Kingdom of Light
Winter in Northern Norway means aurora
Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American
For many people, northern Norway symbolizes the promise of never-ending light in summer and magical dancing northern lights in the dark blue winter. The unspoiled nature and the contagious sense of humor of the people who live in northern Norway draw visitors to the area. This area of Norway is by far the largest and most sparsely populated part of mainland Norway and covers more than a third of the country. It stretches from the Helgeland region in the south to mainland Europe’s northernmost point near the North Cape.
The region has been settled for thousands of years, due to its relatively warm climate, ice-free harbors, and excellent fishing. For centuries, fishing was the basis of existence in the area, and today you can find several characteristic old fishing villages with colorful wooden houses that used to house fishermen and traders.
In the old days large expanses were inaccessible, but today there is an extensive network of both roads and small airports with regular flights between many of the towns and villages. The coastal steamer Hurtigruten calls at ports all along the coast at least once a day, both northbound and southbound.
But the region is not only one of wild and untouched nature and quaint old villages. Tromsø, for example, is northern Norway’s largest city and lies far north of the Arctic Circle. A vibrant university town, it has a lively student atmosphere with concerts, shows, and sports as well as an international film festival in a multi-cultural community.
The Sámi are the northernmost indigenous people in Europe, and the attractions on the Norwegian tundra in Finnmark all reflect Sámi history, heritage, and life today. Preserving both the region’s nature and its culture and tradition is a priority.
Light plays an essential role in a journey to the North. Summer nights are long and bright, and in high summer north of the Arctic Circle, the sun doesn’t dip below the horizon. Winter nights, on the other hand, are long and cold, but far from as dark as you might imagine. The northern lights move and sway across the skies, displaying bands and tendrils of red, purple, blue, and green.
What are the northern lights? Technically, the bright flickering lights of the aurora are actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere. The lights are seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. They are known as aurora borealis in the north and aurora australis in the south. Auroral displays appear in many colors, although pale green and pink are the most common. Spectators report on shades of red, yellow, green, blue, and violet as well. The lights appear in many forms from patches or scattered clouds of light to streamers, arcs, rippling curtains, or shooting rays that light up the sky with an eerie glow. This neon light show can last minutes or even days at a time and is best viewed between October and March when the polar night makes viewing easier.
Kristian Olaf Bernhard Birkeland, born in Christiania (Oslo today) in 1867, is best remembered for his theories of atmospheric electric currents that explained the nature of the northern lights. He organized several expeditions to Norway’s high-latitude regions where he established a network of observatories to collect magnetic field data. His book, The Norwegian Aurora Polaris Expedition 1902-1903, published in 1908, was a groundbreaking work. Proof of his theory of the aurora, however, only came in 1967 after a probe was sent into space.
For thousands of years, the neon glow of the aurora, one of nature’s most majestic artistic displays, has captured the curiosity of humans across the globe. With the ever-growing facility of travel and technological advancements, chasing the northern lights has never been easier.
With its vibrantly colored fishing villages, gaping fjords, and expansive nature, Norway is more than just an aurora hotspot—it’s pure magic. This is one of the more comfortable places to chase the northern lights. The country is already easy to get around, and aurora-spotting options are diverse and easily accessible.
Alta, the largest town in Finnmark, hosts the world’s first Northern Light observatory, built at the end of the 19th century. The town has earned Alta the well-deserved nickname, “The Town of the Northern Lights.”
Getting to northern Norway is not as difficult as one might think. Traveling by plane is the quickest way of getting there, but the scenic coastal route with Hurtigruten or a picturesque train ride through wild nature is surely a memorable experience in itself.
The Norwegian Coastal Voyage Hurtigruten calls at 34 ports in Northern Norway, with stops from five minutes to four hours depending on the size of the port. Passengers are free to go ashore at longer stops.
The Norwegian State Railways operates most passenger train services in Norway and has a railway network stretching from Kristiansand in the south to Bodø above the Arctic Circle. The Nordlandsbanen railway line travels deep inside the polar region where the northern lights frolic across the sky in the winter nights.
The E6, the main north-south road through Norway, can generally be driven all year round. From Majavatn at the border of Trøndelag county it runs to Kirkenes via Fauske, Narvik, Bardufoss, Alta, Lakselv, and Tana bridge. There is one ferry crossing on this route. More scenic alternatives are the National Tourist Routes. They are an attraction in themselves but take longer to drive because of many ferry crossings. Occasionally, the E6 mountain passes are closed due to bad weather. They normally open after a few hours, but make sure to check the weather forecast before any journey by car.
For escorted tours, check out the myriad possibilities on visitnorway.com. Additional information on the northern lights can be found at norway-lights.com.
Cynthia Elyce Rubin, Ph.D., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history, who collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.
This article originally appeared in the January 25, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.