Chasing the northern lights
Travel writer visits Norway
“Oppmerksomhet!” The purser’s voice called out urgently then switched to English. “Attention, attention!” I was in the dining room, a forkful of baked salmon midway to my mouth. Dropping it to my plate, I dashed to my cabin, grabbed a coat, and nipped out to the ship’s chilly deck. Everyone was lined up along the guardrails, staring up into the inky sky where greenish trails undulated like waves at the beach. We were up past the Arctic Circle, the air was crisp and clear, and nature was gracing us with a glorious performance of the northern lights. The playful lights swirled and danced and then, poof—all that remained was a smoky vapor. I strained my eyes, willing them to come back. Nope. Next time I’d have to be bit quicker to catch the full show. Hugging my coat tight around me, I headed back to the dining room to finish my dinner. The salmon was cold, but I was ecstatic. For years I had dreamed of seeing the aurora borealis.
It was early March, and I was sailing north up the coast of Norway on Finnmarken, one of the Hurtigruten ferry fleet. The modern, 600-passenger ship was filled to capacity with hearty tourists intrigued with the country’s magic skies, dramatic shoreline, and charming ports. I was on a seven-day trip that embarked from Bergen, a colorful, World Heritage town west of Oslo, and finished in Kirkenes, located on the border of Russia, 240 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Prior to boarding, I spent a couple days exploring Bergen’s sweater shops, riding the funicular for a stunning harbor view, and perusing the fish market where cod tongues were stacked in a bowl (fry them, and eat them like snacks) and glistening slabs of smoked salmon lined the counters. Other highlights were the Hanseatic Museum (Hanseatics were German fish exporters who came to Bergen in 1360.), as well as Edvard Grieg’s house located on the top of nearby Troldhaugen, or “hill of the trolls.” Trolls are integral to Norse mythology and the gift shops were packed with them in every shape and size. I refrained from buying one, but I did pick up a recording of Grieg’s “March of the Trolls.”
I chose this trip for the Northern Lights, but also because the ship docked at 23 ports. The towns included Trondheim, where Norwegian kings were crowned, Bodø, famous for the deadly saltstraumen maelstrom (a two-way tidal current written about by Jules Vern and Edgar Allan Poe), Hammerfest and the North Cape, the northernmost point of mainland Europe. Some stops were six hours; others were 15 minutes.
The ship was filled not only with tourists but also with locals who use it as a ferry when roads are impassable. Along with comfortable berths, the ship features lounges, restaurants, and seats next to wide windows for excellent sunset viewing. The weather was mild, a few degrees below freezing thanks to the Gulf Stream. We glided by craggy points and islands, blanketed in snow. It was too dangerous to venture into the fjords, so instead we took excursions to visit historic sites like Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim and the Aviation Museum in Bodø. In Svolvær, I joined a few other passengers for a drink in the Magic Ice bar (made entirely of ice), where we were issued jackets to keep warm. Another highlight was Polaria’s Arctic exhibit with six bearded seals. These are the only bearded seals in captivity, and the attendant told me one kissed the Norwegian queen when she visited. I leaned over the tank to see if he’d do the same with me, but no luck. Should have worn my crown.
Nordkapp was cold, around -4°F with the wind chill. Luckily, I brought my full-length down coat, insulated mittens, hat, and boots, which I hadn’t had much use for up until then. Buses took us up a winding road as a snowplow cleared the way in front of us. At Europe’s northernmost point, we climbed on the iron globe sculpture for pictures, then hurried out of the biting wind to warm up in the sleek, modern visitor’s center. I bought some souvenir Nordkapp socks, sent out a couple of postcards (with the official North Cape stamp) and tried Norwegian waffles with sour cream and strawberry jam. Heavenly.
Examining the map when we were back on board, I noticed we were close to Måsøy Island, home to 400,000 pairs of puffins. Unfortunately, we were a little bit too early for them. A steward told me they arrive in April.
The final stop was Kirkenes, where I signed up for a day excursion called Arctic Adventure. I was in a group of five, and after being bused to the lakefront property just outside of town, we were zipped into huge snowsuits and taken for a snowmobile spin. Lars, the tour operator, said he had a special treat for us. Changing into diving gear, he slipped into the frigid water and moments later came up holding a king crab, its body as big as a pumpkin. Half an hour later, we were seated in his sunny front room feasting on steamed crab and fresh baked bread and washing it all down with delicious chilled white wine.
That afternoon we visited a sort of reindeer farm–only the Sámi are allowed to own reindeer. On loan to Kare Tannvik, I met Ruldolf and Gabba, teasing them to come closer with handfuls of moss. Sledding back to our bus, we were now ready to eat again Sámi-style. We pulled into the parking lot amidst a cacophony of barking. What timing. This was not only a Sámi restaurant and cultural center, it was also a stop on Finnmarksløpet, a 1,000-km (621-mile) dogsled race that had attracted 27 teams from 10 countries including the United States, Canada, Sweden, Finland, and Germany. With the sun down, the temperature had dropped to around -40°F. Volunteers manned the checkpoints, and I was told competitors were resting in the cabins nearby. One was going to be leaving in about an hour.
My meal started with bouillon made from reindeer bone marrow and boiled for eight hours. If chicken soup was good for you, what would this stuff do? Make your nose glow? Next was roast reindeer with dark wine gravy, boiled potatoes, and green beans. Lean and moist, it reminded me of venison. Cloudberries were dessert. They tasted like sour yellow raspberries and were delicious paired with sweet whipped cream. After dinner, local Sámi residents put on a presentation. Dressed in colorful clothing, felt boots, and intricate head coverings, they sang traditional songs, shared stories of the past, and let us take pictures.
As we headed out the door, I could hear the dogs whimpering and barking, desperate to take off into the black night. A few lights lit the track, and the main musher arrived. We lined up to see them off, the air thick with the frost of their breath. Giving a loud command, the team was off. Watching them disappear, I then looked up. The sky was alive with green swirling waves rippling and jumping and playing. I caught my breath and stood very still. It looked as though two giants were tossing bolts of wavy fabric back and forth across the heavens. Shows I’d seen at the planetarium may have had Pink Floyd soundtracks, but this was jaw-droppingly better. I didn’t even feel the cold. As a matter of fact, it made me want to sing, or at least yell with happiness. What a gift. Thank you, Norway!
Maureen Littlejohn is a Canadian travel writer and Executive Editor of Culture Magazin.
This article originally appeared in the July 27, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.