What is slow travel? It’s the philosophy of traveling mindfully, with a purpose. Not to check places off a bucket list, but rather, taking the time to get to know a place and its local culture. To slow travel also means being selective when choosing a mode of transportation—instead of hopping from airport to airport, seeking out a train, bus, or ferry is a more sustainable and environmentally conscious option.
Fall ’22 DIS Stockholm student Gabby (she/her), Colby College, was part of a trio that traveled by overnight train to Kiruna, the northernmost city in Sweden. Read her recounting of their magical experience traversing the Arctic landscape alongside Ylva, their Sami host.
It was Saturday morning; we had just eaten breakfast at Ylva’s house while bird watching from the coziness of her home. The fire was crackling, creating a warm blanket of heat that surrounded us, allowing us to wake up as the sun rises. Slowly. Quietly. We tried to soak in every bit of that warmth that we could, knowing that we were soon heading outside into the frigid, arctic outdoors. We donned the many layers we had brought with us, in addition to the layers of the snow pants, ponchos, and extremely insulated snow boots given to us for this snow safari, until we were heavily insulated and ready to go.
Before we even left the area around her home, Ylva took a moment to show us where she stored her reindeer skins. We made our way to a small, nondescript, wooden cabin where she opened a door, revealing that it was filled with beautiful, incredibly soft pelts. As she brought one closer for us to examine, Ylva explained that each person who owns reindeer has their own mark that they cut into their reindeer’s ear. The same cabin was also used as the smoke house where the meat would be smoked each late summer. Walking back outside the small structure, Ylva pointed out a collection of small, wired grey boxes covered by a light brown fabric. They hung carefully under the roof of each small, wooden cabin scattered throughout the area. She said that these were where she hangs the reindeer meat out to dry. They were thoughtfully made, with holes small enough that no birds and other animals could eat the meat, while the cloth overtop prevented blocked insects from the meat as well.
After this introduction we began our walk, heading into the forest through the frost-covered trees, each one glistening as if covered in glitter. Each of us were eager to begin the walk, anticipating what animals we would see. As we walked, the wind blew heavy through the trees above us. They trembled and shook, almost like windchimes, as the sound of wind reverberated through the air. Beyond the trees, the light-yellow sky gave just enough light for us to navigate the forest, illuminated by a low sun that never quite peaked past the distant mountains as we walked.
Along the way we crossed rivers, made snow angels, and continued learning from Ylva, until the dense forest began to open into a valley. Stepping out of the trees, we saw Kebnekaise again, the tallest mountain in Sweden, with only the peak jutting out from behind the closer mountains in front. For a while, all we could do was stand in absolute awe as we took in the area. The mountainous scenery. The Arctic landscape. We were standing in the epitome of a winter wonderland, with frost dusting everything we could see all the way to the horizon. It was then, out of the corner of my eye, that I thought I saw something move. Not too far in the distance, a light brown shape darted past a fence. Filled with excitement, I looked for Ylva to ask, “are those reindeer?!”
Before she could even nod in the affirmative, I was already beginning to scramble over towards the shape. I caught myself in my excitement, reminded that I needed to approach slowly, carefully, calmly, so as to not scare it away. We all stood there, our faces practically pressed up against this wire fence, looking in awe. It was a calf and its mother, prancing across the landscape, seemingly without a care in the world. Every few seconds they would stop to survey their surroundings or look toward each other, only for one of them to break the pause and jump up again in a new direction. The pattern continued itself again and again until both eventually disappeared into the distance.
The three of us turned to each other, moved by what we just saw and yet all completely speechless. We had dreamt of it, but never had any of us truly imagined that we would be able to see a reindeer in nature. Finally, Ylva broke the spell with a reminder that our time was running low and we needed to begin our return in order to get back to her house by sunset. Much of the walk was quiet on the way back, all of us busy in our minds reflecting on the day’s experiences. The nature here was just special, unlike anything I had ever seen before.
As the sun set below the mountainscape, we made it back to Ylva’s home, back to the warm embrace we had been so reluctant to leave that morning. The inside was comfortable, but if we’d stayed there, we’d never have seen all we were able to see today. It was only by venturing out a bit into the unknown that we were able to experience this place and not only talk with Ylva about the reindeer, but also get to see them, even if just for a short, magical moment before we returned.
Want to hear more Slow Travel stories?
>> Read about the full Kiruna Slow Travel trip
>> Learn about Gabby’s Slow Travel trip to a farm south of Stockholm
>> Apply for DIS Slow Travel funding