Arctic adventures under a polar night sky: Tromsø, Norway

After running the Midnight Sun Marathon and being thoroughly enamoured with this little Norwegian city, Lisa & I thought it we should sign up to the polar opposite rate – the Polar Night Half-Marathon. It was also a great excuse to spend a long weekend in pristine and amazing Norway!

It started to seem like a less brilliant vacation destination when this is what we arrived to in Tromsø to this. After a catnap in the already-dark 2pm afternoon, we headed to our first adventure of the weekend – dog sledding at the Tromsø Wilderness Centre/Tromsø Villmarkssenter!

We had met these pups in June (which you can read about in this exuberant post:  We were pretty excited to be back in the land of the Huskies! Once we were suited up in our very sexy snowsuits, we went outside to meet some of the dogs, before being matched to our team!

We had a team of 6, each with spectacularly distinct personalities. The sassy lead dog ladies, who would give you scathing looks if you don’t help out on the up-hills or if you brake too exuberantly, the jock dogs at the back of the team who clearly were large, muscled power-houses who just want to run.

The dogs clearly love to run, and it turns I love dogsledding! I had suspected it would be great, but it exceeded expectations in every way! The silent glide of the runners on the snow, the quiet of the forest, the scraping of the brake over the ice, the scary tilt of the sled when you go over massive ruts in the snow, or when the team races through some shrubbery along the trail. IMG_4032I was entranced by the lights of city in the distance, which cast an eerie red glow onto the clouds. IMG_4018Driving the team made me feel incredibly competent and capable – which is rather silly since it was really the dogs doing all the work.

I loved every single second of it.

We slid back home, to be greeted by coffee, tea, and thick slices of chocolate cake around an open fire. After a few more puppy cuddles, we were back in the van heading back to our ‘dark sky’ parking spot for the night.

The action-packed Arctic weekend continued as we hopped onto the “Aurora Explorer” boat with 148 other whale enthusiasts seeking a whale of a time (#SorryNotSorry). During the 2.5 hour ride to a far-away fjord, we were treated to some spectacular views. We cruised for 2.5 hours even farther north to Skjervøy. IMG_4215We suited up in intense survival suits and awaited our little rib boat – a smaller boat that approx 10 of us would get to go in to get a closer look at the whales.IMG_4177We were pretty excited! (and cold). IMG_4209The ride across the fjord was INTENSE! We were hanging on to the metal rails of the boat while racing over huge waves, occasionally being sprayed by the [very cold] arctic water.

But were rewarded when we found a group of humpbacks! They were absolutely massive and beautiful! B4DC251D-1304-424A-AE17-5869755DFEC4For the next hour we were transfixed by the whales, seeing one jumping out of the water, a few waving their tales. We spotted some orcas in the distance, but stuck around the humpack pack.

It was only half-past one, but we were already losing light. In the final moments, the two rib boats were in the middle of a group of 10 humpbacks, surrounding us as we said goodbye. And with one final tail flick, we were off. Bolting back across the fjord to join with the rest of the boat, and make the trip back to Tromsø.

The third goal of the trip was to watch the Northern Lights. Several years ago, I had headed to Kiruna in Northern Sweden with the same goal, but we did not have luck during that visit, so I was excited at the prospect of finally seeing the dramatic lights dance across the sky.

In order to make this happen, we booked an campervan, with the hope of spending our evenings chasing the northern lights around the islands, and figured it made fiscal sense to couple it with our accommodations.

The campervan life turned out to be an adventure in itself.

Right to roam (Allemannsretten) legislation in Norway means there are lots of places you are able to roam (and camp) on uncultivated land throughout Norway. It is perfect for campervan life, and the Arctic Campers site made some excellent recommendations of “dark sky” spots that are good for chasing Northern Lights.

Our first (and second) night we spent at a spot near town, where you can see Tromso across the water.

We had planned to save money (as Norway is legendarily expensive) by cooking our meals, but unsurprisingly, we were less keen to stand outside in the cold waiting for water to boil. We successfully prepared one rather lack-luster meal, before giving up on that endeavour.IMG_3973We nestled down to sleep on the first night, after the exhilerating dogsledding adventure, only to find out in the middle of the night that the heater wasn’t working properly. Both too cold to brave the outdoor to start the car, which would eventually recharge the leisure battery, we bundled up with our hats and extra sweaters tried to ignore the creeping cold. When we got up in the morning, the doors of the van were frozen shut! It took several minutes of insistent shoving to free the door and to discover that the van was surrounded by a large snow drift.

We tried, unsuccessfully, to “just go for it” and soon found ourselves very stuck in the parking lot.

Thankfully, two passing Norweigan men stopped, quickly intuited our predicament, and helped us extract the van from the snow, which helpfully was covering solid ice, which explained why we were making little progress in moving forward.

After a more successful second night in that same spot, with the exception of my paranoia that the heater would stop working, so stubbornly refusing to turn it off, until we nearly cooked ourselves, and Lisa was close to murdering me. I religiously monitored the Northern Lights forecast for the duration of our trip ( but unfortunately, the solar flare activity was very low throughout the trip, and many days had thick cloud cover. 

Our final night, we thought we would venture further out of town and try out one of the other spots – Straumsfjord, which had this picture as an advertisement: The Northern Lights apparently did not get our reservation request, so we did not see any of the ethereal lights, but it was a picturesque camping spot none-the-less. Unfortunately, the next morning we again found ourselves so very stuck that it looked like we might risk missing our flight.

Thankfully, the universe sent us an angel / helpful road maintenance gentleman, who shovelled some grit under the tires and expertly maneuvered the van onto the road. I was so grateful for the help of strangers on this trip – really warmed to my core to experience these acts of kindness and sense of community.

And with that, this very cold and wonderfully warm trip to the arctic was over, but I would absolutely return to this magical slice of Norway in a heartbeat.

Takk og farvel


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