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The night was cold, and the sky was clear. I was walking on a pristine field of freshly packed snow; it was so silent my thoughts were lost in the heaviness of the night, when all of a sudden the sky exploded with light. The light danced for perhaps eight minutes.
It was as if the hand of Odin himself pulled a shimmering curtain of colored light across his sky, while a choir of celestial angels sang. I stood transfixed, wishing I was not the only one seeing such a magnificent display of the aurora borealis or northern lights, but at 3:30 am, there was not a lot of traffic in this resort located practically at the top of the world.
With a sense of wonder, I returned to wiggle myself back into the sleeping bag that provided protection against the frigid icy bed I had chosen to sleep in that night at the Kirkenes Snow Hotel in Kirkenes, Norway. While I ruminated on the Aurora Borealis, named after Aurora, the Roman Goddess of dawn and Boreas the Greek name for the north wind, I looked forward to this unique experience.
The simple scientific explanation of magnetic particles hitting the earth’s atmosphere pale in comparison to the the magic of seeing the majestic aurora light up the entire sky. The First Nation Cree aptly call the phenomenon the “Dance of the Spirits.”
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Norway is a long narrow land hugging the North Sea and at the top swings around passing over Sweden and Finland reaching out to touch Russia. At the edge of the Barents Sea, surrounded by miles of snow covered open spaces, Kirkenes is about as far North as you can go, and that is where we found the snow hotel where we spent the night.
A kaleidoscope of dreams
The hotel is re-created every November in a matter of weeks by inflating huge balloons that snow attaches to. Once thick enough, the balloons are deflated and the carving can begin; hallways lead off to the main room, containing a series of igloo style bedrooms.
Each year, a new artist is invited to decorate the walls of the rooms and colored lights are added for mystery and beauty around the beds. The beds have carved niches into which mattresses and pillows are set. Once you snuggle into your well-insulated sleeping bag, you should be able to drift off into a warm, cozy sleep in the constant -4C temperature (24.5 degrees Fahrenheit).
And, of course, there is the small matter of your bladder. I tried employing the mind-over-bladder technique, but ultimately bladder won. At around 3:30 in the morning, I found myself having to leave my relatively cozy bed to experience an unexpected surprise.
Kirkenes is hundreds of miles above the Arctic Circle and has a lot to offer the mildly adventurous traveler in the winter months: There are snowmobile tours at night across the moon-lit tundra hunting the lights and husky or reindeer sleigh rides; but for me the highlight was the King Crab Safari.
We were invited to enter a shed near the snow hotel and don thick snow suits, heavy boots and mittens over our already toasty all-weather coats, and were then led to sleds covered with reindeer skins attached to snowmobiles.
Excitedly we climbed in — not an easy task to do with so many clothes on. Once all packed in closely together, we bounced over the frozen fjord to the pre-selected fishing areas.
Getting out of the sleds was harder than getting in, but laughingly we helped each other while our guides cut large blocks out of the thick ice covering the fjord water and lowered traps to catch the King Crabs; we were all in high spirits, this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, after all.
The crabs were introduced to Norway from Alaska in the 1960’s and immediately proliferated. Harvesting is strictly controlled to avoid over-fishing and our guides kept only enough crabs to feed our group —returning the balance to their cold watery home.
Did you know that King crabs have blue blood? These giant crustaceans have a distinct blue color to their blood due to the presence of copper-based molecules called hemocyanin. The large critters were quickly dispatched once removed from the water and the ice was stained blue. Our guides efficiently removed the tasty legs and gathered the inedible bodies to scatter to scavenging animals; no food goes to waste in the Arctic.
Once back in our sledges, we were driven to a farm house where the legs — fresh from the sea — were cooked in seawater. Huge piles of succulent crab legs were offered over and over again until we were all sated. It was truly a wilderness adventure that left everyone will full bellies and filled to the brim with good humor, laughter, and the anticipation of our time in the deep freeze.
Our evening’s entertainment was one of the waitresses demonstrating how to prepare for bed in the snow hotel. You remove your clothes leaving on your base layer and wool socks. Next, you put on a face covering balaclava topped by a hat and wrap yourself in the sheet provided — all the way up and over your head.
Next, comes the hard part. You can’t stand on the floor because the wool socks get stuck to the ice so you must somehow lie on the bed and wiggle into the sleeping bag, which I assure you is no easy task.
An unforgettable experience
Between laughing and wiggling and trying not to freeze, somehow I got into the bag, but could not get the zipper up — my hands were too cold. I pulled the bag around me and when my hands warmed up, I pulled up the zipper and like a chrysalis, settled down to sleep. All was well until my bladder woke me up (again), and made it impossible to continue lying there. I wiggled out of my sleeping bag and sheet, quickly got into my clothes, and silently left the hotel.
Walking up the path back from the warming room and bathroom facilities was when I saw the lights and heard the music of the spheres — perhaps it was all in my head that there was a sound echoing from celestial bodies; but whether it was real or not, I still hear the whish of the wind and see the sweeping colors light up the sky — an experience never to be forgotten.
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