It’s funny the things that stick in your mind. Maybe because I am both obsessed with and terrified by traveling that I pay attention to certain details. I have a whole photo album in my head of travel related snapshots and not what you might think. All of these “mental pics” are moments that seem completely unrealistic to me, like they could never come true, whether they are real or imagined. This habit may possibly be a bit strange, but it goes something like this. I will be laying in a bed far, far from home and I start thinking about how far away from home I really am and does this actual time and place exist and at that moment I don’t believe that I will ever find my way back to my own bed. I think, if I make it home, I will remember this moment and how I felt. It happens in reverse as well. I’ll be researching a place and not be able to believe that I am going to be there in a matter of days or months. I’ll think, if I make it there, I will remember this feeling. I take a “selfie memory” and reassure myself that if this “plan” actually comes to fruition, I am going to remember what I felt like trying to imagine it. Totally weird,I know, but it happens all the time with me.
I remember vividly the day I was on the computer trying to figure out how to get from Abisko, Sweden, to Tromso, Norway. I finally came to the conclusion that a bus ride was really the only reasonable way, but I just couldn’t imagine myself sitting on a bus for five hours of dark winter roads. I felt apprehensive sitting at my computer like I was already on that bus. What would I look like on the bus? What would I be doing? I imagined myself reading or maybe looking out the windows. What would I see out the windows in the wilds of Norway? What would the kids be doing? So when I actually made it onto that bus, it was surreal but not as scary as I had imagined. Good thing I had snacks.
Stage three of our winter adventure began back at the Abisko Mountain Station train stop just about seventy-two activity packed hours after we had alighted there for the first time. On this particular day, we were three days of cold activities and short nights more tired, but possibly a little less jet lagged. It was cold and windy and a wet snow was enthusiastically falling from an ominous sky. I was feeling a little apprehensive because there is neither easy nor straight-forward way to get from Abisko, Sweden to Tromso, Norway, our next destination. So why go then you might be wondering. Well, if you’re on a mission to see the Northern Lights, Abisko Sweden and Tromso, Norway are both on all of the “best places” lists and if you’ve made it to Abisko it’s hard not to continue just a little farther since the two are a mere ninety miles apart as the crow flies. Unfortunately for this journey, we are not crows.
One may choose to rent a car and drive the 185 miles of road that separates the two, but then one would have really bad judgement. I did consider volunteering Scott to drive us, but then I did some research and believe me, it really is a crazy idea with all of the darkness, steep and icy mountain roads and winter storms. Don’t do it. The best option is to take the Iron Ore Line to Narvik (about ninety minutes and the same train we took from Kiruna to Abisko) and then catch the bus to Tromso (unless you’re not going to Abisko, then just fly to Tromso). So pay attention here if you are serious about doing this because I had the opportunity to learn the hard way (it could have been worse).
First of all, buses are the way to get around in Northern Norway, especially in the winter. There are many routes, served by lumbering behemoths equipped with fierce, metal spiked tires that stick to icy roads. The buses boast a tiny bathroom, experienced drivers and heck, there is even free Wi-Fi. It was an uber challenge though finding the time and location of the bus stop for Tromso. I read a lot but still never found enough information to know what I was doing or mitigate my nerves. So, we stepped off of the train in Narvik with twenty minutes to figure out how to find our bus stop. No one spoke English, there were no taxis, except for the taxis that had been pre-booked and were jammed with tour groups and the weather was not even close to reasonable. It was very cold, the wind was driving a heavy sleet through us and we had no idea what to do and so after about fifteen minutes of trying to ask people and calling the local taxi service, we just started walking up the hill headed towards what we thought was the bus stop about a mile away. It was miserable. Ashley was still sick and everyone was tired and I was feeling absolutely unprepared with the exception of the snacks I had squirreled away for later. We were dressed for traveling, not hiking through a snow storm and our luggage seemed extra heavy. The cold and the uncertainty of dragging my sick and tired family through a foreign town gave me strength and I walked ahead of the rest of them.
According to one schedule I had found, there was another bus going to Tromso at 3:20 so hope of arriving in Tromso on the right day was still alive. I followed a family with young kids across a busy street (always a good technique) to where a lot of people were congregating against a large building near a bus stop sign. Hmmmm…a bread crumb… could this be the bus stop? There were so many people milling around in the rain, hail, and blowing snow all looking hopefully up the road. We were all soaked. I asked a couple who looked like they were “Type A Travelers” (you know the ones who research and plan very thoroughly with spreadsheets) if they were going to Tromso. I was berating myself for my “wing it” attitude at the moment, but they were just as information-less as I was and the woman even said that she had emailed the bus company for clarification before their trip (I was correct, Type A Travelers).
So this is what you do. You get off at the train in Narvik. Walk out of the station and turn right, walk up the hill until you have to turn right across a bridge or left toward a large building. Turn left, walk across the crosswalk (with small children if the taffic is bad) and walk on the large building side of the street until you get to the bus stop sign in front of the pizza place which is not far at all (Ten minute walk in a winter storm). That is where you’ll catch the very big bus to Tromso. There were at least a million people waiting to get on and everyone did. You buy your ticket on the bus and you can use a credit card. There is a bathroom on the bus. It’s a long trip, four plus hours and while you will stop at a convenience store once, the driver will warn you not to go in. Bring water and snacks. https://www.visittromso.no/en/Travel_by_bus (This site is not super helpful but it’s some information.)
We made it onto the bus and I was so relieved. We settled in for the very long ride, but it was actually nice to not do anything for the almost five hours it took to get to Tromso. It was dark and either raining or snowing and the roads looked horrible but the bus felt safe and chugged reassuringly along the snow-packed roads, the driver calling out stops here and there in English and Norwegian. The mountains and fjords have the say in where roads exist in Norway which makes for some beautiful scenery.
The bus was packed and because we had gotten on last,we had to sit all of the way in the back where there were a few vacant seats. I sat by myself for a while. The couple in front of me passed out gummi bears as if sharing candy on a bus in Norway was the norm. I took one and thanked them when they passed the bag back to me although the thought of all those hands reaching into the bag made me queasy. I ate it quickly and hoped the good karma would protect me from the germs. The kids sat together and chatted quietly for the entire trip. I enjoyed looking out the window at the snowy villages with pretty white lights in the windows.
We saw this strange bright light in the sky while we were on the bus. It has nothing to do with the camera, this is exactly what it looked like.
We got off the bus near our hotel and I gave a heartfelt thanks to the surprised driver for getting us all to Tromso safely. We retrieved our luggage and walked the short distance to our hotel. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned Grant’s passion for film making and photography but he is a bit obsessed and one of his favorite cinematographers, Phillip Bloom, had been posting videos and photos of whales and Northern Lights from Tromso just a few weeks before we arrived. We would be staying at the same place he stayed and Grant thought that was cool. Not that there are a ton of choices in Tromso.
We found a pizza joint and enjoyed some reasonably good Norwegian pizza and called it a night but not before Scott told me that there was a solar storm happening “right now!” and could I find a Northern Lights tour for the next night? I emailed the company we were going out with the next night and they had room on their big bus which I wasn’t too happy about, but it turned out great. More on that when we get there, but first things first…dog sledding.
Again, I thought our Polar Nights should be filled with a lot of activity and for our first activity on Norway Morning Number One, I chose dog sledding. Yes, we had already been dog sledding in Abisko, but I thought it would be a nice way to see some of my homeland countryside (I am a lot Norwegian).
On this morning we had drug ourselves out of bed (Grant showing every indication that Ashley had successfully infected him with her mega cold) and down to the huge buffet breakfast with all of the other Tromso tourists. I really liked Tromso for all of the two whole days were there and even there on New Year’s Eve and Day, both reason for a lot of partying and most every store and restaurant being closed. It is a city just shy of 75,000 (not counting the students at the university) located 400 km (about 250 miles) north of the Arctic Circle. It boasts the northern most university, botanical garden and planetarium in the world and the most pubs in Norway, although don’t ask for a double scotch because it’s only legal to order one at a time. And don’t ask me how I know this either :).
Scott and I have very different views for just about any topic you might pick, except for politics and religion and maybe that’s why our marriage works. He makes me laugh too, but really our traveling styles (at least until recently) fall under the bold, italicized, all caps and large print heading of DIFFERENCES. Before we began our year of traveling with the kids, I was certain that I was a city girl. Sure, take me hiking all day long, but don’t make me sleep in a tent. I would pick NYC over and over for a getaway, while Scott would hike from one mountain top to the next existing on fresh air and nature challenges. When hiking isn’t available, he would long for the most complicated public transportation available (Japan’s train system comes to mind) to bypass the areas he couldn’t hike and get to where he could hike. It is nature all of the way for him with the one exception being a really good science museum.
Above, a fun movie made by Grant on adventure in Badwater Basin in Death Valley.
In the past, I have wanted big cities, museums and plays and nature to the tune of Central Park nature or day hikes. Our trips have been lessons in vivid contrast, enjoying Broadway plays and The Met one vacation and hiking desolate trails to otherworldly vistas in Death Valley National Park the next. I learned quite a few years ago that my kids have so much more fun when lines and people are not involved.
They would much rather run free down a trail, play in a creek or fall out of a tree than stand in line for a ride that lasts sixty seconds or wander through a museum (except a really good science museum). They do like theater, thankfully. Consequently, they haven’t been to many amusement parks but don’t feel sorry for them because we’ve tried. In fact, on the Gold Coast in Australia, Scott thought it would be fun for them to have an afternoon by themselves at the local amusement park. They were both a flat, “no.” On a recent trip to San Diego we offered an afternoon roaming Sea World together, which offended both of them and we the parents received a swift and resounding, “Hell no!” So the point here is that my taste in travel has changed and while I still don’t want to sleep in a tent or carry my poop around in a backpack, there is something so rewarding about being in nature, hiking, seeing the places that most people don’t get to. I still like the big historical stuff, like the Roman Colosseum for example and one must wade through a lot of city for that, but for the most part, get me off of the beaten path. Thank you Scott.
So how does that last ramble fit into this blog? Well, with this “nature versus concrete” sentiment in mind, I relate to you our dog sledding experience in Tromso. We went to Tromso Villmarkssenter, advertised as, “Tromso’s largest husky center,” but not why I chose it. I chose it because dog sledding is very popular and by the time I got around to reserving activities in Tromso there were not a lot of choices, but the reviews were good.
Dog sledding in Tromso was a lot different than dog sledding in Abisko for a few reasons, but the only reason that is really important to me is that this felt like we were at Disneyland (or any other expensive, crowded and line abundant activity) and not the fun part. It was very touristy and I felt sorry for the dogs, although I know that dog sledding is a huge part of the culture and like I have learned in other countries, everybody does things differently and that is okay. The staff was nice and the tours all very organized, but holy cow did you feel like a herd of sheep being processed.
We boarded a big bus along with 45 other people in the center of Tromso for the twenty minute ride to the Villmarkssenter. Let me pause and add that Tromso is touristy and there is a lot of tourist infrastructure so every morning there is a herd of buses parked in front of the group of hotels where most everyone stays and every morning, after lining up at the breakfast buffet trough , the tourists sort themselves onto the correct bus and trundle off to their chosen activity. This is either good or bad depending on your travel style, but it is certainly easy and getting directly to Tromso via the airport is easy as well, so if you want lights and convenient Arctic adventure, I’d say Tromso is a great choice, just book early.
So back to my story…we arrived at Tromso Villmarkssenter and were sorted and processed and dressed and lined up and guided and I kid you not that is how it went. Anyway…
These are the dogs that give the tourists sled rides. A picture is worth a thousand words but let me add a few because this picture is deceptive. First of all, it was very loud. The noise is deafening as the dogs bark constantly. They also move constantly. Each dog is chained to its dog house with enough room to jump on top of the doghouse or jump on you and their personalities vary widely. So you have two hundred barking, milling dogs and our group of twenty or so wandering, questioning tourists following a guide through the kennels. She was from New Zealand and had been working at the Villmarkssenter for about three years. She told us all about the dogs and answered questions over the noise.
There was an American family in our group that was very concerned about the welfare of the dogs. What happens if they can’t do their job; if they get sick or injured or old? Oh yeah and why does this dog look so skinny? She told us that when dogs are no longer able or willing to pull they become pets and are usually adopted by local families, she had adopted three. The dogs are thin because they are athletes and she explained that thin for most dogs is healthy. As we walked through the kennels we were encouraged to pet the dogs. Some of them seemed to enjoy the affection but for the most part they were focused on the teams of dogs coming and going nearby.
There were guides from all over the world working there, our musher included, who was from Spain and had worked all over the world as a guide for different activities. I asked him how long he had been with the sled dogs and he replied that he’d been a musher since the start of the season, a whole two months. Above the teams wait for all of the tourists to get settled in their sleds. It is a bit of controlled chaos.
Once the lead team heads out with the experienced musher, the other teams follow down the trail, at least twenty teams in a long snaking line. While the dogs are running they are quiet and mostly focused on the job. One of our lead dogs was acting strange and pulling to the left and our musher was concerned. Maybe it was because the conditions were bad on this day. There was not enough snow and the little snow on the ground was melting quickly creating patches of mud and huge puddles of icy water that the dogs had to run through. The ride lasted about half an hour with a rest for the dogs midway and pictures for us.
Regardless of the thaw, we still cruised over a frozen lake which was the best part of the tour, the sound of the sled moving over the snow and the cadence of the dogs a contrast to the stark, still landscape. These teams went out about four times a day compared to their less busy relatives in Abisko.
Ironically, Ashley found a snow cat to pose with while we visited the dogs. We were served a tasty lunch of reindeer stew (veggie option available) and chatted with a very nice couple from France who had a decidedly more optimistic view of current politics in the U.S. than most of the Americans we know. They had come for the Northern Lights and had been disappointed the night they went out so we told them what we knew about the raging solar storm and the tour we were booked on for the evening.
So, would I take this tour again? No. Should you take this tour? Maybe. If this tour is your only chance to experience the dogs and you don’t mind the theme park ambiance, it is well organized and easy to do. Abisko dog sledding may not be as organized, but then it doesn’t need to be as there are no crowds. I would choose Abisko again and again, it was so much more relaxing and authentic and the dogs were different too, they seemed happier and friendlier.
Walking back to the hotel through the center of Tromso after dog sledding in the early afternoon darkness of New Year’s Eve.
When we checked into our hotel the night before, a very friendly young man who had recently spent a year working in Florida helped us. He was happy to chat and told us all about the events of the next evening, New Year’s Eve! There was going to be an Epic New Year’s party at the hotel, THE Party in all of Tromso, THE New Year’s party every year in all of Tromso. The tickets were sold out, but if we really wanted to go he would see what he could do. Oh yeah and by the way, he warned us, there were not a lot of options for dinner on New Year’s Eve…maybe room service would be our safest bet. So here we were back from dog sledding on New Year’s Eve with a couple of hours before we had to be back on a bus to search for Northern Lights.
I wasn’t quite ready to settle down for an afternoon nap (there would be time for sleeping after Norway) with my family and so heeding the warning from the day before, I placed a room service order for our dinner. Room service was an estimated 90 minute wait and so I went out to wander the quiet streets of Tromso by myself. It’s a very cute little downtown and the snow and lights were so pretty.
Something to keep in mind (truly) if you are in Tromso for New Year’s Eve is that unlike Copenhagen for Christmas, most places really are closed. I thought snacks might be nice on our Northern Lights tour that evening since we’d be on the bus for hours and so I had fun browsing the Norwegian junk food at Narvesen (which is open on New Year’s Eve and Day), the equivalent of our 7-11. I stocked up on the important things; cookies, chocolate bars, trail mix and water bottles. It was fun and interesting and turned out to be fortuitous because our room service dinner never materialized. The kids took this news like the troopers that they (usually) are and we ended up scrounging a few packages of potato chips from the minibar and rummaging through our luggage for any forgotten food items. Needless to say, a few hours into the nine hour bus ride, when I pulled out chocolate bars and cookies, I was hailed as a hero.
Like I mentioned earlier, herds of buses gather in the morning in Tromso to cart tourists off to their chosen activities. The buses return in the afternoon like chickens to their roosts at dusk. Wave number two begins around five-ish in the evening with buses and tourists alike refueled and partnered with fresh tour guides all pumped up to hunt the Northern Lights! So we set off with forty friends (including the French couple we met dog sledding) for a very magical New Year’s Eve and the moment that I had been fantasizing about since I began planning this trip. We found the Northern lights that I was dreaming of seeing in Norway and surprisingly, Finland.
Ahh…what we came for. We stopped ten minutes out of Tromso for a quick look at the lights over the water which were visible even with significant light pollution.
Auroras are occurring most of the time over the aurora zones (an oval shaped band that appears over the north and south magnetic poles…explanation is imminent), you just need clear, dark skies to see them (check this website out Space Weather Live). Arctic winter provides a lot of dark and so that leaves the hunt for clear skies. This night was the second night of a solar storm and the forecast for auroras was strong. Unfortunately, there were clouds over Norway. Our guides were great and excitedly asked if anyone had planned to visit Finland on their trip to Norway. Well, bonus trip, we were going to drive toward the clear skies in Finland and it would take us about three hours. We were invited to sit back, relax, take a nap and they would wake us up if there was something to see along the way.
The guides kept a close watch on the sky as we drove towards Finland. The bus driver would pull over and we would all pile out of the bus to gaze at the sky whenever the lights were visible. Regardless of the lights, the stars were extraordinary and the cold winter landscape, beautiful.
There are many cool things about the northern lights. One can simply gaze in wonder at the dancing ribbons of color in the sky and be happy and amazed and inspired and changed by the beauty and mystery of nature. I was in that camp, hardcore. I skimmed over every scientific word that I read about the Aurora Borealis during my trip research. I was only interested in the logistics of how to see them. I figured that by the time I saw them, Scott would have talked so much about the science part that it would have sunk in. He didn’t talk as much as I thought he would, maybe because we weren’t talking (don’t miss the previous Arctic Adventure blogs) or maybe because I was taking every opportunity to not listen, but I didn’t really soak in any information about the lights. I did listen a little bit to the guides, but when you’re actually looking at the lights, the science part seems insignificant and besides, it’s too cold to listen.
I knew that explaining the Aurora Borealis for my blog was going to be hard. In fact, I have been diligent in procrastinating writing about this part of our trip. Good thing it came toward the end, at least the really good lights that actually required me to try and learn about it for myself. The irony is that as difficult as comprehending this science-y stuff is, I’m getting a little bit fascinated. I have learned a whole slew of new vocabulary because reading about the Northern Lights is in another language called “science.”
I have created my own vocabulary list as I’ve gone along and looked up and “defined in my own words” anything I don’t understand and I have asked Scott a million science questions like, “Um…so the Earth is a magnet then?” Yes, I know I was supposed to learn that stuff in elementary school and I vaguely remember it, but it wasn’t interesting or relevant to me and I was too busy reading fiction. But now it’s both relevant and interesting and I’ve been reading a lot about the Earth and its magnetic characteristics and I think, “That’s one big ass magnet.” Well, actually according to Scott, its spinning iron core is “acting” as “one big ass magnet,” something that never crossed my mind as a kid.
So to reiterate, the Earth’s spinning iron core acts as a great big magnet, a dipole magnet in fact, meaning that it has a positive end and a negative end on opposite sides which would be the magnetic north and south poles (about 80 degrees N and S, respectively), not exactly the geographic north and south poles (90 degrees N and S), but close.
Maybe you remember from science class that the simplest dipole magnet is a bar magnet and it creates a magnetic field (or maybe you don’t, totally okay) with the magnetic field lines entering and exiting near the poles. Just like a bar magnet, the Earth creates something similar to a magnetic field called a magnetosphere that both surrounds the earth and protects it from the solar wind (which would blow our atmosphere away) and plays a part in creating the Northern and Southern Lights. The example above represents the magnetosphere and magnetic field lines around Earth.
In the illustration above, the Solar wind blows past Earth. Think of our solar system as a balloon. All of the space inside of the balloon is called the heliosphere which simply means the area that will be affected by the solar wind. On the inside of the balloon near the middle is our star, the sun. Solar wind is the Sun’s outer atmosphere (called the corona) which is so crazy hot that it is constantly boiling off. The gas comprised mostly of electrons and protons, streams off, constantly expanding in all directions like possessed sunbeams at speeds of about 1 million miles per hour.
These charged particles, all hopped up on energy, are called plasma and cruise through the heliosphere flying towards earth on the wings of the solar wind. Now, the solar wind would be really bad for us on Earth if it wasn’t for the magnetic field that surrounds our giant magnet. Electrons (and protons too) must travel along magnetic field lines and the Earth’s magnetic field looks like that of a dipole magnet where the field lines are coming out and going into the Earth near the magnetic poles (refer to the first illustration). The magnetic field acts as a shield and causes most of the solar wind (and therefore its atmospheric scrubbing capabilities) to flow around the Earth and on out to the edges of the heliosphere. There is a bit of wrestling match between the solar wind (which is just trying to get past Earth) and the magnetosphere (which is pushing back against it) where they meet and this little tussle also charges up the electrons and protons.
Once the fight is over, the charged particles (mostly electrons) follow the magnetic field lines into our poles and are dumped into the atmosphere. Here, 50 to 350 miles overhead, they will collide with an atom or molecule and the atom or molecule will take some of the charged particle’s (usually an electron) energy. This process of energy stealing called is called “exciting” the atom or molecule. In order for an excited atom or molecule to return to the non-excited state (ground state) it must emit a photon, a particle of visible light. You get a bunch of these collisions and viola, a light show. Okay, that all makes perfect sense, I’m sure you’re thinking, but what causes the different colors of lights? Different colors come from exciting different molecules. For example, turn on oxygen and it will emit red and green light, while nitrogen releases blue and purplish-red hues.
Just a few other interesting tidbits… Auroras are always occurring somewhere in the world and they can occur on other planets if a planet has an atmosphere and is bombarded by energetic particles. Auroras in the Southern Hemisphere are usually a mirror image of those in the North, but much harder to get a good vantage point geographically because there is scant tourist infrastructure. Darkness and clear skies are the two most important ingredients if you can get yourself far enough north or south in the world. Luck would give you solar wind that has been riled up by a recent flare or other event on the sun Strong solar wind transfers more energy into the magnetosphere (remember the wresting match?) which in turn makes those little electrons and protons crazy, resulting in a spectacular, low altitude, high intensity light show. And a word of caution, if you show up in the northern regions hunting the lights, I guarantee you, I would even bet on it, that you will be told over and over again about the “other night” when it was “incredible” and “I’ve never seen it like that!” “The most amazing pictures!” It will happen, I promise.
I spent hours and hours and days and days on the last few paragraphs and burned through probably twenty websites in my quest for knowledge. The best one for just reading about stuff is University of Alaska Fairbanks and another one for what’s going on right now out there in the great big universe is SpaceWeather.com (thank you Scott). And now that you read all of that science stuff…here is the good stuff…
We drove into Finland about 30 miles and pulled to the side of the road. It must have been a popular spot because there was a huge, plowed parking area. The light show had started to go off as soon as the bus stopped and people spread out over an open snow-covered (up to our knees and fresh) field. You can see the clouds that we were trying to get away from.
Ribbons of color moved across the sky just overhead. Yes, they actually moved like a wand was writing with sparkling and glowing green, white and faint pink light.
The lights changed directions across the sky and appeared in bands that would curl magically across the horizon and become brighter and then fade while another ribbon would start twirling through the first. Then it would look as if the ribbons of light were falling through the sky toward Earth.
There was so much going on overhead that it was hard to keep track of it all. I felt like fairy dust was falling on our heads from the heavens and that I could reach out and catch the shimmering, sparkling air.
The lights came and went and moved quickly across the sky and then fell in twinkling curtains. They looked alive. Goosebumps ran down my arms and spine and tears prickled in my eyes. People were shouting and cheering and laughing and it was so bitterly cold.
Back to science for a second…in the photo above you can see the “curtains.” The lights look like this because of Earth’s magnetic fields. Electrons are constrained by Earth’s magnetic fields and can only move parallel to them, not across them and so you get a bunch of excited electrons moving in the same direction, hence the curtain effect.
These were the lights that I had wanted to find. I had fantasized of this moment with my family and I feel so lucky that it became a reality, a sweet and cherished memory.
My neighbor grew up in northern Michigan and told me once that she could hear the lights. She told me she had never told anyone that, but wondered if I had read about being able to hear the lights. Yes, there is documentation regarding this phenomena and I also asked some of our tour guides who had either heard the lights or knew of other guides who talked about hearing the lights. I never heard the lights, but I could feel the lights; they made me feel energized, alive and in awe of something so beautiful and strange. We watched the lights until midnight and then the guides lit fireworks to welcome the New Year or like the guides said, “change the year.” Expectation can be a dangerous thing, but this night was perfect, leaps and bounds better than I could have imagined. This memory, saying good-bye to 2016 and welcoming 2017 in Finland with my family and the magic of the Aurora Borealis will sparkle just like the lights in my treasure box of memories.
It is worth mentioning and kind of funny that the returning Northern Lights chases, ours included, made it back to Tromso around 3:30 in the morning on New Year’s Day. Why is this worth writing about? Well, it’s dark in Tromso most of the day and there are a lot of late night/early morning tours in Tromso depending on where the lights are visible (Finland=a long night), so during the winter it’s like the town that never sleeps, but it’s usually people in a million layers of snow gear with a hundred cameras wrapped around their necks tromping between the hotels and buses. But on this first, particularly icy cold morning of 2017, there hung a stench of alcohol heavy in the air and many people not dressed in snow gear fashions.
I have never seen so many falling down drunk people in my life. We observed women in stilettos and tiny dresses tottering along on ankles made rubbery with alcohol. We watched one such victim of the night ice skate across the town square. Men argued and shoved each other on the street corners or trailed after girls with make-up streaked faces. Remember, this is the country where you can’t order a double scotch. There was still a giant party complete with flashing lights, pulsating music and security guards to keep out the un-ticketed public going down in the lobby of our hotel. Here’s a creative tip…if you want to crash a Norwegian New Year’s party, just arrive in a snow suit and you’ll get ignored by security. I watched one party goer trip right over a barrier and felt another woman bounce off of me as we made our way to the crowded elevators (at 3:30 in the morning). We split up, the kids taking a different elevator to their room. They later told us they met a man in the elevator who had been in a fight and was looking for some first aid. He asked the kids if they knew where to go. We shared our elevator with a drunk and crying girl. Scott and I were tempted to go back down to the party just to people watch, but we were a little bit tired.
Here we are just a few hours (okay, I exaggerate…it was five hours) after our early morning return to Tromso. Our Day Two activity in Tromso was a whale watching tour with North Sailing on the traditional two-mast schooner, Opal. Opal may look traditional, but she in no ordinary sailboat. She is a hybrid electric schooner that has received international innovation awards for the silent and eco friendly electric system. This boat works in Iceland and Greenland as well depending on the season. Unlike the dog sledding, my reluctance to book activities in Tromso paid off with this late booking. When I finally decided on a whale watching tour, the small, loud and exciting looking RiB (rigid inflatable boats) used to zip around the fjord were all booked up. So, a sail aboard the Opal was recommended and it was fun and infinitely more comfortable.
We cruised beautiful Kaldfjord, the eating grounds of humpbacks and orcas like those above. We saw many orcas and a few humpback whales. It was as cold as it looks and I saw those little RiB boats zipping around, the passengers buckled into their seats and completely exposed to the frigid wind.
The fjord is shared by a lot of wildlife, tourists, and fishing boats. This fishing boat was as interesting as the orcas and humpbacks with all of the birds circling in the faint mid morning light.
The captain decided to put up the main sails and cruise under wind power. Ashley helped.
It was so cold…so so so freaking cold… but the arctic flotation suits really helped. I didn’t even want to think about the “flotation” part of the suit. I did not want to be bobbing around in the frigid water like a human flavored ice cube.
Grant had woken up in full-on sickness mode, but he stayed strong as his viking blood coursed through his veins on Norwegian waters.
I loved the waving Norwegian flag.
Like everything we experienced above the Arctic Circle, sailing in the fjord with the orcas and humpbacks was a new adventure. The scenery is beautiful and the light of the Polar Night makes you feel like you’re in a bit of a twilight zone (literally).
My little Norwegians
The strong and silent Swede
I had been a bit disappointed that I didn’t get us on one of the RiB tours but once on our tour with the ability to move around freely, warm up in the below-deck saloon with hot drinks, use the restroom and eat delicious soup, I felt lucky to have once again indulged in my procrastinator ways. Ashley brought her goggles on this outing and thankfully gave them to me. I would have been absolutely miserable without them. I would highly recommend your goggles on any Arctic activity although everything you read will say you only need them if you are skiing.
The equivalent of my mountain man photos.
The sailing only lasted a few hours. It is so cold that I don’t think us tourists could hack it for much longer. I do know that those coveted RiB tours go out for one hour only. We stumbled back to the hotel early afternoon again with a few hours to rest before our second night of hunting the Northern Lights. My family tumbled into their beds and again I ordered food from room service and went for my solitary walk, stopping again for junk food at the convenience store. By this time Grant was really sick and we had to make the decision to leave him at the hotel for hours in a foreign country (I know, I know, it was Norway where you can’t even get a double scotch) or drag him along with us. We decided on the later and after consuming really delicious burgers and fries from room service we bundled up yet again and I dosed Grant heavily with my quickly dwindling cold medicine stash.
Ashley and Scott are always about five minutes ahead of Grant and I, it’s a combination of things, but the point is Grant and I ended up in a very crowded elevator together. I think I mentioned that the hotel was extremely busy. There were families, couples and tour groups from all over the world, but one group I had noticed was a large group from Russia and their leader, a tall and striking blonde woman in her fifties. I had noticed her at the breakfast buffet the day before because she reminded me of an old boss and she was really beautiful. Well, the elevator stopped and this woman got on when there was really no room for even half of an additional rider, but she was getting on and that was that. She towered over all of us squeezed in that elevator and as the doors slid closed she said to the elevator in general, “Hello!” It was crickets…not a peep out of anyone, with all eyes in that elevator turned in every direction possible away from her intense blue eyes and shining mane.
I liked her brazenness, her chutzpah, I admire a person who bucks tradition, any tradition and so I happily and enthusiastically replied, “Hi!” and she said, ” Happy New Year to you and no one else!” She said those exact words and loudly. I bet those other elevator riders will think twice next time someone says hello in an elevator. We chatted about the party in the hotel the night before in front of our still silent and now chastised audience as the elevator slowly descended to the lobby. The doors slid open and she stomped off.
Our second night with the Chasing Lights Tour was off to a crazy good start. Let me pause for moment and say that I cannot recommend this company enough…chasinglights.co. If there are lights to be seen, Chasing Lights will help you see them even if you have to stay up all night and drive to Finland. Now, back to the story…Not even away from the bright lights of town, we gazed at a moving sky of green lights while the tour guide, Eweline, lectured us on the importance of enjoying every chance to watch the lights even if it was on a busy and bright street, because you never know if it’s your best chance.
Like the night before, the lights moved and danced and fell in curtains…
…it was just as exciting too. Eweline told us that one of the reasons she loves guiding Northern Lights tours is that the lights are different every time she sees them.
It was a cloudy night everywhere, but coastal Norway was our best chance for some clear skies. We stopped here and drank hot chocolate and watched the lights over the water. We were tired and Grant was feeling horrible, so bad that he handed over the camera to Scott and rested in the van. Oh yeah, this night we on a small tour, about 14 people on a van instead of a big bus. I had booked this tour in advance and had chosen it over a big bus, but in retrospect I liked the big bus tour better because the bus had a bathroom and it was much easier to get in and out of, not to mention it was warmer. The lights looked the same too. In fact they were better on the big bus :).
As the night wore on the forecast did not improve, promising cloudy skies for hundreds of miles in all directions so we finally settled down with a fire and tried to warm our feet while we waited for breaks in the clouds.
Grant was very sick by now, so sick in fact that he wasn’t even interested in taking pictures of the lights that came out occasionally when the clouds cleared. I think by this night, the cold of the past week of Arctic had sunk into us. We zipped into Arctic suits, but still shivered as the clouds and snow came and went.
The nucleus of my winter break dream trip was wrapped up in these past two nights in Norway. I had worked really hard, drug my kicking and screaming family (stoic husband included) a long way from cozy beds, high speed internet, friends and school break for this adventure. I had learned a lot too, spent a lot of time either feeling righteous (I deserve to get my way occasionally) or guilty (maybe I’m a tad selfish and uncompromising) and gotten really lucky in seeing the Aurora Borealis two nights in row in all of its sparkling splendor. For those minutes that the lights flashed and zoomed overhead, all four of us were united in this adventure, fascinated, truly happy, and grateful to be together in the freezing Arctic. Isn’t that life though, the hard work, ups and downs, frustration and disappointment and decisions and challenges and then the moments of pure perfection.
Independence can carry a heavy price and it can be lonely. Norway was a blur of activity, sick kid, layers on and layers off, the days extended foggily from early morning to early morning punctuated by a great breakfast buffet that no one could really appreciate. I think we averaged about five hours of sleep a night for the three nights that we were there. Oh yeah, and they were all sick, all moderately sick even. The stories from this trip that the kids tell are so funny now, but it has taken a couple of months and there is still a definite edge to them. They say I had them hooked up to Emergen C and Vitamin D the entire time. They laugh as they relate our days that turned into nights and back into days with neither sunlight nor sleep, and a few nights that I fed them cookies and other junk food gleaned from convenience stores to sustain us because we didn’t have quite enough time between tours for a real meal. They laugh and talk over each other as they relate this “horrible experience” for the amusement of our friends and family. I can ignore it all though and laugh with them because I know that they will remember seeing the lights together and eventually they will only remember the lights and maybe the funny parts, not the actual discomfort of the journey.
I may have learned a few uncomfortable lessons, but I don’t regret the overall outcome, even after months of reflection. The Northern Lights made me feel some deep emotions, emotions I usually reserve for my kids. They are indescribable and mesmerizing in their beauty (the lights not the kids). They make me believe in something bigger, something universal, something that even though scientifically explainable is still magical and mystical. The Northern Lights made me realize that a big part of nature’s beauty is its mere existence, unburdened by human creation or history. And to clarify, I’m not talking about what we humans are doing to our planet, I’m talking about no civilizations were conquered to create nature, no wars, no slaves, no periods of Enlightenment, Dark Ages or dynasties, Silk Roads, inventions and discoveries, and absolutely no musings over my favorite question of what exactly constitutes “bad history.” Nature is just there, a massive and quiet force, both unending and unbending and like my father-in-law warns, nature will always win. The lights have sparkled long before humans and will continue to do so long after we are gone.
Goodbye for now Tromso