Tromsø: Chasing the Northern Lights

Back in early January, we took a trip to Tromsø, Norway, which is at 69° N latitude, a full 10° above Oslo. Here is our view on the way in.

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Tromsø is a beautiful city, especially when it’s dark. And in Tromsø it is dark almost all the time in January. This is a photo just outside our hotel at 1:30 in the afternoon. In January, you get a couple of hours of daylight around noon.

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There are lots of fun things to do in Tromsø, but Maddie and Ada had the most fun climbing on and sliding down the huge snow piles around the city.

Tromsø also has some great museums. We were especially impressed by the science museum, and as you might imagine, winter and climate change were major themes.

Here’s a great exhibit exploring the symmetry of snowflakes.

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And here’s Maddie and Ada trying an exhibit that simulated pushing a sled on the snow.

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Notice the socks—everyone has to leave their dirty snow covered shoes at the door, a common practice in Norway.

The main reason we chose to visit Tromsø was to see the Northern Lights. Even though Tromsø was close enough to the arctic circle and we were there during the darkest time of year, light pollution and variable cloud cover meant we had to leave Trømso to actual see the lights. So, we booked an expedition to see the Northern Lights with “Chasing Lights.” We set out at 6pm on a fancy touring bus with 50 other tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of this wonder. This turned out to be quite an adventure—it was too cloudy just south of Trømso to see the Northern lights, so the bus began a long journey toward the Finnish border, stopping along the to see if the cloud cover had reduced inland. Fortunately Ada was able to sleep for 2 hours on the drive there and Maddie was able to enjoy gazing at the constellations on a perfectly dark cloudless nighttime sky (though with no “northern lights” activity) on our first stop before we reached Finland.

Below is the route we took—we got to the Finland border just around midnight and arrived back at Tromsø around 3am. But what is time when it’s completely dark outside 22 hours a day?

Of course, we all had visions of the spectacular photos you see when you picture the Northern Lights. Alas, that isn’t quite what we saw. When we got off the bus at the border, we could see low clouds, and above the clouds, a faint smudge of a light gray/ possibly green? light above the clouds—truly unimpressive, and worth making you wonder why you got off the warm bus when it was -15°C outside. But the CCD in the camera is much more sensitive than your eye, so when the guides took our photos, you do see a green halo on the horizon—success! Of course, Ada, as usual, wasn’t interested in getting her picture taken and Maddie, who was asleep on the bus when we reached the Finnish border, had to be practically dragged out of the bus to see the phenomenon. After cookies and hot chocolate and a brief attempt at building a fire by our guides, we all got back on the bus for the long 3 hour bus ride back to Tromsø.

I was glad we convinced Maddie to get out of the bus because after our trip, Maddie added the photos above to her school iPad and proudly showed her classmates the picture of us with the Northern Lights. Even though we were less than impressed, Maddie and Ada couldn’t stop talking about the Northern Lights and drew some pretty great pictures of themselves with the Northern Lights the next day as we took a break at the local library in Trømso.

Another highlight of our trip was a morning spent visiting reindeer and learning about Sami culture, the native people of Norway. We got to feed the reindeer—they would just walk right up to you and eat from the bucket of reindeer food.

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Then we got to ride around the property on a real reindeer sled “Ho, Ho, Ho.”

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After all of this, we gathered in a warm Sami tent for a traditional lunch of reindeer stew, and an explanation about Sami culture from one of the local Sami reindeer herders.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Tromsø is the weather. We went expecting it to be a record-setting cold that we’d remember for the rest of our lives, but in reality, temperatures were mostly right around freezing, and we spent a good deal of one day in our hotel room because of the heavy rain outside. Tromsø (and coastal Norway in general) are known to have a warmer climate that many other parts of the arctic due to the gulf stream, but watching heavy rain outside your window in early January above the arctic circle still feels a bit strange.

Speaking of hotel rooms, if you ever stay in a hotel in Norway, the “Scandic” hotel chain has an amazing breakfast buffet included in the price of your hotel room- lots of Norwegian knekke brød, fresh fish, Norwegian vaffles, pancakes, eggs of all sorts, an assortment of cheeses, fresh fruit, and even fresh orange juice.

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