Winter in Norway’s Arctic Circle
My mother and I head north to discover why Norwegians embrace the darkness as well as the light.
It’s not even lunchtime, but twilight has descended on the Kirkenes Lufthavn in northern Norway. The exterior lights have been switched on—maybe they were never off—casting golden half moons against the airport’s corrugated metal walls. The sky is soft and quilted with clouds, but unlike an overcast winter morning in Minnesota, there’s no chance the sun will burn even a pinhole into the cottony grey.
The Kirkenes airport is a modernized Quonset hut outfitted with a baggage carousel. Locals on either side of the Russia-Norway border have special visas that allow them to travel back and forth; gas is cheaper in Russia, but there’s a better selection of clothes and cosmetics in Norway. Alcohol is also less expensive in Russia, but Norwegians aren’t allowed to bring it back across the border. So they cross international lines for a night of drinking.
A Russian woman on the flight from Oslo is playing to type: platinum blond hair, black eyeliner, white fake fur coat, scuffed stilettos. She wrestles her roller bag off the conveyor belt and rattles through the sliding doors, on her way, I imagine, to a smokestack town between here and Murmansk.
Today, January 11, the sun will not rise above the horizon in Finnmark, the northernmost region of Norway, which curves over the top of Sweden before bumping like a fist against Russia. Norway may be famous for being the land of the midnight sun, but those endless summer days can’t happen without the opposite phenomenon, the polar nights, which last for 10weeks, from November through the middle of January.
I’m here, 250 miles above the Arctic Circle, with my 78-year-old mother, who agreed to join me for a week on Hurtigruten, the legendary Norwegian ferry service that has hauled mail and passengers up and down the 780-mile coast between Kirkenes and Bergen since 1893. The lines’ 13 vessels still operate as ferries, especially in winter, when northern mountain roads can be blocked by snow and ice. But the journeys also double as cruises, albeit with ports of call that occur in the middle of the night, waking passengers with the beeps and grinds of forklifts transporting cargo.
Hurtigruten is beloved by Norwegians; in June 2011, the northbound journey of the MS Nordnorge from Bergen to Kirkenes was broadcast live on Norwegian television. Running 134 hours, 42 minutes, and 45 seconds, it was the most popular TV program in Norwegian history and made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s longest live broadcast.
When I told my Norwegian friend, Sigrid, that my mom and I were taking the Hurtigruten in winter, she was skeptical. Norway, she insisted, is glorious in winter, but she wondered if a cruise was a bad idea. What would we see, given there is so little daylight at that time of year? And what about the violent winter storms that roil the Barents Sea? I explained that for me, the darkness was the point; that as a person who has always hated those long, black days, I wanted to understand how the Norwegians cope with this aspect of winter, why they are known to extol this time of year, even when they live above the Arctic Circle.
My mom was unfazed by Sigrid’s concerns. She loves the darkness of winter so much that she once confessed she feels depressed the day after the December solstice because she likes the enforced coziness and thinks the lightless evenings are soothing. She also wanted to see the northern lights, because, as she put it, “I’m running out of time.”
OUR BOAT, THE MS Spitsbergen, started its life as a Portuguese ferry. After a stern-to-bow reconstruction, including state-of-the-art stabilizers to navigate rough seas, it’s now the newest ship in the Hurtigruten fleet. While it’s not luxurious, the interior is certainly stylish, with an aesthetic described as “arctic interior”; the lobbies and cabins telegraph Scandinavian chic, with blond wood, nubbly fabrics, and carpet that’s patterned with the same geometric snowflakes used in Norwegian sweaters. The only off-notes—and the only acknowledgements that the seas in this part of the world can get rough—are the stacks of antique books glued to the countertops that separate the dining area from the buffet and the Norwegian royals portraits bolted to the wall.
We board at midday, having already spent one night at a hotel outside of Kirkenes. From our armchairs in front of a hotel picture window, we got our first taste of what would become the major preoccupation of the trip: tracking and analyzing the subtle calibrations of light in the sky. We woke in darkness, but by 10 a.m., the stars retreated and the black air softened to navy. At 11, the snow-padded hills were soft and airy, like blue cotton candy. The indirect light was gentle, even soothing; the leafless birch trees cast no shadows. It was a completely different experience from when you can’t see the sun in Minnesota. There, you can still feel its pull above you and, like a sunflower, you instinctively orient yourself toward the invisible arc that maps your day.
Now, at 1 p.m., my mom and I are standing on the back deck of the Spitsbergen watching the ferry’s enormous wake curve into the ocean. In the distance, the light reflecting off the mountains is as deep and dazzling as a sapphire. Sigrid had told me about this famous blue, and how people from Oslo and Bergen will travel north to experience it. I attributed her enthusiasm to the nostalgia of an expat who has lived in the U.S. for over half a century. But the more I looked into it, the more I discovered that Norwegians are known for their positive attitudes toward winter—a phenomenon that was on full display as my flight from Amsterdam landed in Oslo. I was sitting next to a young Norwegian woman who lived in Holland and was on her way home for a visit. She was dressed in skinny jeans accessorized with a Gucci belt buckle the size of a saucer.
The plane lurched downward through the clouds—we were clearly in the middle of a storm. As we nosed closer to the runway, I could see sleet shooting past the airport’s spotlights. The temperature was stuck in the mid 40s and the pine trees surrounding the airfield were soaked and sad; their boughs drooped under the weight of the icy rain. There were no snowdrifts, no starlit sky, nothing that conjured any associations with classic winter beauty.
The woman sitting next to me, however, seemed enchanted. When we skidded to a stop on the glassy runway, she rested her forehead on the window and smiled. “Such a special time in Norway,” she said.
From my perch on the Spitsbergen, I agree that this light is unique and even magical. In fact, this extended gloaming is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
But it’s also disorienting. I’ve been in Norway for just over 48 hours and already my body has stopped craving most of the activities that normally make up my day. The sensation is a bit like being caught between life and something else. Not death, exactly, and not purgatory. More like hibernation.
This is the Spitsbergen’s maiden season with the company. Our tour manager is a middle-aged woman named Gerd, who has been a Hurtigruten hospitality point person for decades, working two weeks on, two weeks off. She’s certainly affable, but not smiley in the way you find on American cruises. Gerd also seems to have zero patience for vanity; her mousy blonde hair is styled in a product-free bowl cut.
During the passenger orientation, she explains there is a problem with the adhesive beneath the bathroom floor tiles. When the rooms get warm from, say, someone taking a hot shower, the glue loosens and releases an odor that smells, in her words, “like vomit.” Gerd wrinkles her nose and explains that it’s unpleasant, but she doesn’t apologize. Then she reaches for a life vest so she can begin the safety demonstration.
Every tourist on the Spitsbergen this time of year is hoping to see the northern lights. Gerd informs the group that there is an intercom button in every cabin that will broadcast an announcement if there is a sighting. She urges us not to care about propriety in front of strangers: If the northern lights are visible, we should get out of bed and rush to the top deck. “Don’t change out of your pajamas,” she says, acknowledging that the aurora don’t jump out of the sky any old time, but that a whole set of factors—a storm on the sun, the emission of solar particles, the position of the earth in the sun’s orbit—have to align.
The group seems confident that fortune will smile upon us; passengers who were also on the northbound journey report they had two sightings and that the experience was a revelation. I’m skeptical: I’ve only seen their ghostly spasms twice in my entire life, despite the fact that I live in the north. Still, I hope that after traveling all this way my mom will get what she came for, that she won’t be left standing under a sky that’s as blank as a new blackboard.
We settle into our room and I pull out a skein of wool and start winding it into a ball; I’m knitting a sweater with the same snowflakes that pattern the Spitsbergen’s carpeting. Glass doors open onto an exterior deck, which means it’s possible to watch the scenery slide by from the comfort of our beds, though by now it’s so dark the cliffs are barely distinguishable from the sea.
I’m about to start knitting when our intercom beeps. We’ve barely left Kirkenes and it seems we are already in luck. Gerd’s lilt fills the room and my mom stands up and reaches for her jacket.
“Ladies and gentlemen, there is a presentation about the northern lights in the bar,” she says. “But it’s just photographs and music. No commentary.”
ON OUR SECOND day, I get off the boat for a guided hike up Mount Salen in Hammerfest, which is Europe’s northernmost city (technically, the smaller Honningsvåg is farther north but it doesn’t have enough residents to officially qualify as a city). Hammerfest was the first city in Europe to get electricity, in 1891. The lights were on for an hour before the power cables froze. It took a year to insulate them so the electricity could flow again.
Hammerfest was occupied by the Germans during World War II, and they looted and burned the entire town to the ground when they retreated from the Soviets in 1945; the only building that survived was the funeral chapel. It’s now a working port with office buildings that would feel at home in Duluth, corrugated metal warehouses, and a 1960s church that looks like an isosceles triangle with wings. Like even the tiniest towns in fitness-mad Norway, it has several sporting gear shops, which are open year round.
While it was once a thriving fishing hub, Hammerfest fell on hard times in the 1990s; the town’s young people, who didn’t want to stake their futures in one of the town’s dying fish factories, moved south. Mortality rates surpassed the number of births. Then, in the early 2000s, a Norwegian petroleum companydiscovered a way to harness and sell the vast quantities of natural gas beneath the Barents Sea and quicker than you could cook a heart-shaped waffle, the town was booming. Now you can dine on sushi, shop in one of 14 grocery stores, and take pilates and kundalini yoga classes.
Despite its increased fortune and amenities for oil company managers, Hammerfest feels no need to primp for visitors. No homeowner or shopkeeper seems to have ever put shovel to sidewalk. Even the traditional red and ochre houses look ragged, as though they’ve been bullied by the mean climate.
The excursion up Mount Salen is organized by Hurtigruten and doesn’t begin promisingly. Because Hammerfest is the hometown of arctic explorer Adolf Lindstrøm, a cook who sailed on the legendary Fram expeditions and helped plant the Norwegian flag at the South Pole, we are expected to make this journey dressed in reproductions of the vintage uniforms he wore: white long jackets, hats with earflaps, heavy woolen gloves, and snow goggles. When a few of us point to our high tech parkas and fleeces, the lovely young German guide, who lives year-round in Hammerfest and insists winter is her favorite season in Norway, shakes her head. “We are explorers!” she declares.
I signed up for this excursion for the exercise. Having only been on the boat for one night, I already feel like I’m in a veal fattening pen. I also want to take in the extended dusk from above the fjords. Now, I’m having flashbacks to the Renaissance Festival, where men wearing codpieces refer to women as m’lady.
We start the hike and the guide hands us each a ski pole, which only deepens my irritation. I’m in decent condition and have grown up trudging through snow. Maybe the rest of these people, many of whom I’ve sized up to be in their late sixties, need a bit of extra support, but this guide should know there are different ability levels. Besides, the temperature feels practically tropical; the average daily temperature this time of year is 28 degrees fahrenheit,13 degrees warmer than Minneapolis.
This isn’t a hike, I decide. It’s a costumed stroll.
The pace picks up as we crest a hill. And that’s when the wind, which I now realize has been crouching somewhere in a cove off the coast of the Arctic Ocean, lunges toward us with the force of a cheetah chasing a gazelle. I pull down my ear flaps and stab my pole into the ground, its prong scraping against ice. My uneventful walk has turned into a struggle to stay upright.
The group reels and stumbles, straining to catch the fragments of instruction that dissolve into the air the moment they leave the guide’s mouth. Finally, she gives up and points her pole in the direction of what looks to be the summit. She pantomimes slow, exaggerated steps and waves to keep us moving.
Winter is my favorite season in Norway, I think, mimicking what I’ve come to believe is a line created, with no shortage of laughter, by a sadistic marketer at the Norwegian Tourism Board.
The wind scoops up the top layer of snowpack and pitches it into the air, where it breaks into thousands of tiny switchblades, which are now stabbing me in the face. Thank God for the snow goggles or I’d be blind now. If the point of leading us through this gale is to reenact the hideous conditions that Lindstrøm faced, the excursion planners at Hurtigruten are geniuses. I wonder if they scouted the least hospitable location in all of Finnmark for this outing.
Finally, we reach. . . who knows? But from wherever we’re standing, it’s possible to see the ocean and the fjords and a few lights of commercial ships inching through the black water. When viewed from the ferry, the mountains rise up out of the sea so abruptly—there’s no shoreline, just water hitting rock—that you can’t help but feel intimidated. But from up here, the peaks look like meringue.
It’s photo time and our guide has brought along a large Norwegian flag that each of us can plant in the snow and pose with, a la Lindstrøm at the South Pole. When it’s my turn, the flag snaps about so violently that I have to hug the pole against my chest to keep it from pushing me to the ground.
It won’t be until later that night, when I’m back on the Spitsbergen and downloading photos, that I really see that behind me, the cobalt sky is streaked with rivulets of rose and magenta. The clouds, perhaps because of that treacherous wind, unfurl across the horizon like smoke leaking from a volcano. There isn’t any direct light; the sun won’t return from its vacation for a few more days. But there’s a suggestion of lightness—a cutout of sky that’s the shade of an unripe peach.
That night, l wonder why I couldn’t have stood at the top of Mount Salen and appreciated the glory of that sky, why I was so focused on my physical discomforts.
I had missed the point of the entire excursion, which, I now realize, is that Norwegians see winter through a different lens than the rest of us. Instead of dwelling on the frosted-over windshields and icicled toes and the sensation that you are spending your one precious life in a cave, they turn their attention to what’s unique about this time of year. The Norwegians, I realize, don’t focus on the dark. Instead, they see the sapphire-colored air and the glow of candles and fire. They see the light.
WITH THAT EPIPHANY, my mom and I spend the next few days appreciating and categorizing and fetishizing the light. One moment the snow on the mountains is the color of a blue Popsicle. Twenty minutes later, it has deepened to periwinkle. Within the hour, the entire landscape and the sky are drenched in ultramarine. We watch as the sky brightens almost to the point of daybreak and then fades again to black.
Obsessing over different shades of blue hadn’t exactly been one of my vacation goals. But I have to admit the experience is enthralling. It reminds me of the first time I went bird watching. At first, I fidgeted, convinced there was nothing to see in the tangle of leaves. Then a flash of yellow—I think it was a cedar waxwing—fluffed around on a branch and I was hooked. Nature was a treasure hunt, a place with immense rewards for those who can slow down enough to experience it on its own terms.
I’m hoping that same kind of patience will result in a northern lights sighting. Ever since we boarded in Kirkenes, Gerd has been monitoring the internet to assess our chances. On the third night, it’s clear there will be no 3 a.m. summons to the upper deck. At port in Stamsund, a fishing village in the Lofoten Islands, enormous snowflakes are flying sideways and the ferry is swaying, even though we are tethered to the pier. All of the open water sailings so far have been choppy, but tolerable. Most of the route is tucked behind the fjords and channels, which are sheltered by barrier islands.
Tonight’s sailing to Bodø is three hours—we’ll dock in the middle of the night and then resume our route. The Spitsbergen starts rolling the moment we leave port. Neither my mom nor I get seasick, so we decide to sleep. Just past midnight, we are jolted awake when a fruit bowl slides off the table and crashes into the wall. Against the force of all the rocking, sitting up seems akin to riding a mechanical bull. The room rears and bucks. The engines groan with every thunderous splash.
“Are you OK?” my mom asks, her voice tender with motherly concern. Before I can answer that no, I’m actually not that great, she turns on her side, presses her travel pillow to her ear, and is out. It doesn’t occur to me until later that she’s probably taken a sleeping pill or four.
The WiFi is down and I can’t check the timetable to see how much longer until we are closer to land. I know that Bodø is famous for being home to one of the world’s strongest tidal currents, a fact that at this moment doesn’t seem very exciting.
I get out of bed and, still in my pajamas—Gerd said it doesn’t matter—make my way to the hall, where I don’t walk as much as bounce astronaut-style down a flight of stairs to the front desk.
The night clerk looks up from her phone and does a double take, I’m guessing thanks to the pajamas, which may or may not be properly buttoned. She confirms that we have 90 minutes left. The screen above her head shows the position of the Spitsbergen, which is a dot in the Norwegian Sea between the Lofoten archipelago and the mainland.
“Is this normal?” I ask.
“Of course,” she assures me. “We are on open water.” She seems relaxed to the point of boredom, even though I’m surprised she can stay in her chair without a seat belt. All I can think is that if the Spitsbergen is state of the art in terms of its stabilizers, I wouldn’t want to be on any of the other Hurtigruten ferries that are making this crossing tonight.
THE NEXT MORNING at breakfast, I discover spending a sleepless night on a boat that was on the verge of capsizing is a fabulous way to make social inroads with northern Europeans. Yesterday, the faces of my fellow passengers had all the cheer and warmth of a shelf of death masks. Today, we raise our eyebrows at each other and half-smile while we wait in line at the cappuccino machine.
The boat’s hotel manager, Einar, enters the dining room. He’s dressed smartly in a V-neck sweater with epaulettes—Gerd has already made an announcement that when we cross the Arctic Circle ina few hours, he’ll lead a special ceremony where each of us will be offered the honor of swallowing a spoonful of cod liver oil.
Einar glances around the dining room and wipes his brow in a phew, we made it gesture.
The sun is supposed to rise above the horizon now that we are farther south. But instead of wiping the sky clean, the storm has dropped a grey blanket over the entire region. As the boat passes Torghatten—a mountain with a hole in the middle that is famous for a legend having to do with the sun and trolls who turn into stone—Gerd is back on the PA.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are passing Torghatten,” she says. “But you can’t see anything today.” My mom and I are sitting in the lounge, which on a clear day is perfect for sightseeing. This morning, the windows are splattered with rain and it’s so dark that my mom falls asleep, with her mouth half open.
Early on the morning of Day 5, we dock in Trondheim and take a tour of Nidaros Cathedral, the Gothic church where St. Olaf is buried. It’s a romantic winter day—the storm has dusted the entire city with a fresh layer of snow and the statues on the cathedral’s facade look like they are wearing white mittens. Standing in the courtyard, I notice a pink glow inching its way up the steeple. What’s different this time is that the pink brightens enough to eventually lose its color.
“Look,” my mom says, pointing at the shadows of headstones against the snow.
It’s only been six days since we arrived in Norway, but actual evidence of the sun’s reappearance is thrilling. I feel like I’m no longer in limbo, that my hibernation period has ended and it’s time to crawl back out of my cave into the world.
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy those blue days; I loved tracking the light and the perspective it gave me about seeking what’s unique and special in less-than-glorious circumstances. This kooky vacation, where both nothing and everything happened, has been one of my favorite trips ever, despite its many discomforts.
When we get back to the Spitsbergen, my mom and I and pose for a photo, the only shot of the two of us together from the entire trip. She’s wearing her sunglasses to protect her vision from the tangerine ball that’s burning a path through the fjord. We have two days left, but given the cloudy forecast, we understand we won’t see the northern lights. But the glow reflected on our faces is as rich and rosy as if we were taking in a sunrise in Tulum.
Excerpted from To Swim in Snow: A Life in Winter by Elizabeth Foy Larsen. Larsen (M.F.A. '02) is Minnesota Alumni's senior editor.