Abisko School nestles deep in the mountains in the northern of Sweden. From their classroom the children can look out over Torneträsk Lake and Tjounavagge, the U-shaped valley known locally as Lapporten. Twenty-two children attend the school, from pre-school to 9:th grade.
Ten of them are pre-schoolers.
We are in Abisko so that these children can test Kuling’s clothing. Frode, August, Helena, Moira, Malte, Inez, Novalie, Melissa, Mateo, Ebbot and Alva will play outside wearing the outdoor clothing designed for exactly these weather conditions.
For these children life revolves around mountain excursions and outdoor play. Last year, the snow arrived at the end of September and melted only at the start of June. So we thought: if car manufacturers can test their latest models in extreme weather conditions, surely we can do the same with Kuling’s outdoor clothing?
In winter the school’s football pitch becomes an ice rink. Many of the children skate to school, even Moira, Helena and Frode, who are two and three years old. Every day the smallest children take their afternoon nap outdoors, even when winter is at its coldest and darkest. Dressed in full winter gear, enveloped in sleeping bags, they sleep in strollers under the open skies.
Lena is a teacher at Abisko Pre-school. Her family lives in Stockholm, which according to the sign at the train station is 1,508 kilometres away. The night train takes around seventeen hours.
She came to Abisko to see something different before retiring and what should have been one year became nearly four. It is peaceful being surrounded by nature, and having so few children allows for a personal relationship, says Lena.
She is kneeling and gathering up plastic spades. Yellow, green, red, blue. The youngest children are playing close by.
– Previously I worked at an outdoors pre-school in Södermalm, Stockholm. Every week we travelled for two hours to get to the woods and that was a big adventure. When I arrived here I thought that these children would be even more interested in creepy crawlies and worms, but actually they have had their fill. After all they are always out with their parents, so it isn’t a big deal for them to go on an outing and pick nettles. But Frode’s mom has a guiding company that invited us to travel by snowmobile to their lávvu, a Sami mountain tent. It was a bright sunny day and we bundled the children into sledges behind the snowmobiles. We went up into the mountains and ate venison, grilled sausages and drank lingonberry juice. That was something extra-special.
Frode is balancing on the edge of the sandpit singing the old folksong “Bro bro breja”. He wobbles. Instinctively, Lena’s hand reaches out and he regains his balance.
– One of the first things I was struck by when I moved here was that everyone in the school plays, says Lena, her hand on Frode’s back. Even 9:th grade students play during the breaks, all year round. It just isn’t possible to stand around looking surly and self-important. Last year there was just one boy in 9:th grade, and the next oldest student was a 7:th grader. They only have each other and this makes them spend proper time together. This is what I find so incredible, the lack of attitude here. They feel so secure and can bloom when they start high school in Kiruna.
Lena gets up.
– I’m going to have withdrawal symptoms when I move home. I think everyone who’s been here must suffer the same. I’ll miss the nature, the walks, going on outings. Going to Kattejock as winter turns to spring and skiing in just a tank top.
Abisko is situated in the county of Kiruna and the Sami region of Gabna, and is home to between 100 and 150 people year round. Abisko Scientific Research Station is located in the village. Polar research attracts scientists from around the world and many of those living in Abisko work at the research station. One of these is Niki. She is a biologist and researches climate change in the Arctic. Abisko is ideally placed for this, since the village lies on the border between the Arctic proper and the Boreal region, characterised by its coniferous forest and tundra. Climate change shows itself here twice as clearly as the global average – the clearest sign being the melting of the permafrost.
When Niki has time off, she and her family usually play on the beach at Torneträsk Lake. She has baby Ellora in her arms. Big sister Helena is playing in a puddle with the other children.
– The closest maternity hospital is in Gällivare, 200 kilometres away, so we rented a cottage there during my last month of pregnancy, Niki recounts. The roads can get snowed in and we didn’t want to take any risks. That proved a good decision, as there was a blizzard the day Ellora was born. That was the year’s darkest day, midwinter’s night, 21:st of December.
She pulls the child closer.
– The sun doesn’t make it above the horizon during the polar nights. But even then you make yourself go out. I longed for the spring. To be able to put her down on the grass.
Apart from scientific research, tourism, the railroad and reindeer herding are important parts of society here.
In the eighteenth century ore deposits were found in Kiruna and around 100 years later the mining industry started up. In the beginning the ore was transported out towards Luleå and Bottenviken; however the water was frozen and the winters harsh, so people looked instead to Narvik, in Norway. The Gulf Stream keeps the fjords free of ice, making them well suited for exporting goods.
Construction of a railroad started in 1898. It was a bold project in the mountainous environment. The navvies pushed forward, one mile at a time. Small communities of workers grew up around the stations. In Abisko a tunnel was needed under Mount Nuolja, which meant people stayed for a longer period of time. Completion of the railroad between Kiruna and Abisko allowed tourism to begin and many of these tourists were people who came to Abisko to discover the mountains and study the rich flora on the slopes of Mount Nuolja. In 1903 the Swedish Tourist Association took over a number of engineers’ houses built around the train station and tourists soon came flocking, hungry for adventure. The Abisko valley is lush and well suited to raising reindeer, with up to 6,000 animals grazing here at times.
Frode’s mom Åsa describes this for us.
The children stand in a line in the puddles. Wrinkled waterproof trousers, shiny rain boots. If they throw a small stone it says “plop”. A bigger stone says “plunk”. Gravel sprays in every direction. And sticks float.
Three-year-old Malte does a rain dance in the middle of the puddle. He bends down and washes his hands, holding them up for his mom.
They climb up a snowdrift, first Frode, then Malte and Helena.
– Stomp, stomp, stomp!
They sit straddling the top. Behind them: the lake, then the mountains rising up white against the blue sky. A train rushes past, laden with iron ore from Kiruna heading to Norway. This is the world’s most powerful engine.
These sounds. The silence of the mountains, broken by the mining railroad.
– Where are you going? we ask, standing on the ground.
– To Narvik! shouts Frode.
– What will you do there?
– Look at toys. Not take them.
The following day we drive towards the town of Riksgränsen. The road runs along Torneträsk Lake, the sky is a picture postcard blue and the mountains rise up around us. The team in the car point and sigh. Today alpine tourism has a clear place in the global tourist industry, but the notion of climbing mountains for enjoyment barely existed before the Romantic movement started in the eighteenth century. Before this, mountains were something to be climbed only out of sheer necessity.
Rousseau was one of the first to write about this spiritual experience in Julie, or the new Heloise, in 1760:
”It seems that by rising above the habitation of men one leaves all base and earthly sentiments behind, and in proportion as one approaches ethereal spaces the soul contracts something of their inalterable purity.”
Leaving earthly sensations behind and attaining spiritual purity when standing on a mountain top. A sublime experience. And the landscape in northern Norrland’s interior is undoubtedly overwhelming.
For the families we meet, this is their daily bread and butter. But it is clear that it brings them pleasure.
One-year-old Ebbot lives with his mom and dad in Kiruna.
– We are cottage people, says Ebbot’s mom Hilda. If you live in Kiruna then you have to be into nature, snowmobiles and ice-skating. And Ebbot thinks it is super cool to be outdoors.
She recalls how they went out for four days in the ark, a tiny moveable house that hooks up to a snowmobile, often used for ice fishing. The one-year-old was in a good mood for the whole trip.
Mona is Ebbot’s mommo. She says that she lives like a travelling janitor sometimes. They live in Kiruna but have a summer cottage in Piteå, near Nikkaloukta, by the Kalix River. And in Abisko the family have a permanent caravan. She says:
– When Ebbot was born, his dad gave me a job. He said: teach Ebbot to love the forest as much as you do.
She lies on a camping mattress in a t-shirt. Her face is sunburnt from hours in the sun and the reflection of the snow.
– However much you think life sucks, it all vanishes when you get to the forest. It’s incredibly beautiful wherever you look.
Ebbot has a special place in mommo’s heart.
– My husband has terminal cancer. He isn’t going to pull through. If Ebbot hadn’t come along then he probably wouldn’t have lived this long. Ebbot realises that Micke isn’t well. He is mischievous with everyone else, but not with Micke. Ebbot tries to cheer him up. The other day they were lying in bed with the iPad, and when I went and laid down next to them Ebbot gave me a look that said: this is our thing.
She shuts her eyes, puts her hands behind her head. Says:
– Because of Micke’s illness I haven’t worked for two years, which means I’ve had lots of time with Ebbot. People shouldn’t have children before they’re 50. When you’re young it’s the house and DIY and one thing after another. But now you get it. You listen and pay attention. I am so grateful I get to be so involved with Ebbot. After a few hours with him and Hilda I feel totally rested, because I can’t think of anything else. I don’t have to think about the cancer then.
Frida and Lina are childhood friends. After high school they both worked in the mine: one extracting the ore from the ground and the other transporting it away.
– In theory Kiruna’s residents are protected from unemployment. Most of them earn high salaries working for LKAB.
Frida then worked at the Swedish Embassy in Bogota. For three years she was there, dreaming of becoming a diplomat, but suffered from homesickness. She wanted to go home to Kiruna and her boyfriend returned with her. Frida and Lina decided to try for a baby at the same time, and were in luck – both became pregnant on the first try. And so Mateo and Alma were born.
– Mateo’s dad is from Colombia and he had never been to Europe or even seen snow. So it’s pretty strange for him to live in such an isolated place. But we’re planning to live here at least while Mateo is little.
Riksgränsen is the world’s northernmost ski resort but is also home to three-year-old August and his little brother Alvar. They are the only children permanently resident in the village. Their dad, Petter, runs the Ica supermarket, which aside from ski enthusiasts and the village’s forty permanent residents, attracts many Norwegians. Candy, soft drinks and deli meats cost next to nothing here compared to the neighbouring country.
To have a pre-school in the village requires three children, but now there are only two, so August goes to Abisko Pre-school, forty kilometres away. This means 160 kilometres in the car every day.
– The old pre-school teacher works at Ica now, says Petter.
August and Frode sit on a deerskin and eat elk jerky.
– We bought it at dad’s work, says August, handing a piece to Fenja the dog. Doggy likes!
Frode’s mom Åsa has lived in Abisko for twelve years. She studied mountain leadership in Storuman and carried out a project here in the village.
– The day I set foot in Abisko I thought to myself: I’m going to live here. I arrived, found my place in the world.
She runs a mountain tourism and transport business. In winter the main activity is snowmobile touring around the national park. In summer it is mountain biking and multi-day hiking along the King’s Trail.
– Seeing Frode grow up in Abisko, and his growing love of nature, is a joy. Hang on, where’s Fenja?
The dog has run off.
Soon we see her ears stick up behind a hillock. Åsa calls the dog’s name and feeds her a piece of jerky when she returns.
It is time for Frode to go sledging. To climb the snowbank Åsa kicks the snow with her boots. This builds a set of steps.
– Walk in my footsteps, she says to him.
Standing in the mountains, surrounded by white, white, white, it isn’t letters the hand turns to. It is crayons. The black and white mottled mountain slopes, vigorous against the blue sky, the low-growing birch trees with their untidy branches. The blue shadows in the windblown snow.
Mommo Mona and Hilda squat down next to Ebbot.
– I was really shy as a child, says Hilda, but Ebbot is the complete opposite. He makes me speak to people.
– She always hid behind me, says Mona. But Ebbot has brought out a new, braver side of Hilda. And he makes us discover our surroundings in a new way, see things in a new way.
The children breathe the clear, fresh air. They learn early on how to stand on skis, wear sunglasses, go ice fishing and ice-skate. For them, there are eight seasons, not four. They experience the midnight sun and the polar nights. They hear the open ice channels, cracks in Torneträsk’s ice-sheet, which boom and bang over the village. And the shrill sound of the heavily loaded ore-trains. They don’t fear the snow, but respect it.
It is time to pack up. Tomorrow is a new day at pre-school.
But where is Fenja?
The collection Explore the Arctic Woodlands is designed with outdoor play and adventure in mind. Our focus is on making clothes that keep children warm, dry and happy, whatever the weather. Looking after our planet is just as important. The collection is manufactured largely from recycled PET bottles. The collection is available from Babyshop.com.