Taking the Roads Less Traveled in Northern Norway

Prior to taking our Scandinavian vacation, I knew that I wanted to spend some time really getting to know the culture of the places. Of course all the major cities have lots to offer, but escaping into the less traveled areas is a for sure way to get one-on-one and experience a real dose of what the customs and people are really like in a country.

On top of that, one of the major things on my list of things that I wanted to do in Scandinavia was go see the Northern Lights. I have seen it once before in Alaska, but I wanted to show my husband, Peabe, and my daughter, Evie, how amazing it looked in person. I once read an article about how climate change may effect the lights and wanted to be sure that they also had that experience in their lifetime.

Lastly, I love getting out of the city and experiencing nature. I think having a part of a vacation where I get to enjoy a bit of that is worth a little extra in vacation planning. Taking the time to hike through the rice terraces in Banaue (Philippines) or climb up and down some sticky waterfalls outside Chaing Mai (Thailand) has been some of my fondest memories of a trip.

It was not an easy thing to fit into our trip planning. We had only a certain amount of time and a certain amount of money, but getting out there was important to me. After some early homework via Skyskanner and TripAdvisor, we were ready with a plan.

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My parents, my daughter, and Peabe took the train out of Oslo after about 24 hours experiencing the city. We boarded the NSB train, riding from Oslo to Trondheim, a quick transfer, then up to Bodø on the Nordland Railway. The ride up to Bodø cost about $40 per person, and we were able to purchase those tickets online.

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We got to sleep on the train (and save on a night in a hotel) since our train to Trondheim left around 10 pm at night. They provided everything from inflatable neck pillow, blanket, earplugs, and an eye mask. The hardest part was the early morning transfer because it was still dark out and it was raining. Luckily, the connecting train arrived about 20 minutes later, so it wasn’t too much waiting, and we had an enclosed area to hide us from the rain.

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Once on the second train, we were able to board the “family car”, which basically meant we would have 1/3 of the car dedicated for playspace that Evie can run around in. She really enjoyed this part of the trip and got to spend some extra time separately with Peabe, or me, or special time with grandparents. It’s a really great feature to have, and shows a lot about the importance of family in Norwegian life.

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The train ride was beautiful, and we saw so much of Norway in the process. Overall, the trip to Bodo is about 18 hours and you travel through mountains, fjords, countrysides, small towns, farms, lakes… you get the picture. We got just a glimpse into what Norwegian life (outside the city) looks like. We also got to pass through the Arctic Circle, which looked super cold from the window so I was glad to enjoy that from my cozy seat.

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The train ride was clean and efficient, with amazing views for Norway, but there was one thing I had discovered in my research prior to the trip that I couldn’t shake.  As I saw these amazing landscapes, even at the Arctic Circle, I had remembered that the railroad was constructed in part by the labor of prisoners of war during World War 2.  At one point, Norway was under Nazi control, and POWs were sent there to do this difficult task, and under terrible conditions, of building this beautiful railroad. I couldn’t help but to feel a little somber from the lives that must have been lost building through rugged terrain and rough weather conditions.

After correspondence with my host Tor Olav on Trip Advisor, we had arranged to get off at Rognan station, a little before Bodø, to get picked up by a driver who would take us directly to his rental cabins in Vestvatn. The Arctic Cabins was the experience we wanted; a little secluded, out in nature, with some activities available including Northern Light viewing. We had a difficult time arriving at that decision after realizing that although Bodø is a small city, it offers a lot up north with plenty of city lights to contend with.  Although it has been seen from that city, there is a lot of light pollution in comparison to other areas and we wanted the best variables to our situation stacked in our favor. After all, we had only 2 nights that we could allocate for this venture, we were banking it all on seeing lights so we tried to find optimal circumstaces. We looked at other places, and that’s when we came across the cabins. We actually reached out to others first, considering logistics and how we would get there. Some busses only ran once a day in the town, and ferries to other islands outside the city would add up, so our pickings whittled down. It really wasn’t until I reached out to Tor, who was so helpful in putting together the details for me, that we decided on staying there. The lesson here is: sometimes, all you need to do is ask.

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We arrived into our cabin, the late afternoon of Peabe’s birthday, and was dropped off by the driver and met the cabin hosts Juraj and Stanislav. They unlocked our space and gave us a quick introduction to the property. They were from Slovakia, and both my Slovakian and my Norwegian was below weak, so communicating with them was a little difficult at times.  As most travelers do in this situation, we relied on short buzzwords and hand gestures at first, but talking to them became more and more easy as time went on.

We walked around the grounds to explore our new home and settled in for a meal. Our dinner consisted of things we picked up in the small grocery stores at the train station in Oslo. There really wasn’t a store in Vestvatn to go pick up supplies, and we found out the cabin’s restaurant was only open during peak seasons or when there are large parties that book all of the cabins. Since we were the only ones staying that weekend, it was quiet.

Once the table was cleared, and we all started to get ready for the long night ahead of checking for Northern Lights. You see, there isn’t a real time for the show; it can happen throughout the night, only for a small bit of time, or not at all, so we are really just chancing everything on the hope to see it. I checked a couple of sources to get an idea of where and when in my research; University of Alaska’s GI Aurora Forecaster, local weather reports, and Norway’s NL Forecaster.  Aurora Service also has some pretty detailed forecasting, but all the NASA reports and astrophysics talk was a little over my head.

I got my tripod set up, played with a couple of settings, took a couple test shots, then waited.  We played in the field; slipped in the icy puddles or ran in the ice covered gravel. We made a night of chatting under the stars and into the night, however cold it got. We checked the skies and reported to everyone else when we thought something may happen. We waited.

All the sudden, the sky darkens, the stars seem to dim, and we get some of that real-deal aurora borealis. It was crazy, and we all were excited. Majority of us had already seen it (my parents and I), but seeing it again was just as exciting. Not many people in the world get to witness it, and we have seen it twice now. My daughter and my husband watched it in awe, and she even said to him, “it’s your birthday gift, daddy” as if she knew how special it was too.

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As the night grew colder, we all got back and settled into bed. The next morning we woke up to snow on the ground, and we all got excited again. Evie wanted to do everything; snowball fights, snow angels, and snow people. Really, there was only a small dusting and wasn’t enough for all of that, but we had better things in store.

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A neighbor of the cabins, Lise, was introduced to us by Tor. He had coordinated with her a free time to meet and go dog sledding with her and her family. I knew we couldn’t pass this up. Lise, her husband Tarjei, and their daughters Emily and Tilda have been driving dogs for years. They take regular trips into the wild to run the dogs to escape into nature, so we had some things in common. Even at that, I didn’t realize how much we would end up getting along.

Lise was born and raised in Denmark, left there in search of mountains and an outdoor life. She moved to northern Norway and fell in love with dog driving, and learned everything to drive her own dogs. Later on marrying and having 2 kids, they built their own home in the hills of Misvær, and have incorporated her skills into everyday life.

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Lise picked us up from the cabins and brought us to meet the dogs. The dog area looked a little like a preschool, with name badges the daughters had made hung above each of the dog’s pens, like personal cubbies in a kindergarten class. We also got to meet the 9 new puppies from one of their dogs, Mia, who were all just old enough to open their eyes but could not escape the attention we all wanted to give them.

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The girls helped mom wrangle and harness all the dogs, and we loaded them into the trailer to get to our destination. Lise and Tarjei had two sleds; one was traditional metal sled while the other was an ATV without an engine but with working breaks. The dogs were tied to both, and we all got a turn learning how to drive dogs under Lise’s instruction.

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She took all of us and showed us the ropes on what to call, how to slow, and how to get faster. We ran with her for a bit, then were able to really take off in the open fields. She watched and advised as we all had a really amazing time.  My mom was all bundled up in the sled, but laughed like a kid the whole time.  My daughter rode with her dad, who drove the dogs with a bit of caution with her.  She then rode on the ATV with me, and kept wanting to go faster… so we did.

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We took the dogs around a small lake and saw little tucked away picnic tables, hunting shelters, and other little “easter egg” gems of the area.  The whole area seemed like such a sweet community of people looking out for each other and enjoying the perks of the beautiful landscape.

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Lise let the little girls drive the dogs for a bit before packing them all back into the trailer.  Evie loved it, and although there wasn’t much for talking because of the language barrier, I could tell she was really getting close with them and excited to hang out with other kids.  At the end of the day, Lise hung out for a bit and we chatted about everything from road trips to values that we want to pass on.  The girls played in the squishy field and threw snowballs around.  I wasn’t worried about them out exploring on their own, and was excited that she making her own memories on this trip as we all were.

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Back at the cabins, Stanislav, had offered to take my mom and I into the town over to get some food.  We went to their local grocery, and I was able to pick up more fresh bread, brunets (some Norwegian brown cheese), moose sausage, cured lamb, and some reindeer sausage.  We also picked up instant ramen packages as we basically ate all of our stock the night before as we watched the Northern Lights.  I was also able to pick up a little frozen cake for Peabe’s birthday so we could celebrate back in the cabins.

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Waiting again for the aurora, Peabe and I decided to take a hike in the surrounding area.  There was a lake behind the cabins that was so eerily beautiful because the night fog was rolling in.  We climbed up to the ridge as the sun disappeared and although it got really dark very fast, it was all very peaceful.

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Back at the cabin, we come to find our Slovakian hosts, Juraj and Stanislav, had started a fire in the main restaurant cabin for us. We all hung out there, eating cake, drinking beers, enjoying the fire, and watching the Northern Lights.  Between conversations of our lives back home, we would check outside for activity, and we were not disappointed.  We had an even better show  that second night.  It was all a little surreal, but also a little magical.

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Tarjei came the next morning for the drive to the airport.  We passed waterfalls in the fjords and even the world’s strongest whirlpool outside Bodø, in a town called Saltstraumen.  This maelstrom looks like a scary whirling vortex in photos we’ve seen because of the connection to one of the strongest tides around, but because of the water level at that time of that day, it wasn’t as crazy as it normally gets.

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Looking back now, those two days were probably some of my favorite memories on the whole trip through the four countries that we visited.  I am so glad that we were able to plan that part of it.  Of course dog sledding and the Aurora Borealis are both amazing adventures on it’s own, but to have my family there with me and to meet some friendly people make the excursion that much more special.

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