Norway – 08:10 European Standard Time – Tromsø
It was crisp and cold that January morning but, compared to the Norwegian interior, it was positively balmy at minus ten Celsius.
Across the fjord the Sun’s morning rays were just beginning to reflect off the long stretches of water around the city. Bouncing off the delicate ripples that ran across the cold water’s surface, mountains that seemed eternally dark in the cold winter months started to light up, as beams of light penetrated around the deep fjord.
Even though Tromsø was so far north, the city was warmed by the Gulf Stream that arrived here, curling over the tip of Scotland and onto the North West coastal tip of Norway. This meant that even though it only got to about fifteen degrees in summer, the city was always protected from the worst of the winter cold.
Tromsø had the infamous reputation as the only city in Europe in the Arctic Circle and, this far north, the day was only a few hours long. But that made it one of the best places in the world to see the Aurora Borealis, or northern lights as it was more commonly known.
Astrid Nielsen loved it best in winter, when the Aurora was showing its best display. With her long blonde hair tucked in in a bun inside the artificial fur-lined hood of her slate grey 10 Tog puffa jacket, she felt the weather could throw anything at her.
The ice-packed street surface was already crisp and hard from ten weeks of wintery conditions, and the light dusting of fresh snow made a pleasant creaking noise underfoot.
Whistling softly, and relishing the warmth of her Ugg boots, she tramped the final few hundred metres to the large wooden three storey building that was the Tromsø tourist visitor centre.
She’d been given her dream job at the visitor centre just two months ago, helping within a small close-knit team to advise the tens of thousands of tourists that came up to the Arctic Circle for the five months of the cold season.
Astrid adored her job, informing the people who came from all over the world about the many delights of the city and the sparsely populated Norwegian interior north of the Arctic Circle. The whole region was certainly geared up for tourists at this time of year, and they generally wanted advice on which of the many tour guides and camps might suit their wide range of budgets.
She opened the creaky back door of the visitor centre, hung up her jacket, and took a steaming cup of coffee over to her small desk.
No-one else was in yet, so she booted up her PC and reviewed her social media feed and email messages from interested tourists.
Astrid studied the first email in her inbox, typical of those that arrived from tourists all over the world by the dozens, all winter long.
Hi, I have been to Tromsø before in summer and loved it. My partner and I are spending about eight days there in January to try and see the Northern Lights, as well as going dog sledding.
I note that the full moon is on 2 January and 31 January and the new moon is 17 January. The polar night finishes on 16 January. All these dates are confusing and I can’t find a consensus as to when is best to view the lights.
Full moon seems to be amazing if there is a strong display and I’ve read otherwise the new moon is best for a small display.
Given that we are at a low point in the solar cycle does that mean we should visit when there is no moon?
I would love some help! My head hurts! Jonas and Agatha 🙂
She paused, chewing her pen in thought, then started typing.
We recommend you to visit Tromsø when there is a moon, especially in the polar nights period when the sun is under the horizon, since the moon will be lighting up the mountains for you, and you`ll have an better experience of the landscape around you.
As we live in the special band in the Arctic, where the Northern Lights are usually visible, you always stand a good chance of seeing the Aurora. However, it is not possible to guarantee you will see the Aurora, as it is a natural phenomenon that even the Tromsø Tourist Board do not have complete control over!
But, since you are both planning eight days here, you should have a very good chance to see the Aurora more than once, and it is particularly beautiful in harmony with the full moon.
As a tip, just come into the tourist office here when you arrive.
I’m sure you will enjoy the local scenery and dog sledding too 🙂
Assistant, Tromsø Tourist Visitor Centre
It was no surprise to her that she’d found out the main reason tourists messaged and came in to the centre, in their hundreds of thousands each season, was to find out exactly where best to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis.
Everyone wanted their own time-lapse picture of the northern lights, with the coastal scenery framed at night by the constantly changing and gleaming swags of its rainbow colours. Fortunately only some were disappointed that the Aurora’s low and constantly changing light meant that ‘selfies’ were pretty well out.
Astrid had been born and raised in Norway’s capital on the Bygdoy peninsular, Oslo. She’d had enjoyed visiting the City’s many cultural museums with her loving parents but, even as a child, she had felt hemmed in within their small city apartment. Brought up on the Viking legends, she never felt at home during the humid Oslo summers. She dad an in-built yearning for the mountains and snow, and the draw of the famous Northern Lights near the Arctic Circle.
Like many teenage Norwegians, she was one of the millennial generation brought up with a smartphone in their hand. At the age of eleven she remembered her father getting an iPhone and, of course under close supervision, she would be allowed to play in the early evenings with some of the games apps he had installed after the revolutionary app stores emerged, just a few months later.
As soon as she was a teenager she’d insisted on her own small web smartphone, or mobil as they called them locally. She’d latched onto all of the social media applications pretty well, as soon as they launched. Like many of her friends, they had almost instantly substituted visiting each other’s houses for spending time online, in chatrooms, and messaging each other over the breadth of Oslo city.
By the time she was eighteen she was a social media expert, having spent nearly five years cultivating her following and providing photos, videos and opinions on the local city and its busy social Iife.
But it was her early pictures of the Aurora that everyone loved. She seemed to have a natural knack of capturing the mix of flowing rainbow curtains with the varied backgrounds of buildings like the Oslo City Hall, and views across the impressive Oslo fjord.
By the time she was eighteen, Astrid had a massive following on most of the major social and video sharing platforms. For this reason, on many occasions she had also been contacted by the local Oslo tourist office to provide photos, video and comments on the new architecture and building projects that were now springing up all over the city. She provided this happily and was pleasantly surprised at the thousands of likes and shares she got back as a result, usually from the city visitors that had seen and appreciated her work and made their trip to the city interesting and memorable.
But, at home during her teenage years, Astrid had seen her parents getting increasingly concerned and agitated at the rapid growth of the city’s population. It also made her realise that she was made of the stuff of Vikings and that, despite their excitements and busy social scene, big cities simply weren’t for her in the long run.
Thinking long and hard about her future, not least the scary thought of leaving and having to make new friends, she first took the easier route. With her parent’s blessing, and their hefty financial support, she applied and was readily admitted onto a degree course in Conservation and Tourism at the University of Oslo. She strongly suspected that her easy passage onto the course was in no small measure down to the Director of Oslo’s tourist board, Eva. In the past year she’d met her only once or twice, but learned that Eva was also a Vice-Chancellor of the University. Friends told her that she’d really appreciated the work Astrid had done to increase the tourist numbers wanting to see the Aurora, so she thought maybe that was a slight clue to her rapid acceptance.
Perhaps because she’d never really pushed herself before, to her surprise she discovered during the first two years of her course that she was brighter than many of the other students. She’d found the course content interesting, but relatively easy, and so it wasn’t until her final year in Oslo that her degree subject really came to life. The previous summer she’d moved into a small house on the outskirts of the city with a group of girlfriends, most on her own course.
During the long break during June and July she concentrated on her night-time photography, encouraged by a huge number of hits, shares and likes she was getting off her many social media pages.
Astrid discovered some of the amazing NASA pictures of the Aurora Borealis, as it appeared from the International Space Station orbiting at over 400 kilometres above the earth. Travelling at 28,000 km an hour the ISS sped once round the Earth every ninety minutes, but the interesting bit was it tracked over different parts of the globe each time it orbited.
Astrid was astounded that you could just log in and see all of the live pictures beamed back direct from the external cameras on the ISS. She was particularly excited to see that, when the ISS passed over Norway, rather than coloured shimmering curtains, the Aurora created a complete ring of fire across the top of the globe, at about the same latitude as the Arctic Circle. But, most impressive of all, was that here was the first visible indication she had seen of the Earth’s magnetic field. All you had to do was work out roughly the centre of the glowing Aurora’s circle on an ISS picture and, there it was sitting over northern Canada, the magnetic north pole.
This really brought it home to her that there must be some sort of elemental particles hitting the Earth’s magnetic field, creating this wonderful sight, something she’d never considered in detail before. She’d never really been into astronomy, and so investigating this particular phenomenon was an interesting new challenge that she delighted in forcing herself into.
So, for her third year course dissertation, she decide not only to focus on photography of the Aurora Borealis, but the science behind it too. She read almost anything she could get her hands on about the solar wind, the Earth’s natural magnetosphere created by its fiery iron core, and how, when and why the Aurora was created. The most fascinating thing that she learnt was that the Aurora was due to charged particles travelling to the Earth directly from the Sun. As these particles hit the earth’s magnetosphere they then curved in towards the Earth’s poles, causing slowly flickering curtain of colours in the sky at both north and south poles. Astrid discovered that there was lots of information freely available online from the European Commission and NASA, and devoured it over long evenings and information packed weekends at the house.
In the end her dissertation ran to over a hundred pages, not including the fabulous array of pictures she’d taken and sourced to go with it. Come graduation day, most of the other students fancied Astrid for first class honours, but even she was surprised when she got the University award for the best science faculty dissertation that year.
The end of the course for many students, including Astrid, meant their lives were in a vacuum until they found permanent jobs or placements during the summer. In her heart Astrid knew that the last three years had confirmed to her that she loved the Norwegian snowy outdoors and its flora and fauna way more than its busy, bustling and slightly claustrophobic capital city. So, after graduating she decided to make the move to Tromsø in northern Norway. She admitted to herself that she was doing this partly in following Inga, her best friend at University, who had entranced her during the course with stories of the acres of snow and hills plunging into deep fjords. With an assurance from Inga’s parents that she could stay with them in the first few months, in their big chalet style house, she’d made her goodbyes to her tearful parents, with a firm promise that she’d be good and come home to visit them every season.
When she first arrived by train on the outskirts of her new home that Autumn, scanning its beautiful bridge and the arctic cathedral amongst the old wooden houses and acres of snow, she’d immediately felt like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Apart from the pleasant surprise at how much cheaper everything now was, outside of Norway’s capital, she’d fitted in right away with the big group of like-minded youngsters. Everyone in the town was there seeking the outdoor life, whether it be walking, skiing, dog-sledding or mountain climbing. Wanting to know more about the background to Tromsø and its local people, she’d hunted out the tourist centre on the very first day, and their friendly staff had also given her lots of tips on where to rent accommodation.
Two months later she had moved out of Inga’s parents’ house, wishing them a thankful farewell and a promise to come back to see them regularly. She had a signed up for a cosy apartment nestled in the gable roof of a large wooden-floored building with a cheap monthly rent. But what had sold it to her was that the house had rumoured to have been one of the many supply buildings that Roald Amundsen had used for his many explorations of the Arctic.
She had still felt lonely at first, despite being in regular contact with her thousands of Oslo friends on social media throughout the day. Inga recognised Astrid needed to build her own local social network, and so she had introduced her to many of her old school friends. Astrid soon learned that Tromsø was steeped in history. Way back in 890, the Norse chieftain Ohthere had made his peace with the local Sami tribes who herded the local reindeer. From that point on the Arctic frontier town had rapidly grown, even building the world’s most northernmost church in 1252.
Many days this keen interest in local history and folklore took her to the city library, but when she felt a need for an insight into the real lives of Tromsø’s historical founders, she shuttled back and forth to the friendly tourist centre. It didn’t take long on these many trips before Astrid made firm friends with the young staff there. They were not just gracious and knowledgeable, but seemed to genuinely care about obtaining accurate answers to her constant queries about the city, mountains, history and founders, and the nature around the region. But it still came as a surprise to her, when the small team learnt of her honours tourism degree, that they formally invited Astrid for an interview for a job there.
She knew they needed to bolster the staff in the tourist office for the impending growth of people descending on Tromsø during the main winter tourist season, so she’d carefully prepared her CV, together with a few sensible questions. But she needn’t have worried. She breezed through the half hour interview, taken by the friendly guide Bjorn that she knew well, who headed up their extensive city tours during the autumn and winter months.
Still, her first day behind the main tourist desk as an assistant had brought her butterflies. At the interview she was so keen to get to work with this jovial team, she’d told a few creative truths about previous tourist roles in Oslo as a student, and they didn’t know this was her first genuine job, Still, whilst they knew she didn’t yet know the city that well, they immediately made her feel part of the small group in the office. That first evening, after work, they’d even welcomed her into their sociable gang down at a nearby bar, where everyone had downed a few too many shot glasses of the traditional Norwegian strong spirit, aquavit.
Her first fortnight entailed an introduction to the history of the town and detailed customer service training. After a week she’d also got to go out to one of the more expensive camps, courtesy of a welcoming tour operator that catered for the more well-heeled tourists. Travelling out onto the interior plains at high speed on a snowmobile, with the wind blowing out her hair sideways in waves, she’d been offered an overnight stay in a fur-lined pastel shade lavvu. Six of the traditional Sami reindeer herder’s tents had been arranged in a horseshoe shape around a cosy wooded campsite. That night in November she’d sat with her back to a raging log campfire as the sun created its amazing waterfall of colour over the nearby Lyngen Alps mountain range. Astrid couldn’t imagine herself living anywhere else in the world. With the occasional comet adding to the fiery display in the distance, she thought this was just one of the reasons that the Scandinavian countries always had the happiest people.
At the remote camp she’d shot off over a hundred photos of the aurora on the digital camera that she’d spoilt herself with after graduating. Loading them up to her many social media sites the next day, Astrid already had thousands of hits and likes from the twenty thousand social media followers she’d gathered in her time in Oslo.
As she arrived at the staff entrance she met her colleague Elsa, who had started at the tourist centre in the same week. They had quickly become firm friends, especially so when more than one visitors had asked whether they were sisters due to their similar wavy blonde hairstyles. Whilst Astrid was an extrovert and always smiling, Elsa had a quieter and more considered approach to life, but also a cheeky sense of humour. Astrid was more than a little dubious to hear that it was usually Elsa behind any pranks in the centre, until early one morning she had caught her carefully swapping the sugar container for salt in the petite kitchen. Elsa had just grinned and carried on with her mischievous task.
It was when faced with a group of tourists, like the small group of Danes that had wandered in that morning, when Elsa came to life. Having lived most of her teenage years in Tromsø, she loved the local mountains and wilderness. Within minutes she was enthusing about the city and its surroundings as the perfect place for outdoor activities like the mountain hiking and skiing, pursuits that were very popular with the locals pretty well the whole year round.
Most evenings she had learnt even more about the town from Elsa, as well as which of the local bars and cafes were the most fun, and which to avoid. one Saturday in early December the ‘sisters’, as a few of the younger locals had come to call them, had been seated on stools at the Nord Bar, a venue with a slightly dubious reputation. They had positioned themselves near the dance floor and were chatting when two tall broad raven haired men appeared in the muggy light. Astrid wasn’t sure they could even see the girls and, with the confidence that came from here big city background, she had leant over and patted the tallest of the two modern Vikings on his opposite shoulder. As expected, he had turned his head back to look at his friend, who had given him an odd look in return. As the girls burst into throaty laughter, Erik caught on.
Seven shots later and Astrid was pretty smitten with Erik. He had a brooding presence and a dense mane of dark wavy hair compared to his friend, Stig, who had a rock-god look and long, straight raven locks. Erik had a steady, quiet and easy going manner and a deep brow, and his dark jeans and leather jacket completed the look of a modern Viking. She was even more impressed when he told her he played keyboard in a techno band, imaginatively called Snø. In the last couple of years the band had actually played at a few local festivals, and had even gained some success in Norway, with online music sales to a growing teenage fan base. Astrid had felt jealous.
The four of them had left the bar well after midnight, with her insisting on a firm deal to meet up with Erik later in the week for drinks. Wrapped up against the biting wind, arm in arm, they had arrived at Elsa’s house with its dark red wooden gate. Elsa waved back at Astrid as she ran down the path to the front door. Still joking and laughing, Erik released Astrid’s elbow, kissed her lightly and gently on her cold cheek and shouted goodbye to his bandmate Stig.
Stig looked into her eyes and then gallantly offered to walk her home, but she declined demurely. As Erik turned towards the same red gate Elsa smirked back at her from her doorstep. Astrid finally twigged. Erik was her brother. The whole bar meet thing had been a setup from the word go. She smiled and waved her goodbyes, resolving that there would be plenty of chances for polite revenge for Elsa’s trickery when they were back at work.