1st Feb, 2009

Sunshine and ice

It is a beautiful Sunday morning. The sky is a light, clear blue, and the sun is glinting off billions and billions of ice crystals on the ground and on the houses. The birds are bouncing around in the trees and twittering, and the flags are flapping desultorily in the vague breeze. The air is dry and crisp at -12 Celsius, and I am a happy man, because this is the first time in over two weeks I have seen the sun.

The weather here in Härnösand this past month has been, well, wintry. Certainly much more so than last winter, when it set the record for warm winters. It has snowed off and on, so there has been skiing, which is lovely. However, there have been many days without snowfall, but just heavy cloud cover. This keeps it dark, despite the lengthening days, and creates in me a sense of being really far north. Although I will soon demonstrate that I’m not.

I have been trudging around in the pale gloom for the past couple of weeks, between home and shops, to the library, to the university, to the occasional cafe. And the lack of sun has all the time been like an uncomfortable hat I am forced to wear. Being deprived of sunshine makes one acutely aware of how much we depend on the sun, just like the plants and the other animals. I’ve been meaning to look into the question of whether so-called Seasonal Affective Disorder is a bigger problem in Scandinavia than in other places. Of course, Swedes have a long tradition of being stoic in the face of hardship, so perhaps they don’t look at winter depression that way. It could be the converse of the suicide statistics: There is a widespread belief that Sweden has an exceptionally high suicide rate, but I have read that the truth is that the Swedish authorities unfailingly classify suicide as such, whereas in many other countries (for example the Catholic countries, where suicide is considered a sin), they tend to relabel suicides as “accidents” and other such categories, in order to put a good face on it. Nobody wants people to think there is a high suicide rate in the country. But the Swedes are just deadly honest.

Annelie had to leave for Stockholm this morning, so I got up early, went out and scraped the frost off the car, and drove her to the station. The sun had just risen and was hanging there in the sky like a phenomenon. I was so giddy that after I dropped Annelie off, I went out for a drive around the island. I drove over to Gånsvikshamn, an ancient fishing village on the eastern shore, to welcome the sun. I wandered amid the boxy little houses partly on stilts over the water, virtually all painted red with white trim. They had plastic flowers inside the windows and ice crystals outside them. The snow was exquisitely crunchy and pleasant to walk in. The bay was only half-frozen-over, and I watched a flock of ducks take off, arc around with wings going thupp-thupp-thupp-thupp, and fly out to sea, to do whatever it is ducks do out at sea.

I stood there for quite a while with the sun on my face, listening to the birds in the forest: magpies, jays, tits (yep, they’re called tits). Then I crunched back to the car, passing a young boy and his mother, who had emerged from a house dragging a plastic sled. The boy greeted me with “Ha-llo!”. I said hello back, and he repeated the process, apparently wanting a bit more from me. So I said “Are you going sledding?” He gleefully said yes and seemed impressed by my astuteness. So I told him to have fun and waved as I got in the car and wheeled around and back to town. I would love to go sledding myself, but I think I’ll wait. Annelie and I went cross-country skiing yesterday and today I have some mysterious back pains that I suspect are related. That’s what happens as you get old, I guess.

Speaking of snow, ice, and age, I am about to receive a birthday present. A few months ago, I turned REALLY OLD, and for my present, Annelie promised to take me somewhere I have always wanted to go: the Icehotel. This is a hotel all the way up north in a town called Jukkasjärvi, outside of Kiruna. It’s actually north of the Arctic Circle, and so in December and January, they basically get no sunlight at all. You might think that this would not be a really great draw for tourism, and you’d be right. But someone had the absolutely brilliant idea of creating a hotel that is actually made of ice, and advertising it as a high-fashion experience for Americans and other people with a great deal of gullibility and disposable income. It’s supposed to be a fantastic place (Annelie has been there and enjoyed it), and I have wanted to go for years. So now in a week’s time, I will finally get my chance. I promise not only to write about the experience here, but also to post pictures.

With luck, I will have the chance to recharge my solar cells over the next few days down here in the “south”, so that when we head up to Jukkasjärvi I will be ready for a couple of days of near-darkness. My dream is to see the aurora borealis, but I’ll be fine if I don’t. My standards have changed lately—for now I’m ecstatic just to see the sun.


Your writing is always excellent, and vivid enough to need no accompanying photos. Nevertheless, I would welcome photos of everyday life, like the homes in Gånsvikshamn, or the cafes of Härnösand, and not just the exotic destinations like the Icehotel.

Minutes ago I read in the New York Times that it may be a few years for really good Auroras: Letter: Auroras Will Return. Indeed, it appears you can get a forecast, and I’m sad to report that the Aurora Borealis forecast for next weekend is as bad as it gets: aurora borealis forecast

That’s not to say that it won’t be gorgeous up there. I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time, and I look forward to words and pictures about the experience.

Ian, thank you for your kind words and for the links. I am saddened to know that I am unlikely to see the aurora, but there will be plenty of other things to enjoy up there, I’m sure.

Weirdly, I know the guy who wrote that letter to the New York Times. He was an astrophysics professor at Williams when I was studying physics there, not long after the Big Bang.

I will see what I can do about putting up some more quotidian photos. I have taken a lot, but I’m very lazy about posting them. I will try.

How exciting that you’ll be going to the Icehotel. What a concept. I can’t wait to read about it and see your photos.

When I was 9, I once visited an attraction that was along the same lines: a cave was carved into a glacier, and set up to look like a home. All the furniture was carved from the ice. But no one stayed there, to my knowledge. I think it was in the Mer de Glace, which is in the French Alps.

I think I like the idea of the Ice Hotel more than I would like being there. (Brrrr) That said, the kids just got off of school last week for 3″ of snow followed by freezing rain. This was our first snow of the year in Fredericksburg, VA! We take what we can get.

Alejna, that glacier house sounds very cool–literally so. I imagine it was just an art thing, if it was missing a wall. I’m hoping the Icehotel has four walls. At least.

Erin, glad you’ve joined the rest of us in winter. It’s hard to believe that VA has had so little snow, when New York and New England have been severely pummeled all winter long. Maybe that’s a reason to live in the south…

More soon from Jukkasjärvi!

Greg–where are you? You are missed.

Thanks, Erin. It’s nice to be missed (unless we’re talking about snipers). See the next post to find out where I am!

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Can only imagine the skill it takes to carve such btfueiaul things out of ice. I have so much respect for people who work with their hands. By the way, the woman in the 7th image is fierce! Like a modern ice queen of Narnia.

I told my kids we’d play after I found what I needed. Damnit.

You’ve hit the ball out the park! Incredible!

Good to see a talent at work. I can’t match that.

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