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Braving the Arctic Wilds in Porjus

I am not a cold weather person. If the temperature gets down to 15C in Brisbane, I wear at least jeans and a jumper. In the dead of winter (as if that ever happens in Queensland), I can be found sitting on the couch wrapped in a very thick blanket. I shiver when I have to unwrap and move around the house.

My phone said it was cold.

My phone said it was somewhat cold.

So why did I go to Swedish Lapland in January? Why, when the temperature at that time of year sometimes verges on -35C? Surely I would spend the entire time trying to make my teeth stop chattering.

Well, I didn’t have much of a choice. Work was sending me there in January, so I was going in January, -35C or not. And while my work didn’t take me as far north as Porjus, the small town just north of the Arctic Circle where I spent my first three days, I couldn’t miss the chance to a) go to the Arctic in winter and b) see the northern lights.

But despite what some people may think, I was actually excited about the cold and experiencing such a foreign climate. I’d never been anywhere like it. I was excited about going somewhere so completely new and unfamiliar, especially because it was paired with a new and unfamiliar culture.

The main road into Porjus.

The main road into Porjus.

And you know what? I loved it. Sure, there were a few bumps in the road. I ran into a bit of a language barrier because I didn’t even know basic Swedish. I broke my leg trying to catch a bus (although I at least didn’t do it badly enough that it ruined the rest of the trip). It snowed continuously for the entire time I was up there, filling the sky with gray clouds. But it was fun.

The lonely shed

A lonely shed standing near the main road.

It was fun wandering the streets of Porjus. Even though the light was terrible — everything was cast with a bluish-gray light very similar to some of the scenes in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — I took a lot of photos of the very picturesque town.

The houses were little beacons of red caked in a thick white icing. Christmas trees still twinkled in their windows. Huskies sat outside front doors, always on high alert and looking as warm as can be despite the snowflakes clinging to their fur. Cars cautiously made their way down roads that had been plowed a few days prior; watching a few of them fishtailing around corners brought home exactly why car manufacturers like to test their traction control systems on a nearby lake throughout the winter months.

Picturesque red houses in Porjus.

One of the many picturesque houses that dotted the town.

I know I looked like a tourist — for one, I was wearing a hi-vis vest to help cars pick my otherwise very white jacket and me out from the rest of the snowy scenery — but the few people that were out and about offered me a cheery ‘Hej!’ as I wandered past.

Me in Porjus

I'm wearing a hi-vis vest and a Swans beanie and I look like I'm freezing. Yeah, I'm a tourist.

I ended up getting very distracted from my original mission, which was to follow the map that Patricia, the owner of the Northern Lights Apartments, had drawn for me in the snow before I left. I wanted to wander through the forest to the base of the ski hill, but I never did get that far. I was too busy staring in wonder at children’s playgrounds that had slides only just peeking out over the thick layer of snow.

There were two things that really struck me during that wander, one of which was really brought home to me later that evening when I was standing outside looking for the northern lights.

Buried in Snow

That bike isn't going to be useful for a while.

The first was the snowflakes. It was steadily snowing, and some of that snow landed on my black camera. Because I hadn’t gotten a chance to buy heatpacks to put in my camera cover, the camera was just as cold as the air around it — but that meant that I could actually see each individual snowflake that landed on it because they didn’t melt! I must have looked silly, standing and staring at my camera for so long, but I was entranced. Being such a stranger to snow, I thought snowflakes were too small to ever actually see, but I could see the individual structure of each one. It was so cool.

The second was the silence. Sure, in Porjus there were the occasional sounds of cars, snowplows, and people’s voices, but otherwise, there was nothing. This was amplified as I stood outside on my own in the middle of the night. The clicking of my camera shutter seemed deafening and unnecessary; the crunching of the snow under my boots even moreso. The silence was profound — not a single bird or arctic fox moved. The wind had died, so there was nothing to rustle through the trees.

The guard husky

Even this husky was silent.

Usually, I start to feel a bit uneasy when I am in an unknown place, alone in a silent night, but here I wasn’t. Here, it just seemed right. Despite the fact that even in the Arctic Circle, I was connected to the world by both phone reception and wireless internet, I had finally found my peaceful hideaway from the world. It felt wrong for my mind to be racing, thinking about work or why the northern lights weren’t visible. So I didn’t, and it felt great.

I may not have come back from Porjus with memories of the skies lighting up green before my eyes, but I did come back with the memory of just how relaxed and happy (and surprisingly, warm) I felt there. And that’s what matters.

Have you ever been anywhere that’s amazed you…in a completely different way than you were expecting?

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