The temperature is dropping by the minute as lazy snowflakes fall, dancing in the clouds of steam from our breath. Lifting the visor of my helmet, I drink in the cold, fresh air; it bites at my lips and eyes as flakes of ice wash up from the snowmobiles in front. Time is running short; tension is building as we race through the darkness, eyes peeled towards the sky, headlights whipping across through the thick snow. The hunt is on.
The Northern Lights have captivated visitors to the Arctic Circle for centuries. Found in the high latitudes on cold clear nights, they’re caused by the collision of energetic charged particles with atoms at high altitude. The Lights are an elusive prey. They come and go as they please, their green, pink and purple bands appearing in the inky sky in moments, dancing, taunting, only to vanish so quickly you’re forced to ask if they were ever there. And sometimes, just sometimes, they come out in a staggering display that reaches across the sky, captivating the imagination.
Exciting night snowmobile safaris like this are just one of a raft of Arctic activities offered by Hurtigruten, a cruise line- cum-ferry company and local Norwegian icon. One of the very best ways to explore Norway’s stunningly-rugged west coast and to delve into the country’s slice of the Arctic Circle, Hurtigruten’s 11 vessels connect isolated fishing communities with urban centres like Kirkenes, Tromsø and Bergen, while also connecting an increasing number of intrepid travellers with this truly unique landscape.
The Kirkenes Snow Hotel
In Tromsø, the unofficial Arctic capital and a popular stepping off point for Lights hunters and adventurous snow bunnies, I cross the meandering fjord and head for Kvaløya and Tromsø Villmarkssenter (villmarkssenter.no), one of the region’s top husky breeding and racing facilities. Founded by international dog sledding racer Tove Sørensen, the facility and its 300 Alaskan huskies is as much a training facility for important races like the Alaskan Iditarod as it is a chance for visitors to interact with these amazing dogs.
We start off with a tour of the facility, and a chance to meet the huskies, who live in pairs in a tiny village of dog houses each with their resident’s name painted on top. The dogs prefer to live outside and only venture into their wooden homes when temperatures drop below -20 degrees Celsius. Fortunately it’s a relatively balmy minus two this afternoon as we pair up and mount up in narrow dog sleds.
Our driver, Campbell, is Canadian and has been sledding much of his young life. He collects the snow anchor holding the sleds in place, calls the dogs and we’re away, bumping, skating and sliding through a white-toned landscape punctuated by towering pines and the final rays of sunshine behind the mountains. Curled up in special jackets and mittens, it’s a stunning experience to watch the dog pack pull together with each husky assigned a specific role as we race and scrap our way through a rugged cross country course.
Things move at a much faster pace outside Kirkenes on a crab catching safari. This far north, at this time of year, the sun struggles to light the pale sky as we race powerful snowmobiles across the frozen ice of the Langfjorden fjord, the horizon and the sky blending in pale sheets of white, the lights of the snowmobiles flaring in the early morning twilight. A trio of Norwegian soldiers on camouflaged snowmobiles race by on the other side of the fjord, patrolling the territory close to the Russian border.
A king crab pulled from deep below the ice
A simple timber A-frame marks our destination, a traditional ice fishing hole in the middle of the frozen landscape. Here our guide Yuri saws away the night’s frozen ice with a menacing looking ice saw, before we join in to haul a net packed with massive, spidery king crab to the surface. Before long we’re back in the warmth of the lodge, the crabs steamed and served with melted butter and thimbles of fiery local aquavit while outside the snow falls through the pine trees and the light ebbs from the sky.
Our final Arctic adventure is located nearby; the Kirkenes Snow Hotel is one of the world’s most famous icy houses of slumber and for good reason. Each year pure snow melt is piped from the property’s lake and used to create a new hotel based on a theme. Bands of ice sculptors from Harbin in China, home to the famed annual ice festival, carve out the hotel’s guest rooms, pedestrian tunnels and cocktail ice bar, all of which are punctuated with sculptures of dwarfs, polar bears and even Marilyn Monroe. The ice bar is a central meeting place for guests seeking a last warming tipple before heading, special sleeping bag in hand, to their beds of frozen ice blocks, located in rooms that are kept at a frosty minus four degrees.
Fortunately you’ll be able to warm up before you head to bed with dog sledding, cross country skiing and snow shoeing through the hotel’s frozen surrounds, before a hearty dinner cooked over an open fireplace and a session of yoiking or traditional story telling by song.