Radiant Nights in the Arctic Circle
By Christopher Ludgate
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
Driving up to Ringvassøya, one of Norway’s Arctic Circle islands in Lapland, the light became sparse along the increasingly winding roads but for the glowing villages sinking further into the distance.
The atmosphere of this mountainous region – about an hour from Tromsø Airport – was immersed in its nocturnal nature and felt contented in the winter’s polar nights.
I began to notice a sensation as we drove, of my eyes adjusting from the clutter of the airport’s and my hometown city’s garish lights and now relying on one of the clearest starlit skies to see.
Bouncing off of the snowy landscape was this mellow bluish-glow, soft and sometimes crystallized. I knew at that moment that it was going to be magical here. It was far away and dreamy. I surrendered to it.
A Nordic Wilderness Escape to Lapland
The windows of the more remote houses up here all shone modestly with the time-honored Jul-time star, as they do throughout Norway at Christmas. The folk-tale, one of the endless legends in Norway, says the tradition derives from a time when fishermen husbands relied on the light to guide them back to their homes safely.
Unsure of any GPS in these parts and after a long, but thankfully cushy premium upgrade on Norwegian Air’s Dreamliner, my driver pulled into the crunchy grounds and up to the main house of very cozy and hidden Skaret Lodge.
It glowed with the warmth from within its recently renovated and fully-equipped houses. This was an authentic Nordic wilderness escape. No everyday bustle. No tourism crowd. Just our cozy crew geared up to explore the winter wonderland and chill.
Peeling Off Layers
After peeling off my layers in exchange for some fresh dinner clothes upstairs in my room, Skaret host, Torgrimm, guided me in to meet-up with friends who had already gotten comfy at the dining table. Dinner then commenced with a heart-melting lentil & carrot-based stew made vegan just for me followed by wines and a feast prepared by guest chefs from a local restaurant, Mathallen.
Waiting for Winds to Smash
Along with Mark Hayward of Visit Lapland, Torgrimm had invited Aurora expert and guide, Torsten Aslaksen, to illuminate us with a primer about the Northern Lights, which takes its name from the Nordic term norðrljós. Some historians cite its first mention as being a divine presence dancing above Greenland in a 13th-century book, King’s Mirror.
Aslaksen shared a more scientific approach to the phenomenon: “The thrill of the hunt is the spontaneity. It is hard to plan ahead. Like when you go to Paris, you know you will see sights. Here, you don’t know and it depends on the amount of current of solar particles; photons that go from the magnetosphere to the atmosphere and the winds smash,” Aslasken explained with verve.
A Spiritual Experience
“People who have come from Abu Dhabi or Japan… It’s a completely spiritual experience for them. And the lights are different every time. It’s hard to set hopes high. There is an app that can predict favorable conditions, but it’s not predictable,” he continued.
This was just before our deep-snow climb atop the Grønliskaret ridge with our snow-claws and head-lamps in eager anticipation of the elusive light show.
Chasing the Lights in a Tesla X
Unpredictable as they may be, there are some conditions to look for to make odds for catching the dancing lights. For example: Heading out close to midnight to high elevations on clear winter nights. It will be chillier with these factors. By that, I mean it will be freezing. Prepare.
And a guide is very useful indeed, but a tour bus? No, thanks. We prefer a Tesla Model X, with a partial-glass roof, thank you. Who wouldn’t? Pukka Travels came through for us.
“Avoid all bright lights, including your phone and cover your eyes from oncoming headlights – they really should dim them and drive slow to avoid reindeer – let your eyes adjust to the dark. Best to keep your headlamps on red if you do need them.” our Scottish guide, Brian advised after our hour-long drive up to lamp-less roads towards Grøtfjord.
Aside from the right gear, you want to have your camera settings just right, too, before heading out. Or else forget about the spontaneity. To my surprise, my phone has a manual setting, so I took a chance and programmed it as well should the lights come. Photos of the lights are a great feat, just be sure to take it all in at the moment, live.
We stopped numerous times as we spotted the ‘fairy dust’ of smashing winds gathering in spots, constantly changing, but seductively dancing their way from behind the mountains and making a grand appearance above the fjord, stretching and dipping, revealing some rare bits of red above its golden-green halo.
We parked and then hiked down to the shore of the fjord where Brian built a bonfire away from where Mark and I were shooting using delayed exposures atop tripods.
We sat together, completely contented, sipping on our soups from kuskas courtesy of Brian. I stared up into the mythical spectacle beneath the great bright Milky Way just awestruck and spellbound.
Between Us and Greenland
We arrived in Kvaløyvågen one morning with just the shyest runoff of light from the south that resembled twilight. It happens briefly before noon during this season. It illuminated the fjords we hugged along the road, lending a great contrast of radiance and shadows to the water and fish-racks.
After suiting up in our amusingly large, but necessary padded gear at Tromsø Friluftsenter, our crew was guided along the dock by Captain Theo. We climbed into the RIB boat, each mounting our respective seats. I sat with Mark, who was an awesome conduit for planning our itinerary and who was a great travel buddy. Ashleigh, Paul, and Julia straddled up just ahead.
The majestic ambiance was awe-inspiring as we motored off for a wildlife and scenery tour somewhere towards the Norwegian Sea.
Exhilarated and wordless gliding along, I took in the eyeful of sights like a movie camera, admiring the shapes of glacial islands and the marbled shades of ice.
“Kvaløya Island, as the indigenous Sámi call ‘Whale Island’ is ahead of us…” Theo pointed out.
“…and further, we’ll pass an island inhabited by just one man who convinced local officials to allow him to be the sole mailman there… just so he could receive mail!”
We docked by the sands of Gåsvær. A chapel from the 1800s stood beyond a couple of summer bungalows. We were welcomed with hot cocoa and cookies inside. The landscape is a photographer’s playground. We meandered the cemetery, watched birds circle the steeple and the seals played hide-and-seek.
“There’s nothing between us and Greenland right now! Nothing!” Theo exclaimed as the boat went full throttle back on board, jumping the waves, welcoming the sprays, braving this adrenaline-filled escapade, enthralled.
Scenic Levity in Tromsø
We checked-in to our new waterfront digs at trendy The Edge in the city center and then had a bite at nearby Skarven Kro, one of the many local pubs to try the regional beers.
With some flexibility of time, we winged it before heading up across the bridge to take a peek around the architecturally unique Arctic Church before Mark led us to neighboring Fjellheisen.
The cable car at Fjellheisen was as smooth and swift as I was in disregarding any personal hesitation of heights. Some refer to the lift as a gondola, but it’s simply an air-tram.
Soon at 400+ meters above sea level, we marveled at the peaks and valleys with magnificent panorama views, basking in the snow before having a bite in the diverse restaurant by the observation deck.
Afterward, Paul and I explored the fun, cultural Christmas markets about town, and I found some beautiful hand-carved kuksas (traditional Sámi drinking mugs) at Polaris that I was introduced to during our fantasy dog-sledding excursion (read companion story here).
The Shaking Road
In Nordic mythology, in Lapland, the Northern Lights take on a lot of meaning, but in essence, they are the bridge to the Gods; a path, a “shaking road” between earth and heaven as it is often described. The term is Bivrost.
A tour at the world’s northernmost distillery, remote Aurora Spirits, Bivrost, was not your ordinary distillery tour. The lot of the unique distillery is host to secret tunnels, barracks, and bomb-shelters built towards the end of WWII.
An intrigue, for sure, its history carries into the Cold War with Russia and played a contentious role left for NATO to defend.
“It’s also haunted,” CEO and co-founder Tor Peter W. Christensen tells me in his ambient office after a tour of the grounds and a tasting of Bivrost’s tasty Gin, Vodka, Whiskey, and Aquavit.
“The initial inspiration,” passionate Christensen explains, “was to create a high-quality line of spirits exclusive to Norway. We have to import so much of the quality things here and it gets very expensive.”
But native Christensen’s vision is loftier. Experience is what he wants to offer as he describes the exterior construction of floating bungalows and the activities that will attract clean tourism for Bivrost as an off-the-beaten-path destination.
The tasting tour was an immersive sensory experience with a message of the purity of ingredients and sustainable process with locally sourced ingredients, like delicious cloudberries, uniquely characteristic of the arctic region atop the world at 69 °N.
The author traveled with host liaison www.VisitLapland.com, a conduit for Arctic Lapland region travel and adventures.
Senior Travel Writer Christopher Ludgate is a travel & culture journalist based out of his native New York City. Chris combines his multi-faceted professions and is ever drawn to adventure and creative outlets. His travel writing pursuits have lead to working with publications such as Passport Magazine, LAX in-flight, AIR Chicago, FLY Washington, and, of course, GoNOMAD.com. Chris is an award-winning filmmaker with films in distribution and screenings around the globe.