20.

I’m disconcerted to find out from Bengt, the occasional neighbour, that keeping the track clear of snow comes down to he and I. Which means me since he’s hardly here. There’s a proliferation of all sorts of clear-snow machines available in North. Non of which, however, are available for me. Instead I’ve a shovel and snow-shovel thingy. And muscles. Some days it takes over four hours to clear all the snow, from the track and from where we park the V40. People tell me we’re getting more snow in two or three-day bursts than we normally get spread out over weeks. Climate change. More precipitation more often.

More time spent outside.

I enlist the help of Svenko, a neighbour with a tractor for the 50 cm days. It just takes too long to do it by hand. Everyone I meet whilst huffing and puffing and sweating always say the same thing “It’s good training. You won’t need to go to the gym” and they are right.

Ainu & Nannake

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Ainu, a dude, and Nannake, a dudette

Ram’s a dog person. A husky dog person. Perhaps you’ve never really gotten to know a husky dog. I’ll try to help you understand what that means. Huskies are one of the dog-races closest to the ultimate dog – the wolf. The wolf is by-and-large a cold country dog. We are in wolf country. Huskies are therefore similarly clothed as wolves, in three layers of luxurious fur. A fine inner layer with similar thermal attributes as down. A secondary layer to provide insulation and protection to the first layer. And an outer layer of tough hair to deal with the minutia of life outside. They are working dogs, bred to be active. And they LOVE being active. Energetic does not do them justice. Working dogs have a purpose too. Which means they are stubborn. As hell. When loose they swiftly become adept hunters in this frozen world. Awesome animals. Loyal, as stubborn dogs often are. Incredibly friendly and sociable to people. But damn they can be tough on each other. Deaths due to fights in the dog yards are an infrequent traumatic occurrence. Ram has two: Nannake, a female. And Ainu, a male.

Siblings, Nannake and Ainu are pretty much inseparable. They are two (& a half) years old. They are large dogs, particularly Ainu. Combine large with young with enthusiastic with active and fit and you get a L O T of dog. Ram has romanticized ideas of them chilling out (if that’s the right adjective) inside our nice warm heated house on those long dark frozen nights when they join us in Puoltsa rather than remain at White Trail Adventures with the other 70-odd huskies. At 75 m2 it’s not a large house. It is not dog-proof, with guitars, low tables, things on low tables and other assorted stuff placed in the belief that there will not be a Typhoon Husky or Hurricane Hound anytime soon. Ram’s romantic notions has just brought the Typhoons in.

Nannake has some sense of how to be indoors from when she had an illness as a pup and had to be cared for inside. Takes a while, but she calms and lies and does a reasonable impression of being a pet. Ainu on the other hand, boisterous ADHD teenage Ainu with a constant need of affirmation and attention, cannot sit still. It may only be 19C inside but that’s a cool (cool?) +39C warmer than outside and he’s not taken his fur jackets off. Within minutes he’s panting. As soon as he sits he stands. As soon as he stands he moves. He comes to me for attention, leaning into me for a good solid full body hug. Unless I’m prepared his weight he boles me over. Combine with a curiosity compatible with a cat the house barely copes. He tries the sofa. Watching Ram and Nannake trying to accommodate the hyper-Ainu on the sofa is quite amusing.

Within half-an-hour the Typhoons are over. Ainu simply has to go out and since they are inseparable Nannake must go with him. Hair and prints may be in abundance, but the clean-up is not so bad.

Come day-time, those four short hours, we take them for walks over the näs (isthmus, peninsular) just in front of our house, part of the jigsaw puzzle of island, islets, peninsulas, rapids and cascades which breaks up the flow of the Kalix as it gets compressed between Holmajärvi in the west and Puoltsa in the east.

Puoltsa -24

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Stunning views with a hint of sun at -24

Part of the charm of winter in North is being able to satisfy one of those itches that’s almost impossible to scratch: a healthy Jehovah complex. Aside of raising the dead, curing leprosy and turning water into wine, arguably the hardest bit about having a Jehovah complex is the walking on water.

A cynic can always claim the dead weren’t really dead (just sleeping), it wasn’t really leprosy and it was always wine. I mean, if you have just raised the dead and cured someone with leprosy it’s hard to prove that’s what you did. Unless the recently not-dead are happy to be made dead again in the expectation of being resurrected, again. In my experience few people want to take the chance.

Walking on water however is definitive. You are either swimming, sinking or walking. And it’s really easy to test. Enter water until say waist deep, and get Jehovah-complex to walk out to you. Once they are standing next to you it’s a simple matter to test if indeed they are walking on water or standing on a barely submerged rock or submarine.

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It looks like cream

In North each and every winter we can practice the walk-on-water stuff almost, but not quite, with impunity. And it works. Once we are over the näs we walk on the Kalix River around the perimeter of the näs and back home. Stunning vistas, ephemeral light, wild tracks in pure snow, sparkles all around us as the air itself is frozen, the tall and gran (pine and fir) trees stoic as they bare their load of snow, the birch stripped and naked strong in their apparent vulnerability, the mountains clear majestic and white and seeming far far closer than the 60 km that they really are. It’s an amazing world. One I recommend you experience at least once in your life.

Ofelas älg & Puoltsa älg
Skogens Konung – the King of the Forest – has to be one of Europe’s largest land mammals. Oddly, it’s not easy to find information comparing which extant animal is actually Europe’s largest.

There are but three contenders to be Biggest: the polar bear of Svalbard. Yes, coz it’s colonized by both Norway and Russia Svalbard is considered ‘European’, but I’m gonna discount is since it’s a looong way from continental Europe. The European Brown Bear is big but not big enough to be a contender. But the Bison is.

And Skogens Konung – the European Moose. Älg in Swedish.

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Bison. Heaviest mammal in Europe

Returning to the European continent and taking Wikipedia as Gospel I settled on info from ‘Älgar’ and ‘European Bison’ which tells me the Bison is the “heaviest surviving land animal in Europe”, maxing out at 1000 kg and topping 190 cm at the shoulder, supported by an article in the Guardian about Bison in the Netherlands (yes, in the Netherlands) which called the bison “The largest land-living animal in Europe”( https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/28/return-of-the-bison-herd-makes-surprising-comeback-on-dutch-coast).

In comparison a maxed-out male moose comes in at 230 cm at the shoulder and tops 800 kgs in weight. Tallest, but not heaviest. So, I reckon the Guardian is wrong. The älg is the largest and the bison the heaviest.

The Eurasian Brown Bear (via Wikipedia. Of Course), just to assuage any concerns you may have, doesn’t even manage 500 kgs maxed out. It might not be much of a mass but the, err, “predatory teeth” and “claws that can grow up to 10 cm in length” combined with a “largely carnivorous” diet puts it in a class of its own.

(Trying to) See an älg is one of the Must Dos for tourists who visit Kiruna. People pay money for it. Tours are organised. Every tour I checked from a choice of providers (Camp ripan.se, Icehotel.com, Kirunalapland.se, Swedishlapland.com and ofelas.com) all send the hapless älg-wanna-sees down Nikkaluokta Road, which runs past Puoltsa. Three arrive here in my village, at Ofelas who offer Moose Safari on Horseback. The rest stick to the road and hope to see random wandering älg.

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An älg, doing the Winter Waddle

So … why Ofelas, why Puoltsa? Because it’s älg-central during winter. And particularly this winter with it’s far more snow than usual and much colder average temperature for much longer than usual. Älg and reindeer are struggling in the wild to find food. The älg, not being dumb, come and eat the hay put out for Ofelas’ horses.

Now remember how I turned up at Ofelas and asked if they need some help? Now that the house has new cladding, Kristin takes me for a bit of a tour and shows me a fence. It is no longer an appropriate deterrent to keep horses inside the yard. It is certainly no deterrent to keep älg out either. When 500 or more kilogrammes meets 15 mm thick wooden fence, guess which one gives way? My new mission is to fix fences.

Every five metres a wooden pole 150 mm in diameter is placed in the ground. Half way up the poles, planks, 150 mm high and 15 mm broad are attached. Another row of the same boards are attached at the top. The fence is finished off by planks placed horizontally on top of the poles and the upper row. I’ve never built a fence in my life but this just doesn’t seem fit for purpose. Anything with a bit of mass and touch of attitude will easily break it.

 

There is a veritable network of älg tracks coming in from the low birch woodland to and then over the fence to the hay in the middle of the Iceland-horses’ feed yards. Each of the fences where these älg-autobahns intersect are broken. In some cases the vertical poles snapped clean off and the planks reduced to shreds.

Ideally I’d wanna dig new holes for new poles (using a fat drill, not by hand). But, not only are we talking glacial till (damned hard to dig in at the best of times), it’s frozen solid! No chance to drill a hole.

Instead I use a sophisticated system of vertical supports for the pole combined with buttresses dug as much as I can using a hammer and a chisel to gouge a groove in the frozen ground – after digging a metre and half of snow away.

All of my labours put me perilously close to the survival feed one of Europe’s largest and most impressive beasts. Up to a dozen haunt the gaunt leafless birch woodland surrounding the paddocks, morosely staring at me with ill concealed recognition of let me understand this correctly says calf, who is a mere 170 cm at the shoulder you are afraid of that indicating me with it’s long snout. Even I can bole that over! she finishes defiantly. Careful advises Mother that’s THE Apex Predator around here.

I can tell neither mom nor the calf are entirely sure of that as they watch me repair fences.

Sure enough, as times goes by, as I return regularly to repair fences, calling to them, they realise that other bi-pedal primates may be Apex Predators but I’m not. They start returning to feed, jumping the fences even as I work on them. Eventually most don’t even vacate the paddocks when I turn up.

It’s quite something to be ten or twenty metres away from such majestic animals. Very impressive.

A mom and calf hang around our house too. I see them often whilst clearing snow. They too have become used to me, chewing cud as they watch me haul and hump snow up the impressive snow ramps I’ve cut into the walls of snow which now surround our track and parking place. The only time mom got concerned is when I took my camera to get some shots. She stood up and kept an eye on me but didn’t move on. Her calf didn’t bother to move at all.

Long of leg älg may be but they too enjoy a nice cleared track. I turned around one day to find mom but a few meters behind me literally following me as I cleared the track. I get off the track to let them pass, which means I’m waist deep in snow. Mom looks at me, looks back her calf back at me back at her calf, calculating risk. Rule of Thumb in North: never get between a mom älg and her calf. I may be tolerated but I am still a risk and she’s calculating just how much a risk I am. Eventually she moseys on with calf in tow.

Norsken

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Awesome

Perhaps THE greatest highlight and most coveted of all North spectacles is den norsken: the northern lights, sparks made by the tail of the fjällraven – arctic fox – striking the dark sky as it dances along the ridgelines, according to the Sami. Science, forever a killjoy, has a slightly different theory.

The sun is a cantankerous beast and has serious issues. Millions of degrees Celsius, a boiling mass of gas spitting in fury and fire, an endless cat-fight between gas molecules. The sun’s border guards, its magnetic field tries desperately to keep a lid on it all. Every now and then though, the sun’s magnetic field can’t keep it all in and electrons and photons make a desperate bid for freedom, break out and are carried by the solar wind, heading as celestial asylum seekers to earth.

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Northern Lights spectacle over our house

Earth’s border guards, our magnetic field are not evenly empowered. Stronger around the equator and close to it, our magnetic field repels these celestial asylum seekers. But around the poles the magnetic field is weaker, and the charged particles from the sun clash with our own gaseous particles hundreds of kilometres above the earth’s atmosphere.

Ninety kilometres above the earth, oxygen molecules produce the most commonly seen auroras, a pale yellowy-green. At 200 km the oxygen produces the rare all-red aurora. Nitrogen auroras are blue or purple.

Despite the more pedestrian explanation, the auroras are breathtakingly spectacular and more than live up to their reputation.

The stronger the expulsion of charged particles – the bigger the solar storm – the more spectacular the aurora.

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Northern lights. Always awesome

It becomes a routine, checking for the aurora. First time I ever saw it was back in 95. Twenty-three years ago. I’ve seen it so mild it could easily have been the darkness playing tricks on my eyes. Seen it when the only reason I knew it not to be some wispy trail of faint cloud is that there are no clouds in the sky. I’ve seen it so bright so strong so pervasive the entire sky is shades of pale yellow, green and tints of red and purple. I’ve heard it. A crackling, an electrical discharge kinda-crackling, perhaps thousands of tiny feet racing over really dry leaves. Faint but discernible.

I never, you never get tired of seeing it. It is always spectacular. It’s worth making a routine to check if it’s there.

The good thing is of course that the almighty cat-fight in the sun shows not sign of abating – for which I and all life on Earth are grateful for – and the border guards are a somewhat laidback bunch and them charged particles charge earthwards with a fairly healthy regularity.

I’d strongly recommend you make the effort one day to spend long enough in North to witness it. Awesome.

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Never tire of seeing it

Towards the end of the season Linda, a friend and kinda-colleague of Ram’s, drops by with her parents. A really nice evening in which Ram and I can practice our ailing Dutch. First time in North for mom and pop and they are keen on seeing an älg and the Northern Lights. I point out the lounge window and show them one of my ramps upon which our resident mom and calf often stand to get at the remaining leaves on the gran. We tell them too we can see the Northern Lights out the windows whilst lounging on the sofa. They are impressed.

Literally five minutes later as if on queue mom and calf turn up, walk up the ramp and start nibbling on pine leaves. Lots of laughter oohs and aahs and attempts at photos through triple-glazing. Half an hour after that, whilst in the lounge, Ram peers out the other window and remarks “Hey, I think we have Northern Lights!”.

It’s a strong Northern Lights too, very active, twirling and undulating in deep lime green ribbons across the sky.

Work
Part of the plan in returning North is to work. Not full-time. I’d like to write at least one of the stories which circulate regularly in my head into a book. But something. I’m educated, experienced and even have sufficient command of Swedish to be dangerous. How hard can it be?

My tour de force was permitting the largest Greenfield mine in Sweden since the 1960s. Unfortunately, it devolved from the largest Greenfield mine in Sweden in decades to the largest bankruptcy Sweden’s ever experienced. Ever! Run that through your thoughts for a moment. Sweden’s been a Viking nation, an Empire, and (apparently) a bulwark of Peace Love and Harmony for centuries, for over a 1000 years. And I have been a part of it’s largest bankruptcy in its entire history.

Anyway, there’s talk of it being resurrected by new investors. They will need to deal with permitting, environmental and social stuff. Not only the very stuff I do, but for the project I was successful at.

I call them up. The CEO is someone I’d met whilst working previously. We meet and talk for hours.

It’s impossible not to get enthusiastic and optimistic as we chat. Until the very last minute. At a certain point a decision needs to be made. From a “Lets continue with our discussion” to a “Actually, we need someone with skills x, y or z.” Instead I get a “I’ll keep you in mind”

A what? That’s it? WTF does keep you in mind actually mean? You need the skills and experience I offer. You’ve spent two hours talking about them. I’ve been a professional for over thirty years, I know what a ‘keep you in mind’ means. From optimism to despair in five seconds.

Kiruna is a mining town, run by LKAB, a quasi-state company. Been here over a hundred years. Literally a law unto itself. With 18 000 residents, Kiruna is a mono-industrial town, with a thin layer of tourism tinting its fringes. One’s employment options are mining or tourism.

Jobs suitable for a Sustainability Professional crop up all the time, waaay down in the south, thousands of kilometres and a whole lifestyle or two away. I lived in Stockholm in the late 90s and regularly visited throughout most of the 21st century’s first decennia. Contrary to popular perception, I find it an awful city. Badly designed, ugly buildings, fucking expensive, shit weather (particularly in winter), a fading relic of Imperial days. I used to fly or take the ferry to Poland or Estonia for weekends coz there I knew I could relax and have fun. No way I want to live in Stockholm. If I am to live in an urbanised world, I’ll return to the Netherlands who do urban far, far better.

Jobs crop up though in the area. From technical environmental services through to setting up an office of environmental (& presumably social) services in Kiruna. I apply for them. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

I’d heard rumour of a Swedish Mafia, that if you are not one of the family you can’t get in. I always I thought this a bit of a myth. I am finding out it’s more than a myth. When I review the applications and they want someone with the educations, experience, skill, competencies and knowledge relevant for the area that I have, it’s hard not to conclude that something’s going on. Not an email, not even a phone call? Something’s going on.

I review the great jobs I had in Sweden. Each one of them was given me by a foreigner. Hmmm …

Christmas day I mocka stallet – cleaning stables – shovelling horse shit, and I think You know, I don’t mind shit jobs to get my feet back on the ground, but I’ve four science degrees two of which are Masters in areas relevant to the resources sector and three decades of experience, and the only job I can find is shovelling shit?

The Ice Hotel, THE brand in Kiruna. Super innovative, purveyors of all things Nature and, by extension, sustainability. Perhaps there’s something I can do with them. I check their website. Sure enough they have a ‘sustainability’ bit, it’s here: https://www.icehotel.com/about-icehotel/sustainability/.

Lemme get this straight, this super innovative company’s claim to sustainability is … four stroke snow-mobiles and some token claim at efficient logistics. That’s it? In Jukkasjärvi, where the Icehotel and most of Kiruna’s tourism is based, in winter there’s hundreds of snow-mobiles and dozens of husky-dog-sled companies using the same trails annoying the living shit out of the Sami desperately, and on occasion quite aggressively trying to maintain their nature-based lifestyle. Where’s the discussion on promoting less intrusive and impacting means to experience the nature they promote? What about reduction in plastics and waste? What about linking with the Sami community to enhance cultural exchange? Godda be something we can do. I call ‘em up. I talk to the French CEO. Twice. Nothing comes of it.

I can drive a truck, drive a bus, perhaps some kind of construction work. Ram looks at me with a tinge of anger mixed with sadness and point-blank tells me No! Get a job worthy of my skills or don’t bother.

In the meantime I’ll shovel more shit shall I?

Mad Sami
Ram had a bad encounter with one of the pissed off Sami who threatened her. A police report later, she’s lost the passion for running husky dog trips. For summer she’s scored a job in a local hotel. From PR Super-Star to cleaner of toilets, maker of breakfast and receptionist.

Is this it? Is this all we can get? Is this the price we must pay to live here?

Agro Sami
Politician accused of pulling a knife against a tourist

I’ve encountered institutional racism before. I’ve been a registered tax-paying resident of no less than eight European Union countries, and done stints across fourteen Asian countries. Each one has their own unique way of trying to have their cake – access to the EU’s single market – and eat it too – protecting their national economy from migrant labour.

Complex systems designed to make it as hard and cold and unfriendly as possible for the foreigner to integrate. Then complaining that the foreigner doesn’t. In the Netherlands, for example, I had a single-person consultancy. I had to pay taxes. The Belastingdienst – tax service – has a helpline just for people like me to help me avoid falling afoul of the arcane tax laws. I call ‘em everynowandthen. One day I am told “I’m sorry, but I’m forbidden to talk to you in English, we have to speak Dutch. By law”. Err, what? Sure enough, another barrier. My Dutch is good, but is it tax-law good? I try, after ten minutes she goes back to English.

There’s one route left for us. Our own business. Me to re-establish my consultancy and try to get work with the foreign mining companies facing the same barriers I do. It’s how I got work here previously. Ram to set up a small husky-dog company. But increasingly we look at each other and ask “Are we really in the right place?” And increasingly we conclude that “Perhaps not”. It’s not just us, other foreigners, all with excellent skills and knowledge are woefully underemployed.

I, we, love wild nature. But there are many countries with wild nature: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Romania, Ram’s home country. Nannake and Ainu complicate our choices and it may come down to having to leave the dogs and head-off without them. So much for Globalisation and the Great Social Unity much heralded in the EU.

Countries end up getting what they most despise: economic migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. If, like we, the foreigner can’t integrate but can go somewhere else, they go. The ones who cannot go somewhere else, struggle and endure because they have to, reinforcing the sense that a culture shift is happening in which large numbers of foreigners are remaining but who don’t share values and don’t fully integrate. My experience in 30 years of being a migrant is it’s not a matter of ‘don’t’’ or ‘won’t’, but can’t. The barriers are too high, too wide, too entrenched. They, we, live fringe lives and remain conspicuous because of it.

Thermo shots – cold & clear Nikkalaukta -35

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The Cold Time

By now the Cold Time is well and truly upon us. Day after day after day below -20, days below -30, a frozen world twice as cold as your freezer at -36, -38. Down on the lake it’s below -40. The snow still comes and I’m out there shifting it. In the weak sun there’s a touch of warmth. But at Ofelas one day repairing fences my feet are deep in frozen shadow and I get mild frostbite on the outside of my right-big toe. Hurts for days. Clearing snow from the track my hands are damned cold but I clear one more ten metre chunk with the clear-snow thingy before changing gloves. Ten metres. Less than sixty seconds but it’s sixty seconds too far and I have to abandon snow clearing, return home, put my hands under lukewarm water and endure the intense pain as the blood finally returns to my fingertips.

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Cold cold drive along Nikkaluoktavägen towards Puoltsa, the fjällområdet in the background

Officially the sun has returned. Officially. The weather forecasts tell us. Because of the näs to the south and the hills on the other side of the Kalix River, we have yet to experience it. Until one day, one really cold day across the Kalix in a bit of a valley there’s this orange dot. Welcome back. It’ll take a few more weeks before it hits the house and a few more after that before there’s some warmth in it. Today, for example, clear and bright and, err, sunny, the temperature is -35C.

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And when we do get the sun, there’s 3 of them!
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The sun has returned. Just. Peeking out over Kaalasjärvi

Frozen ride

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A poor photo (think very low light, frozen finger, touch-screen phone) after a -26 ride

Ram has a nice Cannondale bike. I buy some winter tires. Fat, with metal studs. And some ergo-grips. Time to ride. Only it’s -26C. I am not going to be deterred. Two socks and Sorel Caribous on my feet. Three thermal layers on my ass and two on my legs. No less than four layers on my body: Icebreaker 150 gr t-shirt, Norrøna micro-fleece, down vest, thick Fristads winter jacket with hood, woollen finger inner gloves under thick lined mitts, Buff-neck warmer and woollen beanie. And awaaay we go.

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Told you it was -26

Not the easiest ride, trying to prevent my lungs from freezing by not riding too hard and covering my mouth with the Buff. Over several rides I progress from ten to twenty kilometres, but the main limiting factor are the shoes. My feet simply sit on pedals and pedal, exposed to -25 or more plus windchill with no movement to force blood around. Coldest I rode was -33, but it was not a long ride.

 

Ainu & Max

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Ainu, bonding with me during his week of exile

By the end of January Ram is doing week long trips. Demanding on her, all-but overwhelming for some of her highly urbanised guests, and damn tough on the doggies. Poor Ainu, however big and strong he is, has to remain behind. He had a stress-injury on his hind leg earlier in the season and missed crucial training. Poor bugger is simply not fit enough. He ends up at home. With me. For. A. Week. Kaaaay … my first unsupervised unguided unmentored guardianship of an alien lifeform.

It doesn’t take long for The Challenge to begin. Outside dogs live outside and we have a dog yard for them. There’s a but to all of this. Ainu has never been alone in his entire life. He’s either been with Nannake 24/7 or had the pleasure of seventy other dogs to keep him entertained, occupied and above all connected. Now he’s entirely on his own in an ultra-quite place. The howling starts. On his haunches head tilted back beyond the vertical and a long mournful sound. Now what do I do? Ignore him and leave him to his fate? Hang around in his yard and quietly freeze to death in the yellow tinted snow? Or bring him inside? I opt for the latter.

Ainu Skitur
Over the week he slowly but surely gets used to doing nothing in the comfort of the house. Takes a while though. Get him settled on the rug. Move slowly and reassuringly to the desk to write. Try not to make any sudden moves, coz as soon as I move he moves, stands and starts fidgeting. Even if I don’t move every fifteen minutes or so he comes to me, leans against me for validation and reassurance. My chair has wheels so I end up sliding all over the place. At night I put him the yard and go to sleep to the sounds of his loneliness. I need another plan.

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My buddy

Plan is simple: Get him tired. Everyday we go for walks. Me on snow-shoes he on four-paws. Even with snow shoes I sink up to a meter. He literally has to swim through the snow. We go skiing for a dozen or more kilometres, with Ainu attached to me by a line.

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Ghost island

This, thinks I should, should be a scream. He’s a husky, I’ll be pulled along nicely. Not quite. He pulls, just. It’s noticeable but not what I’d call powerful. He randomly stops and comes to me needing that validation and comfort he seems so desperately to require. He charges off to the left or the right checking things, causing me to do arm-spiralling leg-bracing counter-measures to stop being pulled over. Our snow-shoe and ski trips are amazing, fun, beautiful, brilliant. And slow. It works though. He’s a lot calmer in the house and a lot quieter in the yard.

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The Long View, along Kaalasjärvi

He and I are now buddies, to the extent Ram complains when we’re walking with the dogs “He’s really focussed on you, wants to please you. As soon as you move he leaves me for you!” “It was he and I against The Horrors of Loneliness” I explain to her, as he comes readily to my whistle. Whereas Nannake, the troublesome anarchist comes but grudgingly to Ram’s.

Cold time over

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The Cold Time is over: a 3 with no 0 or 1 anywhere near it

Mid-February and suddenly the Cold Time is over and we’re into Spring. Thermometer says 3 without a 1 or 0 anywhere near it, at least on the wrong side of it. We have survived The Cold Time, survived winter. At night it’s still regularly around -20C but that’s OK. With the sun shining it warms up to +10C in the sun. So long as I hang around in the sun, do something active or avoid the wind, it’s quite comfortable.

Time to take a few snaps of home and country before The Wet Season comes along and washes it all away.

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Looks kinda nice in this light

 

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The track to the näs
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Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest mountain

Dogs’ Day Afternoon
Come March I end up with both dogs at home. They sit Guardian of The Cage and focus completely on me should I leave the house with a You need to do something with us look about them that, frankly, works. More walks but double the effort in trying to keep both under control.

Nannake’s the difficult one. She’s the hunter. Ainu is simply too ADHD to hunt anything. Whereas Nannake’s got her nose forever in the snow sniffing out something, racing off further and further chasing opportunities. More than one occasion I had to go find her, then harshly twist her ear to get the message across that’s she’s done something wrong. Copious little treats in an endless process of teach and reward. With Ainu it works well but Nannake is relentlessly stubborn.

They like following snow-mobile tracks coz it’s easier to walk. I like to walk snow-mobile tracks for exactly the same reason. But it gives them too much liberty and doesn’t tire them enough. So I break away and go virgin snow. They scamper up and down the track desperately trying to find the track which leads to me or goes in the direction I’m heading until finally, despairingly they take to the snow and swim and flounder their way through. Very quickly are they huffing and puffing and just lying in the snow right in front of me looking at with those I-can’t-believe-you-are-doing-this-to-me eyes. Nannake being a bit smarter sometimes walks right behind me following my footsteps. Ainu never worked this trick out. Every now and then Nannake steps on my snow-shoes pitching me headfirst into the snow. They are much calmer after such walks, and do me a world of good too.

Holmajärvi skitur
The ides of March presents me with an irresistibly tempting day. Clear, bright, not cold and just a sniff of Norwegian wind. Am going for it.

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The mountains looking truly amazing today

Strap on the Vit-Blixt – White Lightening – Swedish military skis, the 1.5 litre platypus water bladder in the little ryggsäck and small thermos of tea, for I get real thirsty in the dry air, a banana or two, and set off towards Nikkaluokta. First along the rapids where the Kalix gets suppressed as it exits Holmajärvi, then passed the collection of boat huts and over the ice road between Kiruna Kommun to the north and Gällivare Kommun to the south, at Holmajärvi village, and onto the seemingly limitless expanse of Holmajärvi itself.

Plod along simply enjoying the moment, the warm sun, the slight chill to the wind, the mountains in front and low hills to the north and south. Life is for this kind of moments.

180315 Holmajärvi skitur
Sun, bright and proud and darned nice

Upon reaching Aitiniemi, a headland jutting into Holmajärvi where Aietejohka empties into the lake, I take a break, drink some water, drink some tea, eat a banana, snap a photo and start skiing the seven or eight kilometres back to Puoltsa.

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The way home, 7 km to go

Amazing day.

Kaalasjärvi skitur
The prevailing wind here is westerly, from Norway, funnelled by the Kebnekaise massif along the Visttasvággi valley to its north and Láddjujohka valley to its south before uniting at Nikkaluokta to really break free and travel unimpeded along Paittasjärvi and the wide Kalix River valley until Holmajärvi through Puoltsa to Kaalasjärvi and beyond. This means doing a Jehovah thing on the Kalix and the lakes which stretch for tens of kilometres east and west of Puoltsa can have a bite to it. And it doesn’t take much of a wind for it to bite well.

My strategy, after I’ve strapped myself into the Vit-Blixt, is to check the direction of the wind and head into it. It means a tailwind when I return. Lovely.

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long way home

Today, of course, the wind is from Russia, the east. Cool and crisp, and slight. Norwegian winds, reflecting the reserved nature of Norwegians, often bring clouds. The Russians like their spirits clear with a bite, like today. Magnificent.

I am running out of season. Soon a thick layer of water shall form on top of the ice and under the snow. There may well be 50 cm or more of ice, but that layer of water not only is disturbingly cold it makes for tormented skiing, causes hassles for husky-dog teams, and is not something you want to get you snowmobile stuck in.

Today, though, I reckon I’m good.

Passed the näs, passed Puoltsa and the vast expense of Kaalasjärvi stretches in front of me, the lågfjällen (low mountains) of Biedjasčohkka, Passetjåkka and Tjärrokätje to the south, a flawless child’s drawing of hills against clear clear blue skies and a bright sun. Awesome!

Vit-Blixt are for going where no track exists. Wide and heavy, they are not fast. The main idea is to kinda walk them, in contrast to the slide and kick of classic cross-country. I’ve treated them with tjär and on the hard-packed snow-mobile track I manage a bit of a slide and workout I’m doing about eight kilometres per hour. I work this out coz it takes me about an hour to get to Jänkänalusta. By now the Russian spirit is fairly howling. There’s nothing to dampen its enthusiasm. In the shelter of a frozen island I survey the way back. Vast white plain of Kaalasjärvi giving way to forest mid-horizon and the fjällområdet white and majestic behind. It’s very impressive.

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Quite a bit of virgin snow to cross
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The result of the dreaded överströmming on the right.

For a couple of kilometres I cross virgin snow aiming to intersect the snowmobile track back to Puoltsa. Twenty metres from the hard-packed snow of the track I sink through into the Dreaded Överströmming! Yup, that water above the ice. Icky and cold water floods over my boots, sucking into slush. It’s damned hard to lift my skis half a meter through snow only to sink back into the överströmming, again and again. I force my way through it until I make the snowmobile track. A fat layer of snow is now frozen to the bottom of my vit-blixt. Godda take ‘em off, peel the snow off with the knife I brought just for this occasion, then try to dry them as best I can to prevent more snow getting frozen on them again.

Fifteen minutes later I’m powering up the lake blown by the Russians.

As I approach home I peel off the snowmobile track and take on the näs, winding my way through the low birch forest until I find myself at the peak of the näs with a superlative view over my backyard, with the Kalix snaking its way to the fjällområdet in the distance.

Beautiful day.

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The view from the top of the näs

By the end of April we are in the Wet Season. The start of the thaw when hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of snow melt and flood the land. There is not a dry place anywhere. The snow loses its structure and texture and cannot bear any weight, not even with snow shoes. In place of powder snow it’s granulated and soggy, treacherous to walk through.

And so it goes on, all the way to May when arguably we have entered summer. And a whole new world emerges. Shall we have a good summer, when it’s sunny and warm more often than not. Or are we in for another bad one, when it’s cold, wet, windy and rains for days for weeks on end? Vi ska se, we shall see …

Max
Puoltsa, Arctic Sweden
mid June 2018

5 thoughts on “Return to North: a long read

  1. re Northern Lights. Have you heard of or ever seen Steve?

    It’s the actual scientific name’s been bestowed on the purple band, which is apparently quite rare and or unusual and is caused by some splinter faction of the EMS. Well, it’s certainly rare here in Adelaide anyway.

    I’ve always wanted to see the lights, it’s on my bucket list, must be one of natures true marvels. I’m jealous.

    Like

    1. Over the years I’ve met more than one Steve, though the celestial version I saw along the coast of Finnmark.
      As for seeing the northern lights … we’ve a spare room and the rest is time and opportunity. Strongly recommend it 😉

      Like

  2. That was a great read. Thanks for sharing. Had to laugh at the husky stories. Reminded me of a friend who has reluctantly been won over by his partner’s Burnese Mountain Dog (another breed totally unsuited to this climate).
    Speak soon, eh?!

    Like

    1. Thanks Stuart. Glad you liked it. Took AGES to write and pick through the vast numbers of photos. So am happy it worked out. Definitely speak soon … M

      Like

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