Norwegian Lapland, “Finnmark” in Finnish, is located in the extreme northeastern part of Norway, north of Finland and west of Russia, bordered by the Norwegian Sea on the northwest and the Arctic Ocean on the northeast. Another icy adventure to the end of the world ! Finnmark or Finnmárku in Northern Sámi is part of the Sápmi region. This vast area is at the same latitude as Alaska and Siberia. Norwegian Lapland is mountainous and characterized by vast tundra areas, steep cliffs, vertiginous fjords and rugged coastlines. But it is not just the wilderness, pristine nature and picturesque old villages that characterize this region. The city of Tromsø, gateway to the Arctic, is “The place to be” for Northern Lights hunters. Everything is on hand to enjoy Aurora Borealis “hunting” in the best spots under the guidance of a guide… Camera slung over your shoulder, are you ready for a Northern Lights safari ? How stupid am I ! The hunt does not start before 7 pm. Just enough time to visit Tromsø and its surroundings.
Polar walk in the city of Tromsø nicknamed the « Paris of the North »
Located 217 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the city of Tromsø (“Romsa” in the Sámi) has a population of 64,376 and is located in the 9th most populous county with 74,541 inhabitants, a density of 78 per square mile. It is the third largest urban area north of the Arctic Circle after Murmansk and Norilsk both in Russia. The city enjoys a warmer climate than most other places located at the same latitude due to the effect of the Gulf Stream. During the 19th century, Tromsø was nicknamed “the Paris of the North” although no one knows the origin of this nickname. Several legends circulate, but the most tenacious is that its nickname comes from the elegance of the wives of long-distance captains, wives who followed the fashions of Paris. Most of the city, including the city center, is located on the small island of Tromsøya between the Norwegian mainland and the large island of Kvaløya to the west. Tromsøya is connected to the mainland by the Tromsø bridge and the 2.2-mile Tromsøysund Tunnel. The streets of Tromsø are extremely slippery during the winter, and a pair of “isbrodd” (shoes with crampons) can be very useful. With proper footwear, it is pleasant to wander through the streets, passing old wooden houses and modern buildings, including the library with bold curved walls or the Arctic Cathedral, located a little away from the city center. The city center has a large number of old wooden houses. The oldest dates from 1789. Among the older buildings, the Lutheran Cathedral (Tromsø Domkirka) is the world’s northernmost protestant church, completed in 1861. The cathedral has an unusual wooden neo-gothic architecture and is one of Norway’s major wooden churches. It was built using the cog joint method.
« At the harbor of Tromsø
There are sailors singing
Of the dreams that haunt them
Off the coast of Tromsø »
At the harbor, under the faint orange late-afternoon light, you can admire the colorful facades of wooden houses, including the Polar Museum inside an old red warehouse dating from 1830. If you dream of discovering the incredible and senseless expeditions of Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen (famous Norwegian pioneers of the polar regions) and hear the adventures of trapper Henry Rudi, who killed 713 polar bears, this is the museum for you. To continue the adventure, you can sip a beer at the famous Mack Ølhallen brewery, the oldest pub in Tromsø dating from 1928, and… carefully picking the spot marked Rudi, face two stuffed polar bears! Beer lovers can also opt for the “Tromsø Safari Beer”, a 3-hour visit to local breweries ! But, if you are more contemplative than adventurous, you can simply sit in the harbor and admire the Fjellheisen mountain (4,062 feet above sea level) and watch the fishing boats entering the harbor or docking at the wharf.
Finally, if Tromsø is a big fishing port, it is also an important stop on for the famous Hurtigruten also known as the Norwegian Coastal Express, a cruise and cargo ferry… It is an opportunity to see the fascinating ballet of tourists dropped into the streets, running against the clock to take as many pictures as possible and buying small plaster trolls in the harbor souvenir shops !
Norway has more than a thousand fjords, which look like calm blue lakes. However, the water is salty since they are long narrow inlets. Often described as “nature’s works of art”, they are usually deep (making them accessible to large ships) with cliffs on either side created by glaciers. From Tromsø, exploring the fjords is easy. In the Bay of Eidkjosen, many pleasure boats are moored at the dock; some are still caught in the ice and unable to move. Freezing night temperatures favor the formation of surface ice in these still waters… but if we look a few degrees away toward the fishing boats at the pier… what a beautiful mirror !
« Like a chimera’s tongue, like a liquid, blue flame, the fjord sleeps between the steep mountains, like a long, tortuous lake ».
(André Suarès, French poet)
A few miles away, we discover the Ersfjord, a charming setting like a pearl hidden in the depths of the fjord encircled by high mountains that plunge into the water. The landscape is breathtaking. I am like Narcissus, completely hypnotized by the reflection in the water… how not to fall in love with such a natural beauty… “Mirror, mirror tell me that this fjord is the most beautiful in the world” !
But what is this smell that disturbs my thoughts ? Possibly “Stockfisch“, unsalted fish, normally cod, dried by cold air and wind on wooden racks (hjell in Norwegian) in the open air ? In Norway, dried fish (tørrfisk in Norwegian) is a specialty, especially in the north of the country. The best-dried fish is prepared immediately after capture: eviscerated then dried whole or split along the spine. The fish must be free from injury. Even a small fishhook may disrupt the process of conservation… Washed carefully with seawater, the fish are hung for several weeks on the hjell. After a period between two and three months on the hjell, the fish is matured inside for another period between two and three months in a dry and airy environment. After this last treatment, the fish has lost about 70% of its weight in water, but retains all the main nutrients of fresh fish, including proteins, vitamins, iron, and calcium. It can then be kept for years… Here at the end of the world, not really, but almost… the place is almost free of travelers and inhabitants. We meet the reindeer Sven on the roadside…
The fjords follow one another but are not alike… In Vågbotn the mountains seem to plunge right into the fjord. Grøtfjord offers a breathtaking view of the Arctic Ocean and its beautiful ice-covered beach. If you have a real Viking spirit, go for a dip in the Arctic waters… I think I’ll stay on the beach !
What are the Northern Lights ?
After touring Tromsø we turn to the beautiful spectacle of the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis, and move away from the city and its light pollution. The precise place of observation remains unknown for the moment… the weather conditions will lead us to the best observation sites. Indeed to observe this magical fairy, the sky must be clear, with little or no clouds.
Like me, you may ask yourself what is the origin of the Aurora Borealis ? Although their manifestation seems pure magic – the Firefox moving fast over the Arctic mountains and stirring up the snow with his tail so that sparks to fly into the night sky – there should also be a scientific explanation. The lights are a natural phenomenon that occurs around the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemisphere. Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights in the northern hemisphere and Auroras Australis or Southern Lights in the southern hemisphere. This incredible phenomenon is caused by electrically charged particles released by the sun that enter the Earth’s atmosphere and collide with atmospheric gases. The particles are released by solar explosions or solar flares–masses of gas charged with protons and electrons–which are then carried by solar wind 93 million miles to Earth. Because the Earth’s magnetic field is weaker at the poles, some particles enter the Earth’s atmosphere and collide with atoms and molecules of oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and other elements and become ionized. The ionization caused by these collisions produces the photons (particles of light) and thus gives birth to the Northern Lights. Each Aurora Borealis is different and can last from a few moments to several hours. Auroras can appear in many vivid colors, including green, red, blue, pink, purple, and yellow. The color depends on the gas particles as well as their density. Green is the most frequent color. Green Auroras are produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the Earth. The red Auroras are produced by higher altitude oxygen 200 miles above the Earth. Blue and purple Auroras are produced by nitrogen.
« The Northern Lights were born on the great ice floe over there to the east behind the mountains that close the entrance to the fjord. They grew across the sky, in ribbons and bangs, to the frozen desert over there to the west, beyond Nartidok. Alive like a cloth, alive like a flesh, the aurora borealis is the soul, the heart of the night. It beats, it quivers, it suffers, it cries, it laughs. Sometimes it sleeps, inert, and suddenly it wakes up, and its cheeks turn to pink. »
(Paul-Emile Victor – Boréal, 1938)
After this scientific lecture, let’s go back to our “Aurores hunt”… We are ready to go out, wearing superimposed thermal layers to face the harsh polar conditions! The search for the Northern Lights may take several hours and bring excitement and ecstasy, but often with little physical movement. It is important to stay warm in the cold, dark Arctic night.
How to see the Northern Lights ?
The Aurora phenomenon gives rise to legends. The Sámi give different names to the Aurora Borealis, among them Guovssahas, which means “the light which can be heard”, even if no scientist has ever produced a sound recording… The sound of the Aurora Borealis is not captured, only the show. Contrary to what one might think, the Northern Lights are very difficult to discern at first glance, especially for an untrained eye… The activity of an Aurora Borealis starts very discreetly and is often not visible to the naked eye. The proverb “All cats are gray in the dark” is true: at nightfall, our vision is not the same as in the daytime, and we tend to confuse colors which are distinct in daylight. So, if you see an arch or a band of white in the sky, it may be the beginning of an Aurora Borealis ! To confirm your perception, focus your camera on this “white trail”, and take a picture in a long exposure. This is a reliable technique because the sensor of the camera is more sensitive than the human eye, and the sensor can recognize the first hints of the celestial painting before it is noticeable to the naked eye. If the “white trail” appears green in the picture, it means that the dazzling phenomenon will soon begin.
Lapland Northern Lights, an amazing show
In the dark sky is etched by green wisps of lights between the clouds which glide above the snow-covered mountains, as if to warn us that the show is about to begin. A dazzling display of lights adorns the sky, a bit like a curtain flapping in front of an open window… Suddenly, without warning, the sky presents a magical choreography. It looks like a fluorescent curtain falling from the sky, which fades into the darkness of the night. Then, as soon as the lights end and the sky had cleared up, a thick layer of threatening clouds reappears. Here, the show is already over, but our Northern Lights hunt just starting. We decide to change location, to go elsewhere to see if the universe is still in an artistic mood. We return to the beautiful Ersfjord because Auroras align with the fjord… You have to be patient! You are at the mercy of Mother Nature… The strong wind blows the clouds away, and we have a new spectacle that is reflected in the water. An ethereal vision, atmospheric “X-Files,” the show is breathtaking, even Fox Mulder or Dana Scully could not divert my attention from this cosmic ballet. Change of location again… watching the sky and still… A luminous snake begins to take shape over the bay, and immediately, the magic begins again
Fairy curtains of brightly colored lights dance for us in the sky to the rhythm of silent music. Auroras metamorphose little by little into a shimmering green arch over the earth from one end of the bay to the other. The Northern Lights illuminate the sky, dance lightly above our heads, full of magic and the mysteries of another world… Ainsi font, font, font / Trois p’tits tours et puis s’en vont… (That’s how they go, go, go, three laps around and they leave) that means that they do their show and go, almost as quickly as they appeared. Thank you, Mother Nature for the show !
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