springtime of my sverige.

DSCN0932

In less than a week I’ll be competing in another big ski marathon. I know, I know. After the Vasaloppet, you really want to do this again, Chelsea? Well yes, I do. It’s the Birkebeiner. I’ve been excited abut the Birken for…. years. This year is no exception. I’m ready – to do whatever is possible for my body on that day, to participate, to have a great time. I know that it can’t possibly take 7 hours, since it’s only just over 50 k. So that right there means I will have significantly more fun.

But I digress – I’m going to be competing in a ski marathon. It feels surreal: these days in Uppsala have been warm and sunny. Spring came weeks ago and is not going anywhere. Winter is a distant memory.

And so in the midst of a long run I found myself standing in this magical clearing asking: where did the snow go? What did you do with it, Sweden? Which god have we offended and what can I sacrifice to appease him, or her? I’ll do it.

Don’t get me wrong, spring is lovely. It has been painful to work sitting at my desk all day, looking out the window at the sun that washes over everything and wishing that it could wash over me. I’ve been sneaking in a run here, a bounding session there, as I try to stay somewhat fit for the Birken.

Today I finally had time for a big run, and hit up my favorite place in Uppsala, Hågadalen. Just to get there, I had to make my way on a bike/pedestrian path full of happy people who were thrilled to be out in the spring weather. It was 50 degrees F and everyone was still bundled up, as if they were excited for spring but just weren’t quite sure whether they could trust it or not.

DSCN0910

DSCN0912

DSCN0911

And then, finally, I was in Håga, navigating my way through the puddles and over the rocks. I adore trail running, adore adore it. There’s something spiritual about being out there in the quiet, absorbing the peace all around you, but also focused so acutely on the little details of the treacherous ground. And yet you can’t be focused too hard. The best thing about trail running is that you achieve a sort of trance state, where you are noticing the bumps and potential trip-ups almost through your peripheral vision and your stride automagically adjusts to take them in. You’re looking, but you’re not looking. It goes deep.

For me the singletrack of Håga is almost like a cathedral, a place which distills and amplifies all those little things about trail running. The quiet is so quiet – you are surrounded my mosses and lichens which soak up the sound in their softness. And the trail is so nimble and twisty. It’s muddy and rocky and rooty and sometimes the best way is to just head off through the heather. I never come back without a scratch as a souvenir.

DSCN0917

DSCN0919

DSCN0927

And so I was happy, so happy, to be out running in Hågadalen for the first time this year. I had this sense that I belonged. It was magical, especially as I headed toward Rödmossen, where that top photo was taken. Even within Håga, which I already love, Rödmossen is one of my very most favorite places. It seems almost mystical with all that moss and lichen, a spongy sort of forest that can absorb anything. Maybe it would just soak you right up into it. I follow trail signs but always have this nagging sense that the forest has a will of its own, that it’s its own being with wishes and plans. What if there’s something out there switching the signs around? The boggy, fenny, rocky forest would make the perfect labyrinth. I can imagine twisting and turning your way through, stuck forever not knowing which direction you were going. I always think that this area would be a fantastical place for a fairy tale, and indeed these landscapes must have inspired Norse mythology.

These slightly foreboding feelings are seldom at the front of my mind, though. The forest is a happy place. And today it was a happy day, the sun seeping through the trees and me and the forest just enjoying springtime together. And yet – I didn’t belong there. It’s early March! It’s not time for this. No, it is time for skiing. I have had a few snowless late winters in my life – Eugene, Oregon; Montpellier, France – but this is something on a whole new level. It has been spring for weeks and going to Norway will be like a culture shock: white? snow? Spring is lovely, but this was not what I was expecting from Sweden.

It’s the hand I’ve been dealt, though, so I might as well go about enjoying it. Starting in Hågadalen.

DSCN0934

vasaloppet.

1557632_10100743275626849_1179210493_n

at the finish. photo: Simon Evans via facebook.

I did the Vasaloppet yesterday.

I didn’t really want to do to the Vasaloppet. If you’re a connoisseur of this blog you’ll know how exhausted I was after the Olympics, and how I didn’t get to ski at all while I was there or even run much at all. I came home faced with the fact that I was signed up for the 90 k Vasaloppet, which was taking place in five days. My friends who are athletes recovered from the Olympics by doing things like sleeping 17 hours in a 24 hour window. I needed to do that too, but I couldn’t because I had neglected my school duties for three weeks, and I needed to be churning out statistics and paper sections. I felt horrible and dreaded, dreaded, dreaded the Vasaloppet.

So I asked my friends: should I do it? I laid out the pros and cons.

Knowing my friends, of course they all said do it. I pretty much knew that, subconsciously, when I asked them. Like me, they live for adventure. We are the kind of people who do not want to regret thing that were left not done, never tried. So I took their advice. I went.

Susan’s wax tech, Mattias, was there waxing for an elite team and offered to let me join them, and to do my skis. It was a totally amazing experience which I wrote about for FasterSkier, here. I am so, so, so grateful to Mattias and Robin. First, it was a blast to stay with the group, who were all great and fun people. Second, there’s no way I could have organized myself for this point-to-point extravaganza, and they just took care of everything for me, thank you thank you thank you. One of Robin’s cousins was even driving to Stockholm after the race and offered to wait for me to finish and then drop me in Uppsala on his way, instead of me having to wait a few hours and take a crowded train. Seriously, these people were so nice, and they made my life so much easier. Third, Mattias prepared amazing skis for me, as he usually does for people who are actually worthy of them, like Susan. Seriously, they were magical, and if it weren’t for them I almost certainly wouldn’t have finished. As a “retired” athlete there are a very declining number of times left in my life when anyone, let alone a World Cup tech, will wax my skis for me.

All of that is an experience that I would have missed if I hadn’t done the Vasaloppet this year. And that would have been a shame. I felt so welcome, like I basically never have the entire time I have been in Sweden. They were wonderful, wonderful people.

But for the race itself, meh. It was not fun. It was fun for a little while – the start and trying to weave my way through traffic was so exhilarating! – and then moderately fun for a long while. Imagine a ski marathon that you have done, a 50 k. Then imagine that you had already skied 3 hours before the start. They were three fairly enjoyable hours, for me, but any time you think “Yes! only 50 k left to go!” something is seriously fucked up. I felt like I was doing great, and I still had an entire marathon left to ski.

And then with 30 k left to go in the 90 k race, I hit the wall, hard. Once you use up your glycogen stores it’s very difficult, basically impossible, to come back. I still had a long, long way to go. It was one of the most discouraging and painful things I have done. But I knew I had to finish because people like Mattias and Robin had gotten me to the start and been so nice to take care of me. I couldn’t disappoint them by dropping out even though I couldn’t imagine how I was going to move my body across all that distance to the finish line. It took hours and those hours felt like a lifetime.

I skied 90 k without ever, once, seeing a familiar face. Other teams had stations for food and hot drinks and wax help, and even just cheering and moral support. My little Uppsala team did not, and Robin’s team was, of course, following him to the finish hours ahead of me. That’s the price of doing a race in a foreign country. When the going gets bad, it is really, really lonely. All of which creates a feedback and makes you feel even worse.

And then there were the conditions. For more than the last half of the race, it was snow that had been bought in, and it quickly broke down into slush. There were no tracks in some places, and there was deep slush in other that tripped up racer after racer. It was a mess. One Uppsala teammate said that it was the worst conditions he had seen at the race. A lot of people dropped out, apparently. Mattias texted me to say great job for finishing, and added, “the conditions was tuff”. All of which is to say, it was not at all enjoyable skiing and for sure contributed to my demise, although of course everyone else had it just as bad and so I can’t whine too much.

There’s parts of the race that I don’t even remember.

As I wrote in the FasterSkier piece, I was aiming for between 6 and 6 1/2 hours, but it took me over 7 to finish. Hundreds if not thousands of people passed me in those 30 k. This was not what I had envisioned. And yeah – we all have bad races. Bonking happens. It’s not like I was entitled to a perfect race. But this was so far outside of the realm of un-perfect that I just wasn’t prepared for it to be so bad.

Yesterday after I finished, I was in so much pain. Things that are normal for someone who has done even a normal-length ski marathon, 42 or 50 k. My back was a knotted mess, my hip flexors were shot, my calves were tight in weird places from trying to keep my skis going straight in the slush, in those long sections of trail where the tracks were completely gone. But there were other things, things that I didn’t know could hurt from skiing. At some point the tendonitis in my elbows, which bothered me back in 2011 but only when rollerskiing on pavement, flared up again. I developed a huge blood blister across my right palm and a bruise across the back of my left hand where the pole strap crosses. When I took off my boots there were strange marks which were painful to the touch on the top of my feet from where the laces gathered. My wrists, hands, and feet hurt.

When I woke up this morning, it was worse. Both my shoulders were sore but the right one – which I dislocated in 2010 – was noticeably worse. I propped myself up on my elbow to reach for my water bottle and a searing bolt of pain told me that I had better not do that. I gingerly rotated my arm around and found that the pain was taking away a quarter of my range of motion. I have been popping ibuprofen but I have no idea what’s going on – I didn’t crash or do anything traumatic to the shoulder. It’s just not right. As I wrote to a friend in an e-mail today, it hurts even to sleep.

I guess this is my punishment for disrespecting the Vasaloppet, for thinking you can cheat by not training, and somehow get away with it. The Vasaloppet is not something to be trifled with.

In one sense, I really wish that I had not picked this year as my Vasaloppet year. I don’t think I’ll come back to this race again, so this is my only memory of it. I had no illusions about even turning in a good time, but I did dream of celebrating as I crossed the finish line in Mora. I wanted to pull an Erik Bjornsen and do a rodeo pole-wave even though I finished in the middle of the field. I wanted to feel that rush. But in this race I felt so bad that I think I basically just coasted across the line. I felt shell-shocked. I wasn’t even absorbing the surroundings. It’s one of the only races I’ll ever do where there is a grandstand watching the finish line on main street – and I didn’t appreciate it.

If I had come some other year, some year when maybe I had to pay for a plane ticket to get here, there would have been no cheating in my prep. I’m sure the race still would have been very hard – a 90 k race is never not hard – but I probably would have had a more positive experience. I would have enjoyed it more.

Sometimes you have to question your attitude. I think that I’m invincible, that I can do anything – well, okay, I won’t do well in the Vasaloppet, but of course I’ll finish, it will just be slow but still fun! No, in fact, it’s not that simple. Some things you do for adventure are not good adventures. You don’t have to take every single opportunity as it comes – you can plan out how to have the best and most meaningful opportunities. Sometimes I sign myself up for too much just to get the experience, but then the experiences aren’t as great.

But, life is life, and this was my Vasaloppet, prep or no. Despite all the misery, I have some good memories too. Being part of a start of 15,800 skiers all going at once is quite a unique feeling that you can only get at this one place in the world. That’s something to be happy about, as is the feeling that I can be adopted by a community of nice Swedish people who don’t know me or even know anything about me. It’s a comfort.

Although part of me wishes I hadn’t gone, it’s not all of me. Good or bad, these are the memories I get to keep.

quick trip to visby.

I have been meaning to write something about my last day in Ruhpolding, as it was lovely… not sure if I’ll ever get around to it. Life is busy! I moved to Uppsala successfully and am living in a beautiful flat with my friends Marta and Johanna. It’s so great to be back in Sweden. On Thursday I competed in the district championship relay team with my little club here, Uppsala Vasaloppsklub. Our team was: Christina, who could be in the 35+ age division but we didn’t have any other women interested in racing, so she competed in the 17+ division with us – she’s good; Karin, who is also good but is also quite pregnant!; and me, anchoring. They classic skied, I skated. It was the first time that UVK ever had a women’s relay team so we were really really excited just to be there competing. We finished third! The race was at night which is always fun as you feel like you’re really zooming along when it’s dark out, just flitting between the lights on the trail.

1425555_777258778970486_1273320277_n

Photo by Jon Orvendal who was sick and couldn’t race, so he came to watch and was SO frustrated not to be skiing. I really had so much fun being back with my skiing friends!

Anyway, besides that, I made a quick trip to Gotland, a large Swedish island in the Baltic. My supervisor lives and works there on a separate campus of Uppsala University, so I was there for two days. It was quite productive as we finished one manuscript which is getting ready for submission, and started working with the dataset for the next two papers. Also I got to see some of the city, which is a really cool old place. The city walls are from the 1200s and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. As my supervisor lives there, you’ll hear much more about my future trips to Visby as well. It’s just a 45 minutes flight from Stockholm or you can take a ferry. Based on my first visit, a highly recommended destination!

Click photos to enlarge.

uppland to oppland.

2013-02-02 14.37.07_2

My time in Uppsala came to an end in a whirlwind, but I compensated by taking the best vacation afterwards: heading to Lillehammer, Norway, to ski a lot and stay with my friend Erik Stange, who had been a TA in one of my biostatistics classes when I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth and he was a PhD student.

The truth is that I never knew Erik all that well, but he seemed happy enough to pick me up at the train station at midnight and ferry me back to his family’s house. A former ski racer, much more successfully and long term than I was, he understood why someone would want to come visit, and has made his house open as a home base for other former Dartmouth skiers as well. As ski racers, we travel around and crash on people’s floors all the time; he’s returning the karmic favor. I can’t wait until I’m stable enough to do the same. (‘Yeah, you can come sleep on the floor of my 9-square-meter dorm room’ isn’t a particularly generous offer, but it’s all I’ve got right now.)

In the morning I met his wife, Emily, and daughter Greta. Growing up without any younger siblings, I was never much one for babysitting, but I had so much fun hanging out with Greta. So over the weekend we spent a lot of time around the house and out and about in Lillehammer. On Saturday, we went up to the Olympic trails and skied a little bit. In Norway daycare is partially subsidized by the government, and kids go to various “barnehagas” around town. Greta’s is right in the Birkebeiner stadium. We skied out to a little hut that the daycare owns and played in the woods for a while. Growing up in Norway must be a treat.

DSCN0003

Next I got to go for a ski on my own on the Olympic trails. I’d been here before: on two trips with my Ford Sayre club ski team, in high school and college, and maybe even in 1994. I remember skiing with my family and cousin when we were here for the Olympics, but I have no idea where we went.

The Olympic trails are really hard. After my ski marathon two weeks before, I hadn’t really done much in terms of exercise; at winter school I tromped around on my skis in the fields, and did one ski at Skyttorp with the UVK club. I found myself crawling around the 5 and 10 k courses, walking up the hills and stopping to catch my breath at the top. I’ve skied a few World Cup and World Championships courses now, but I have to say that the 5 k in Lillehammer must be one of the hardest. There were some truly giant, grinding climbs.

But as the afternoon wore on and the sun began to set, I would come upon scenes like this. It was great to be skiing, no matter how hard it was, and the picturesque tableaus of the Norwegian countryside made it even more worth it. DSCN0011

Sunday brought another fun day with the family. We went to Maihaugen, amazing sort of living museum in Lillehammer. In the 1880’s a dentist named Anders Sandvig saw that many of the farm buildings in the small towns he visited were being knocked down as farming became less of a focus. So he picked up some of them and moved them to this spot. Erik said that the number of buildings at Maihaugen is actually difficult to pin down, but there are houses, barns, churches, fishing shacks, and every type of structure you can imagine, all arranged into groups that you can go look at.

I know that my parents have a Maihaugen coffee-table book, so we probably went there in 1994. But I don’t remember it. Instead, I just enjoyed exploring and looking at all the cool old buildings.

top

tall 1    tall2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

bottom

We marveled at what it would be like to tough out the Norwegian winter in one of these wooden buildings. Smoke would fill the central rooms; having enough food, grown in the short northern summer, would be a serious and worrying question every single winter. Lifespans were short, and probably not that happy in a lot of ways. Erik mused out loud: think how few generations ago that was. Our world has changed immensely.

But Greta was unconcerned with these deep philosophical questions. We were actually there to skate! Greta had never skated before; Erik had grown up in the midwest, playing pond hockey before he took up ski racing. I’m not much of a skater myself, but with the borrowed hockey skates, it was okay. We traipsed around a small pond, each holding one of Greta’s hands to keep her fuzzy side up. She seemed to have a blast, although a few times she insisted that we not squeeze her hands quite so hard. This led to an attempted explanation of the concept of tradeoffs: well, if we don’t hold your hand as tightly, you might actually fall down! A happy medium was struck.

Then, sledding and grilling sausages behind Hakon’s Hall, where I picked up my bib for the Birkebeiner back in 2006. A truly lovely weekend.

The next two days went by in a blur: Erik arranged for me to do some interviews with important race organizers in town, including the woman who runs a women’s-only race that sounds like so much fun that I will definitely have to do it sometime in the next few years.

My last afternoon, Erik played hooky from work and we went up to Sjusjoen, one of the best places in the world to ski, hands-down. High above Lillehammer, it is home to hundreds of kilometers of trails connecting various little hamlets – and plain wide-open vistas – by ski trail.

An earlier morning, Erik and I had skied up past the Olympic stadium towards the Nordseter ski center, where I remember skiing with Ford Sayre. It was beautiful, but I was walking up the huge climbs, shuffling along like the American that I am, embarrassed at what the Norwegians would think of my classic technique. Things just weren’t working for me. Erik took off, as he should have, and I wondered what he thought was wrong with me.

In Sjusjoen I was determined to keep up, and I did feel a lot better. Maybe I had better wax, but mostly I felt like I was getting my striding legs under me, skiing like a skier again. I guess four days was what it took to get my mojo back. As we adventured through the landscape, we were able to cruise easily up the long climbs, and I could chase him down the twists and turns on the other side. Every once in a while, I’d remember to stop and look at the views.

2013-02-05 14.09.46

There was one hiccup. We ended up in a slightly different place than expected, and had to ski seven more kilometers back to the car, part of which climbed over a little knob. By then I was toast, definitely bonking. Erik could tell I’m sure but I didn’t want to admit it.

At that point I knew it might be one of my last skis of the year: I was headed to places that didn’t look like Sjusjoen. At the time, I was so happy to be skiing on blue hardwax, just cruising around for kilometer after kilometer, that I didn’t mind that thought. A few days later I’m getting more disappointed – I want to be back skiing again. I know that repeating the amazing days in Lillehammer is a bit much to ask, but I’d take any trails, anywhere, just to get back on my skis.

It’s a problem with my current situation. Uppsala was great, and I’m sure Montpellier will be too, but Montpellier has no snow. Why did I think that was a good idea? Skiing is part of my identity that I will never be able to give up.

IMGP9962

That’s one reason it was so cool to stay with the Stanges in Lillehammer. Erik told me time after time that doing his PhD was not fun, maybe not the right move for him, and that I should consider the decision very carefully if I think I might embark on one. I appreciated the advice, a lot – most people aren’t so honest about the challenges of academia. There’s a reason I’m doing a masters now, not a PhD right away, and it has to do with all the things he said. But it’s a hard thing to admit when you’re in a program – everyone else is focused on getting the next PhD, the next postdoc, the next professorship. To say that you’re not interested in all that, or even that you’re just not sure that you’re interested in all that, well, they look at you a little funny. They maybe respect you a little less.

But despite all of his reservations, Erik has worked out a seemingly perfect life in Lillehammer. He was lucky to get a job with a research institute there, and he can do his work, raise his family (in Norway, which as I said above is a great place to raise a family), and ski his face off, or at least he could if he wasn’t so busy raising Greta and remodeling the house that he and Emily bought. Things haven’t gone completely smoothly: Emily is having trouble getting her midwife experience accredited so that she can work in Norway. But the rest seems to be good enough that, well, they bought the house.

Being let into their life for a week was just so fun. I immediately felt at home and had a great time hanging out. I could talk about biology, about skiing, about hopes and dreams for the future. One night the three of us watched the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, admitting that it was the main way we got our news of home; at lunch Emily and I listened to an independent radio station from the Twin Cities, laughing as we listened to a weather forecast that would never affect us. And I could hang out with Greta. I hoped that a little free babysitting would pay for the time I spent imposing on their family, and I hope I’ll get the chance to come back and visit again.

last days.

minya

Another stolen photo from Min Ya.

Today I move out of my dormitory, into a hotel for a night, and then – hopefully – out of Sweden. (I am still having visa problems so maybe not, but that’s another story.) I can’t believe it has been five months – what? How is my time here already coming to an end? I don’t want to leave. A classmate who is already in Montpellier, France, where I’m headed, posted on facebook that it was “22 degrees, get excited!” and I was not excited at all. It’s January. I don’t want winter to be over.

Last week we had a fun winter school at the Erken Laboratory, a limnology field station owned by the university. Aside from a presentation from the director of the lab, we didn’t do any limnology; instead, all of us MEME first-years gave presentations on a general theme of “evolution in a world of human-induced change.” I talked about the evolutionary consequences of overfishing and overharvesting, speaking quite a bit about cod, which I hoped would make my uncle Todd proud. In all, the presentations were really great – it was impressive for a student-organized symposium that people put so much work into things. I think none of us wanted to embarrass ourselves in front of our current or future classmates.

We also brought in several speakers from Uppsala and other universities, who gave great presentations about their research and offered to take in anyone who was interested in doing a project with them. So that was cool.

But mostly, we enjoyed the scene – the lab is on a huge lake, 25 square kilometers, and surrounded by some forest and a lot of farmland. We stayed in the “manor house” that had been donated to the University in the 1920’s to start the field station, and it was quite cushy compared to other field stations I have visited! We had a huge kitchen, some sitting rooms, board games to play… and the beautiful outdoors to explore. Every morning and afternoon walking back from the lecture hall we would have these views, like in Min Ya’s picture. Half of the students are currently at Groningen University in the Netherlands, and we hosts were excited that we could show them the real Sweden. The lab even has a sauna, so we could teach them the ways of heat and steam.

I managed to ski most days, not on trails but just tromping around in the fields or on the snow-covered lake. One day I saw a pack of wild hogs running along the treeline of a hayfield. It took a few looks to realize what they were.

So that was lovely, and it was nice to see our friends from Groningen, who we hadn’t seen since summer school if at all – a few I had never met. Of course, they were awesome. I miss them already. We’ve made a vow that our cohort will stick together, no matter where in the world we happen to land.

Just before winter school, I jumped in a ski race – a local one, but a 40 k seeding race for the Vasaloppet, the biggest marathon in the world. There were hundreds of people and it was a delightful shitshow of sharp corners and disappearing tracks at the start. I spent the whole race passing people and was shocked to end up third! I even won some Swedish money and a new ski bag, which unfortunately I didn’t need so I passed it off to a friend in my ski club.

loppet

It’s hard to sum up my time here in Uppsala – I will remember it forever. And I am completely certain that I will ome back next spring to do my final project here, because I love it. I love the town, the city, the university. The department where we work is amazing and everyone is very friendly; they are nice to graduate students, respect graduate students, and have enough money that they are always offering to help you do a project in their lab. I’ve never seen such a great research and learning environment before, and it’s certainly something to aspire to.

But I’m also going to miss my friends! Half of our coursemates were regular masters students here, so they will be sticking around when we leave. I feel bad abandoning them because they have been so fun; it will be really special to come back and finish my degree with them. I’ll also miss the ski club, a lot. It has a unique feel to it with all adults and skiers of all levels just getting together to go train, have fun, and learn from each other. I think it’s a great model and not one that is so common. Of all the people in my program, I’m the only one that did any sort of activity outside of school and I’m so happy that I did; these new ski friends are amazing and welcomed me with open arms. My classmates didn’t make many Swedish friends or learn much about Sweden; I did. Lucky me.

So, til next year, Sweden! I’ll think of you often, as I’m melting on the Mediterranean.

loppet2

old flames.

 

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.

the most beautiful church in Sweden, and how I got there.

On Wednesday night, after a day of scrambling around to and from Stockholm and generally being frantic, I climbed onto a train at Uppsala Centralstation and went to sleep.

It was a new experience: people don’t take trains so much in the U.S., and almost certainly not for long journeys. They’re just commuting vehicles, if anything at all. But here in Sweden – well, the trains might not be on time, but they go an amazing number of places, and they are pretty nice. In my three-berth sleeping room, we each had a made-up bed with sheets, a pillow, and a blanket; towels to use in the shower; our own sink, mirror, soap, and cartons of drinking water. Exhausted, I chatted with a very nice woman who was headed to her hut outside of Gällivare, where she hoped to skate on the frozen lake. Then, when it reached an acceptable hour, we climbed into our bunks and went to bed.

When I woke up, we were flying by snowy fields. We eventually reached Gällivare and were put on a bus (another train had broken down on the tracks and we couldn’t get past it… trains are notoriously late and broken in northern Sweden, particularly in the winter) and I chatted with another nice woman, who was actually from a tiny village just across the border from Muonio, Finland – a place I have been, and that I never expected to meet anyone else who even knew where it was (pardon the horrible grammar, I couldn’t figure out how to fix it and I’m tired!). As we pulled into Kiruna, my anticipation mounted. I had been planning this trip for weeks; what would it look like? All I knew was that it was waaaay far north, relied on iron mining for its economy, and that people from the south wouldn’t want to go there in the winter.

We got off the bus and I hoisted my ski bag onto my shoulders and began the walk up the hill to town. My hostel didn’t open for checkin until 2 p.m., so I left my bags there and went for a ski. It was a lovely ski, just as everything in Kiruna was lovely.

(The hostel itself felt like if your friend’s grandmother took her guest bedroom straight out of the 1970s, plopped a flatscreen TV in it, and rented it out for cheap…. but it was a nice hostel, clean, good kitchen, no complaints. That funny little room did begin to feel like home, plush sofa and everything.)

When you think of a remove city sustained my iron excavation, a city that nobody in the country really thinks of, the idea you see is not Kiruna. Kiruna has downtown shopping malls with names like “City Galaxy”, public art, cute coffeeshops, and girls with blonde pixie haircuts who shop at Lindex and H&M. It has a sewing shop that also sells bodybuilding supplements like NOXplode. It has bars styled after England (The Bishops Arms Tavern) and Bavaria. And it has lighted ski trails on a World Cup course, where you might see kids, grandparents, or anyone in between out zooming around on skis – or walking their dog.

And, it has the most beautiful building in Sweden.

That’s right. In 2001, Swedes knew enough to vote Kiruna Church the most beautiful public building in the country. It’s not a usual church: built from 1909 to 1912, it’s made entirely of wood and painted a deep, bright red like only the Scandinavians can paint things. Its expansive gables an buttresses were imagined by architect Gustaf Wickman to imitate a traditional Sami tent. I can imagine how the church would glow under the midnight sun, the light reflecting off the huge triangular flanks of windows.

But in the snow, it’s just as beautiful. Where else in the world are flying buttresses shingled, serpentlike?

And the snow is what we had. Snow and fog: one of the few disappointments of my trip was that I was unable to see the northern lights, because it was cloudy every night. When I woke in the morning, the city would almost always be shrouded in a sort of misty fog: you could see the next house down the street, but any further than that and the features would start to melt to some extent into the whiteness of the sky. Churches are tall, and this one is on a hill, so I expected I would be able to simply pick out its towers and walk towards them. But I couldn’t see; I had to navigate a map and not until I was two blocks away could I see where I was going.

Another seemingly strange feature is that the main building doesn’t have a bell. Instead, there’s a completely separate building which houses the belltower, and that, too, is something you might see poking out of the mist. The top you can imagine sitting on a church – but the bottom is fortified into something you might imagine to store grain over the winter, or stockpile supplies for an inevitable bad harvest. I really have no idea what the history of the structure is, but it’s fascinating to look at.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And Wickman took another idea from older cathedrals and changed it to fit the circumstances: carvings of saints or bible scenes which often grace more Gothic buildings. In Kiruna, the face above the door is adorned with traditionally flat etching – no relief, just line drawings upon the wood.

Tradition was maintained, though, with a collection of gold-painted figures looking down at paritioners and admirers; they represent ideas like humility, love, and rapture, but also arrogance, melancholy, and despair.

The crazy thing about the Kiruna Church is that it’s going to be torn down. Probably not tomorrow, and probably not next year: but like all of Kiruna, it will be demolished and then rebuilt. That’s because there is a giant vein of iron ore that runs directly underneath the city, and for the city to survive, it has to literally consume itself. Houses, neighborhoods, and the town hall will be relocated, and the church is no exception. Luckily, as one town leader explained, it’s made of wood so it can simply be taken apart and put back together again.

That makes me sad. What does it mean for a building of any sort, and a church in particular, to be taken apart? Maybe it’s because my father is a carpenter, and I can imagine some of the beautiful things he has built being torn apart, but I’m afraid that a little bit of the church’s soul will be lost when it’s ripped to the ground. When it is unceremoniously trucked to a yet-to-be-decided location. When it is reduced to its constituent pieces, which in no way add up to the whole. Its current home on the hill, nestled in the trees, seems to me to nurture and protect Kiruna Church. That’s its home. It can’t be dug up.

Is that blasphemous? To worry about a church’s soul?

Or is it stranger that I, dedicated agnostic (ha, oxymoron), am so worried about the church and its spiritual integrity and resting place?

Either way, it’s a beautiful building, and I’m glad I got to see it in the spot Wickman picked for it – where it is perfectly situated to show off the calculus that combines the culture of northern Sweden with awe-inspiring cathedral architecture.