Kris à Genève

A Canadian living in Switzerland

A different winter destination

with 2 comments

A confession: although I am Canadian, I have rarely experienced a “real” Canadian winter. I grew up in Duncan and spent most of my adult life in Victoria, both of which sit in the temperate rainforest zone of Vancouver Island on Canada’s Pacific coast. Especially in Victoria, winter rarely included snow or sub-zero temperatures. Here is a photo outside our last house in Victoria, shot in February, 2007, showing blossoms in full bloom.

Nevertheless, outside of Canada the stereotype of our winters remains one of igloos, skating rinks and snow in June. At it relates to the general stereotype of Canadians, it implies that we are hardy, snow-shovelling folk who eat lots of canned food over the winter. And that those with the means escape the harsh winters to warmer southern climates – the “snowbirds.” Many Canadians do live this stereotype, but not those of us from the southwest coast. I paddled my kayak throughout the year, have shovelled a driveway only a handful of times and only remember one trip to Mexico during the winter.

All of this to pre-empt the “typical Canadian” response to the destination of our recent winter trip: Tromsø, Norway. The town sits on an island amid the fjords of northern Norway, at approximately 70 degrees north latitude, or 400km north of the Arctic Circle. The following map shows the Arctic Circle, with Tromsø slightly north of the iconic northern Canadian outpost of Inuvik, and well north of Iqaluit, the northernmost territorial capital in Canada.

For reference, the furthest north I had visited prior to this trip was the Swedish city of Göteborg, which sits just north of Copenhagen on the map and at 57 degrees north, or approximately 1,400km south of Tromsø. Victoria is at 48.5 degrees north and our current home Geneva is at 46 degrees north.

When we told friends in Geneva about the destination, they mistakenly reasoned that we missed our Canadian winters and were returning to a familiar climate. In fact, we chose northern Norway as a different winter destination, far from Christmas markets, beach destinations and sunlight. Our friend Jen proposed the idea in the fall and organised the trip for her boyfriend Donn, Eileen and me. We packed bundles of clothes for the cold; games and books for the dark; and left 10 degree weather in Geneva on December 30th for a week in Tromsø.

We flew with Norwegian Airlines. The ticket was cheap and the voyage was relatively comfortable, although the connection in Oslo was tight, as we had to claim our bags, re-check them and clear security. Our flight from Geneva arrived late, which compounded the problem and caused the first (and only) glitch in the trip: Donn and Jen missed the connection to Tromsø. They had ski bags and were stuck in a slow moving check-in line, so that Eileen and I were through security and at the gate before we learned that the other two were not going to be on our flight. The staff said there was another flight in two hours, but for whatever reason, they did not allow Donn and Jen on this flight either. Instead Norwegian paid for a hotel and Donn and Jen flew to Tromsø the next morning.

The glitch cascaded onto Eileen and me when Jen texted us the incorrect phone number for the owner of the house she had rented. Fortunately for Eileen and I, Norwegians all speak excellent English, so when I called information, we connected easily with the owner after only a short stay at the Tromsø airport.

Here are two of my first photos of the trip, showing the waterfront at midday. I have included the time of day for this and the following photos to illustrate the perpetual gloom of January in Tromsø. The sun does not break the horizon until February, said the locals. This meant that “day” involved a lethargic transition from dawn to dusk between approximately 11h00 and 14h00. In several cases the photos are a bit brighter than the scene, for the sake of visibility.

2010.12.31 @ 12h35

2010.12.31 @ 12h50

Jen found us a great rental house, one block from the waterfront and a 10-minute walk from downtown. Although I have built it up as the capital of nowhere, Tromsø is the largest city in northern Norway and is a popular destination – even in winter – especially among Brits. Therefore accommodation over the New Years period was scarce and expensive and Jen did well to find such a big, comfortable house for us. In the following photo, our house is the small grey one behind and to the left of the yellow one. Another note on the darkness in Tromsø: even at midday, you can only shoot handheld photos at ISO 800 or higher, resulting in the graininess of this photo.

2011.01.03 @ 12h43

Tourism in Tromsø is well developed around classic Arctic experiences and sights: the Northern Lights, dogsledding and reindeer. On our third day we checked two of these from our list. Along with three British tourists, we went dogsledding with a guide who, with his wife, raises approximately 80 dogs and participates in one-two big races per year. The following photo (from Donn) shows the husband and two dogsled groupies.

2011.01.02 @ ~11h00

The sledding was fun, and relatively easy. I am sure racing demands more technique, but basic dogsled technique involves standing on the sled’s skis, holding the bar and occasionally applying the foot brake. The dogs are actually more entertaining than the sledding. They are bonkers to run. When they are harnessed but the sled is tethered or braked, they all bark and howl in ecstatic anticipation, launching themselves in the air against their harnesses – it is deafening and hilarious. When the driver lets them run, they fall suddenly silent bound off into the snow. Apart from the brake and perhaps some commands from their masters, nothing distracts them from running, not even bodily functions: they relieve themselves mid-stride.

The guide took eight dogs and broke trail. Each of us had our own sled and team of dogs, four or five of them based on our weight. I obviously had five dogs, but was still falling off the back of the pack, so halfway along, the guide gave me a sixth dog and then I was a speed demon. Eileen executed a graceful fall and recovery that impressed even the guide: bouncing out of the snow, righting her sled and taking off again in 15 seconds or so.

As I did not know whether I would be falling into the snow or crashing into other sleds, I did not have my camera out during the sledding (it would have been fine), so here is one of Donn’s sledding photos. Although it is from behind, the first dog on the left seems to exude the joy these animals draw from running.

2011.01.02 @ ~11h30

The guide said a common question he fields is why his dogs are not the classic Siberian huskies. He said they are too bulky for racing, and too aggressive to breed in large numbers. They prefer a species called the Alaskan husky, which is actually a mutt species to which they continually add new breeds to prevent the dogs from growing too bulky. Part breeding, part training, the dogs we met were all very affectionate and well behaved in spite of their bubbling energy. Here is a photo of the lead dogs from my team, which shows the differences within this “breed,” as well as its total difference from the Siberian husky.

2011.01.02 @ 12h30

Here is a photo of our dogsled group enjoying coffee and chocolate cake around the fire after a hard (not really) session of dogsledding.

2011.01.02 @ 12h49

As for the other Arctic icon, the reindeer, we saw one in the distance on our dogsled trip, but no one managed to snap a photo. The guide said it was a large cow from a nearby reindeer farm owned by a Sami family.

Despite the attractions of dogsledding and other iconic Arctic experience, the Northern Lights are the most infectious among tourists, perhaps because they are so elusive:

“Have you seen the Northern Lights?” “Have you?” “Where? When? What was the guide’s name?” “What were they like?”

“Eileen, come back and eat your dinner – you looked out the window for the Northern Lights ten minutes ago.”

“What is the weather forecast for tomorrow? Clear? Cold?”

We didn’t book one of the Northern Lights tours, so our prospects for seeing them were probably mediocre. The locals said you can see them from town, but there is sufficient “light pollution” that their effect is reduced. During one evening walk at 19h00 or so, Eileen was bouncing around like a crazy person when she and I saw a long green plume arching over the town, by far the best display we would see. But it disappeared by the time we returned home to collect our cameras.

Our only other Northern Lights sighting was late one night on the cross-country ski track that stretches along the ridge of Tromsø island, above the town. We caught several glimpses, but light pollution, especially from the airport, meant that they were faint. At the exact same time, Donn and Jen were hiking up a dark, cold valley on the mainland and saw the same glow in the same direction. Here is Donn’s photo, which is much brighter than he one I shot from our vantage point:

2011.01.04 @ ~22h15

My favourite Tromsø attraction was the cable car (fjellheissen) on the mainland side of the town. Northern Norway’s topography lends itself to great views, with the fjords as the most classic example. Settlements are perched on the narrow bands of flat, habitable that border the Arctic Ocean. Behind them, steep cliffs rise to moderately high mountain ridges and peaks – the fjords are the classic example. Standing at the edge of these cliffs offers expansive views. Living in Switzerland, I have grown accustomed to an endless variety of rail or cable cars giving easy access to spectacular Alpine vistas. Tromsø’s cable car offered a coastal Arctic equivalent: a quick ascent to Storsteinen, 421m above the town. We went up the cable car twice, once for sunset and once for a “daylight” snowshoe on the gentle snowy slopes.

2011.01.04 @ 14h26

2011.01.04 @ 14h46

2011.01.05 @ 13h37

2011.01.05 @ 14h11

2011.01.05 @ 14h29

Here is an assortment of photos of Tromsø from my own wandering at various times of day:

2011.01.02 @ 21h43

2011.01.03 @ 13h46

2011.01.03 @ 14h17

Speech writers often open with a joke; I will end with one:

2011.01.03 @ 11h57

I confess: although I am Canadian, I have rarely experienced a “real” Canadian winter. I grew up in Duncan and spent most of my adult life in Victoria, both of which sit in the temperate rainforest zone of Vancouver Island. Especially in Victoria, winter rarely included snow or sub-zero temperatures. Here is a photo outside our last house in Victoria, shot in February, 2007, showing blossoms in full bloom.

Nevertheless, outside of Canada the stereotype of our winters remains one of igloos, skating rinks and snow in June. At it relates to the general stereotype of Canadians, it implies that we are hardy, snow-shovelling folk who eat lots of canned food over the winter. And that those with the means escape the harsh winters to warmer southern climates – the “snowbirds.” Many Canadians do live this stereotype, but not those of us from the southwest coast. I paddled my kayak throughout the year, have shovelled a driveway only a handful of times and only remember one trip to Mexico during the winter.

All of this to pre-empt the “typical Canadian” response to the destination of our recent winter trip: Tromsø, Norway. Tromso sits on an island amid the fjords of northern Norway, at approximately 70 degrees north latitude, or 400km north of the Arctic Circle. The following map shows the Arctic Circle, with Tromsø slightly north of the iconic northern Canadian outpost of Inuvik, and well north of Iqaluit, the northernmost territorial capital in Canada.

For reference, the furthest north I had visited prior to this trip was the Swedish city of Göteborg, which sits just north of Copenhagen on the map and at 57 degrees north, or approximately 1,400km south of Tromsø. Victoria is at 48.5 degrees north and our current home Geneva is at 46 degrees north.

When we told friends in Geneva about the destination, they mistakenly reasoned that we missed our Canadian winters and were returning to a familiar climate. In fact, we chose northern Norway as a different winter destination, far from Christmas markets, beach destinations and sunlight. Our friend Jen proposed the idea in the fall and organised the trip for her boyfriend Donn, Eileen and me. We packed bundles of clothes for the cold, games and books for the dark and left 10 degree weather in Geneva on December 30th for a week in Tromsø.

We flew with Norwegian Airlines. The ticket was cheap and the voyage was relatively comfortable, although the connection in Oslo was tight, as we had to claim our bags, re-check them and clear security. Our flight from Geneva arrived late, which compounded the problem and caused the first (and only) glitch in the trip: Donn and Jen missed the connection to Tromsø. They had ski bags and were stuck in a slow moving check-in line, so that Eileen and I were through security and at the gate before we learned that the other two were not going to be on our flight. The staff said there was another flight in two hours, but for whatever reason, they did not allow Donn and Jen on this flight either. Instead Norwegian paid for a hotel and Donn and Jen flew to Tromsø the next morning.

The glitch cascaded onto Eileen and I when Jen texted us the incorrect phone number for the owner of the house she had rented. Fortunately for Eileen and me, Norwegians all speak excellent English, so when I called information, we connected easily with the owner after only a short stay at the Tromsø airport.

Here are two of my first photos of the trip, showing the waterfront at midday. I have included the time of day for this and the following photos to illustrate the perpetual gloom of January in Tromsø. The sun does not break the horizon until February, said the locals. This meant that “day” involved a lethargic transition from dawn to dusk between approximately 11h00 and 14h00.

2010.12.31 @ 12h35

2010.12.31 @ 12h50

Jen found us a great rental house, one block from the waterfront and a 10-minute walk from downtown. Although I have built it up as the capital of nowhere, Tromsø is the largest city in northern Norway and is a popular destination – even in winter – especially among Brits. Therefore accommodation over the New Years period was scarce and expensive and Jen did well to find such a big, comfortable house for us. In the following photo, our house is the small grey one behind and to the left of the yellow one. Another note on the darkness in Tromsø: even at midday, you can only shoot handheld photos at ISO 800 or higher, resulting in the graininess of this photo.

2011.01.03 @ 12h43

Tourism in Tromsø is well developed around classic Arctic experiences and sights: the Northern Lights, dogsledding and reindeer. On our third day we checked two of these from our list. Along with three British tourists, we went dogsledding with a guide who, with his wife, raise approximately 80 dogs  and participate in one-two big races per year. The following photo (from Donn) shows the husband and two dogsled groupies.

2011.01.02 @ ~11h00

The sledding was fun, and relatively easy. I am sure racing involves more technique, but basic dogsled technique involves standing on the sled’s skis, holding the bar and occasionally applying the foot brake. The dogs are actually more entertaining than the sledding. They are bonkers to run. When they are harnessed but the sled is tethered or braked, they all bark and howl in escstatic anticipation, launching themselves in the air against their harnesses – it is deafening and hilarious. When the driver lets them run, the noise suddenly stops and they bound off into the snow. Apart from the brake and perhaps some commands from their masters, nothing distracts them from running, not even bodily functions: they relieve themselves mid-run.

The guide took eight dogs and broke trail. Each of us had our own sled and team of dogs, four or five of them based on our weight. I obviously had five dogs, but was still falling off the back of the pack, so halfway along, the guide gave me a sixth dog and then I was a speed demon. Eileen executed a graceful fall and recovery that impressed even the guide: bouncing out of the snow, righting her sled and taking off again in 15 seconds or so. I did not know what to expect, so I did not have my camera out, so here is one of Donn’s sledding photos. Although it is from behind, the first dog on the left seems to demonstrate the joy these animals take from running.

2011.01.02 @ ~11h30

The guide said a common question he fields is why his dogs are not the classic Siberian huskies. He said they are too bulky for racing, and too aggressive to breed in large numbers. They prefer a species called the Alaskan husky, which is more like a mutt species to which they continually add new breeds to prevent the dogs from growing too bulky. Part breed, part training, the dogs we met were all very affectionate and well behaved in spite of their bubbling energy. Here is a photo of the lead dogs from my team, which shows the differences between these mutts, as well as their total difference from the Siberian husky.

2011.01.02 @ 12h30

Here is a photo of our dogsled group enjoying coffee and chocolate cake around the fire after a hard (not really) session of dogsledding.

2011.01.02 @ 12h49

As for the other Arctic icon, the reindeer, we saw one in the distance on our dogsled trip, but no one managed to snap a photo. The guide said it was a large cow from a nearby reindeer farm owned by a Sami family.

The Northern Lights are the most infectious of Tromsø’s tourist attractions, perhaps because they are so elusive:

“Have you seen the Northern Lights?” “Have you?” “Where? When? What was the guide’s name?” “What were they like?”

“Eileen, come back and eat your dinner – you looked out the window for the Northern Lights ten minutes ago.”

“What is the weather forecast for tomorrow? Clear? Cold?”

Well, we didn’t book one of the Northern Lights tours, so our prospects for seeing them were probably mediocre. The locals said you can see them from town, but there is sufficient “light pollution” that their effect is reduced. During one evening walk at 19h00 or so, Eileen was bouncing around like a crazy person when she and I saw a long green plume arching over the town, by far the best display we would see. But it disappeared by the time we returned home to collect our cameras.

Our only other Northern Lights sighting was late one night along the cross-country ski track that stretches along the ridge of Tromsø island, above the town. We caught several glimpses, but light pollution, especially from the airport, meant that they were faint. At the exact same time, Donn and Jen were hiking up a dark, cold valley on the mainland and saw the same glow in the same direction. Here is Donn’s photo, which is much brighter than he one I shot from our vantage point:

2011.01.04 @ ~22h15

My favourite Tromsø attraction was the cable car (fjellheissen) on the mainland side of the town. Northern Norway’s topography lends itself to great views, with the fjords as the most classic example. Settlements are perched on the narrow bands of flat, habitable that border the Arctic Ocean. Behind them, steep cliffs rise to moderately high mountain ridges and peaks – the fjords are the classic example. Standing at the edge of these cliffs offers expansive views. Living in Switzerland, I have grown accustomed to an endless variety of rail or cable cars giving easy access to spectacular Alpine vistas. Tromsø’s cable car offered a coastal Arctic equivalent: a quick ascent to Storsteinen, 421m above the town. We went up the cable car twice, once for sunset and once for a “daylight” snowshoe on the gentle snowy slopes.

2011.01.04 @ 14h26

2011.01.04 @ 14h46

2011.01.05 @ 13h37

2011.01.05 @ 14h11

2011.01.05 @ 14h29

Here is an assortment of photos of Tromsø from my own wandering at various times of day:

2011.01.02 @ 21h43

2011.01.03 @ 13h46

2011.01.03 @ 14h17

Speech writers often open with a joke; I will end with one:

2011.01.03 @ 11h57

Written by Kris Terauds

January 12, 2011 at 11:52

2 Responses

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  1. Awesome photos Kris. Wish I’d been there!

    Ben

    January 14, 2011 at 12:35

  2. Great story and wonderful pictures. Sorry for such a short note, but I have to shovel the sidewalk covered with over 30 cm of snow.

    Take care…Stafford and Mom

    Stafford Reid

    January 14, 2011 at 19:45


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