Story by Barbara Angelakis
Photos by Manos Angelakis
The night was cold. 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 8 minutes. It was as if the hand of Odin himself pulled a shimmering curtain of green light across his sky, while a choir of celestial angles 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 a.m. there was not a lot of traffic in this hotel, practically at the top of the world. Shaken with wonder I returned to wiggle myself back into the slippery 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, and ruminate on the Aurora Borealis, named for Aurora the Roman Goddess of dawn and Boreas, the Greek name for the purple-winged god of the North Wind. The simple scientific explanation of magnetic solar particles hitting the earth’s atmosphere pale in comparison to the magic of seeing the majestic aurora light up the entire sky.
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 in Europe, and that is where we found the snow hotel where we spent the night. Kirkenes is hundreds of miles above the Arctic Circle and has a lot to offer to the mildly adventurous traveler in the winter months.
The hotel is recreated every November in a matter of weeks by inflating huge balloons around which snow attaches and once thick enough, the balloons are deflated and the carving can begin. Two hallways lead off 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 and once you snuggle into your insulated sleeping bag, you should have a warm, silent sleep in the constant -4C temperature. Of course there is the small matter of your bladder; I tried mind over bladder but bladder won, which was what brought me out of my, relatively speaking, cozy bed, to experience the gift of the light at 3:30 in the a.m. www.kirkenessnowhotel.com
There are snowmobile tours at night across the moon-lit tundra hunting the lights; husky or reindeer rides; but for me the highlight was the King Crab Safari. We were invited to enter a shed near the snow hotel and don snow suits, heavy boots and mittens over our already toasty all-weather coats, and led to sleds covered with reindeer skins, attached to snowmobiles. Excitedly we climbed in - not an easy task with so many clothes on. Once packed closely together we bounced over the frozen fjord (thank goodness we were well padded) to the pre-selected fishing area. 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. The crabs were introduced to Norway from Alaska in the 1960’s and they 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 King Crabs have blue blood? 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, to us, bodies to scatter to scavenging animals. No food goes to waste in the Arctic. Back into our sledges and 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 with good humor and anticipation of our night in the deep freeze.
Returning to the hotel and after visiting a reindeer herd, and the husky’s howling for our attention, we returned our gear and met in the Gabba Restaurant attached to the hotel for a traditional meal. The restaurant is a large Sami - the indigenous people of the north – Kota (a wooden structure shaped like an American-Indian tepee) with a large open central fireplace. We began with reindeer sausage which we grilled in the fireplace to our individual liking. After which we were served grilled salmon and cod with baked potato and vanilla ice cream with a warm mélange of berries for dessert.
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. 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 and made it impossible to continue lying there. I wiggled out of my sleeping bag and sheet and 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 the sound given off by celestial bodies, but whether it was real or not, I still hear the whish and see the sweeping lights light up the sky… a never to be forgotten experience.
For further information: http://www.visitnorway.com/us/
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