At no point during my trip to Kiruna did I figure out how to take pictures that really captured the light. Saying that it was dark in Kiruna would be sort of true, but sort of missing the point: when there’s snow, the seven hours of each day that see the sun above the horizon stretch much further, and they often turn pink. Instead of being lit by the sun, the land is lit by its snow. And on the city’s longer trail systems, that is what you are skiing through: an open landscape, to a large extent, and vistas with miles and miles of snow.
My first day in Kiruna was actually one of the brightest, little did I know at the time. But it certainly contributed to my immediate delight as soon as I clipped into my skis: I was on snow! Skiing! I remember that in past years, the first time on skis was awkward. Coming from rollerskis, the snow is an unfamiliar surface for you to slip and slide on. But this time, it felt completely right. I was onto the tracks and off on an adventure. Sometimes when you don’t do something for a long time, you wonder if you really do love it or whether you’re making up stories in your head. In this case, no stories: I really, really love skiing. There’s a reason, and this is it.
One of the first loops I tried was called the Midnattsolstigan, or Midnight Sun trail. Okay, so it was the wrong time of year for the midnight sun, but it was a lovely trail, looping through some old mined-out hills and swooping down into a valley with expansive views of the whole region. As I skied there one day, a snowshoe hare scampered along in front of me, almost impossible to pick out against the white background.
Another long loop was called the Jägerspåret, or Hunter’s Track. It reminded me a little bit of Green Woodlands in the way that it climbed hills, then dropped down to tour around bogs. The seventeen kilometers were in various states of grooming, and I encountered everyone you could imagine from the Swedish skiing public on that trail: people the age of my grandparents in stretched-out lycra and windbreakers, a fourteen-year-old boy skating, a guy my age who strided past with perfect classic technique, middle-aged men and women out for their daily loop.
But perhaps the most fun I had was in the evenings. Kiruna used to host World Cup races; Bente Skari, Vincent Vittoz, Kristina Smigun, and Bjørn Dæhlie all won there. The first kilometer of skiing lulled me into a sense of security: no wonder they don’t race here any more, I thought. This is easy. But then the trails cut down, under a bridge, to the bottom of the hill and climbed back up it, then all the way to the top of the height of land, then dropped down again, swooping around turns and climbing though scrubby conifers. It was harder than I had thought – and it was a lot of fun, to ski on trails where you could really carry speed.
And, of course, they were lighted. How else would you ski in Kiruna in the winter? Because the World Cup trails are closest to the city center, whereas the longer loops extend into the hinterland, they are the most easily managed. And to be bombing through the darkness on those hills and twists and turns was even more exhilarating than usual. Those skis were some of the best, the ones where I really remembered: this really is the greatest thing, ever.