Marian McGuinness worships the sky by night and snow by day inside the Arctic Circle.
Flying beyond the Arctic Circle is magical. The famous parallel of latitude is like a portal, transporting you into the wilderness of the midnight sun, the polar night and the ethereal northern lights. My husband and I have landed on a snowy runway in a small plane. We have come to the frontier town of Tromso, on the ragged fjord coast of Norway, 350 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. Already I can feel the magic.
The airport shuttle, the Flybussen, drops us off near our hotel on the waterfront. It's freezing. My fingers are tingling in my gloves and my face feels like it has been sheared by ice. The harbour is filled with fishing trawlers, bobbing in the glimmering polar half-light like ice-encrusted art installations.
Our first stop is the tourist information office next to the dock. With only a few days here, my primary objective is to stand beneath the aurora borealis. After that, it's my husband's choice of dog-sledding and snowmobiling.
We're advised to book an aurora tour that night. Nothing is guaranteed but if we miss the elusive lights, we have a few more nights to try to find them. There are several tour companies available. It's a confusing choice. We chat to the tourist officer about topography and solar winds. Sensing our keenness, she recommends one guy with equal enthusiasm. He's a bit of a maverick, will go hundreds of kilometres out of his way to find the lights and he's a Starry Night tragic. His name is Gunnar. Choice made.
HUNTING FOR THE AURORA Long johns, polar fleeces, scarves, beanies, two sets of gloves, two pairs of socks and waterproof boots. We're still cold. Gunnar picks up our group of 13 close to our hotel. It's 7pm and it has been dark for hours.
We head away from the town lights. All is silent in the van as we swoosh past wispy, leafless trees along the snowy road.
Half an hour later, Gunnar pulls into a siding. He flicks on the interior light over the driver's seat. Thirteen silent faces look at him. We're in the middle of nowhere, the van's windows have fogged up and he turns to us in his furry hat. It's all a bit surreal and I have goosebumps.
But then Gunnar begins what he does best. He talks. He shows us a map and begins to explain about the solar winds, the magnetic North Pole, about collisions and exploding light.
"I have seen the northern lights in a snowstorm!" he enthuses.
"Sometimes we drive 500 kilometres to chase the lights. Sometimes we drive to Finland!"
We all bundle outside and follow Gunnar's gaze to the north. We don't know what we're looking for. He points to the sky. "Look, there. Low activity. See?" I'm desperate to see. But I can't. I'm expecting bright flashes of glowing colours but all I see is a milky glow. Then, from behind the mountain, a faint green light fans out like the Hollywood lights at the beginning of an old movie.
Gunnar shepherds us back into the van. He rings several friends. One is a fisherman out at sea. He speaks in Norwegian and then excitedly explains to us that there is a small strip over the ocean. "It is starting to dance!"
We're off like storm chasers across the frozen landscape. Gunnar cites Norse mythology. "If you whistle or wave at the lights, the spirits will take you away," he says.
At 10.30pm, we're shivering by the sea. It's minus 25 degrees with the wind-chill factor. The moon has just risen above the southern mountain and illuminates the wilderness. But it's OK, the aurora dances from the north-west.
We're given a hot blackcurrant drink and a pastry of goat's cheese and cinnamon. As we shiver, a ghostly light appears scythe-like overhead. Green lights swirl across the apex of the sky and down to the fjord. They waver and fan and tunnel. They disappear, then reappear as flickering neon icicles that bleed into rose and gold.
I'm watching a silent symphony conducted by the goddess Aurora. Accelerando. Andante. Each movement contrasting the last.
For 40 minutes, 13 faces worship the sky. "It's like a pulse," the Irish guy says. "The fingers of God," the Italian guy says. I don't know what the Polish girl says but it's with equal reverence. We all forget to use our cameras but that's OK. Gunnar will email his photos to us. And he does.
MUSH THOSE HUSKIES There are three rules for sledding newbies. One: apply the snow brake when you see the guide disappearing over a hill (if you leave it until after this, you and the huskies will fly. This is not good.) Two: help the dogs by scootering with your right foot. Three: don't let go of the sled or the dogs will bolt.
Our guide, Amanda, also teaches us to say "sto" in a deep, guttural voice. It's husky for "stop" and will be well used once we get going on our two-hour adventure into the Vass Valley.
We're all in insulated suits and snow boots. There are two people per sled - one rides the runners while the passenger enjoys the scenery, changing places at the halfway point eight kilometres away.
The huskies are hyper so my husband takes the first shift. I want to see the lie of the land before taking over mushing. It's not all snowy and romantic, like I thought it would be. Suddenly the dogs take off. The sled rockets over hills and down icy drops. We have to shift our balance to keep upright while zigging through birch forests. But all does not go to plan as our sled skews sideways. My husband sails past as I skid across the ice, fingers faithfully gripping the sled.
My bruises are badges of honour. To sledge through such pristine scenery with the creak of the sleigh, the grind of the metal brake on ice and the yelp of the huskies is something I'll never regret.
SNOWMOBILE SAFARI The day after dog-sledding we're back in the wilderness of the Lyngen Fjord. This time we're taking off into the mountains by machine. It's another opportunity for my husband to let out his inner hoon.
With our insulated body suits, heavy boots and motorcycle helmets, we're given instructions on the use of the brake and throttle. We have to lean with the machine. This time we ride along a frozen river and up into the mountains. I'm riding pillion and my driver likes to challenge the icy edges of the hills. My knocking on his helmet only makes him think I'm keen for more.
I'm grateful when we pull up half way, at a reindeer-keeper's hut, where we get a break from the elements. We're 800 metres above sea level in minus 30-degree temperatures, again with the mighty wind-chill factor. Then it's my turn to take over the throttle. Thank goodness for heated handlebars. I head back along the frozen river feeling in charge of my mighty machine. I'm following the guy in front. His machine cracks the fragile ice and I'm right behind him. This novice, seeing the gash of rushing water, slews the skis to the right, pinballs off a couple of birch trees and stacks it. Up to our thighs in snow, there's no elegant way to dig ourselves out.
At the end of our hours of snowmobiling, we're debriefing with the other adventurers in a lavvo (a traditional tent used by the Sami/Lap people). We slurp our reindeer soup and smell the coffee brewing on the open fire burning on the frozen earth. For an Aussie used to sand and sea, snow can be pretty damn exciting.
INSIDE THE POLAR MUSEUM Full of Arctic atmosphere, this 1800s warehouse beside the water is a great escape from the cold. See the daily rituals of the fur trappers come to life as you walk into one of their original driftwood and moss huts. Life-size dioramas dramatise the hunting of reindeer, seals, foxes, polar bears and the muskox. For the squeamish, there is a selection of purses, shoes, bow ties and pencil cases made from the pure white fur of baby harp seals.
Upstairs takes you into the lives of polar explorers including Amundsen and Nansen. Their artefacts give a fascinating insight into the challenges of early Arctic exploration. One disturbing display, complete with sound effects, is the polar bear self-shooting trap used until the 1970s that lured the animals with blubber.
I think it's time for a drink.
WETTING THE WHISTLE AT MACKS BREWERY There's a saying that "you haven't been in Tromso if you haven't been to Olhallen". It's not long before we push through a low door into this beer-drinkers' paradise and sign up for a tour of the world's northernmost brewery.
Kitted out in plastic raincoat, snood and slippers, our small international group is escorted through spectacular doors made from old oak barrels to view the rooms, tunnels and workings of the 133-year-old brewery. Every worker has to have an education in beer, our guide, Unne, tells us.
Amazingly, they brew 30 different beers, including a beer for each season. Spring beer suits fish, liver and roe, while autumn's dark beer complements the hunting season of reindeer, moose and grouse.
An hour later, we're back in Olhallen, the beer hall. My husband and I have chosen a mild, sweet, mahogany-coloured brew called Blanding for our generous free sample. It's not long before we're chatting to the locals ... and the two stuffed polar bears that watch over us.
Finnair and Thai Airways fly from Sydney to Oslo. Continue to Tromso with Wideroe, Scandinavian Airlines or Norwegian Air Shuttle.
WHERE TO STAY
Norway is an expensive country. It's preferable to stay in the town centre close to all activity pick-ups. For accommodation ranging from backpackers to four-star hotels see visittroms.no.
Northern lights tours from 850NOK ($157) a person, dog-sledding (seven hours, 1495NOK) and snowmobiling (seven hours, 1595NOK) can be booked through the Tourist Information Centre in Tromso, near the dock at Kirkegata 2. Phone +47 77 61 00 00, email email@example.com.
For Lyngsfjord Adventure Centre, see lyngsfjord.com.
Contact GuideGunnar at firstname.lastname@example.org or see www.guide-gunnar.no.