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.
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.”
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.
The enjoyably slow amble is gentle preparation for a moonlit husky ride we have planned later that evening.
As we move off 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.