The Dark Time, 2002

The sun has returned to North Norway and we are out sailing again, although there is little sign of spring yet: The locals say that if you can walk on the crust of the snow on June 15th it will be a late spring! Yesterday was our first sail of the season, a boisterous beat into 20 to 25 knots through a wide fjord surrounded by snow-covered peaks. Beautiful, but we were glad to get in and retire below to the heater.

The experience of wintering in Tromsø has been nothing short of great. Tromsø is an interesting university town surrounded by beautiful scenery inhabited by wonderful friendly people. As we look back over the winter our most important and vivid memory is the friendships we have made and the way we were welcomed into the community. Even though we were in a new place far from friends and family, we never felt isolated or lonely. We were invited for meals, backcountry skiing expeditions and to a cabin in the country for the weekend. Saying goodbye to our new friends will be the hardest part of leaving.

The sun is back and, starting a month ago at the equinox, we now get more light than places to the south and, on May 21st, the midnight sun will return to Tromsø. But one of the main reasons we decided to winter here was to experience the dark time, and the most frequent questions we get about our Arctic winter in e-mails are: “What is the dark like? How dark is it, really? Did it make you depressed?” To start with the last, no, it did not make us depressed at all, in fact we grew to like it. It was a time to slow down, to do inside things like writing and sorting our slides, but most of all to visit with and get to know new friends. Overall, it gave us a pleasant feeling of cozy hibernation.

The sun dips below the mountains in Tromsø on November 21st and does not return until 21st January. By the winter solstice, the light is down to three hours of dim twilight a day. We found that our eyes got used to it and so it did not seem that dark, particularly with the reflected light from the snow on the ground. But when we took the camera out at noon we were amazed at the meter readings we were getting: about the same as you would get an hour or so after sunset in a more southern place—and that is plenty dark.

The other winter theme for us has been x-country, and even a little backcountry, skiing. A wonderful experience once we got over the chagrin caused by Norwegians, who have skied since they were toddlers, blowing past us as if we were standing still. We even skied during the dark time since Tromsø boasts 30km of perfectly groomed and lit ski tracks maintained by the municipality. Once the light came back our new friends introduced us to the beautiful and wild back country on skis, much of it just a short bus ride from the downtown wharf we were moored to.

The learning curve for backcountry skiing is, if you will excuse the pun, steep. It has got easier since we bought climbing skins for our skis. With them on we can walk up just about anything. That leaves just one slight problem: getting down with narrow skis and free heel bindings. Of course, the Norwegians make this look easy with long sweeping bent knee Telemark turns, which, as far as we can see, are totally impossible unless you are born to it. So far, our record expedition began with a 20 minute bus ride to the start of the trail, followed by 15km and 2000′ up to a mountain hut, followed by another 15km and 2000’ down a different way ending back close to town. We ached in places we did not even know we had places after that one.

I even did a bit of Alpine skiing at the local hill. Not bad if you don’t mind a lethal T-bar lift, gale force white out, and the occasional rock looming out of the gloom. Oh yes, all this was done at night under dim lights with a Norwegian friend who said, when I timidly suggested that we go another evening, “We Norwegians never cancel for weather”. The spirit of Nansen and Amundsen lives on!

As I write this, we are anchored off a boatyard 80 miles south of Tromsø where we are scheduled to haul the boat to paint the bottom tomorrow. The only hitch is it’s blowing near gale force and forecast to continue the same for most of the week. Oh well, you shouldn’t go early spring cruising 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle if you can’t take a joke.

After we finish at the boatyard we are planning to return to Tromsø to provision, say goodbye to friends, and then head north for a cruise of the north coast of Norway, hopefully as far east as Kirkenes, on the Russian border. Then, if all goes well, we plan to spend July and August in the Svalbard archipelago, at 80°N, fraternizing with walruses, seabirds, ice and polar bears (hopefully not too closely with either of the later). After that…who knows?

The Norwegian Cruising Guide is a mine of information on sailing in Norway.

For photographs of Norway, visit our Picture gallery.

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Meet the Author

John

John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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