For many travelers, the thought of heading north of the Arctic Circle for a vacation is a bit daunting, conjuring thoughts of vast ice and tremendous darkness, of ferocious bears and dancing lights. The truth, of course, contains all of these elements to various degrees — and for astonishing beauty, incredible outdoor activities and adventure with appeal to multiple ages and interests, the spectacular island archipelago of Lofoten in Norway’s northwest is without equal.
On the way from Oslo, I flew into the small town of Tromsø to begin the road journey north. Located on its own island, the town is famous for its collection of historic wooden houses, some dating to the late 1700s. In the morning, my guide met me for the journey to the island of Sommarøy, the base for the 69North adventure outfitter. The company is owned and directed by world-famous sailor Olivier Pitras. Pitras assembled a team of experienced professionals who act as guides and instructors for curated activities that include sailing on the polar sailboat Southern Star, fjord kayaking, hiking, whale watching, stand-up paddleboarding and cycling expeditions.
Next, I take the ferry from Brensholmen to the island of Senja. It’s the second-largest island in the country, and provides access to the National Tourism Route. My first view of the landscape is of enormous, tiered racks of cod drying in the sun, sharply outlined against a clear blue sky. At the edges of land, water sparkles. The scenery is achingly beautiful, but I can’t wait to get out on the fjord.
Fairly soon, I get my wish, taking part in a RIB Boat Safari to Henningsvaer with the outfitters Lofoten Explorer. After donning a waterproof, windproof floatsuit, goggles and gloves provided by the boat’s crew, I join a group of others in a narrow rib boat for a tour of Trollfjord that leaves from Svolvær harbor.
We enter a narrow channel of clear water edged on either side by sheer, nearly vertical mountain slopes covered in dense, green foliage.
As we zip across the surface of the wider fjord that lies within, the boat’s captain points upward, and we all follow his finger into the cloudless sky above us. A huge sea eagle is following the boat, dipping and circling, coming so close its feathers are clearly defined.
Fully aware of our obvious delight, the captain reaches down and suddenly tosses a fish high into the air. The eagle catches it without missing a beat, following us at a pace that keeps even with the boat.
I think about the eagle on the drive further north for a half-day of horseback riding at Hov Hestegård. The small village of Hov is located beside the winding, narrow finger of Randsfjorden. When I arrive and walk toward the tall barn, I see Frode, the owner, and Ella, my guide for the day, saddling our horses in the bright sunshine.
I’m introduced to Sif, a mare named in honor of Thor’s wife. Like the others, she’s a purebred Icelandic horse, known for a smooth, rocking-chair gait and friendly personalities. We ride the short distance to the beach at Vinje, following an ancient trail once used by Vikings to reach the sea. As the day progresses, we move upland into the meadows that make up the Gimsøy nature reserve.
Anticipating the last part of this journey has kept me awake for months, just dreaming about it. We’re making our way to the Polar Park to meet Norway’s famous kissing wolves during an organized Wolf Visit.
For 12 years, my husband and son and I lived with a half-wolf called Tasha that was rescued in the Rocky Mountains near our home in Colorado when she was a three-month-old pup. She was an important member of our family, and the experience of living with her was one of the most enriching periods of my life. The opportunity to meet and interact with her wild Arctic cousins was too enticing to pass up.
Though the Wolf Visit experience is limited to those 18 or older, the park itself is open to everyone, and is an exceptional location for teaching children the value of protecting wildlife and preserving their natural habitat. It’s home to a large variety of predator species including bears and lynx, and other animals such as reindeer, musk ox and moose.
I’m met at the park by head animal keeper Stig Sletten, and follow him to a gate that opens into a tunnel leading through the wolf enclosure to the Wolf Lodge. This lovely glass and wood structure features massive windows for viewing the wolves, and can be booked as the perfect family lodging space, with multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, a full kitchen and living area.
Sletten tells me about the wolves and how they’ve been partially socialized during their time here, then leads me through an intensive safety drill that includes the submissive body posture I should adopt if I’m lucky enough to actually be approached by the wolves. He explains one of their ways of communicating is by sniffing and licking, especially the face. He also tells me that most of the time, the wolves remain at a distance from human visitors and simply observe them.
We head outdoors. There’s snow on the ground, and I can make out the tracks of the family of wolves. We stop in a clearing, and Sletten gestures for me to kneel on one knee and remain still. There are three wolves behind me, he whispers. Suddenly, I’m aware of their presence. The alpha female steps forward and comes close, sniffing curiously. Without warning, she buries her nose in the space between my neck and chin and begins to lick my face. The others join her, and I breathe slowly and evenly as they explore my hair and neck.
Then, just as suddenly as they appeared, they’re gone — trotting away into the trees, leaving me to catch my breath and stand up, slowly stretching my cramped legs. Sletten smiles, and helps me back through the tunnel out of the enclosure. I think of Tasha, and I’m flooded with gratitude for the rare and extraordinary moment I’ve just had, and all of the beauty I’ve witnessed here in the wild north of Norway.
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