Norway

Four Days in the Norwegian Arctic

I stood on the rocky beach, shivering in spite of the sumo-like snowsuit that enveloped me and gazing in awe as the green glow of an aurora began to dance like a ghost through the star-filled sky. It appeared slowly at first, a faint green mist hovering among the stars, and then gradually gained strength until it swirled between the two snow-covered mountains framing the fjord in front of us. The aurora danced for several minutes before fading just as gracefully as it had appeared. This is a moment that I will always remember when I think about my first visit to Norway. 

If someone had told me a year ago that I would travel to the Arctic in the middle of winter, I would have had a hard time imagining such a trip. Winter is not particularly my favorite season, thanks in large part to my chronically cold feet and hands, a leftover relic from having mild frostbite during my first winter as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I’m also not a skier, and the thought of traveling at a time of year when weather conditions can easily delay and cancel flights is usually enough to keep me close to home. And so, when M. suggested last September that we take a trip to northern Norway during my February break from school to try to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, I wasn’t immediately keen on the idea. But then he showed me some photos of what might be in store for us if we were lucky enough to have clear skies. I was sold.

We aren’t typically tour-booking travelers, but for this trip, we decided that relying on experts would be much easier and safer than trying to traverse the Arctic wilderness on our own. M. did all of the research, looking into various options throughout Scandinavia before settling on a small company called Chasing Lights, based in Tromsø, Norway. From the moment we booked our trip with Chasing Lights, we knew we had made the right choice. While the cost was quite a bit higher than what we would normally spend on a vacation, we saw this as an incredibly rare opportunity and we wanted to get the most out of our time. We selected one of the package tours, which included a four-night hotel stay, two nighttime excursions to see the Northern Lights, a day trip exploring the fjords, and a dogsledding adventure. The staff at Chasing Lights are friendly, knowledgable, and passionately enthusiastic about showing off the wonders of the Arctic while making sure that their clients are comfortable and have the most enjoyable experience possible. We can’t say enough great things about them!

When we first booked our trip nearly five months ago, it seemed so far away. But then, seemingly suddenly, last Friday evening we were finally on our way. We flew from Riga to Oslo, spent the night at an airport hotel, and continued on more than a thousand miles north to Tromsø on Saturday morning. We had purchased two separate flight itineraries, as doing so was much less expensive, even with our hotel stay in Oslo.

At a latitude of 69°N, Tromsø sits approximately 220 miles north of the Arctic Circle. With a population of around 70,000, Tromsø is the largest city in northern Norway and home to the world’s northernmost university and northernmost brewery. While some of its international counterparts located at the same latitude in places like Finland, Russia, and Canada experience subzero temperatures throughout the winter, the Gulf Stream keeps Tromsø relatively warm, with average daytime winter temperatures in the mid-to-high 20s Fahrenheit (a little below 0° Celsius). Great news for my hands and feet!

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Tromso sits nearly on top of the world. Map source: http://69north.wordpress.com

In spite of its relative isolation from the rest of Europe, Tromsø is a hub of activity and attracts people from all over the world. We were surprised at the restaurant offerings, which included, of course, traditional Norwegian fare like dried fish, roasted reindeer, and brown cheese; however, Indian, Thai, and Japanese cuisine were also readily available. This made plant-based eating much easier for us, and we even found a small vegan restaurant (the food was great; the service, sadly, not so much).  What surprised us most was the number of immigrants who had come from faraway places like Thailand, Turkey, and India to work in cold, snowy Tromsø.

Day 1 – Downtown Tromsø and the Northern Lights

We spent our first afternoon in Tromsø strolling through the city center. Colorful wooden buildings lined icy streets, which were bustling with locals and tourists alike. The mountains and sea surrounding Tromsø provided a breathtaking backdrop.

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Downtown Tromsø.

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This whaling statue offers a glimpse into Tromsø’s history.

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Where mountains meet sea.

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Buildings like this add color to the blues and whites of the Arctic.

After a light lunch and deciding that we would both be more comfortable if we each bought a pair of snow pants, we checked into the Clarion Hotel The Edge, booked for us by the folks at Chasing Lights and one of Tromsø’s most modern hotels and meeting points. It offers stunning views of the mountains, comfortable, quiet rooms, friendly customer service, and an excellent breakfast buffet.

A couple of hours later, Jonas from Chasing Lights greeted us with a friendly smile as we hopped onto the small bus that would take us out on our first Northern Lights chase. There were 13 people in our group, all tourists like us. Jonas gave us a short presentation about the area, the science behind the Northern Lights, and the evening ahead of us as we rode away from Tromsø and the light pollution of the city. Although the sky was cloudy, Jonas assured us that the conditions were relatively good for viewing the Northern Lights if they decided to make an appearance. Sometimes he leads groups across the border into Finland or Sweden in search of the lights, but we were fortunate not to have to travel very far.

Following about two hours of driving north to the island of Ringvassøya, we set up a small camp where we would remain for the rest of the evening. Several reindeer greeted us, completely unfazed by our presence – not unusual, according to Jonas. The temperature had dropped into the low 20s Fahrenheit. We put on bulky snowsuits (provided by Chasing Lights) to stay warm, set up our cameras with tripods (also provided by Chasing Lights), and waited. We chatted with some of the other people in our tour while Jonas built a fire and served us hot cocoa and cookies. Our eyes were fixed on the sky, and we were trying to tell if we were looking at clouds or the faintest hint of an aurora. The hours passed quickly, and at about 10:30, just as Jonas began to prepare a late dinner for us (dehydrated backpacking meals, made locally and surprisingly delicious), someone said, “Is that different from a cloud?” We jumped to our feet stared directly above to see a faint whitish wisp starting to form an arc across the sky. Jonas confirmed that it was indeed an aurora. It became a bit stronger, and even danced a bit for about ten minutes before disappearing. Although we stayed outside for a couple of hours more – feeling my toes at that point was a lost cause – that would be the only aurora we would see that night.

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The scene of our first Northern Lights chase, early evening.

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Looking like linebackers in our snowsuits and warming up around the fire as we waited for the lights.

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Our first view of the Northern Lights.

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The green aurora lights up the sky.

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The lights made their appearance about three hours after we arrived.

We returned back to our hotel at about 1:30 am with full bellies and hearts and tired from the long evening out in the cold.

Day 2 – The Arctic Fjords and the Northern Lights (Take Two)

The next morning, Marek from Chasing Lights picked us up at 10:00 am with the same friendliness and enthusiasm that Jonas had had the night before. Marek led our excursion around the fjords, which involved riding a small bus, again with about 12 people, northwest of Tromsø to Kvaløya (Whale Island), where we made several stops throughout the day to explore different fjords, hike a bit, and take photos. The trip included lunch on the beach around a fire before heading back to town in the late afternoon.

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Hiking in the snow over Ersfjord.

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Here, several reindeer graze for food.

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Overlooking the village and water at Grøtfjord.

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The beach at Grøtfjord.

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The Arctic tide rushes in.

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On the beach at Grøtfjord.

We had about an hour after our tour of the fjords to rest and warm up before Jonas picked us up for our second Northern Lights chase. When we booked the trip, we hadn’t quite realized how exhausted we would be, but it was all very well worth it!

On our second night out, we were graced with clear skies and beautiful green and sometimes purplish lights all evening long. The lights made shapes and danced around, dazzling us with each movement.

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Our first Northern Lights stop of the evening, on the side of the road en route to Grøtfjord.

We set up camp on the beach at Grøtfjord, just across from where we had eaten lunch earlier that afternoon. It looked so mysterious at nighttime, and the sound of the waves gave our experience a very different feeling from the night before. The lights came out and stayed a while, impressing us from all directions.

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M., decidedly the better photographer of us two, played around with our camera settings a bit and captured more of a bluish hue later in the evening.

Our second night out was long and a constant wind made it bitterly cold at times, but seeing this natural phenomenon was worth every bit of discomfort. I think this photo will always be my favorite, taken a few minutes before midnight:

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Here, the lights were at their strongest of our entire trip.

We returned to Tromsø again at around 2:00 am, delightfully exhausted.

Day 3 – Polaria and Ølhallen

We spent our third day in the Arctic lazing around our hotel room in the morning and visiting Tromsø’s Polaria in the afternoon.

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The unique architecture of the Polaria represents ice floes that have been pushed upon land by the Arctic seas (www.polaria.no). The Polaria is dedicated to sharing the wonders of the Arctic wilderness with its many aquariums and exhibits, and panoramic film about Svalbard, Norway’s northernmost island group.

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We arrived at the Polaria just in time for the afternoon feeding and training session of these bearded seals. They weigh about 300 kg each! The trainer was careful to point out that the seals’ training is for their own exercise and mental stimulation, and not for tourist entertainment.

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This baby seal swam right up to us to say hello.

Tromsø’s oldest pub, Ølhallen, was the perfect place to try a beer from Norway’s northernmost brewery, Mack.

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Tromsø’s oldest pub dates back to 1928.

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Inside Ølhallen.

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Too many choices on tap at Ølhallen!

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Possibly the most expensive happy hour we’ve ever had – $19 for two small beers and a small bowl of chips and salsa.

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M. tries one of Mack’s darker beers.

Day 4 – Dogsledding

On our final day in the Arctic, we had quite the dogsledding adventure. Working in partnership with Chasing Lights, Arctic Adventure Tours took us out to the countryside where we rode a sled pulled by a team of six Alaskan huskies for about 10km. It snowed heavily the whole time, to the point where we could barely see, but it was such an extraordinary experience.

I was concerned that dogsledding might be inhumane or unethical, but the dogs we met seemed very happy, healthy, well cared for, and loved. They were very friendly and seemed to love receiving pets and hugs from us.

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M. greets one of the dogs before our run. All of the dogs were so friendly!

After we met some of the dogs and stepped into our snowsuits, we had a brief lesson in driving a sled and then headed out to find 48 dogs waiting to run (and letting us know that they were ready, as you will see in the short video below).

M. drove our sled for most of the run, but I gave it a try as well. It was quite a workout to help push the sled uphill in the deep snow, so I can only imagine how fit the dogs must be!

After the run, we enjoyed some hot drinks and homemade chocolate cake around a warm fire in a traditional Sami lavvu.

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The dogs may look sleepy, but according to our guides, our 10km run through deep snow and heavy wind was nothing for them! Our guides told us that the dogs can easily run between 70 and 90 km a day. To maintain that level of energy and strength, each dog eats nearly 1kg of food daily.

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Two sweet sledding teammates cuddling together after our run.

We took one last walk through downtown Tromsø on our final evening in the Arctic. The gentle snow and soft lights surrounding Tromsø’s cathedral created an idyllic picture of winter and the perfect setting to end our trip.

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Thank you for reading!