Some 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle is a realm of pure light. It is on this stage that the northern lights come out to dance, then withdraw behind the invisible curtain of night. It is also the land of the midnight sun, where half the year the sun never sets, and the other half it never rises. It’s where the so-called “blue hour” of twilight cloaks the snowy landscape in a spectrum from deep marine to periwinkle.
It’s where you’re more likely to see reindeer than humans on an outing, and a slab of ice draped with reindeer hide serves as a bed.
I sail along the west coast of Norway in a ship as intrepid as the captain who pioneered it. In the 19th century, Captain Richard With founded the Hurtigruten steamship line. At the time, the voyages along this route were arduous and long, due to winds and ocean turbulence.
Trips were infrequent and unreliable, and few captains dared to travel at night. Captain With — told more than once that he wouldn’t be able to do it — created the “fast route” by sailing day and night. He offered weekly departures and completed the journey in several days.
His steamship line eventually added a cruise dimension — I sail aboard the Midnatsol (Midnight Sun) on a six-day journey from Kirkenes to Bergen. It makes 32 stops that define a somewhat unfamiliar Norwegian history that should be better known.
Embarking at Kirkenes
Before boarding at Kirkenes, I spend a night in the Kirkenes Snowhotel. I feast on reindeer sausage grilled over an open fire in the hotel’s kitchen, drink vegetable broth, and ride a dogsled through the darkening fjords before climbing into a surprisingly cozy ice bed.
Kirkenes is a town three miles west of the Russian border, with a population of about 3,400 — purportedly less than the number of reindeer that roam its hills and valleys.
We voyage south from there, travelling through towns such as Vardø. Located on the Barents Sea, it’s known for its 17th-century witch trials. Now, the stark, modern Steilneset Memorial honours the memories of the 91 victims of those trials.
We visit Hammerfest, the most northerly city in the world. It is a UNESCO Heritage site because it was the first city in the world to have electricity created by water power — in 1891, no less. It also has the Meridian Monument, dedicated to the first exact measurement of the Earth.
In Tromsø’s Arctic Cathedral, we listen to Norwegian folk songs, and songs of the native Sami people. The tunes are played on the flugelhorn and the ancient Hardanger fiddle.
And the heavens opened
On the last evening of our journey, the clouds clear and we behold the lights.
Streaks of green melt into waves of purple and turquoise, with a shade of chartreuse. Even though we expected them, even though we’ve seen photos, they are still breathtaking, awesome, and truly humbling.
The lights are immortal. They captivated Cro-Magnon humans — cave drawings in southern France are said by some scholars to depict the northern lights. The oldest written document about the northern lights is from 2600 B.C., in China.
In 467 B.C., the Greek scholar Plutarch wrote, “It was like a flaming cloud, which did not stay at its position but moved windingly and regularly, so that the glowing fragments were flying in all directions.”
The Roman historian Seneca wrote in 37 A.D., “These fires present the most varied colours: some are vivid red; others resemble a faint and dying flame; some are white; others scintillate.”
In 1619 A.D., the astronomer Galileo coined the term Aurora Borealis, after Aurora, the Roman goddess of morning, and Borealis, a wind from the north.
For a rare time, I saw the lights of past and future. It was a compelling finale, impressing upon me the depth and breadth of the grand scheme — and our deep connections to it. The cold Norwegian sky became a colourful celestial canvas, a painting of timeless Arctic beauty.