To find Kirkenes on a map is an exercise for the fingers.
With my index finger, I follow the rugged Norwegian coast, weaving the tip of my finger in and out of the fjords, pushing past the Arctic Circle, then along the coast as it arcs over Sweden and passes the whole top of Finland.
There, at the extreme edge of Norway, perched above Russia, is the place that the SAS ticketing agent in Oslo pronounced as Shickenis. Familiar with the soft K’s of the Norwegians and Swedes, I understood it to be the place that I was headed, Kirkenes, in the extreme northeast of Norway.
Waiting at the Oslo airport, I begin to imagine what I will find in Shickenis. My first frame of reference is to look at the weather on my iPhone. As I write these words in Oslo, it is 1°F (-17C) in Kirkenes. The high is projected to be 3°F before the sun sets at 2:39 p.m., which, by the way, makes today 9 minutes and 45 seconds longer than yesterday. Boarding begins, and I am off on an adventure.
Close to two hours later, the plane begins to descend. Outside the windows, the world is white. Snow covers rounded humps of earth, not quite large enough to be called mountains but too large to be called hills. The landscape is beautiful, trees are covered with ice and snow. It is as if here, the earth is pure. We continue to descend into the white and touch ground in the great north.
Stepping off the plane, something seems amiss. The cold slaps me in the face, stinging my cheeks. It takes me a moment to adjust. But it’s not the cold that is odd. I’ve experienced colder in the south of Sweden. It’s the sun. Its light is diffused and dull. Even the sun appears to be cold, shivering and weak, as if it could be blown out, like a birthday candle.
I board a bus and travel to my hotel, The Rica Arctic Hotel. I was supposed to stay at the Snow Hotel, but it was fully booked, and truthfully, though I am all for new experiences and adventure, I welcome a warm room and a comfortable bed. I will smile each time I adjust the thermostat tonight.
I’m told I can walk to the Snow Hotel. It will take me 30 minutes, but “it’s a beautiful walk,” one of the tour guides picking up guests at our hotel tells me. The guests are going snowmobiling in the Arctic night, something I will do during my cruise on Hurtigruten. “And maybe you’ll see the Northern Lights,” he adds. I plan to put on my warmest clothes, fill up a thermos with hot tea and venture out into the wild, trekking to the Snow Hotel to see what I am missing.
For now, I admire the view from my room. If the Northern Lights are active, I have a good window to frame them.
Knowing that darkness will soon descend (the sun sets at 2:39 p.m.), I walk into town, which is not much of a town, as you might imagine. There’s a grocery store. I step in to buy two bottles of water and some dark chocolate. One one side of the town square is a bowling alley, on another side, a library. There a few shops, cafes and another hotel. It reminds me of the 1990s television series Northern Exposure, but with a Norwegian twist.
I smile when I see the kicksleds that a few of the locals are pushing around town. The elongated sleds have a chair and a basket built in, a good mode of transport on the snowy earth. What is it with the Norwegians and their walking accompaniments, such as the Nordic walking sticks?
I walk down to the waterfront. The scene before me: snowy hills, trees coated in ice, crushed ice choking the edges of the fjord. Suddenly, I see a tugboat pushing its way through the fjord, its orange hull contrasting with the white.
Looking out on this beautiful scene, I am happy to be here at what seems like the top of the planet, and I can’t wait for my voyage to begin tomorrow morning.