Arctic Adventures In The Frozen North

2nd March 2012

Chris Ambrose heads to Tromsø

It’s a bucket list classic, a sky-bound visual spectacular, an ever-elusive phenomenon that few can succinctly explain, and it’s one of the far north’s biggest visitor draws. The Aurora Borealis has a mystical quality – both in its physical appearance and in its tendency to elude those that seek it out.

But going in search of the Northern Lights wasn’t the main reason I wanted to visit the Arctic. I had been fortunate enough to catch them in Iceland late last year, and while I found them captivating – and certainly more impressive than I had expected – I was heading to northern Norway to take part in some more ground-based (or, more accurately, snow-based) activities.

‘The Arctic’ has a very evocative sound. To me it has always suggested discovery and adventure in the unknown. And this was very much what I was hoping to experience as I made my first tentative steps onto the icy tarmac of the airport in the city often referred to as ‘the gateway to the Arctic’.

Tromsø largely fits on the small island of Tromsøya, just off the Norwegian mainland, and despite being 217 miles inside the Arctic Circle it plays host to a more tolerable climate than many destinations of similar latitude thanks to the warming effects of the Gulf Stream. That being said, at minus four degrees Celsius it’s certainly worth packing your thermals.

Thankfully I was equipped for the cold, and my preparations were thoroughly tested the following afternoon as I made my way across the exposed Tromsø Bridge that connects Tromsøya with the mainland. The bitter Arctic wind that swirls around this dramatic piece of engineering tests the effectiveness of even the highest quality fleece-lined jackets worn by those who dare to step out onto it. The bridge is one of two distinctive structures in Tromsø, the other being the ultra-modern cathedral (the world’s most northerly) just beyond the bridge, consisting of eleven whitewashed arches that are illuminated when the limited daylight fades.

Beyond the sharp geometric presence of the cathedral and along a couple of unassuming, colourfully lined residential streets is a smallish wooden-clad building. Sitting at the bottom of a steep incline, this building is home to Tromsø’s cable car. 120 Norwegian Krone (£14) gets you a return ticket up the mountain, where you are treated to fantastic panoramic views across the peaks and down to the island that Tromsø splays out across. If you’re feeling more adventurous (and really are wrapped up against the cold) you can venture away from the viewing platform and the warm safe-haven of the neighbouring café, and trek further up the mountain. A mix of rock, ice and snow lead up slopes of varying gradients (appropriate footwear advised), but after a combination of hiking, slipping and scrambling, a large metal weathervane marks another rewarding viewpoint. It was from up here that I gained my first and last sight of the sun during my five-day visit.

A rare glimpse of the sun

During this time of year, the six or seven hours of daylight that grace the Tromsø landscape are one continuous blur of sunrise and sunset – the effect of which is a permanent orange-red glow on the horizon as it glances off the distant mountainsides.

But it was well past this threshold of light that the next adventure would take place. A coach trip in the late afternoon took us over an hour from Tromsø and towards the Swedish border – deep into the Arctic wilderness. As we climbed into the mountains the darkness outside left us with little to see other than the rapidly descending digits on the coach’s digital temperature reading. When we finally pulled up beside a small wooden cabin, it had settled on -18°, and it wasn’t yet 7pm.

A flurry of activity saw us hastily sign our lives away before being kitted out in snowsuits, boots, balaclavas and gloves. A two-minute briefing under the clear, star-filled sky preceded a short walk down a snowy path where we met our guides for the evening. Barks and howls echoed through the valley as we approached what would be dragging us through the mountains for the next two hours. Ahead was a rabble of unruly husky dogs, figures silhouetted against the white snow, with their eyes flickering at us like rows of LEDs.

Each sled consisted of five dogs tied in formation, with a rickety looking frame a few feet behind. A series of wooden slats created a platform where one person would sit, while the backend of the runners provided the standing space for the other. This role involved operating the all-important brake; a not especially confidence-installing metal bar.

Soon the dogs were released from their tether, allowing them to switch the energy they had been putting into barking to the more productive activity of running. Our group of three sledding teams shot off into the darkness, with only the narrow beams of light from our headlamps giving any real indication of the surroundings. Sitting on the sled we had to lean heavily around the bends as we ploughed along dense wooded tracks, twisting around tree stumps and sliding over bumps in the terrain so to avoid a tree-based incident. Standing on the back of the sled the physical demands were far greater, with the constant need to slam one or both feet on to the metal brake bar to try and slow the hyper-enthusiastic huskies as they leapt along the snowy tracks.

The intense physical exertion and resulting adrenalin buzz did have the benefit of warming the limbs, as after ten minutes our fingers and toes were going numb, and our eyelashes had frozen together. This was soon forgotten though, as, having broken free of the woodland, we emerged out on to the open expanse of a frozen lake in a valley. From here our eyes were drawn skywards as the Aurora Borealis broke out to reveal what we were later told was the most spectacular light show of the season so far. Sharp green beams shot across the darkness overhead, illuminating the mountains and shimmering with hints of red. A brief respite in sledding allowed us to pause for a minute and marvel at this northern phenomenon, before we slid off back into the trees and returned to camp to defrost our extremities, aided by a delicious bowl of piping hot reindeer soup.

The following day we opted for a slightly less physically demanding set of activities, and took a tour around the world’s most northerly brewery (one of many ‘world’s most northerly’ claims Tromsø has – alongside the most northerly university and cathedral… and even the world’s most northerly Burger King) and sampled some of the apparently ‘infamous’ Tromsø nightlife – although with freezing temperatures, and at £8 a pint (thanks to the hefty 70% tax on alcohol) it’s hard to sustain for long. But the nightlife is never going to be the the reason why you would come all the way to Norway’s northernmost city;with so much spectacular scenery and all those high-octane activities on offer, you’ll want to save any down time to recover for the next Arctic adventure…

Flights from London Gatwick to Tromsø start from £230 return
(via Oslo) with Norwegian (www.norwegian.com/uk)

Dog sledding costs £185 per person based on a minimum
of two people (www.lyngsfjord.com)

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