I guess the first question is probably ‘why go to the Arctic Circle’? Followed perhaps by a second question. ‘So where is it, exactly’? So let me try to explain the situation, in reverse order.
In terms of where it is exactly, surprising it seems to move (a bit) based on various forces. But generally it’s in or around latitude 66 degrees north of the equator, with the North pole itself being 90 degrees North (but I guess you knew that).
In Sweden it runs about 10k South of a town called Jokkmokk, which is generally seen as the capital of Lappland and is an indigenous Sami word for ‘a bend in the river’.
My brother in law is a very keen fisherman and so for the last ten years or so he has owned a house in a town called Nordmaling, which is on the Baltic coast a short trip South of the city of Umea. We were lucky enough to be offered the house, and then we thought ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to drive up into the Arctic Circle’? It was ‘only’ a six hour drive due North and we had two drivers, so why not? Thus we had a great line ready when anyone innocently asked us ‘Any holidays planned this year’? We’d idly trot out the line ‘Ah yes, well we decided that for a change we’d go to the Arctic Circle’.
And so it came to pass. We got to Umea, found the house, and marvelled at the fact that even there it never really got dark in early July. What would it be like in the far(ther) North – I was reluctant to over-bill it as the actual FAR North?
We had a great time around Nordmaling, enjoying the beautiful wildflower-filled meadows, the cute wooden houses, the salmon jumping up the rapids in the many rivers, and the Elk (Moose) farm where I fell in love with an impossibly cute baby. But the day finally arrived, so we piled all our overnight bags into the cavernous back of our estate car, and off we set.
There are a serious number of trees in Sweden, but in combination with lakes, wild lupins growing on the roadside, cute villages with not a hint of litter and perfectly painted houses the trip sped by. We halted to have the picnic lunch we had prepared on the banks of a beautiful river at Moskosel near Arvidsjaur (there was a spotless toilet nearby, these Swedes know how to run a country) and then back in the car and on Northwards.
Finally near Jokkmokk we saw the big sign on the roadside ‘You are now entering the Arctic Circle’. We stopped, we took photographs, shook hands and felt fulfilled. A bit like the top of Everest, but a lot less hassle and you can drive there. We went on to Jokkmokk and out to our cabin on a campsite at the end of town. This was beside a lake, and had lots of places to build campfires, which was great fun. Something we had not done in a long, long time.
It was simply weird to see – at half past Midnight – the sun still visible in the early July sky. You felt you should go to bed (there was no-one else around) but you sort of wanted to stay up just to be able to say you had done so. The bedrooms had good blinds on the windows, so that helped us to get to sleep. But the light was a strange shade, very hard to explain, but just different. By 7am next day the sun was high in the sky, and we were very lucky to get three straight days of sunshine on our trip. On the way from the circle marker up to Jokkmokk we had seen a number of reindeer on the road, and on the second evening we observed a group of about 12 sauntering down the main street in Jokkmokk. Which added to the surreal aspect of the whole experience. Mosquitoes were a bit of an issue whenever we walked in the woods, but we had lots of repellent, we had hats to wear, and so we generally managed to keep them at bay. On the second day in town we went to the famous Sami museum which told us all we needed to know (and more) about the indigenous people and their culture. Well worth a visit. I also had reindeer for lunch in the museum restaurant – and very palatable it was too.
We drove about 40km further North that afternoon and visited Muddus national park for a very scenic walk. It’s a huge National Park and a big part of Laponia, which is what the Lapp people’s cultural area is called and occupies a huge swathe of Northern Sweden. On the distant horizon we could see some snow-capped mountains, which we reckoned were on the Swedish-Norwegian border to the far West. We heard several cuckoos calling – something I had not heard for many years. The whole area is a vast but beautiful wilderness, and surprisingly – despite the Winter snows – the roads were generally in great condition. Which made a big difference when driving. You see ‘moose crossing’ signs everywhere, as well as ‘snowmobile alerts’. So I’m pretty sure that in Winter there are a different set of challenges.
We finally said goodbye to Jokkmokk and the Arctic Circle on the third day, and headed South, this time along the coast road. We visited the perfectly preserved ‘Church town’ of Gammelstad near Lulea, and then stayed on the E4 coast road all the way back down to our temporary abode in Nordmaling. In fact, because we saw so much and had such a tidal wave of experiences in a short space of time, it was only looking at the photographs that made the expedition seem real.
I really enjoyed the experience, and also rural Sweden itself. It’s quite beautiful, easy to get around, lots of wildflower meadows and cute little houses and villages. And pretty much everyone speaks perfect English while the roads are excellent and have very little traffic. I’m already looking at flights that land further North (like Kiruna in Sweden or Narvik in Norway) so who knows, the bug may call me back to the Arctic Summer sometime in the future. And I have the great line ready for my next dinner party ‘ Well when I was in the Arctic Circle’…