It is 2 a.m., and I am goosing the throttle of a snowmobile, gliding across the white earth. A light snow is falling, the night is chilly, but not achingly cold as you might expect at this latitude, 70°N.
I have deliberately left open the plastic faceshield on my helmet. My nostrils and cheeks are exposed to the Arctic air. It feels refreshing, pure and thoroughly cleansing.
Welcome to winter cruising in Norway. “This is a new pattern of travel,” says Hurtigruten’s tour director. “All 11 of our ships are sailing full.”
On my cruise this week, Trollfjord is full of Brits, Japanese, Germans, Swiss, a few Americans, Norwegians and other nationalities. Like me, they have come to see the Northern Lights and to experience winter in Norway.
We bundle up and hurry to the outer decks when announcements are made in German, Norwegian, Japanese and English, “Northern Lights activity reported on the starboard side.”
The Northern Lights are nearly opaque, a whitish-grey that typically renders green in photos. It comes as a surprise to many, who expected an auroral symphony of color. Still, it is quite a spectacle. I snap a photo and look at the display on my camera. There it is, a green arch crossing the sky.
Besides the Northern Lights, there are winter activities. I chose to do a snowmobile adventure in the Polar night.
Straddling the 60-horsepower Ski-Doo 600, capable of doing 150 kilometers per hour, I tighten my gloved hands and feel the warmth of the heated handlebars. I steer the snowmobile, breaking fresh snow as I deviate, ever so slightly, from the well-formed grooves our guide has laid down as he rides ahead of our group.
After 20 minutes, we stop at a Sámi (Norwegian Laplander) tent, called a láávu. Inside, we warm ourselves by an oven in the center of the tent. We sit on blocks of ice blanketed with animal skins.
Back on the snowmobiles, we continue into the dark Arctic night. It is snowy and overcast, so the Northern Lights are elusive out here. Fortunately, we saw them back on Hurtigruten.
Our journey ends at a highway where a bus awaits us for the 20-minute transfer back to Kjøllefjord, a small fishing village, where we will meet Trollfjord.
Our driver is an Englishmen, transplanted here in the high north. He shares with us some of the history and culture of the region.
“There are only 75,000 Sámi people spread across four countries — Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway,” he tells us. “They came here 2000 years ago. Today, they are the only people allowed to own and herd reindeer.”
I remind myself that it is now 3 a.m., and most people in this part of the world, including the Sámi, are tucked between the sheets, heads on their pillows, fast asleep, and yet here I am with more than 20 others, fascinated by our adventure and what we’re learning. “We are now passing the world’s most northerly forest,” the driver says. “The Silver Birch trees in this forest can grow five to six meters high.”
He explains that the climate here is relatively mild. “We’re warmed by a branch of the Gulf Stream called the North Atlantic Drift,” he says.
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I envision a current of warm water flowing over the arc of Norway. “We rarely see temperatures below -15C (5°F),” he continues. “That’s quite warm when you think about it. We’re situated at a latitude that is above Alaska, above Siberia. If we were in the Southern Hemisphere, we’d be equal to Saint George, Antarctica.
“Just 90 minutes inland from here,” he adds, “it was -41C (-42°F) a few days ago. I saw a picture of a school girl who pitched a cup of boiling water into the air. It came down as snow.”
I sleep late the next morning. Last night seems as if it were a dream. I’m sure there have been stranger dreams under the Arctic heaven and the strange and magical light of the aurora borealis.