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Above the Arctic Circle

The Gulf Stream gives northern Norway a moderate climate and a thriving economy

The Arctic Circle, like the equator, is just an imaginary line on the earth's surface but crossing either of them has traditionally been cause for celebration — or at least an excuse to have a drink. And true to form as the M/S Expedition approached 66 degrees 33 minutes north latitude an announcement on the ship's PA system invited us to join the captain on the front deck for a toast of champagne. As we raised our glasses to the midnight sun the skipper nosed the ship in close to the tiny islet of Vikingen where a metal sculpture of the earth marks the most southerly point where, on the longest day of the year, the sun shines for twenty-four hours. We had arrived at the Arctic Circle.

As the ship backed away from Vikingen and resumed our journey north I was constantly reminded of the profound difference between the Canadian and Norwegian Arctic. Except for latitude the two regions bear little resemblance to one another. Northern Canadian cities like Whitehorse, Yellowknife, and Rankin Inlet are all miles south of the Arctic Circle and the scattering of villages and weather stations farther north are isolated from one another by harsh winters and dependent on bush planes and winter ice-roads for supplies and travel. By contrast the Norwegian Arctic is a year-round hive of activity where scores of villages and small cities are linked to the rest of the country by rail, road, and regular ferry service.

The difference is due mainly to the Gulf Stream whose warm southern waters bring a sub-Arctic climate to the coast of Norway. But differences in scale and government policy have also played a part. In 1945 the Norwegians embarked on a massive road-building scheme designed to link almost every village and hamlet into the national transportation system. In Norway, where distances are modest, the scheme worked. In Canada's vast Arctic region it would not even be practical to try.

Eighty kilometers north of the Arctic Circle we passed the village of Bodo, the northern terminus of the Trondheim rail line. From this point on, overland travel is by express bus along highway E6, which runs north for another 800 kilometres all the way to the Russian border. A few kilometers north of Bodo we paused for a day in the Lofoten Islands (Pique May 24, 2012) where an elaborate system of bridges, causeways and tunnels links scores of tiny, once isolated, fishing villages to highway E10. Beyond the Lofotons, as the Expedition winds her way through the spectacular fjords and channels of Nordland, we wave at one of the coastal ferries headed south, and suddenly the city of Tromsø is spread out in front of us.

Located on the east side of Tromsøya Island, the city centre is connected to the mainland by the Tromsø Bridge and a four-lane road tunnel. With a population of 53,600 Tromsø, the country's ninth largest city, is the effective capital of northern Norway. In addition to its bustling port it is home to the world's most northern university and a wide range of other industries.

Despite its location 360 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, its climate, moderated by the Gulf Stream, is typical of subarctic areas. Its harbour remains ice-free all year and, because there is no permafrost, there is no need for raised building foundations and service pipes. The homes, shops, and streets of Tromsø look the same as those in Norwegian cities a thousand kilometres farther south. It is clearly a prosperous city and, unlike many other settlements that I have visited in the high Arctic, its residents take pride in keeping their streets and buildings clean and tidy.

When we were there in early June the temperature was a balmy 10 degrees. The tulips were in full bloom and the outdoor markets were doing a brisk business in bedding plants ready to add colour and life to the city's many private and public gardens. With 24 hours of sunlight per day the growing season lasts into October and local gardeners take full advantage of it.

After a prowl through the Stortorget open-air market, visits to the Polar Museum, and the University, we took the Fjellheisen cable car up to the top of Mount Storsteinen on the mainland. The patio of the coffee shop provides a sweeping view across the sound to the harbour and city centre and it's easy to see why this spot in northern Norway has a maritime history that goes back to the Middle Ages.

Tromsø's mild climate and ice-free harbour provided a staging ground for early seafarers venturing north to Svalbard in a quest for fish, seals, furs, and whales. There has been a church there since the 13th century but the city did not receive its municipal charter until 1794 when it had become an active trading centre. From 1740 until 1917 ships from Russia and southern Norway gathered in Tromsø harbour for a lively trade between the Pomor people of northwest Russia and the Sami of northern Europe. More recently it has been the jumping-off point for a string of polar explorations, including the heroic Arctic exploits of Roald Amundsen who, among other things, successfully navigated and charted the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific, and led the first successful expedition to the South Pole. In May, 1928 Amundsen joined the search for colleague Umberto Nobile whose airship had gone down somewhere in the Arctic. He took off from Tromsø with five other men and was never heard from again but, while his death will always be a mystery, his dedication to the Arctic is brought to life through photographs and exhibits in Tromsø's Polar Museum.

Today Tromsø is still a jumping-off point of sorts — the place where ships like the M/S Expedition leave continental Europe and head north across the Norwegian Sea to Svalbard.

This article is a part of a travel series that took Jack from Scotland to the Norweigan arctic. You can find the others in the series in the Pique on Feb.16, March 1, March 12, April 26, and May 24 of this year.