If there was one good thing about not being able to visit Israel and Jordan, it was that there were two good things. The first was our extended time in Turkey, one of our favorite countries so far. The second was a chance to head north. Like, above the Arctic Circle north…Tromso, Norway north.
Mandy and I wanted to experience the Arctic winter. Due to Tromso’s northern position near the top of the world, the sun doesn’t rise between November 26th and Jan 15th. This period is known as the Polar Nights (we experienced the opposite phenomenon, the Midnight Sun, in Iceland back in July). There is something powerful about visiting the world’s extreme locations–places that deviate starkly from what is familiar stoke the senses and invigorate the mind.
Tromso’s inherent coziness compensates for the harsh winter conditions: it’s brightly lit, friendly, and snugly tucked into the surrounding mountains. Rather than feeling like a frontier outpost, Tromso retains a cultural, intellectual vibe. It’s surprising how much there is to do here, in a small town in one of the more remote parts of the world. Most of its attractions are preceded by the words, “the world’s most northern…,” including the botanical garden, aquarium, and, of course, the brewery. It’s also a thriving college town with great nightlife and unlimited outdoor adventures. Seriously, I could live here.
Although the sun never appeared, it wasn’t entirely dark. At 9:30 AM, a beautiful pre-dawn glow appeared behind the mountains. The indirect sunlight cascaded through the snowy hills and icy waters to warm the city. This phenomenon, known as the golden hour in photography, in which the sun light is redder and softer, creates the perfect backdrop to the stunning vistas of northern Norway. The golden “hour” persisting until noon before transitioning into a prolonged sunset. By 2:30 PM, the sky was pitch black again.
I don’t mention where we stay very often, but we loved the Clarion Collection Hotel. Located directly on the water, it combined the best elements of a hostel and hotel. There were DVDs, books, and board games we could borrow. There was free coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and homemade cookies at the front desk. We constantly carried mugs filled with hot drinks, warming our hands and bellies. And, after staying out all day, we defrosted in the sauna with a view of the entire city .
The hotel was vital in insulating us from both the cold temperatures and the astronomical costs of visiting Norway. Breakfast and dinner were also included. In the middle of the day, they even provided batter for making waffles, which became our lunch. Most of the guests ate together at long tables, making new friends in the process. We never had a meal anywhere else, saving all of our money to explore.
The highlight was definitely dog-sledding through the mountains that loom on the outskirts of Tromso. It was a family-run operation and we arrived at their house to be outfitted with survival suits. I dressed quickly and while everyone else was getting ready, the owners let me into one of the kennels to play with four six-month-old husky puppies.
Afterwards, we assembled for a few minutes of instruction: hold on tight, lean into the turns, and don’t let go (or you’ll end up hiking back to the camp). Then we headed off to pick our teams. Mandy and I quickly bonded with five energetic huskies: Mia, Osk, Boss, Isabella, and Nikita, who strained at their leads urging us to release the brake and begin our run.
We rode in thirty minute intervals, alternating between sitting in the sled and driving. The scenery whipped past us, a frozen land covered in a thick layer of pure white snow. It’s a little bit tricky at first. You need to balance on one leg (the opposite leg hovering over the foot brake) as the sled pitches, rolls and bounces underneath you before fishtailing around turns.
In spite of being half out of control, I yelled out encouragement. “Mush Mia, mush! C’mon Boss go, go, GO!” We were the only ones that knew the names of our dogs. As I called to them individually, they acknowledged me with a glance before excitedly picking up the pace.
We were in trouble from the outset because we were continuously passing the groups in front of us (which we had been instructed not to do). Mandy and I were by far the lightest couple. Not only that, but a few sleds carried three people (some couples sat together while a guide drove the sled). Our dogs WANTED to run and it was really hard to slow them down.
On some of the steep uphill sections, other drivers were forced to hop off the sled and push from behind. Meanwhile, I stood on the brake trying to keep our team from overtaking the others. I felt guilty braking while the dogs worked so hard to drive us forward. If I braked too often they’d look back at me and howl, informing me that I was letting the team down.
Finally, we began giving the other teams a one minute head start so that our dogs could run at full speed until we caught up. One other team began following our lead. The plan worked well until the last section where we outran our partner in crime, passing out of their sight. Without anyone to follow, they became lost and some of the guides had to track back to find them.
At the end of the day, we said a sad goodbye to our team, but a warm hello to hot drinks and chocolate cake by the fire. The Scandinavians know how to do winter right.
Full Gallery, click to enlarge pictures: