Bucket List Items in Sweden’s Winter

Living in Wyoming, experiencing additional Arctic activities hasn’t been something I felt I necessarily needed to pursue. However, having never been to Sweden, when the opportunity to go on the January winter ride there arose, I became excited to fully embrace the true frozen North. And the experience did not disappoint! Never had I imagined I would be driving a reindeer or dog sled independently, nor could I envision the intricate artwork on display at the Ice Hotel; these activities are so unique and well organized by our riding hosts that they were bucket list additions I didn’t know I needed!

Riding Icelandic Horses itself is a treat. I had a previous few days experience on these unique adorable horses from a few years back, but the ride in Sweden offered additional insight into their gaits. Kerstin, the owner of the farm, is extremely knowledgeable and an effective teacher, and over the course of a few lessons I went from being a passenger on horseback to being able to ask for the gait I wanted, both in the arena and on the trail. She and Jenny guide the rides and know each horse extremely well and explained points on the snowy terrain where we could ask for tolt or trot. The horses seemed comfortable in the cold weather, their abundant hair serving them well even when we all came in covered in frost. You are involved in all aspects of horse care, catching your horse and feeding them hay, picking out snow-packed hooves, brushing, saddling and bridling, which was informative as well as warming!

Coming back frosted

Because cold it was! The coldest temperature we saw was -25°F, and we were assured that we were faring better than the guests who were there week before, who experienced lows of -45°F. Before traveling I had thought, “maybe it won’t feel that bad – you know, if the sun is shining and the wind isn’t blowing, maybe you don’t notice the cold”… that was wrong. The moment I stepped off the plane in Kiruna I realized, “Oh, no, this definitely FEELS cold…”  But you’re well taken care of, and Kerstin or Jenny will tell you frankly if you just don’t have enough layers on! So you can go back into the mudroom area, where there’s a wall of winter coveralls to choose from, shelves of wool sweaters, drawers of mittens and hats, hand and toe warmers to purchase, and you learn quickly not to underestimate the chill, or be too fashion-conscious!

When asked if she liked the winter or summer rides better, Jenny said that she appreciated the peace of winter; riding through the forest, you could sense that everything was resting. The silence was complete, and the delicate winter light lent a fantasy quality to the landscape. We had about 3 hours between sunrise and sunset, but 6 hours total of light, mostly in pinkish hues. We saw the Northern Lights above the farm our first and last nights there, and our ride in darkness in hopes of finding them resulted only in moonlight, which was not disappointing as it still had a magical feel.

There’s a healthy mix of additional activities: snowmobiling, dog sledding and – probably my favorite – reindeer sledding. The guides were personable and knowledgeable, from the same Sami community as Kerstin, whose indigenous culture centers on reindeer herding. Coming from an equestrian background, the handling of the reindeer seemed less nuanced – which was both slightly terrifying (we’re just going to hold on to this rope and let the reindeer run and basically hope for the best?!) and invigorating (just hold on to that rope and have fun!!). Our guides fed us lunch and regaled us with stories and answers to our many questions, with the warmth, food and shared experience always being a balm to the outside cold.

I was amazed at the engineering and artistic feat that is the Ice Hotel. Guests there have access to their rooms at 7pm, and before that they are open to the public to visit. The rooms are all literally just ice and snow, carved and sculpted into designs of varying complexity, so those who stay in the rooms mostly enjoy them from within their warm sleeping bags. Each year there are different artists from around the world, and it was fascinating to see each unique artistic vision. You can choose to spend the night here if you want to the full experience!

I discussed with fellow riders the difference between a “vacation,” and an “experience;” the former having a greater emphasis on luxury and relaxation, while we all agreed we were part of the latter, where the activities were designed not necessarily for comfort, but to expand and enrich your knowledge and abilities. We did not have much down time, and while the accommodations were comfortable they didn’t come with extra amenities; we were fed well with homemade fare even cooked over the fire in the wooden Sami style hut. The guests on the trip were mostly younger Europeans, who weren’t there for a pampered curated stay, but for an authentic opportunity to experience a truly unique location and activities. While I have nothing against the pampered vacation, I am grateful for the worthwhile adventure on offer in Sweden’s winter. I’m glad to also be able to offer a summer experience, which is sure to offer a similar feeling of adventurous exploration.