For several years now, I have wanted to experience Polar Night, the winter counterpart to summer’s Midnight Sun. I had a chance to experience Midnight Sun back in 2009, when I took a cruise up the Norwegian coastline in mid June, and once we hit the Arctic Circle, we spent a few days up where the sun doesn’t set. I enjoyed it, though it does a number on your circadian rhythm for obvious reasons. I mean, when your body doesn’t have any external clues about the time of day, it’s easy for it to go a little haywire. Now granted, I am a natural night owl, but even still, it surprised me a bit to look at my watch and realize it was 0200 or 0300 in the morning, and the sun was still shining like it was mid day, and I wasn’t tired. I had to force myself to go to bed, just so I wouldn’t eventually pass out from tiredness, and I was awake to see all the sights I wanted to see.
So of course I wanted to experience its opposite in Polar Night. I personally love darkness, and embrace the cold and long, dark nights of winter. I honestly can’t get enough of it, and it disappoints me greatly being in a place where there are mild winters. Of course even if the temperature was warmer than I liked, I still had hours and hours of darkness to cuddle in and enjoy. But it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to know what it was really like to visit a place where the sun never rose.
I got a tiny taste of what it might be like (though not exactly Polar Night) when we visited Fairbanks, Alaska a few years ago around New Years. Sure it wasn’t exactly Polar Night, because the sun did rise above the horizon for four hours a day, but I also saw that just because the sun isn’t above the horizon, it doesn’t mean that it is pitch dark out. In Fairbanks, the sun might have been only up for four hours, but there were at least two hours of beautiful blue light on either side of sunrise and sunset. Meaning, that even during Polar Night, it’s not like it is interminable darkness; it’s just that the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon. But as many of us have experienced long dawns and twilights, we know that there can still be light outside, even if the sun is below the horizon.
So I knew Polar Night wasn’t going to be some 24 hours of pure black darkness, but the light you do experience in Polar Night is a bit different. It is obviously softer, because the sunlight is indirect, and it takes on more of a blue tinge, which is really magical when it is against the backdrop of pure white snow (which has the effect of making it seem even brighter than it really is). Having seen pictures of places where Polar Night exists made me want to experience it even more.
Now it was just a matter of choosing a place to visit, and honestly, there aren’t THAT many places where the sun doesn’t rise at all during the winter, AND has a reasonable tourist infrastructure to visit. Sure, there are multitudes of tiny villages and a couple larger cities above the Arctic Circle, but they are often hard and expensive to visit. So choosing Tromso, Norway as my place to experience Polar Night was an easy one. I had visited Tromso in the past as a cruise stop on my Norwegian cruise and I enjoyed the few hours I spent there. It’s the world’s third largest city above the Arctic Circle, with a population of around 75,000. Considering it sits at around 69 degrees north latitude, the weather is surprisingly “mild.” And I grade mild on a curve, because it does get very cold and snowy up there. It’s not like it has anything close to a mild winter. However, considering it is at the same latitude of Point Barrow Alaska (the northernmost point of Alaska), it is not nearly as cold and frigid as it could be, thanks to the Atlantic Gulf Stream that ends around the Tromso area.
This trip to Tromso kicked off my second long visit to Norway, and the itinerary was similar to the one I did in the summer. Only now I was going to get a chance to experience Norway in the winter, something I had always wanted to do. Since it was my mom’s first trip to Norway, it was an opportunity to see similar places, only now under the beautiful cover of snow and ice. We decided to start up in Tromso and work our way south, since the farther south we went, the more daylight we would experience (and the temperatures would warm up a bit). So of course I had to pick a starting day when it was still Polar Night in Tromso, since that and the opportunity to see auroras were two of the driving factors for my winter visit. Polar Night lasts around six weeks in Tromso. I had toyed with the idea of visiting around Christmas, just because it would have saved me some work vacation days, but once I say that prices were literally double (at least airplane fares), I figured we could start a couple weeks into January. Polar Night officially ended 15 January in 2019, though people in the city really didn’t consider it ending until 20 January. Sure the sun does rise above the horizon for 30 minutes on 15 January, but it won’t become obvious until around 20 January. So based on our trip calculations, we would have three full days of Polar Night in Tromso, with our final day technically having 30 minutes of sunlight (though we didn’t notice a real difference).
Since we were coming in at the tail end of Polar Night, I knew it wasn’t going to be as dark as it was during the height of Polar Night, but we would still get a chance to experience it and the beautiful blue light it produces. Our first full day in Tromso, we didn’t get up until 1000 (thanks to a very long plane trip consisting of three flights to get up to Tromso), and even at that hour, it was only a bit light out. More like a long dawn. Considering that I knew that we didn’t have that many hours of daylight, we decided our first stop on the first day would be Fjellheisen, which is the cable car up to the top of Mt. Storsteinen and provides a beautiful, panoramic view of Tromso and the surrounding area. Of course we weren’t the only ones with that idea, and the bus to the cable car was packed. But the line moved surprisingly quickly, and soon we found ourselves at the top of the mountain.
At that point it was trying to maximize our viewing experience AND eating lunch, since we hadn’t eaten breakfast. Thankfully the cafe and the viewing ledges are next to each other, so mom and I took turns eating and going outside into the frigid temperatures to take pictures. At its zenith, the daylight was a soft gray, but that really only lasted a little over an hour. Soon enough, it started getting darker and that blue light became more prominent. By the time it was 1500 in the afternoon, it was completely dark.
We decided to walk from the bus stop to the Arctic Cathedral, just to get a chance to get some exercise in and enjoy the darkness and cold weather. I found the bracing cold to be refreshing, and loved walking in the snow. While they plow the roads in Tromso, they don’t clear the roads, so most of the roads (even some of the more well traveled roads) had snow on them, just packed down so you can easily drive on it. And since snow in the winter is a permanent feature in Tromso, and considering how active Norwegians are (we saw more than one runner in the snow while we were there), it was nice that the sidewalks are plowed as well. It’s not like parts of the US where the snow is just plowed into piles and it is impossible to walk outside. Plus, the drivers are more respectful of pedestrians in Tromso (at least the ones we encountered), so even if we had to walk a bit in the road, it’s not like we had to worry about getting run over.
The Arctic Cathedral is one of the more recognizable landmarks in Tromso, and the structure looks beautiful all lit up at night. The inside is not that much to look at, at least during the night, because the stained glass is probably pretty when the sun shines on it. We decided to walk back to town, which was really only a walk over the bridge (Mom is a pretty good sport about some of the things I ask her to do on vacation), so we had some nice views of Tromso city on our way back.
Just like Midnight Sun does a number on your circadian rhythm, so does Polar Night, but in the opposite direction. In the summer, I was staying up hours and hours in the summer and not feeling it, but during Polar Night, I started getting sleepy by late afternoon, and it was more of a challenge to stay up to a reasonable hour, so I didn’t go to sleep early and then wake up around 0400 or something. But I LOVED Polar Night, with all its attendant darkness and beautiful light, and would love to experience it again sometime in the future. This day was just the first day in what proved to be a very beautiful and enjoyable Norwegian winter vacation.