The Far North

Today I am heading home from a two week trip to Harstad, one of a handful of visits to schools I’ll teach at above the Arctic Circle. This trip, combined with trips to Hammerfest and Kirkenes before the holidays constitutes about a month spent in the “polar night." 

One of the unique aspects of living this far north (Oslo is at about 60 degrees latitude; Hammerfest is at 70!) is the very short length of day around the winter solstice. From late November through January, the sun never actually rises above the horizon! From late morning to early afternoon, when a bright blue glow stretches across the skies and reflects off the water and snowfields, it’s strikingly gorgeous. 

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But the lack of sunshine wears on people, and everyone I meet copes in a different way. Some folks admit to being affected tremendously, saying its hard to sleep at night and they are groggy all day, feeling unmotivated and even sad. Others tell me that they’ve always known it to be this way, so it affects them very little. Of course, everyone knows that at the other end of the cycle the June skies will give way to the mid-night sun. So some tell me they’re happy to hibernate now and save their energy for summer. My method? A vitamin D supplement, cross-country skiing, and the Netflix series The Crown

But from what I can see, the darkness has little impact on school routines. Many schools still require that students layer up and go outside during their breaks. In Kirkenes I watched what seemed to be a very competitive lunchtime kickball game; the students weren’t deterred in the slightest by a few meters of snow. 

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When I arrived in Harstad last week, a beautiful coastal city and the gateway to the famous Lofoten Islands, my host picked me up by bicycle. We’d gotten a half meter of fresh snow overnight, but that didn’t stop Jon from commuting into town on two wheels. We walked a few blocks to his school together, hopping over new snow banks and cinching our hoods down as the snowfall picked up. “So, you bike commute all winter?” I asked. 

 ”Oh yes, I like to ride a bike,” he said with a shrug. 

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Recreation and the outdoors are so obviously a way of life here and Jon helped me experience it fully, an outstanding host for my two weeks in Harstad. He and his wife Liv Marit had me over to their house for middag and served cod they’d fished out in the harbor last summer. On the weekend they took me cross country skiing in a breathtaking valley. Coincidentally, this day was the very first day the sun would creep to the horizon in nearly two months. When I approached the top of the groomed circuit, I joined a group of skiers to watch the blinding sun approach the horizon. For many, the return of the sun is an emotional experience. “You don’t realize how much you miss it, and when its suddenly back, it can feel overwhelming— I want to cry,” one teacher in town told me. 

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I was also lucky enough to see the Northern Lights on a few occasions. Both in Harstad and Hammerfest, cold, clear nights brought the right conditions for viewing the solar activity from town. Approaching midnight is the best time to see them, so I bundled up with layers (and a bit of courage to wandering around above tree line in the dark by myself!) and set off following directions from my local hosts. One teacher invited me to walk up to her house on the outskirts of town, then follow her snow scooter track into the forest. From there she instructed “just keep going, and when you get to the reindeer fence just hop over. Then continue for about 15 minutes and you’ll get to the foundation of an old Nazi fortress. That’s a good place to watch.” It was. 

These trips to the North are a unique part of the Roving experience. As a tourist its unlikely that I’ll ever venture that far north again, so I'm taking advantage of every opportunity. This time in Norway is testing me in ways I hadn’t anticipated, especially on these trips to remote corners of the earth. I am being pushed out of my comfort zone, and while at times that feels uncomfortable, I know that that makes it just right. 

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