November is a strange time here in Arctic Norway. Just before entering the penultimate month of the year, we switch to winter time and, all of a sudden, mornings become significantly darker. Then, for the following few weeks, we watch the skies anxiously, looking for signs of the first snow. We step outside carefully, fearing ice on the roads, and eventually switch our wind and waterproof jackets for thicker duffel coats, parkas, and other down coverings. It is, in many ways, the hardest month of the year, and yet maybe the most magical.
Up here in my hometown, we observe a seasonal cycle a bit different from that of more southerly folks. Perched on the top of Europe at 69 degrees north, about as far north as northernmost Alaska, Tromsø is a peculiar place to live. While a large city by Scandinavian standards, it stands almost completely alone in an otherwise largely rural northern Norway. True, we have a university, a hospital, an active shipping and tourist harbor, as well as countless cultural venues, institutions and events (including no less than four film festivals), yet it sometimes feels like it is all pretense.
Take a vehicle twenty or thirty minutes out of the bustling city center and you will soon encounter a completely different world: a world made of isolated farms, aging fishing shacks, and busted up roads crossing empty fjords and desolate peeks. It is like living in a lighthouse, surrounded by nothing but the wild, often unwelcoming nature. You merely need to take three steps outside the door to remember where you are.
Locals have a saying about that: “Vi vet kor vi bor” (“We know where we live”) and it is often in November that you start hearing it out loud.
Yet, just as every winter up here is different, every November feels distinct. Some years, November is when we start waking up at six in the morning to shovel our daily half-foot of fresh snow from the driveway. Some Novembers treat us to ice-cold rain, or hailstorms. The bridge to the next island might get closed, or, once in a blue moon, it might be a little bit mild for a few days.
November 2022 was, unsurprisingly, unlike any of the others I have witnessed. It started with quite a bit of rain, which quickly turned to deadly black ice overnight. Some days later, a few snowflakes came down just to melt once they reached the earth. Finally, a cold front took the temperature securely under the freezing point, and, for close to two weeks, most of the island was almost covered by rime-frost.
While I have seen the phenomenon many times before, this time was different. Maybe due to the humidity that was until then saturating the air, the rime shards grew to inane proportions. After just a few days, I could see them growing close to an inch on the roof of the garage, while the ice on the bushes and the neighbor’s lawn was not much shorter.
After a week, it felt like the neighborhood had been entirely coated with white quartz – the walls of the house, the roofs of the cars, the trashcan lids, even the baby carriages at daycare, each and everything living and non-living thing had been conquered by the frost, which had grown close to two inches in some places.
At the same time as the earth had been transformed into a crystalline winter wonderland, the heavens refused to be outdone. The cold air, which remained stable for the longest time, managed to keep most clouds away, so, each and every night, the stars came out as bright as ever. It makes me realize how lucky I am to be able to live in a town and see the stars so clearly as well. It has quite an effect on foreign tourists particularly, who often comment about being able to see a starry sky for the first time in their lives.
Between the frozen earth and the cold skies, yet another impressive phenomenon takes place, the aurora borealis. Thanks to a heightened level of solar activity, 2022 saw a record number of auroral displays, and November took the lion’s share.
On more than one occasion, I was able to spot the at-times elusive lights, burning brightly in the skies. I find myself both lucky and amused when I think that, while visitors from the southern nations often wait their whole lifetime to see the lights just once, I myself only need to open my front door and turn my head 45 degrees to see some of the most impressive ones there are.
For me, it is not the aurora borealis who is the star of the show in November; it is the good old Sun himself that I am thinking about. While at the beginning of the month, we were graced by his touch for a few hours in the middle of the day, come the last week of the month he was gone for good, heralding the start of the Mørketid, the polar night, which in Tromsø lasts two whole months. For that reason, come the middle of November, one becomes increasingly aware of what we’re about to lose.
The low lying sun, brushing over the southern mountains for a few more days with his hues of molten gold, looks all the more beautiful as he is announcing his departure. Going outside to get just one last ray of sunlight upon one’s flesh, one last gaze at the burning star, becomes almost a ritual in and of itself.
This went on until the 23rd, when I saw a glowing ray of sunshine illuminating the wall across my desk. This is the day, I thought, as I donned my jacket and grabbed my camera. I needed to say good bye. Outside, the air was still crisp and cold, the rime frost as thick as ever, glittering in the warming beams of the sun.
I stood out on the porch, and there he was, overlooking the fjord, in between Kvannfjellet and Fugltinden, just showing the tip of his nose. It was so little, so short, and yet, it felt enough. As I meandered the icy street southwards, I spotted an airplane, surely bound for some warm, tropical destination. I gaze at its steel fuselage engilded by the very last beams of sunshine before turning my head south again, just to see it all gone.
That was it; he had retreated behind the mountains for good, and yet, his presence was still all around. I gazed at the clouds, lying low on the horizon. They had turned from bluish grey to a flamboyant shade of soft orange, halfway being peach and amber. Further down, atop the highest mountain peaks of the westerly island, his touch could still be seen, and, for a little while the cold snows turned purple and pink before they, too, started to embrace the darkness. In a matter of minutes, instants, we had gone from day to evening, and soon, night.
I started feeling the crisp cold in my fingers. It was time to come back in, and get on with facing the next two months with as much spirit as could be mustered. It wouldn’t be easy, just like the previous ten polar nights were not, but inside me, I felt at peace: at the end of the day, there is a promise I know will be fulfilled. The sun will rise again, winter will end, and the wheel will continue turning.
How glad I am to be able to witness it in all this glory, year after year. But for now, such poetic thoughts will have to wait, it has started snowing already, and I need to find my good shovel.
Wish me good luck, and see you on the other side of the winter.