Monday, March 12, 2018

Adventures in Arctic Europe Part 3: Norway

This is the third and final part in my series on my recent visit Arctic Europe. If you haven't read the first two parts yet, you'll find them here (Sweden) and here (Finland). Those two articles also help give a good overview of the region, which has a lot to offer adventure travelers.

When last we left off with the story, my companions and I were spending the night in the Finnish town of Levi where we had the chance to set the Northern Lights the evening before. The next day we would be setting out to the final destination on our three-country tour, but not before making one last stop along the way. En route to our first stop in that country, we would first visit Harrriniva, another Finnish town with a lot to offer visitors.

Harriniva is an adventure hub that is nestled in a remote region of the Finland. It provides visitors with the opportunity to go dogsledding, snowmobiling, and reindeer sledding in the winter, and rafting, fishing, and camping during the summer months. Our schedule only allowed us time to drop by for a brief visit, but we did get to play with some huskies that are part of the sled dog activities, which made it a worthwhile stop indeed.

Before long, we were back on the road and heading towards Lyngen, our first destination in Norway. On the way, the landscapes began to change oh-so subtly at first, but by the time we had left Finland behind, the countryside had taken a dramatic shift. Gone were the tall, rounded mountains that made up the Finnish terrain, replaced instead with sharp, angular, and higher peaks that looked much more rugged and demanding. We also began to see the famous Norwegian fjords making an appearance, clearly signaling that we had most definitely changed regions.

By the time we reached Lyngen, the shift had already occurred, bringing some epic scenery along with it. Both Sweden and Finland were beautiful countries to travel through, but for me Norway was on a completely different level. Dense, low-hanging clouds helped mask the full impact of the amazing landscapes, but it was clear that this was a breathtaking place for those who love outdoor adventure.

Visitors to Lyngen will find plenty do do all year round. The town is a great ski destination for those who enjoy backcountry exploration, while snowshoeing, dogsledding, and ice fishing are also popular winter activities. In the summer, the region offers excellent hiking and mountain biking, while kayaking is also popular on the adjacent fjord. Norway happens to be a "freedom to roam" nation, which means you can camp virtually anywhere, while the mountaineering options abound in Lyngen too. There are even whale safaris on offer during certain times of year and of course the Northern Lights are on display just about anytime, provided it isn't the dead of summer when the Midnight Sun takes over the sky.

Our Lyngen adventure wasn't going to be any of those activities unfortunately. Instead, we were going to try something that is popular with the locals, but can be a bit shocking for visitors. At this point, we were well above the Arctic Circle and it was the middle of winter, and yet someone thought that it would be a good idea to go for a swim in the frigid fjord. So, we donned our swim trunks, grabbed a towel and prepared for an icy plunge. First, we'd warm up in a sauna of course, but from there we forced our warm bodies into the freezing-cold water. It was definitely a wake up call that left your feed numb within a matter of a minute or two, while the rest of your body urged you to return to the sauna post-haste. But, I have to admit it was also a refreshing experience that was a lot of fun too.

After our first dip in the water, we warmed back up in the sauna, which convinced us we should try it again. The results were pretty much the same, but thankfully we knew what were in for on the second go around. The cold, cold waters of the fjord weren't any more accommodating this time out, and most of us were very happy to return to the sauna one last time.

Following our mid-winter splash in the sea, we got dressed and were back on the road once again, speeding off to our final destination – the Norwegian city of Tromsø. Of all of the spots we visited on this trip, this was probably my favorite. The town not only provided ready access to a wide number of activities, but it also had a thriving city-scene with excellent restaurants, clubs, museums, and shops to explore. Nestled along yet another fjord, the landscapes were equally beautiful too.

We arrived in the early evening, which meant our next adventures would have to wait for the following day. But, it was a day that was packed with great activities, starting with going dog sledding first thing in the morning. The Tromsø Villmarkssenter took us out on a guided tour, giving each of us the opportunity to both drive and ride with the sled dog teams. I've driven a sled before, so I soon felt comfortable at the helm. As usual, it was a wonderful experience and an amazing way to explore the backcountry. But if dog sledding isn't your thing, the Villmarkssenter also has other things to do as well, including snowshoeing, reindeer sledding, and camping under the auroras.

From there, it was back to Tromsø proper for a quick lunch before heading over to the Polaria museum where we learned a bit more about the region, the Northern Lights activity there, and met some of the local celebrities in the form of four popular harbor seals that live onsite. We arrived in time to watch them be fed, as the seals performed for the gathered crowd, delighting young and old alike. This was the second museum I had wandered through that day after the local Polar Exploration Museum, which was an amazing place to visit for anyone who knows Norway's rich history in that department. I even managed to find a statue of Roald Amundsen prominently on display in a nearby park.

Our last stop in Tromsø allowed us to take a cable car to the top of a nearby mountain for some outstanding views of the surrounding region. An observation platform (and cafe) and the top looks down on the city itself, as well as its harbor, the surrounding fjord, and several small island. The thick clouds hammered the view somewhat, but it was still a spectacular place to be, despite cold temperatures and howling winds. And as the sun set, the city lit up like a Christmas tree far below, providing a beautiful contrast to the darkness that crept in.

We capped off our day with a fine meal and a return to our hotel for the night. Most of us had early morning flights the following day that would take us back home to the U.S. and Canada, so we mostly called it an early night. With that, my week long visit to Arctic Europe came to an end, and far too quickly for my tastes. But, I did discover some great new places to return to in the future with the hopes of exploring the region much more deeply. I'd like to return in the summer for some hiking and mountain biking, and again in the winter for snowshoeing and more dog sledding. It is a wonderful part of the world, and a place that should be on the radar of every adventure traveler.

Thanks for reading!

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