The snow, which has been falling all morning, lies thick, white, and clean on the ground, big flakes still fluttering down through the subarctic air, a prematurely early evening fast approaching. I am at the reins of a reindeer—and he’s a fast one. Tethered to a long sled covered in an animal skin, the deer plods along with me behind, until the resident dog, Rufus, happily starts running on the track. Spooked, the reindeer takes off, and it’s all I can do to hang on, the track covered with the fluffy stuff, glistening and slick from previous trips.
On one corner, I’m convinced I will spill. I tighten my grip and lean into the turn, just enough to stay upright. At the next, a fence looms large, but the deer makes the turn from instinct, carrying me back to safety.
Once we’ve stopped, I spot my dad, who has a huge smile, red cheeks, and is clad in a head-to-toe snowmobile suit, snowflakes clinging to his already-white beard.
“Are you up next?” I ask him.
“Oh no,” he responds, shaking his head decisively. “I’m good, right here.”
Boarding a sleeper car on the Arctic Circle Train in the middle of Sweden, we woke up this morning in a winter wonderland, disembarking at Gallivare, and making our way to Jukkasjarvi—and its famous Icehotel.
This isn’t just a vacation for my dad, Ellwood Johnson, and me. It’s a trip back to our collective roots—for my dad, an opportunity to celebrate his Swedishness, and for me, to discover it.
You see, my father has always been very proud to be a Swede. Born in the small Canadian village in Manitoba, he was raised in an enclave of Scandinavian culture, where even second-and-third generation Canadians still spoke the language of the home country and honored its traditions. That culture stayed close with my dad as he attended university in Winnipeg then, with my mom, moved to a small city close to cosmopolitan Toronto.
Those traditions followed him into our home. My dad always had Swedish flags around the house, and cheered for Scandinavian teams in the Olympics. On the phone with his two sisters, I would hear him speak Swedish, a form of the language that evolved in the relative isolation of rural Canada. He’s always peppered his everyday English with Swedish words and phrases, and so my understanding of the language is really just a collection of disparate, antiquated terms—from the words for “crazy dog,” to a traditional cadence, counting down the days to Christmas.
My father made one visit back to the country of his heritage in 1974, part of a comprehensive pan-European backpacking trip, but hadn’t been back until I suggested this return. He eagerly agreed. We made plans with a Norway-based tour operator, flying over via Reykjavik on Icelandair.
After spending time in Stockholm, and visiting cousins in the central region of Dalarna, we leaned into stiff winds and heavy snow, wading through accumulating white stuff on the platform to board the overnight train, bound for the Arctic. Settling into our comfortable sleeper car, the train rocked us to sleep, each in our separate bunks, while the dark Scandinavian night clickity-clacked past, outside, the population thinning, the stops drawing out, as we made our way, quickly and steadfastly, north.
While our own family history is somewhat scant in this part of the country—a couple of relatives sought work in the mines of Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost town—Lapland is home to some of Sweden’s most recognizable and time-honored symbols and traditions.
Arriving at Icehotel, we don our heaviest clothes—boots, heavy, one-piece snowmobile suits, and warm hats—and climb into a horse-drawn sleigh for a short ride over a frozen river to meet our Sami guide, Daniel Sunstrom. He explains that while reindeer are now herded with trucks and even helicopters, in the past, the Sami would lead them down natural paths, and over-winter right here, where they had access to food and shelter from the wind and cold.
“We have more than 300 words for snow,” he says.
Sunstrom adds that traditional Sami wore pointed shoes that doubled as ski boots, and clothing that was distinctive to each village. With reindeer central to their lifestyle, old-school harnesses were made from birch bark.
“It was a real art form,” he says. “It’s very hard to find today.”
Moments later, riding behind a leather harness, I have my wild ride, with Rufus barking happily behind.
Later, tired from the day, I discuss the sleeping arrangements at Icehotel with my dad. Our room includes just one bed, and my father volunteers to stay there, sleeping on a mattress resting on a frozen frame, while I check into a nearby, normal hotel. Meeting him in the morning, he’s slightly haggard but still, strangely energized. He hadn’t slept so much, but he had added a great story to his compendium.
“It was quite an experience,” he says, meeting me in the morning, with a somewhat somnolent smile.
We make our way to the train station in Kiruna, then a morning run down the famous Iron Ore Line, through low, rugged mountains and boreal forests, to the coastal city of Lulea. We check into another one-of-a-kind accommodation, the Treehotel, which was originally a small, rural guest house. Owner Kent Lindval, who personally picks us up at the train station, explains that things got off to a slow start.
“It was in the middle of nowhere,” he states, matter-of-factly. “It didn’t do so well.”
But things picked up once they built rooms into the trees. The rambling property now has seven distinctive designs from six different architects—ranging from a bird’s nest, to a mirrored cube, to a UFO. Each one is equipped with 12 hours of water, and an eco-friendly system that disposes of human waste from dry toilets, so you don’t have to climb down from the tree in the middle of the night. We settle into our room, the largest, known as “the 7th Room,” accessed by a staircase that winds up from the ground. It truly feels like we’re staying in the canopy, with sweeping views out the huge windows to northern forests, in all directions.
We finish our trip, again on a sleigh, meeting up with dogsledder Kim Jonsson, who introduces us to his friends—Alaskan huskies with Swedish names like Leia, and Knute, all of them eager to meet us. Jonsson is lanky, with a deep, even tan that suggests long days outside in the sun. He notes that only a handful of people reside on his long rural road, and that he lives a simple, country life—no cell signal, no Wi-Fi, and he chops his own wood for the stove.
“If you wash your socks but don’t dry them at night,” he says with a shrug, “well, then you have wet socks in the morning.”
We climb onto the sled, and soon we’re off, the dogs happily pulling us.
“They love me,” Jonsson tells us, “but they love to run even more.”
We glide along, smooth and even, through forest and frozen marsh. It’s silent and lovely. Later, we will stop for a fire, a warm mug of lingonberry juice, and cinnamon buns. But for now, right here in the sled, the watery winter sun fades from yellow, to orange, to red. My dad is ahead of me, smiling, and I’ve never felt closer to him, or my Swedish roots.
If You Go
Based in Norway (with offices in Canada and Australia), tour operator 50 Degrees North has close, local connections throughout Scandinavia, with 90 percent of their staff natives of the Nordic region. They organize tailor-made tours, including transportation, accommodation, and tours, with unparalleled expertise, above the 50th parallel. FiftyDegreesNorth.com
With year-round flights from 11 U.S. airports, Icelandair provides one of the most direct connections between the United States and Sweden (and more than a dozen other European destinations). Book a seat in their Saga Premium Class for more room, great food, and access to their super-cool lounge at Keflavik International Airport. Icelandair.com
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling, in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.