Kris à Genève

A Canadian living in Switzerland

Where the sun don’t shine

with one comment

Migratory birds escape winter by flying towards the Equator. Many Canadians do the same, including the flocks of snowbirds that nest every winter in Arizona, Florida and South Carolina.

Last year Eileen and I, with our Canadian friends Donn and Jen, defied our instincts and flew north for a winter holiday in Tromsø, Norway. Jen had proposed that we find “a different sort of destination,” and Tromsø, at 400km north of the Arctic Circle, was precisely that. We enjoyed ourselves so much in Tromsø that we returned this year, once again for the week straddling New Year’s Eve.

This year our migratory flock included Ben and Belinda, two friends of the australis species. Canadians would normally scoff at the concept of an Australian “winter,” and therefore at the adequacy of an Australian’s winter coat in a place such as Tromsø. But I know better: I have visited Canberra in August. Australians can do winter.

Also Ben comes from the island state of Tasmania, which is almost as far south (40-44 degrees) as the populated parts of Canada are to the north (43-51 degrees).

We rented a different house this year, set higher on the spine of Tromsø island – our house last year was two blocks up from the water. The advantages and disadvantages of the two houses more or less balanced each other, but the house this year offered laundry. It also offered labels that provoked deep philosophical reflection, such as the following one:

The owners had hung a world map near the entrance and asked their guests to add a pin indicating their place of origin. We Canadians could all have placed pins (Comox, Vernon, Victoria) if we had not forgotten, but another Tasmanian had beaten Ben to the map.

In Tromsø, the sun disappears in late November and does not reappear until mid to late January. So although we were active during our stay, the long hours of dark and cold every day meant that we spent a fair amount of time indoors. Here are two photos of Belinda and Eileen passing the time:

Ben, perhaps forgetting that he owns a lightweight iPad, had carried in his luggage the first two giant volumes of Haruki Marukami’s new IQ84 novel. Here he is supporting one of the books with his legs, after it had exhausted his arms:

For activities, we more or less repeated what we did last year. Ben and Belinda brought bum sleds for all of us and we broke all but two of them over the course of our stay. We all had cross country skis and explored the collection of groomed, lit trails that the municipality maintains on and around Tromsø island. These trails are popular, free, easily accessible and kept in great condition: a model of high value public space.

Last year we all enjoyed dog sledding: the sledding itself was fun, the dogs were charming and our guide was engaging. This year we decided we should try a different operator, if only to experience different scenery. In the end we chose a much bigger company. When we loaded onto a coach bus that was filled to capacity, I was immediately apprehensive at about our choice. As it turned out, the sledding group was indeed much larger and slower, the guides less accessible and we were two people to a sled (last year we each had our own sled). Nevertheless, the sledding was just as fun as last year and the dogs just as delightfully bonkers for running. Here are some photos of the dogs:

I had a great time driving the sled; Eileen less so. I drove for the first half of the run, while she sat on the sled and froze. Here is a photo of me, mid-mush:

At the halfway point, Eileen and I switched places. Here she is, excited for her turn, more than likely because it was an opportunity for her to warm her frozen feet:

But less than a minute after releasing the brake, Eileen’s drive was over. Shortly after we resumed, the trail narrowed between some trees. Throughout the run, our dogs had favoured the left side of the trail instead of the middle, and as we navigated through the trees, the sled was riding on the left shoulder of the packed trail. The dogs corrected their course at the narrowest point, moving back to the middle of the trail, but the sled did not respond in time and we slammed, nose first, into a tree. I saw the crash coming and rolled off the sled into the soft snow. Eileen fought the sled all the way into the crash and was thrown forward into the frame of the sled. One of the vertical bars bruised her left knee and, more worrisome, the handle bar struck her just below her ribs, knocking out her wind before she tumbled into the snow. She had a scary moment when she could not catch her breath, but my moment of alarm subsided when I saw in her eyes that she was more shocked than injured.

Here is a photo of the first few seconds of Eileen’s brief sledding experience – I think the offending tree is the one just ahead of the sled in front of us. Also notice the symmetry and intact-ness of the nose of our sled.

Here is a photo Eileen shot after I had retaken the controls. Once again the dogs are running along the left shoulder of the packed trail.

Eileen’s unfortunate crash prevented her from having much of a driving experience on the sled. But she quickly recovered her usual happy self and we laughed about the unlikely advantages of the crash. From my perspective, I had double the driving time as anyone else.  From Eileen’s, the jolt of adrenaline she received after the crash warmed her up more quickly and completely than the driving likely would have. And we both enjoyed that the long delay after the crash gave us a 15-20 minute run of unbroken speed before we caught up with the long, slow line of sleds.

At the end of the run, everyone crowded into a big yurt for chowder and warm drinks.

Our other repeat activity was to walk around on Storsteinen, a 420-metre mountain on the mainland that offers excellent views of Tromsø and the surrounding islands and mountains. Last year we twice rode the cable car up to Storsteinen. This year we walked twice up the relatively easy trail through the trees to the ridge. It was fortunate we had equipped ourselves for walking, as on both days the cable car was closed.

On one of our ascents, the wind was already strong when we left sea level. On the ridge, it was howling at 50km/h+, adding 10 degrees or more of wind chill and stirring up angry clouds of spindrift. Belinda and I raced from spot to spot to shoot photos while Eileen and Ben hid from the wind in a children’s play area near the cable car station.

Here is a photo of my fellow intrepid adventurers:

We had walked up with snowshoes. Here is a photo of Ben on a steep, powdery slope, before the soft gallop downhill that is the reward after every snowshoe ascent in powder:

Below the treeline, we were no longer under attack from the wind and spindrift. Eileen slid on her bum down the packed trail; Ben and I bounded through the powder between the trees. At a lookout on the way down, it was calm enough to shoot photos without squinting and fearing frostbite in your fingers.

The wind persisted for several days during our stay. At one point, feeling stir crazy after a long stretch indoors, Belinda and I braved the wind and walked to the southern tip of the island.

On a more comfortable day, we walked up Storsteinen in snowshoes a second time. It was still cold, but there was no wind and we were rewarded with a beautiful sunset. Although the sun does not appear at this time of year, it sets somewhere below the arc of the horizon and the rich colours seep into the sky above Tromsø, lasting for almost two hours due to the high northerly latitude.

Tromsø residents love their fireworks. Last New Year’s Eve, we searched in vain for the perfect lookout for the fireworks and found ourselves more or less in a neighbourhood cul-de-sac when midnight struck. Nevertheless we were treated to an intense 30-minute light show as each neighbour in succession launched a considerable arsenal of fireworks. It was deafening, incessant and disorganised. It was all the more impressive for consisting mainly of individual household displays, such that the sky exploded up and down the length of the island, as opposed to only at an officially organised event in the town centre.

In addition, locals last year had told us that the municipality hosts a fireworks and bonfire event on the Storsteinen ridge above town, but for some reason the event was eventually cancelled.

This year, we found a better lookout next to the Tromsø pool and the ridge-top Storsteinen show went ahead. Here is a shot of the fireworks:

The next shot shows the flare-based counter on the mountainside that ticked over from 2011 to 2012 at midnight:

Watching fireworks, and even photographing them, does not hold my interest for long. If I have not seen fireworks for months or years, the first few bursts of light and colour catch my interest, but it quickly becomes repetitive. When will someone design a new device that introduces different movements or shapes?

After shooting a number of photos of the fireworks, I turned my camera on the audience that was watching from our lookout. Suddenly I noticed a streak of light and colour far more mesmerising than fireworks: the Northern Lights morphed into view above the eerie green pool building:

Eventually it was the turn of the household next to the pool to launch their fireworks. During part of the display, someone in the town below launched a red flare. All of this, combined with the pool building, created a cacophony of light that drowned out the Northern Lights above:

Whatever the other attractions and activities Tromsø offers, the Northern Lights are every visitor’s preoccupation. If their preoccupation is strong, visitors can buy seven-hour tours that advertise “hunting” the Northern Lights all the way to the Finnish border and estimate a 70% success rates. Our preoccupation was weaker, but we nonetheless checked the sky at regular intervals between 21h00 and midnight every night, no matter where we were or what we were doing. Last year, we saw only faint plumes of Northern Lights during our stay – not even enough for me to return with a usable photo. This year, I was much luckier.

Our first few nights in Tromsø this year were the best ones we had for Northern Lights. We arrived late on the 29th and were treated with two long, distinct green plumes that arced across the island from the northeast to the southwest. We watched them from our deck. The photo above shows the brief appearance of the Northern Lights two nights later, on New Year’s Eve. But on the middle day, the 30th, our second night in Tromsø, the sky was consumed by the Northern Lights.

After an evening of sledding, we walked back to the house and saw more or less the same plumes travelling across the sky as the night before. Back at the house at 23h15 or so, Belinda and I grabbed our camera gear and went out into the yard to photograph the sky. After a couple of shots, I wandered around to the street in front of the house. I found out later that Belinda went inside. I set up my tripod in a neighbour’s front yard and shot what were still faint Northern Lights at 23h40. Then the green seeped across nearly the entire sky and danced for 15-20 minutes as I impatiently waited for one 30-second exposure after another. The others later teased me for how excited I was when I raced back into the house to see if anyone else had seen the show (they hadn’t). But in the moment it was otherworldly to see those vaporous green veils brushing one in front of another, then morphing together – appearing and fading – as they blew across the night sky, as if pushed by a faint, inconstant breeze.

First, here is a shot of the Northern Lights a few minutes before the big show began:

Next here are two photos taken from our neighbour’s yard and from the street in front of our house. Remember that Northern Lights are best viewed in remote locations, away from the light pollution in settled areas. I shot the following two photos underneath street lights and next to houses with lit windows.

Later, I began to read about what causes the Northern Lights, but then realised I do not want to know. Magic!

I was grumpy about returning to Geneva after our week in Tromsø. For me, we were more active during this year’s trip and had excellent luck with the Northern Lights and the New Year’s Eve fireworks, so I felt the sentiment of: “imagine what we could see if we stayed another week!” Also Donn and Jen moved to Ireland last summer, so this was the end of a rare opportunity to enjoy time with them. Lastly, vacation time seems that much rarer now that I am working again. I did not want to return to where the sun shines!

One Response

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  1. Good fun and great photos! Eileen, I’m always amazed at how you sacrifice your body for a good story! You don’t really have to do that – we love you anyway!
    Kris, being Canadian – it is important for you to know that the Northern Lights are not fantasy and magic at all; but, the result of Paul Bunyan and Babe, his blue ox wrestling, just for fun, at the end of a workday. I hated to burst your bubble about believing in magic.
    Your Mother

    Marianna Terauds

    January 10, 2012 at 02:50


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