Norway: Nights on Ice

In the land of eternal winter, wishing for the Northern Lights. See Adventure Cruising: Norway, a Celebration Traveler’s day-by-day guide.

by Donna Peck

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Northern Lights over the Arctic wilderness.

People go to great lengths to experience the elusive, lovely Northern Lights. Even people who hate winter.

From October to March when Norway’s skies play host to this sought-after spectacle, Hurtigruten ships trudge north full of hopeful passengers.

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The lights have mesmerized humans for millennia.

In truth, it’s an absurd quest. The same months deliver unholy storms and devilish fog obscuring the fjords for weeks.

With any luck you’ll awaken after midnight to a ringing phone, and bound outside with one arm in a parka unaware of the cold. You’ll stand transfixed beneath a luminous sky.

Heedless of the weather, the Hurtigruten presses on, cruising north from Bergen to the Arctic Circle providing passengers with impressive comforts, such as a hot sauna and nightly buffets of pickled herring, cod, shrimp, snow crab and lobster.

Snowmobiling in the white  desert

Snowmobiling on a stormy night in Lapland.

Snowmobiling on a stormy night in Lapland.

The ship cruises beneath active aurora pathways but nature has a mind of its own. Evening shore excursions increase the odds of seeing the lights.

We signed up for a nighttime snowmobile excursion hoping for clearer skies inland. Bundled up in thermal underwear, thick sweater, snowsuit, woolen socks, winter boots, hat and mittens, I still shivered.

After a snowmobile lesson, we rode in a convoy from the fishing village of Kjøllefjord over the mountains to Mehamn just as a snowstorm unleashed its fury.

Jack Frost, Jokul Frosti, was abroad. Snowflakes swirled in our headlights. Engines whined as we ascended a plateau. Outside the range of the headlights, it was pitch black. Our Sami (northern Norwegian) guides could follow the trail blind. They were at home in the white desert, a place they hold in awe. Samis believe that divine force imbues all nature.

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Rune at Sollia Lodge and dog kennel.

No storm keeps them inside. Northern Norwegians enjoy the winter: mushing, snowmobiling, great meals around a roaring fire, tasting the bounty of Arctic waters and Arctic forests. It was a thrill to experience this part of the world alongside the people who live here.

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At Sollia Gapahuken restaurant with a view of Russia.

When we disembarked in Kirknes, the sky brightened. From November 27 to January 16, the sun remains beneath the horizon, but around midday, Kirkenes shoppers get a few hours of daylight. Even grandmothers glide along the sidewalks in the dim light on kick sleds.

We headed south and checked into Sollia Lodge with its kennel of blue-eyed huskies. The owner, Rune, has enormous affection for his dogs who race with him in the Finnmarksløpet, Europe’s 500-km dog sled race held in March.

Rune’s parents run Sollia Gapahuken, the lakeside restaurant across from the lodge. For lunch, we dined on smoked whale, a local delicacy served on salad greens with goat cheese. The reindeer filet tasted like lean venison, and the sauce was prepared with juniper berries.

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The Russian border passes through Pasvikelva river.

At sunset, we gunned our GTX snowmobiles onto ice-covered Pasvikelva river to the Russian border. Our guide pretended to put an arm over the line. “I could be arrested, but that’s unlikely,” he said, pointed to the hilltop lookout tower and the dummy soldiers propped in the windows.

Dog-sledding with the Samis

Bundling up for our final excursion—dog-sledding in the Sami wilderness—we marched out to the dog kennel in snow overalls, thick boots and woolen caps with miners lights.

When Trine Beddarri entered the dog enclosure with harnesses, the entire kennel erupted. I helped harness the yelping, leaping huskies to the sleds, my face wet with licks when I finished. The huskies’ intelligent blue eyes, exuberance and high spirits made it impossible not to fall in love with them.

The dogs sped through the woods, over frozen lakes, and across a meadow lit by starlight. We took turns being the passenger and the musher. The passenger’s job was to keep an eye out for the Northern Lights; the musher job was to keep a foot on the brake.

Mushing in the Sami wilderness.

My partner handed me the reins. Dog-sledding has been the mode of transport in Lapland since the 10th century: it couldn’t be that difficult.

The dogs bounded off, exhilarated. The next moment, my foot slipped off the brake and the sled overturned, flinging us into deep snow. I kicked my feet and paddled like a swimmer but only sank deeper. Can you drown in snow?

Huskies’ blue eyes observed me as if to say, “Tsk, tsk, silly human.” I heaved my body like a dolphin, finally catching a solid edge. I stood on the compacted snow and signaled to Trine across the meadow. She fished my partner out of the snow, righted the sled, and set me up with Harald, a native Norwegian.

He sat in front under a warm blanket and barked orders. The sled moved smoothly and I relaxed, enjoying the glimmering starlight. As is often true on a trip, what you wish for is furthest from your mind when you realize it’s happening.

A light in the trees

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Northern Lights over Melkefoss.

“Look on the right,” Harald said, “in the trees.” White light drifted in the upper branches of birch trees. As the light grew, darkness retreated, until the sky overflowed with emerald rivers.

Trine had appraised the sky earlier, saying, “Good, the sky is clear with many stars. We’ll see the lights.”

The aurora borealis has brought earthbound creatures to a standstill since the dawn of time. The moment was more cosmic and other-worldly than I expected.

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Warming up in the lavvu at Sollia Lodge.

Scientific explanations can’t account for the sudden intimacy between solar and planetary forces, nor why we are suddenly overcome with happiness.

I felt an affinity with the human observers who have shared this moment over eons of time. I thought about Trine and her antique sleds, passed down from her Sami ancestors. The Samis interpret the lights as their ancestors’ souls with whom they maintain an unbroken relationship.

We satisfied our mad quest and sat on terraces around a warm fire, eating reindeer filet, potatoes, asparagus and cloudberries with cream served by Trine’s cousins. With full stomachs and rosy cheeks, we stood once again beneath the Northern Lights, spotted by our driver on the way back to the lodge.

The lights seemed so close. I held up my hand expecting them to pass through my fingers. Instead, they danced away and were not seen again that night.

untitled shoot-117There was much cheer and laughter at dinner in Trine’s Viking Longhouse.

Photography by Donna Peck. Northern Lights photography courtesy of Norway Tourism.

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