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Good Going

"He who wishes to understand me must know Norway. The magnificent, but severe, natural environment, the lonely, secluded life . . . At home every other person is a philosopher! There, the long, dark winters come with their thick fogs enveloping the houses–oh, how they long for the sun!"
 –Henrik Ibsen

By Elisa Freeling

Winters in Norway are indeed protracted, giving you ample time to experience them. Finnmark, the northernmost county, which borders Finland and Russia far above the Arctic Circle, provides the full philosopher’s effect. There the sun, perhaps exhausted from not going to bed during the summer, does not lift itself above the horizon for all of December and most of January. But its long midnight does make the region one of the best places to catch sight of the aurora borealis. The cause of the eerie undulations of the nordlys has been variously associated with heaven, hell, or dead virgins. Almost as fantastic is the scientific explanation: Subatomic particles streaming from the sun to Earth’s magnetic poles slam into molecules in the upper atmosphere and generate light. On an average night in Norway, the aurora borealis emits more energy than the country uses in a year.

To lighten the season, locals hold sled-dog races, ice-sculpture exhibits, and international snowball fights. But skiing is the pastime of choice: Norwegians invented the sport in the late 19th century, though the oldest evidence of skis–a cave drawing in the north–dates back 4,000 years (the word "ski" comes from Old Norse for "board"). The landscape varies from steep coastal fjords to river valleys to vast mountain plains, with stories about trolls and Norse gods for practically every striking land form. Skiers can slalom across the inland plateaus among wintering reindeer, staying at cabins that dot the countryside. Originally built for migratory Sámi (Laplanders) or traveling public officials, the cabins are equipped with kitchen utensils and bedding, and some have caretakers. In Finnmark, they’ll leave the lys on for you.

Explore If you’re not Viking enough for Norway’s winter, you can join a Sierra Club outing this summer and sail around the Spitzbergen archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. The remote glacier-capped islands are occupied by few people but plenty of polar bears, seals, walruses, and whales. For more information, go to www.sierraclub.org/outings/national.

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