Kirkenes is a town at the extreme north of Norway – over an hour’s flight north from Tromsø (which is itself pretty far north) and seemingly on the edge of the world. It also seems to exist between day and night: even in early February, with the days lengthening by as much as 70 minutes a week, the sun is still slung low in the sky, lending a shadowy sense of mystery to the land.
Sollia Guesthouse and Restaurant is a short drive from Kirkenes and sits beside the Norway-Russia border. I was met at the airport by Eivind Nordhus, the co-owner and chef, who speaks in a gentle voice from behind his walrus moustache, and as we drive through the snow piled ten feet deep on the roadside, he tells me its history: built in the 1920s as a children’s TB hospital; commandeered to be an army hospital in World War II; and how, at the end of the war, the lone doctor they drafted in couldn’t take any more, packed his bags for home, walked off into the snow, and was never seen again. “But that’s just like in Doctor Zhivago,” I say. Eivind says nothing and negotiates a bridge over a frozen river. Beyond the bridge is a very large, very official sign. “Over there: Russia,” he points, and I see two lines of posts recede into the snowy distance across a frozen lake. “We hardly see anyone,” he says. “Some guards now and again, that’s all.” Over coffee, we watch the snow fall silently on the lake, and on both Norway and Russia.
From the guesthouse and restaurant, it’s just a short hop by skidoo to the Sollia wilderness camp up in the hills. Guests are welcome to stay overnight in cabins and tents, and it’s the perfect place to see the Northern Lights. You can take a sauna in the wild and eat a campfire-cooked reindeer stew laid on for you by Eivind and his team, with waffles and hot chocolate for afters. If you’re feeling adventurous it’s possible to hire snowshoes and special snow-tyred bikes, or take a snowmobile safari around the hills. Or you can just kick back and enjoy the sense of being somewhere very, very special.
"Don't let go!"
The road to Birk Husky follows the Russian border for an hour and a half, twisting and turning with the snow-blanketed inlets and wooded contours of the land.
This is husky central. It’s a winter adventure centre, and as well as dog sledding you can go ice-fishing, snow-mobiling, and snow-bird watching. They have 40 dogs, with piercing blue eyes and thick fur. Each dog has its own hut, and each hut has a cutely hand-painted sign with the dog’s name and date of birth. I sense that’s as close as the dogs get to having any pet-like concessions. I don’t mean that in a bad way: these are very much working dogs. They are literally born to run. And as they’re harnessed up in teams of six per sled, they howl with excitement into the snowy wind that howls back at them.
“There are only two things you need to know about dog-sledding,” says Trine Beddari, who runs the camp with her family. “One, don’t let the sled catch the dogs or else it can hurt their legs. And two, don’t let go of the sled – or else you have a very long walk home.”
With that, and a lesson on how to use the anchor-brake, we’re off. And at quite a lick, too. The dogs hurtle into the snow-field with a passion and sense of freedom that is actually touching to experience first-hand. The dogs love it, and it’s easy to see why. To say sledding is elemental is an understatement. The air whips into your face, and if you’re seated in the sled you are only centimetres from the ground, and just in case you need reminding of this every so often there’s a bump and a thud adding a rhythm to the whistle of the steel runners as they skim the snow. And the silence when you stop is immense, and – if sound can have a colour – white, and all encompassing. It’s Narnia made real.
Sledding is an adrenaline rush like no other, at once serene, beautiful, bumpy, wonderful, cold, breathless, life-enhancing, and invigorating. It’s fast Slow. It leaves you feeling richer, warmer, and wanting more. A little like the reindeer soup, ladled into bowls by the fire in the traditional tepee-like lavvu, afterwards.
As I wave goodbye to Trine and her family it’s already beginning to go dark. Or rather that wonderful electric blue you get after the sun sets – and up here, ‘the blue hour’ lasts for hours. As we drive back towards Kirkenes and the guesthouse, I look out across the plains as yet more snow falls, and I can’t help thinking of the good doctor of Sollia. And hope he made it home.