Hunting the Aurora Borealis I: Kirkenes in Winter

Photography by the authors

We haven’t boarded our Hurtigruten ship, the ms Trollfjord yet, but we’ve flown from Oslo and now landed in Kirkenes, the most northern port of call on the coastal service Hurtigruten provides Norway’s residents — and increasingly the country’s foreign visitors.

Kirkenes, the end or the beginning of the Hurtigruten cruise along Norway’s long coast — because you have that choice or you can do it both ways — lies far north. Its residents claim they are closer to the North Pole than they are to their capital, Oslo. Ten percent of its population is Russian, which explains why its road signs sometimes are in Cyrillic as well as Norwegian. The Pasvik River runs for 76 miles here as a border between Norway and Russia. We are just a few miles from the point where Russia, Norway and additionally Finland come together. Strangely, no part of Norway’s closest neighbor, Sweden, lies near.

Industries are now fishing, farming and forestry. Only 1% of the people in town are unemployed: the iron mining that started in 1905 and made this region so important to the Germans (who invaded in World War II), still goes on giving work to 400 locals. Kirkenes itself was almost totally destroyed by bombing in World War II. At one time there were 140,000 German troops based here because the town was so important.

The total population in Kirkenes now is 9,800. There are more reindeer than people in this area. Norway believes about 180,000 to 220,000 are in this part of the country. But the Sami, the native population formerly called Laplanders, are coy about how many reindeer they have.

“If you ever ask a Sami how many reindeer he has, he tends to reply, ‘How much money you got in the bank?’” says Donny, a local tour operator.

We are on our way 15 miles south with Donny now. The highway follows the world’s most northerly railway line through a bleak, windswept pine forest that runs all the way across northern Russia to Vladivostok itself. He is humming some tune as he drives.

“You either like this cold northern area or you do not. Me? I love it!” he says.

We pile into sleds pulled by snowmobiles and arrive at our first activity: an Alaska King Crab Safari run by the same tour operators who operate the Snow Hotel.

It is very cold but we have been supplied with winter outdoor gear and there is not much wind. At the frozen lake out comes a long treacherous-looking ice saw big enough to cut a whale in half. It makes short work of the previously prepared ice hole which has already frozen over. And up comes the net of squirming monster crabs in the cage frozen below the ice.

The species originally came from Alaska but have prospered in northern Norway since their introduction years ago. They are huge and — as we find out shortly in the cabin that belongs to the tour operator — the most succulent crabs any in our small group of 10 have ever tasted.

We head back to the Snow Hotel where most of our group is spending the night. We aren’t. We have done it before and have found by the time you get up in the middle of the night, rescue your clothes from the sleeping bag and go out into the dark night to the toilet, you are wide awake. Sleep has left you! Our Norwegian friend, Harald, seems to have the same idea; he’s slept in the Snow Hotel and doesn’t need to do it this time.


Back at the new (built in 2010) Thon Hotel we still waken once in the night wondering if the Northern Lights have appeared while we slept. Apparently they have and we catch the tail end from our hotel window although now what is left of any Aurora Borealis looks more like low lying clouds.

There’s not a lot to see in Kirkenes in a winter morning. There is, first, the Andersgrotta air raid shelter that protected the residents in this town, which was destroyed by bombing in World War II. Only Dresden and the island of Malta in the Mediterranean were bombed more. The shelter led into a deep cave that protected the residents during 300 air strikes.

We wander past the statue to all the mothers in two world wars who suffered the ravages of battle. We struggle up a slight but icy hill to look at the tribute to the Russian Army who liberated the town from German occupation.

To Southern Californian wimps like us who have to handle cold weather in this frozen North this is perhaps a bleak spot in winter but our spirits rise when we see our Hurtigruten ship sail confidently into Kirkenes. We are on our way on the company’s Hunting the Light adventure — and we are in this fascinating country called Norway.

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The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.