What It’s Like to Sleep Under the Northern Lights in Tromsø, Norway

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In a word: magic.

When I touched down in Tromsø in early February, it was dark out––to be expected, as I had an evening flight and the sun begins to set in the late afternoon that time of year. At 217 miles north of the Arctic Circle, it’s safe to say it was very chilly when I stepped outside the airport.

Nicknamed “the gateway to the Arctic,” Tromsø is considered the cultural hub of northern Norway. It wasn’t long before I learned about how international the island is; my taxi driver, who moved to the area from Somalia 17 years ago, explained to me that students come from all over the world to study at University of Tromsø. Even more people come to find work within the flourishing outdoor tourism industry. (Of the five excursions I went on, only two of my tour guides were Norwegian.) In the small and bustling town, you’ll find warmly-lit restaurants boasting both seasonal Scandinavian cuisine and international food. There are shops with handmade Norwegian sweaters, slippers crafted from reindeer hides, boutiques with cutting-edge clothing. Reaching above the skyline across the bridge from the center of town is the iconic glass mosaic Arctic Cathedral, built in 1965. On that side of town, you can take a cable car up the mountain that overlooks the island to see the sweeping views of the island and water below. Houses in red, yellow, and white dot the icy shorelines of Tromsø Sound and fishing boats bob up and down on the water’s gentle waves. I spent four nights in Tromsø, but would’ve happily stayed for weeks.

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I had a restful first night’s sleep at Clarion Hotel the Edge, an upscale modern venue right on the edge of the cold waters that surround the island. My room was small and cozy with iconically Scandinavian accents and colors. I sat starry-eyed at breakfast, eating some of the best smoked salmon I’ve ever had while staring out the windows at the fishing boats bobbing in the water with towering mountains as their backdrop. When I’d had my fill of hearty breakfast food, I headed out to begin the day. I was going ice fishing on a frozen fjord about a 30-minute drive from downtown Tromsø.

My guide, Andrei, was not Norwegian. He’d been in Tromsø for years, though, leading excursions like ice fishing and northern lights chases with his company, Enjoy the Arctic. We carefully made our way down the snowy banks of Ramfjord, where we would spend about three hours hand-drilling holes, plopping our fishing lines into the icy depths, pulling up fresh cod (I caught five!) and letting them back into the water. Andrei brought some fresh-caught salmon for lunch, which he prepared in a small smoker right on the ice. We ate quickly, our backs to the frigid wind. It was paradise.

I had a few hours to warm up in my hotel room and explore town before my next excursion. It didn’t take long for me to see that Tromsø is an incredibly environmentally progressive destination––as is most of the country. Every public toilet and hotel room you encounter will have friendly notes about water conservation, and excursion guides will happily chat about what locals on the island do to best protect the precious land and water while balancing the increasing demands of the tourism industry. Everyone wants to come to Tromsø to see the famous dancing lights that grace the vast skies between September and April. There’s no doubt that the influx of tourists is an adjustment for the local population, though the tourism industry has had to work strategically to balance the needs of locals with the demands of travelers.

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“We have seen a large rise in the number of visitors to Tromsø, and as you say, that brings with it many positive elements. However, there is a fine balance between increasing visitor numbers and keeping that ‘in step’ with the requirements of the local population,” said Chris Hudson, Director of Tourism at Visit Tromø. “In Tromsø, we have a clear strategy, which is to build infrastructure and facilities for the locals in the first instance, whilst dimensioning the infrastructure for the number of visitors. That means that the locals’ wishes are taken care of, whilst the visitors can enjoy our destination ‘as the locals do.’ We feel that by taking this strategic direction, we ensure a sustainable destination, with the wishes of the locals at the center.”

I felt moved by the way locals spoke about Tromsø, as Chris did––there is a humbleness, a sense of immense respect for the environment, and for those (animals and humans alike) who call Tromsø home. And more often than not, this seems to rub off on people who come from near and far to experience all that this pocket of the arctic has to offer.

After regaining feeling in my extremities following my ice fishing adventure, it was time for me to head out of the city, about a forty-minute drive toward the Lyngen Alp Mountains. I would spend the evening with the lovely hosts of Tromsø Lapland, a small group of Sami people, the indigenous population of Northern Scandinavia, traditionally (and often still) reindeer herders. At this particular settlement, the folks who run Tromsø Lapland offer travelers reindeer sleigh rides, northern lights chases, and overnight experiences in traditional Sami accommodations (lavvos). The Sami culture is centuries old, the population spread amongst Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Russia.

The other guests and I––a mix of Norwegians and internationals who’d traveled from all over the world just for this experience––were picked up in town by Ken, our jovial and hilarious driver and guide. Ken was dressed in a traditional Sami outfit, which he would later explain is more utilitarian than anything, despite how striking it is.

When we arrived at the camp (which consists of a tall wooden house where the hosts live, a few smaller buildings, a big communal lavvo, large fenced-in fields of reindeer, and smaller sleeping tents up a sloping hill) it was impossible to see the surroundings, but I could sense a snow-blanketed vastness. Ken showed us to a shed where everyone donned arctic jumpsuits––essentially insulated onesies that keep the frigid temperatures out (at this point in the evening, the air was dropping below 10 degrees Fahrenheit). He explained that we would head down past the big lavvo to where the reindeer were harnessed up. Between each reindeer there were two-person wooden sleds where we would sit for the ride through snowy tundra.

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Conveniently, my camera broke earlier in the week, and my iPhone 5 SE was unable to capture anything happening in the night sky. But it was a blessing in disguise, because I couldn’t have been more present in that moment. I snuggled against a reindeer hide blanket on a sled near the back of the line, and was joined by a friendly Norwegian woman my age. Together we pointed our eyes toward sky as faint green lights, as if on cue, began to move above us in graceful waves, first slowly, then picking up speed behind the jagged silhouette of the surrounding mountains. The ride lasted about thirty minutes, and when we returned to camp, Ken and his cousin, Johan—also a herder and guide—led us into the paddock to feed the animals. Surrounded by waist-high fuzzy reindeer, some with giant racks on their head, was initially intimidating, but they quickly nuzzled their soft noses into our buckets filled with grain, completely uninterested in interacting with humans.

After the feeding frenzy, Ken led us into the lavvo, a large tent that looks somewhat similar to a Native American tipi, but is less vertical, as it’s crafted to withstand the strong winds of the arctic tundra. A circle of wooden tables, centered around a large wood stove, waited for us, laden with twinkling lights, candles, thermoses, and beautiful wooden bowls. There was fresh bread and local butter, and we feasted on generous servings of reindeer stew—which, admittedly, felt a little challenging after spending so much time with the gentle creatures. But the dinner was not only delicious; it was a testament to the precious, co-dependent relationship between the Sami people and their reindeer, to which they refer as “the true heroes of the Arctic.”  

After dinner, we listened to Ken’s stories about Sami culture and he spoke about what the lifestyle of reindeer herding is like. He explained each piece of his outfit and passed around shoes and hats to show us how the clothing, made of sturdy and warm reindeer hide, is the best way to keep body heat insulated during the depths of winter. As the evening concluded, he performed a yoik, which is a traditional harmonic Sami song created in dedication to a person, animal or place.

That night I slept well in the small lavvos set up for me, but woke every few hours to put wood on the fire and keep the heat up––it was freezing, but the good kind of cold that makes you appreciate the powers of thermal underwear and thick reindeer hides. In the morning, I woke around eight with the light. There was that soft glow again, somehow simultaneously blue and pink. 

In the distance beyond the field of reindeer and the Alps, I could see a sliver of the fjord beyond, and realized the vastness of the horizon. The reindeer, unphased by this breathtaking morning were grazing lazily in their field.

I enjoyed a breakfast of fresh salmon, bread and hot coffee in the main lavvo before saying goodbye to Ken and Johan, who were already gearing up for another day of hard work and preparations for more guests. On the bus ride back to Tromsø, I was in a daze, my face pressed to the window as we passed snow-covered spruce and a fjord accented by colorful houses along the bright white shoreline. I thought back to opening my eyes in the depth of the night, blissfully content that the cold woke me so that I could revel in the pleasure of it all. Put wood on the crackling fire, snuggle next to the heat, peek my head outside of the tent to breath in the freshest air my lungs have known and listen to the jingle of reindeer bells, the northern lights still soaring high above.