Arctic Winter

Tromso, Norway

Tromso, Norway

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, mid-afternoon in December

View of Tromso and the Arctic Cathedral (Triangular shaped building)

View of Tromso and the Arctic Cathedral (triangular shaped building on the left side of the picture)

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.

Mandy at the Tromso Aquarium

Mandy at the Tromso Aquarium

This is as bright as it gets.  Tromso, Norway in December.

This is as bright as it gets.  Tromso, Norway in December.

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 .

Our hotel (the white building)

Our hotel (the white building)

view from the sauna (you can see the arctic cathedral

view from the sauna (you can see the Arctic Cathedral, which is across the bay, in the center)

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.

playing with the husky puppies

quality time with the 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.

our lead dogs: Isabella and Nikita

our lead dogs: Isabella and Nikita

And we're off!

And we’re off!

Osk, Mandy's favorite, this guy has been on expeditions all the way to the North Pole

Osk, Mandy’s favorite.  This guy has been on expeditions all the way to the North Pole (check out his boots)

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.

Mandy giving our dogs some encouragement at one of the stops.  Is it any wonder they ran so hard for us?

Mandy giving our dogs some encouragement at one of the stops.

Mandy gets ready to take on the last section

Mandy gets ready to take on the last section as the sled dogs strain forward in anticipation


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.

it's time to warm up by the fire

time to warm up by the fire

2pm sunset over the icy landscape

2pm sunset over the icy landscape

Full Gallery, click to enlarge pictures:

2 thoughts on “Arctic Winter

  1. This is a beautiful entry to your blog! I love the details about the extremes, and have been trying to imagine the limited light and 2:30 pm sunsets. Cold and cozy aren’t words that usually go together, but that’s how I felt reading about your visit to Tromso!

    • Thanks Nita! We’ve never had the chance to take winter vacation like this before, but it was amazing. Tell everyone at the office that I say “Hi” and that I miss them!

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