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On the Culture Front: Crossing the Arctic Circle in Search of the Northern Lights

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Flickr: Travel Manitoba
Flickr: Travel Manitoba

2012-09-21-rsz_hurtigruten_snow_scene.jpg

When you travel from New York to the northern most reaches of the civilized world in February, you have a purpose.

I was drawn by reports of the Northern Lights showing their strongest in decades to Kirkenes, Norway this winter as my friends were jetting down to Mexico, Antigua and other destinations where the sun is bright and the clothing minimal. In contrast, I filled my suitcase with thick sweaters and thermal underwear to head to a place where the temperatures routinely drop into single digits.

The colder the better they said for this natural phenomenon that can often be found on many bucket lists and seen on only the clearest of nights. Characterized by swaths of green light that comes from within the deepest reaches of the sky, the lights appear in the Arctic (and Antarctic) regions of the world. Prior to this trip, the closest I had come to the lights was watching them on film in the Anchorage Museum's theater on a warm day in July several years ago.

An image of my high expectations projected onto a wall in my mind as I giddily boarded the MS Trollfjord, one of the newest ships in Hurtigruten's fleet that makes the roundtrip journey up and down the Norwegian coast from Bergen to Kirkenes. I opted to spend a couple days in Oslo and then fly up to Kirkenes to pick it up for the southbound leg of the journey, a six-day voyage stopping in a staggering 32 ports, not counting the departing and arriving cities. Cabins start at $1,203 per person. Many on board were there for the long haul, including several Europeans traveling solo. There were also the daytrippers, boarding with their cars stowed below for just a few ports. One day even saw the arrival of an impeccably behaved school group.

Above all, Hurtigruten is a ferry carrying people and cargo from port to port. The crew is strict on port call times, many in the wee hours of the morning, and they will leave without you. Late one night, friends and I were sitting in the ship's bar when the Trollfjord pulled into the town of Alesund, and we decided to grab a pint at a local bar but were thwarted when given only thirty minutes. Furthermore, everything was closed save for the ATMs at the Fokus bank, which, given the current financial crises, made for an ideal if unintended photo opportunity.

The real journey, though, began long before we boarded the boat in Kirkenes with an optional excursion for a king crab safari. Outfitted in ultra warm snowsuits, we traveled by powered sled through town roads across a frozen fjord to a small station set up by the fisherman for catching the tasty creatures. Cages were lowered into a hole in the ice and raised a few minutes later with fresh bounty in abundance. The crabs were then killed with a single swift cut of a large blade. For the more adventurous set of foodies, one of the men cut up a crab for an impromptu sushi tasting. Others had to wait a mere forty-five minutes, the time it takes to drive to a nearby log cabin, boil up the legs of the bright red crustaceans, and dig in with just the aid of a pair of household scissors and shear physical determination.

Served simply with bread, heavenly Norwegian butter (the shortage from last year appeared to be over), and little else; it's an all-you-can-eat-affair. The fishermen, now wearing aprons, walked around with giant plates of the succulent crab legs, and they didn't stop until we were about to burst. I couldn't help thinking about the French film, La Grande Bouffe, in which Marcello Mastroianni and three friends hole themselves up in a villa to eat themselves to death. Still, that didn't stop me from having seconds and thirds, but no one's counting when it is that good.

There's also something incredibly satisfying about seeing the whole process of how that crab arrived on our table and not just receiving a pretty plate of food. Each bite brought me back to standing on that frozen fjord where the ice extended as far as the eye could see. Everything was still until a glistening crate of crabs was pulled up from underneath us, reminding us of life below.

After the meal, there was more ice to be seen in the form of the Kirkenes Snow Hotel. Home to 20 rooms each measuring five meters in diameter, the "hotel" is an intricately designed massive igloo that has to be rebuilt each winter with ice from a nearby frozen lake. A large ice bar makes up the entry and also serves as a reception area where brave guests receive their room assignment along with instructions on how to properly insulate themselves with the provided sleeping bags so as not to freeze to death in the middle of the night.

The "hotel" also offers a package to visit the rooms without spending the night. What's most surprising is how quiet the rooms are. Encased by walls several feet thick, there was a sense of real solitude where the silence itself becomes a powerful presence. Stepping out of the hotel that night, the sky was clear and the stars were abounding. A small, light cloud appeared to be giving way to the beginning of the lights but as soon as it came it was gone.

My anticipation grew as we boarded the boat the next afternoon. It was briefly sated with a lunch buffet of some of the best fried cod I've ever had. Served with potatoes au gratin and fresh salads, it was truly satisfying. The pork schnitzel I topped it off with, however, proved to be overkill, and I slowly slipped into a food coma as we pulled into our first port, Vardo, which has a population of 2,400. A short trek up a white dusted road past a cozy-looking restaurant and rows of small wood-framed houses revealed a fort dating back to 1737. The inside appeared locked, so I wandered the grounds and found a steep path to the top of a hill overlooking the fortress and the fjord beyond. Its claim to fame is for being the only fort to have stood for 250 years without ever firing a single shot.

Perhaps being sparsely populated helped. Norway isn't a large country by the numbers. In fact, the reindeer in many towns outnumber the people two to one. I learned this from Jan Olav Evensen on the ride from the port of Mehamn (where there are just 75,000 people but 150,000 reindeer) to his tour company, Arctic Coast, where a fleet of snowmobiles awaited us. After a brief safety lesson making us aware of the placement of gas and brakes, we were off into the arctic night. Evensen took the lead and we, a group of about 20, followed one-by-one, up and down mountains of pure white as we made our way to Kjollefjord where the ship would meet us. The route embodied the very definition of "off-the-beaten-path", and if it weren't for our headlights shinning a narrow beam, we would have been in total darkness. Even though we never topped 40 k/h (about 25 mph), I felt a weightless abandon gliding through the untouched terrain. Learning we were teetering on the border of Russia further amped up my James Bond fantasies.

We took a break halfway through the two-hour adventure for some hot cider and a chance to catch the ever-illusive lights. They proved to be stubborn in revealing themselves to us, but it didn't really matter. When it's that dark outside, the sky illuminates the planets beyond any planetarium. The stars are not just plentiful and present but spectacularly vivid in a way no guidebook can express.

Much of the trip, in fact, was made up of small unquantifiable moments like sitting in the Trollfjord's jacuzzi on the top deck as we cruised through the fjords and the towering, snow filled mountains that flank them, each worthy of a postcard -- or better yet simply savored -- as the warm jets massage your body. There's also the company as these tubs were the de facto social gathering spot on the boat. One afternoon, I talked with a Swiss woman about the Montreux Jazz Festival and her recent trip to Thailand until our skin was pruned, and it was time for dinner.

While the lunch buffets were nice, dinners were three-course affairs of locally caught fish, reindeer cooked rare, and other Norwegian delicacies prepared by Chef Roy Kristensen and all included with the price of the voyage, which is kind of a bargain for Norway, where even a bottle of water at a 7-11 will run you five bucks. The following day our guide through the town of Harstad joked, "the only thing that's free in Norway is breathing." Despite the high prices though, there's never a sense of greed or ostentation. People dress casually (even for the dinners mentioned above) and spend frugally. A guide in the charming cobble-stoned city of Trondheim commented that many people bring a bagged lunch to work. I was also interested to learn that the tolls for bridges in the country stop once the cost of the bridge has been collected. The guides, many provided through Hurtigruten, were happy to share these anecdotes. They also warned of the unpredictability of the lights.

Just as dinner was finishing up on the third night, a crewmember made an announcement that the lights could be seen on deck. I bound out of my seat without thinking to stop by my cabin for a jacket. Stepping outside, I felt a blast of wind that slapped me awake as I made my way over to the edge of the boat. Someone pointed to a slightly green formation on the left but it was faint at best. As I stood there shivering, I thought about how nature can't be bent to our ways, and then it happened. Not in a light-up-the-sky kind of way, but more subtle. The sky gently parted as a green amorphous hue slid through the opening and danced at the edge of the universe. It was gone in just 15 minutes and didn't come back for the rest of the journey. Honestly, it was underwhelming at first but its effect magnified over the plane ride home, the next coming weeks and months, and even now as I write this. What's to make of something you've never seen before? Some might see it as a religious sign, but I think it is an invitation to the places we haven't explored. A simple calling: to see more.