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Arctic

Winter in the Arctic: Snapshots from a land of endless night

  • Author: Josephine Sedgwick, The New York Times
  • Updated: February 4
  • Published February 4

Iditarod musher Mark Selland drives his dog team onto the Yukon River at sunset as he leaves the village of Tanana during the 2017 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on March 8, 2017. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

For those who live just above the Arctic Circle, there is at least one day a year when the sun never pushes above the horizon. But there are many people who live even farther north who, after the winter solstice, do not see the sun for weeks.

We asked readers who know Arctic winters well to share their stories of life in the polar darkness. Nearly 700 readers responded from areas all around the Arctic Circle. Some moved to the region for fresh starts after rocky divorces or job losses. Others were born into families who had lived in the Arctic for generations. A few came to the Arctic for research, fell in love with the lifestyle — or with a reindeer herder — and never left.

These are their stories, edited and condensed for clarity.

'Dayless days'

— Nina Einem lives in Tromso, Norway:

"I was born and raised in the Arctic areas of Norway, and live at 69 degrees north. Except for two years studying abroad, I have lived here for all my 46 years.

"You might think we stumble around in plain darkness for two months, but indirect light from under the horizon colors the sky."

— Gunda Hackbarth lives in Helnessund, Norway:

"The mountains are blue, the ocean is blue, the snow glows blue in the distance. Sometimes the sky is orange and yellow, and at night you can see stripes of green above you."

— Vegard Eggen lives in Trondheim, Norway:

"I had one of my first encounters with the northern lights during my studies up north in Bodo. The green lights rolled over the mountains and almost seemed like they were going to hit me in the head."

The northern lights color the sky over the Norwegian Sea in Unstad, Norway, a remote town between two mountains in the Lofoten Islands, Oct. 8, 2016. (Leslye Davis/The New York Times)

— Johanna Erkkila is a hotel entrepreneur in Sirkka, Finland:

"It's difficult to describe the landscape during Kaamos ('dayless days'). On a clear night, the number of stars is beyond understanding. Sometimes when you stop in the forest, it is so quiet you think that there is something wrong with your hearing."

— Sanni Orasmaa lives in Inari, Finland:

"The sounds of the frost biting the corners of the house, ice singing, footsteps on the snow — these are all part of the experience."

— Riitta Raekallio-Wunderink lives in Sirkka, Finland:

"Snow on the ground and in the trees reflects even the smallest glimmers of light; the full moon creates the most curious movie-set-like feel."

— Stephanie Hinz lives in Fort Yukon, Alaska:

"You are reminded of the magnificence of our universe: a full moon, bright enough to read by; satellites slowly making their way across the sky."

The full moon rises into view from Utqiagvik on Dec. 13, 2016. Sometimes known as a moon pillar, the orange light pillar under the moon is the light (reflected from the sun, bounced off the surface of the moon) is again reflected and refracted through ice crystals in the earth’s atmosphere, according to National Weather Service’s David Snider. Because the ice crystals are flat, they channel the light vertically. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Feeling the darkness

— Yury Kiselov lived for 24 years in the northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk — just below the Arctic Circle — and nine years in Tromso, Norway, which is well above it:

"In Arkhangelsk, the two to three hours of dim light was bad enough, but I had to move to Tromso to see what complete darkness is — and what that darkness can do to one's mental state."

— Brian McCarthy was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska:

"Our home was located on the north side of a hill, so we received no direct sunlight for nearly 12 weeks each year. The sparkling lights of Christmas never seemed to burn so bright as in an Alaskan winter. But in January, after the decorations are gone, the realization would set in that you were only halfway through. My mood would dive. I highly recommend staging a Hawaiian luau in late January."

Alaina Pitka, 5, and her friend Lyla Eva, 4, play indoors on a -20 degree day in Beaver, Alaska, Dec. 4, 2016. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

'Kos' and perseverance

— Svein Hovland is from Eikefjord, Norway:

"To battle the dark and cold, we indulge in coziness. The term 'kos' is a Scandinavian universal. It means to enjoy the company of family and friends and to snuggle up with winter activities."

— Gustav Haggstrom, 27, grew up in Lulea, Sweden:

"When I was a kid, we used to close the streetlights in the village just to get it darker and enjoy the stars and the night sky. A fire is more cozy when the darkness is complete and the wind is howling."

— Mona Eskelinen lives in Rovaniemi, Finland:

"When you get back from work or school, it is amazing to take all your formal clothes off, heat the sauna and sweat. Then, put on some comfortable clothes, brew your favorite hot drink and get cozy on your sofa under a blankie."

People soak in natural hot baths surrounded by lava fields in Myvatn, Iceland, Jan. 17, 2013. (Ilvy Njiokiktjien/The New York Times)

— Knut Gaasvik lives in Harstad, Norway:

"There are many children born between August and November :)"

— Vesa Miettunen lives in Rovaniemi, Finland:

"The polar night is the perfect excuse to be a bit lazy. I call it my personal Arctic siesta. There is no need to stress about cleaning, no one will see the dust lying on your floor."

— Gunda Hackbarth lives in Helnessund, Norway:

"I live in a small village by the ocean with 300 inhabitants, mostly fishermen and old people. There are also three moose and two eagles who have joined us. I see lots of fish, birds and wildlife just outside my window. It's a good substitute for the darkness, which does affect your mood.

"I like to build a snow cave, fill it with candlelight and drink a bottle of red wine with my friends. We go outside and smell the snow."

— Jakob Ollander lives in Umea, Sweden, but was born and raised in Kiruna, Sweden:

"We spend our lives trying to be productive and constantly trying to be better than we used to be, but when I come home to Kiruna, everything just stops. You can take it easy and slow down."

On the King’s Trail above the Arctic Circle in Abisko, Sweden in March 2005. (Vincent Laforet/The New York Times)

Life doesn't stop

— Koppany Tuba lives in Enontekio, Finland:

"We work, eat, sleep, have fun — even host barbecue parties in minus 40 Celsius. Life doesn't stop."

— Berit Sjovik was born in Tromso, Norway:

"It is a great adventure to grow up in the North. Where else in the world are children allowed to run around playing outside in the dark? No one calls their kids in at sunset because there is none."

— Siri Kverneland lives in Longyearbyen, Norway:

"We have to watch out for polar bears in the schoolyard, so one teacher must carry a weapon to protect the children."

— Frank Stelges lives 25 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska:

"You still do a lot of things in the dark and my forehead carries the permanent imprint of my headlamp. I spend nearly the whole day outside chopping firewood for our house (we live off the grid), maintaining trails, plowing, going on walks with our dogs, snowshoeing, skiing, winter biking. It's just great."

— Espen Andre Henriksen lives in Storslett, Norway:

"It's tough, but our community doesn't hibernate. We still have town events and the traffic never stops. We have a saying here in Norway: 'There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.'"

— Mark Sabbatini lives in Longyearbyen, Norway:

"The world's northernmost jazz festival occurs here during the 24-hour nights in early February. Community events ensure there is almost always something of interest happening every day."

A dark afternoon at Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, Finland, Dec. 18, 2017. This remote city near the Arctic Circle claims to be the “Official Hometown of Santa Claus,” and hundreds of thousands visit each year, many from lands like China, with no Christmas traditions. (Ilvy Njiokiktjien/The New York Times)

When the sun comes back

— Tiril Auby lives in Stamsund, Norway:

"Looking forward to the 15 minutes of actual sunlight in mid-January is better than looking forward to any birthday ever. It puts everything in perspective. And we must get our rest now because there are no nights in the summer."

— Madrigal Brown lives in Utqiagvik, Alaska:

"When the sun comes back, I know. I know at the exact moment. Everything stops and I marvel at the way it changes the whole world."

— Lillian Selvik lives in Leines, Norway:

"In February we can stand in the first rays of direct sun. After all those months, it's like a firework. Your soul explodes in a rush of happiness and a longing for more, more, more. You win the Oscar for having survived."

— Kevin Norman Aaland is a student in Tromso, Norway:

"My advice is simple: Do not spend too much time thinking about the polar nights."

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