Winter in Norway’s Far North is Europe’s premier Arctic playground. Yes, temperatures can plummet well below freezing. And it’s true that ethereal darkness envelopes the land here for months at a time. But these elements are all a part of the fun and the rewards – from the otherworldly northern lights to wonderfully weird king-crab safaris, not to mention dog-sledding, snowmobiling, reindeer herding and sleeping in an ice hotel.
There are many ways to enjoy a northern Norwegian winter, but perhaps the most memorable involves standing still and gazing at the heavens. The northern lights, the aurora borealis, could just be the greatest show on earth: a light-and-color show of intense beauty, a seemingly endless spectacle in seemingly endless forms. Sometimes, green pillars of light dance across the sky, shapeshifting into curtains of rose and crimson, then gathering themselves in white, cloud-like expanses before turning yellow in haloes of vibrating light.
Consisting of what’s known as solar wind, the lights are streams of charged particles that interact with nitrogen and oxygen electrons where they meet the earth’s atmosphere. The long Arctic night, especially from October to March presents the best chances of seeing them, and they’re usually at their strongest out in rural areas away from the light pollution that rises from cities. While they don’t happen every night, in their unpredictability lies both frustration and magic, and even catching a glimpse will surely be a highlight of your visit.
Sliding across the ice on a sled pulled by dogs could just be the essence of a 21st-century Arctic adventure, combining as it does a fine sense of tradition with impeccable eco-friendly credentials. Once you leave behind the quiet roads and thinly populated settlements of the north, the otherwise silent trails through boreal forests of pine and spruce can, within seconds, feel like immersion deep in the Arctic wilderness. From half-day excursions to multi-day expeditions, this form of travel, led by loyal huskies and guided by yourself or expert mushers, gets you out into the silence of the snow more effectively than any other activity.
In Karasjok, in the northern Norwegian interior, Engholm's Husky is run by Sven Engholm, one of European dog-sledding's most celebrated names, and is highly recommended as your introduction to the world of dog-led exploration. Dog-sledding is also possible in Alta, Tromsø, Kirkenes and Øvre Dividal National Park.
No one knows the Arctic winter like the indigenous Sami, and the opportunity to learn about their traditional lives is one of the main reasons to come here. Ravdol Reindeer Herding in Karasjok is a particularly fine initiation. Reindeer are at the center of Sami life, and they live a near-constant migration in search of food – reindeer can locate and eat lichen and moss even buried in deep snow. Spending time with them as they move with the herds and fashion a comfortable existence in the harshest of winter conditions is a life lesson of a very Arctic kind.
For a deep-winter rush of adrenaline, nothing beats a snowmobile. Like a jet-ski built for snow and ice, snowmobiles make accessible the inaccessible and are both custom-made for the visiting thrill-seeker and an essential means of getting around for locals. Options vary from letting you drive yourself to tandem rides seated behind an expert. Whichever way you do it, racing through an ice-bound forest or across a frozen lake has a vaguely addictive quality.
It may not be Norway’s most eco-friendly way of getting around, but most excursions don’t last long and do provide an essential taste of Arctic life. Snowmobiling is possible across Norway’s north, including around Alta and Tromsø, but Kirkenes, almost as far as you can go in Arctic Norway without falling into Russia, is especially good; the Pasvik Valley, a thin sliver of Norwegian territory, is especially beautiful in winter and Barents Safari is an excellent Kirkenes-based operator.
King crab safaris
Perhaps the strangest of all winter pursuits in northern Norway, king crab safaris take place in fjord waters close to Kirkenes. Introduced into the area from their native North Pacific by Russian scientists in 1961, the king crab has proven hugely successful – tens of millions now inhabit the Barents Sea. The king crab is the world’s largest crustacean – it can weigh up to 15kg and can reach two meters in length – but it can still be a challenge to find. Safaris take you out onto the water in an inflatable Zodiac and dressed in Arctic-strength clothing (provided as part of your safari), but don’t worry – it’s a professional diver who plunges beneath the icy waters to find the crabs, emerging from the depths in a struggle of limbs, both crab and human. The crabs are large and ungainly and none-too-pleased at being plucked from the sea bottom. They’re also rather delicious and can be enjoyed, boiled in seawater, at the completion of your safari.
For the fully immersive experience of the northern Norwegian winter, it’s difficult to go past a night in a hotel built entirely from ice and snow. The beds are blocks of ice, as is the rather stylish bar area, while Arctic-strength sleeping bags keep you warm at night – overnight temperatures in the rooms sit at an otherwise uncomfortable minus-four to minus-seven degrees Celsius. Two options stand out – the Kirkenes Snow Hotel and Alta’s Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel. One night is usually enough!
Make it happen
Oslo is Norway’s most important international airport, with onward connections to northern cities such as Tromsø, Alta and Kirkenes. A private vehicle is best for getting around, but the Hurtigruten coastal ferry connects Tromsø and Kirkenes. For general Norway information, check out Visit Norway, while Northern Norway focuses on the country’s north.
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