No sign of lights in world of white
In snowy scenes from a child’s Christmas dreams, goes in search of the elusive Aurora Borealis
Bstripes, neat zigzags and intricate petal patterns: a variety of designs decorate the many pairs of mittens hanging in a display cabinet at Tromsø University Museum. For a place where the temperature can drop below freezing for a large chunk of the year, an exhibition celebrating thermal accessories does seem appropriate. Yet I discover the pieces of handmade handwear bear a greater cultural relevance.
Designed by indigenous Sami people, one-time nomads who herded reindeer across Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway, these bright motifs were used to define social groups, a bit like knitted identity cards.
Concentrated mainly on the island of Tromsøya, linked by bridges to the mainland, the ‘capital of the Arctic’ is surrounded by wildlife-rich fjords and jagged mountain ranges. Well positioned beneath the aurora belt, it attracts thousands of tourists every year, with primitive mittens increasingly being substituted by high-tech NorthFace gloves.
Thanks to direct flight connections with the UK, it’s easily accessible, and within a matter of hours, visitors can be glimpsing the aurora in wild woodland settings, or commanding a pack of huskies through moonlit, snow-steeped valleys.
I meet our guide, Alexander, a film-maker from the Netherlands who makes ends meet by leading Northern Lights tours during the winter season. As we drive into the wilderness, city lights fade behind us and steel streetlamps are replaced by bolt upright pine trees, lined up like soldiers on parade.
“People always come here on their time clocks,” complains Alexander, in reference to the short weekend visits people make. “But the Lights are unpredictable; you never know when they might turn up. So often, people have to learn to be patient and just wait.”
But with a blizzard setting in, it becomes obvious that no matter how long we’re prepared to wait, an aurora display won’t be happening any time soon.
A thick coating of snow does, however, create the perfect environment for the daytime outdoor activities I have planned.
We drive an hour and a half south-east of Tromsø to Camp Tamok, a Sami-run activity centre where people can enjoy traditional Lappish hospitality.
When I arrive, Rua and his wife, Caran, are using metal shovels to clear snow from the entrance to their lavvu (a typical Sami tipi once used as a mobile dwelling).
almost two metres of snow has fallen, creating the kind of pristine white landscape every child dreams of waking up to on Christmas Day.
Long, thin icicles hang like daggers from the doorways of wooden cabins, looking deceptively sharper than the blade made from reindeer horn, which swings casually from Rua’s waist.
“Every knife we make tells a story,” explains Rua, dressed in a warm Cossack-style hat and wrapped in a blanket. “And when we gift a knife to our children, we pass on that story.”
He proudly claims he carries the blade with him at all times, although he does admit to leaving it at home if collecting guests from the airport, after once being given a hefty fine.
Rua gathers his herd of reindeer by enticing them with bundles of soft, spongy lichens. We sit on wooden sleds while Caran harnesses the animals and pulls them through the thick snow with the ease of tugging a toy train. An irresistibly blank canvas lies ahead of us, with little distinction between land and sky, and overhead, snow clouds are forming with the consistency of whipped cream.
The enjoyably slow amble is gentle preparation for a moonlit husky ride we have planned later that evening.
In competitions, the dogs can reach up to 30mph, but I’m relieved to learn they go at half that pace when tourists are mushing.
Guided only by starlight, we race through the forest, weaving between tree trunks like a slalom skier. All I can hear is the sound of dogs panting and my wooden sleigh bumping and creaking over the icy ground, and in that moment, I understand why Rua has fully embraced an outdoor life.
n HARNESSED: Caran pulls her reindeer and sled
n COOL BLUE: View above Tromsø