Bold stripes, neat zigzags and intricate petal patterns: a variety of designs decorate the many pairs of mittens hanging in a display cabinet at Tromso University Museum, writes Sarah Marshall.
For a place where the temperature can drop below freezing for a large chunk of the year, an exhibition celebrating thermal accessories does seem appropriate. Yet I discover the pieces of handmade handwear bear a greater cultural relevance.
Designed by indigenous Sami people, one-time nomads who herded reindeer across Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway, these bright motifs were used to define social groups, a bit like knitted identity cards. While other cultures were fighting for land rights, the Sami were seemingly weaving a woolen social network for a nation that’s never known any national borders.
Even today, many Sami people prefer not to pledge allegiance to one political flag, defining their home as Lapland, a territory that arches across northern Scandinavia. But as I trudge through the sludgy, icy streets of Norwegian city Tromso, it’s hard to determine who the original bona fide residents really are.
Concentrated mainly on the island of Tromsoya, linked by bridges to the mainland, the ‘capital of the Arctic’ is surrounded by wildlife-rich fjords and jagged mountain ranges. Well positioned beneath the aurora belt, it attracts thousands of tourists every year, with primitive mittens increasingly being substituted by high tech NorthFace gloves.
Thanks to direct flight connections with the UK, it’s easily accessible, and within a matter of hours, visitors can be glimpsing the aurora in wild woodland settings, or commanding a pack of huskies through moonlit, snow-steeped valleys.
I meet our guide, Alexander, a film-maker from the Netherlands who makes ends meet by leading Northern Lights tours during the winter season. As we drive into the wilderness, city lights fade behind us and steel streetlamps are replaced by bolt upright pine trees, lined up like soldiers on parade.
“People always come here on their time clocks,” complains Alexander, in reference to the short weekend visits people make. “But the Lights are unpredictable; you never know when they might turn up. So often, people have to learn to be patient and just wait.”
But with hailstones hammering the windscreen and a blizzard setting in, it becomes obvious that no matter how long we’re prepared to wait, an aurora display won’t be happening any time soon.
A thick coating of snow does, however, create the perfect environment for the daytime outdoor activities I have planned.
Heading towards the Swedish border, we drive an hour and a half southeast of Tromso to Camp Tamok, a Sami-run activity centre where people can enjoy traditional Lappish hospitality.
When I arrive, Rua and his wife Caran are using metal shovels to clear snow from the entrance to their lavvu (a typical Sami tipi once used as a mobile dwelling).
Overnight, almost two metres of snow has fallen, creating the kind of pristine white landscape every child dreams of waking up to on Christmas Day.
Long, thin icicles hang like daggers from the doorways of wooden cabins, looking deceptively sharper than the blade made from reindeer horn, which swings casually from Rua’s waist.
“Every knife we make tells a story,” explains Rua, dressed in a warm Cossack-style hat and wrapped in a blanket. “And when we gift a knife to our children, we pass on that story.”
He proudly claims he carries the blade with him at all times, although he does admit to leaving it at home if collecting guests from the airport, after once being slapped with a hefty fine.
Seven years ago, Rua gave up his job in a plastics factory to pursue a Sami lifestyle herding reindeer and supplementing his income through tourism. “I used to come home from the factory and fall asleep in front of the TV every day,” he tells me. “But now I have more energy to play with the children. I’ll never go back.”
In preparation for a sleigh ride around the camp, Rua gathers his herd of reindeer by enticing them with bundles of soft, spongy lichens. We sit on wooden sleds while Caran harnesses the animals and pulls them through the thick snow with the ease of tugging a toy train. An irresistibly blank canvas lies ahead of us, with little distinction between land and sky, and overhead, snow clouds are forming with the consistency of whipped cream.
The enjoyably slow amble is gentle preparation for a moonlit husky ride we have planned later that evening. Sixty-three Alaskan dogs live in the kennels at Camp Tamok, all with excessive energy to expend. As I lean over their pen, two puppies bark frantically, trying their best to chew my woollen hat.
In competitions, the dogs can reach up to 30mph, but I’m relieved to learn they go at half that pace when tourists are mushing. Guided only by starlight, we race through the forest, weaving between tree trunks like a slalom skier. A particularly feisty female leads my charge, biting the ear of a neighbouring male in an attempt to make him run faster.
All I can hear is the sound of dogs panting and my wooden sleigh bumping and creaking over the icy ground, and in that moment, I understand why Rua has fully embraced an outdoor life.
Yet even in urban areas, natural pleasures are easily accessible, as I realise on a morning hike above Tromso.
I take the Fjellheisen cable car to Storsteinen Mountain, where blinding rays of sunshine bounce from the diamond-studded landscape and not a single cloud is troubling the blue sky. Imagining where a path might be, I climb upwards, sinking to my knees in fresh snow.
Making the most of good weather, the whole city is outdoors: from families carrying Thermos flasks, to couples cross-country skiing and awestruck tourists wondering if this really is how Norwegians get to spend every Sunday afternoon.
Regardless of age and nationality, everyone seems to belong here. I don’t need to study their gloves or mittens to discern that; the smiles on their faces tell me enough.
> Sarah Marshall, of the Press Association, was a guest of the Norwegian Tourist Board. For more information on the destination, go to www.visitnorway.co.uk and www.northernnorway.com
> Norwegian Air (www.norwegian.com) flies directly from London Gatwick to Tromso three times a week, from £72 one way.
> Lyngsfjord Adventure (www.lyngsfjord.com) operate various activities at Camp Tamok. Half-day dog sledding with meal costs £160 for adults and £80 for children under 15. Half-day reindeer sledding with meal costs £150 for adults and £75 for children under 15.