Their Northernmost Life in Arctic Norway
Story and photos by David Nikel

Busloads of tourists rush to Norway's North Cape for a photo opportunity but are back on their cruise ships within the blink of an eye. David Nikel slowed down and met some of the colorful characters—human and animal—that call this remote corner of Scandinavia their home.

Norway sunset

I strode out onto the North Cape clifftop at 11:45pm as the sense of anticipation in the crowd was reaching fever pitch. Here I stood with travelers from all over the world, on a remote cliff at the edge of mainland Europe waiting for the clock to tick around to midnight.

As the moment came and went, the sense of anti-climax among the hoards was palpable. Oddly, my mind flew back to 1994 when the UK introduced its National Lottery. For weeks it was all anyone was talking about but when the numbers were drawn, all but seven people were left wondering “that’s it?”

What now?

Back in the present, people hugged and kissed, took a photo or two, and then reality dawned. They’d paid a hefty fee to stand on a cliff top, with nothing else to do but scrawl their names on stones.

Midnight sun in Norway

Unlike the northern lights, whose ribbons dance delicately across the winter sky, the midnight sun doesn't actually “do” anything. It hangs low in the sky at 11:45, it’s still there at midnight, and it’s still there an hour later. Sure, there’s often an impressive orange glow, but there’s no light show, no fireworks, and no real sense of occasion.

Alta Church

Back inside the modern visitors’ center with what must be Norway’s largest gift shop, I recognized two friendly faces. A grandmother and her grandson, who I’d met three days earlier in Alta but had no idea they were making a similar journey as me. We smiled at each other, sharing the secret that the hundreds of others rushing past us had missed out on.

My starting point for the journey, Alta, is not shy about pushing its self-awarded title of Norway’s “northern lights city,” but I couldn't help wondering why they pushed it so hard to people arriving at the height of summer, when seeing an aurora display is an impossibility. Was this a coded way of saying there was nothing else to do?

A quick stroll around the city centera soulless modern grid of a shopping mall, hotels and a curious building that I thought was a crematoriumrevealed the answer was probably yes. A closer inspection revealed the curious building was in fact the town’s church designed and named after, of course, the northern lights. But it was closed.

Meeting the Sami

It took merely seconds to decide to jump back in the car and find out where all the people were. After parking up in a residential area and taking a pleasant stroll through a riverside campsite, I spotted the distinctive bright colors of the Sami flag. The indigenous people of the northern Nordics, the Sami had fascinated me since I watched Joanna Lumley’s BBC documentary on the northern lights.

man in Sami garments

I was soon in the company of an eccentric Sami gentlemen dressed in full traditional garb. He makes his living by bringing his reindeer to Alta for four months of the year and charging tourists fifty kroner a time to feed them moss that he picked up off the ground and put in plastic bags. My new friend was a genius.

No sooner had I patted one of the reindeer than I was whisked off inside a lavvu, an authentic Sami tent, which he generously called a museum. Rather than a curated collection of historic artifacts, this appeared to be a dumping ground for his personal possessions.

Sami costumes in Norway

A Very Personal Sami Museum

Item by item, he told a story of how it was used, why and by whom, before moving on to the long story about the Sami’s fight for recognition by the Norwegian government. He was an expert storyteller, the kind of person who could spin a yarn about everything from reindeer antlers to the different kinds of moss (and he did both).

But with that storytelling ability came a burning desire to share those stories with more people, and so his attention drifted off to a large family with three kids. I don’t blame him, he could sense three impending sales of his bags of moss. Before I departed, I promised to send the photos I had taken and he pointed me in the direction of a husky lodge on the edge of Alta. “You’ll get lots more stories there!”, he said with gusto.

It was the perfect time to visit the husky lodge as the last night’s guests had left, the accommodation cleaned, and the new guests yet to arrive. So the owner had time to walk me around the grounds. Here I found beautiful wooden cabins shaped like tents with a see-through wall so in the winter you could watch for the northern lights while keeping warm. More entrepreneurial points for Alta!

As we approached the dogs, each and every one of them started to limber up and stretch their legs, hoping to be chosen for the day’s activity. To say these animals love to run is an understatement. The owner went on to tell me about the Finnmarksløpet, a well-known dog sled race. I pondered out loud if it was the husky version of a marathon. “You could say that. But this is 621 miles.”

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Read this article online at: Their Northernmost Life in Arctic Norway

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2017. All rights reserved.

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