The challenges of living in Kiruna can be overstated. However, although you couldn’t claim it was ‘remote’ – we have airport that links us with Stockholm in an hour and a half – living in Kiruna does feel like living in a frontier town.
It isn’t just that within minutes of driving out of town you’re in empty landscape, and not a coffee shop in sight. What’s a minor task for city dwellers further south can be experienced as a significant activity here, or, if things are harder, as an adventure even. Going shopping, even with a shop within a few minutes’ walk, can take an hour – there’s all the putting on of warm layers, clearing the snow away on your way out, trudging down the road and back again, then taking all the layers off. There’s no ‘nipping out to the shops’ here. Not that I’m complaining. Because nothing’s simple, every activity brings with it a certain amount of satisfaction from reaching one’s goal.
A few days’ ago we had to drive south to the nearest town, Gällivare – that’s 120 km (74 miles). Although there had been a lot of snow, it wasn’t snowing during the journey, at least not going there, which made driving a little easier.
We drove through the familiar landscape of trees just south of here, the boreal forest which ends just north and east of Kiruna. The pine trees grow narrow, huddling together for wind protection, their tops reaching out to the light, and their branches kept as close to the trunk as possible. After heavy snowfall each tree has a mass of hanging white pouches, balls of snow pulling the short lateral branches downwards. The loose branch ends curl upwards, frozen in attitudes that look vaguely human – pointing and gesturing. There are so many thousands and millions of these trees in the black and white landscape of winter and they can look slightly unreal. Like legions of creatures from outer space, standing in massive armies, questioning, or maybe threatening.
We drive on. The road is clear enough, and we pass many lorries on the way. Transporting fish in one direction, minerals in another perhaps. We wonder if any of them carry that particular brand of frozen breaded fish that has been missing from our supermarket for the last two weeks.
Half way we stop at a lay-by to drink some coffee. A car or lorry whizzes by every five minutes or so. Otherwise the road leads the eye in both directions, an empty trail between legions of alien trees, disappearing at each end into a white horizon. Our journey so far has taken just over an hour.
Next to the road we see a flash of red, the most well-fed fox you’re ever likely to see. It’s having a disagreement with local crows over some road kill. There’s no doubt who’s going to win (the crows).
Another hour of trees. Each turn of the road leading one to expect something different, but every time providing only a slight variation in hill or road direction. Just trees, and snow. The trees are a kind of terracotta army in white – so many of them, surely they mean something?
It’s not without some relief we reach the outskirts of Gällivare. Suddenly more roads, streets, building even, and people. At the hospital we check in for a routine eye test. Then begins the journey home.