Knut Hansvold

Spring in the North is two steps forward and one back

Spring in Northern Norway is an attitude thing. Leave every idea of spring flowers at home and pack all your warmest clothes. Don’t forget your sunglasses. You’ll have a whale of a time in the best weather of the year.

Spring in Northern Norway can be glorious; I was once on the island of Vega in early April. The countless little lakes froze over at night, but in the bright midday sunshine, the tiny purple saxifrages were blossoming. A few days later, I went to the North Cape behind a snowplough. Again, the sun was glorious, and we drove in a snow corridor to a totally snowed-in North Cape. Then, in Tromsø, I saw people shovel snow from their roofs after an extra solid snow shower. Nah, for Tromsø an average one. In the north, we often say there is no spring. It’s winter, then the snow melts, and that’s the start of summer. A slight exaggeration, there is some truth to it.

The light moves from north to south

Spring equinox, around the 20th of March, means that the day gets the upper hand in the north. In the far north of Norway, the day gets around 5 minutes longer in the morning and 5 minutes longer in the afternoon every day. Already the first days of April, the Aurora Borealis has considerably less darkness to dance in. By Mayday, the midnight hour is transparent blue. Before the middle of May, the sun shines over the northern horizon at the North Cape. From then on, the Midnight Sun conquers Northern Norway night by night. By the last days of May, it has reached Bodø. There is no darkness left in Northern Norway.  

The best weather is in spring

By April, the Atlantic Ocean has cooled and calmed down. Storms and snow or rain clouds are less likely to occur. The Arctic Basin is covered by a solid ice cover. This means good weather for Northern Norway. We typically can expect long sunny days. The short nights can be freezing cold, but at daytime, the temperatures can be pleasantly warm. Surely, both rain fronts coming from the Gulf Stream and a ferocious, all white Polar Low is possible too. By May, the night is gone, and the daytime temperatures are on the rise. The thermometer can reach 20 even in the far north. Northwesterlies with snow, on the other hand, are possible even into June.

The snow takes time to melt

By April, there is precious little snow on the islands of Helgeland, and people in Bodø might be raking their lawn. However, in the Sulitjelma mountains, in Tromsø and in Hammerfest, the snow cover typically is more than a metre mid-Month. By mid to late May the snow is gone in the lowlands everywhere but lingers into June in the mountains.

Svalbard has a long, sunny end of winter

Svalbard, only 1100 km from the North, is the last to experience spring, but the first to get the light. After spring equinox, today is around 15 minutes longer than yesterday. On the 18th of April, the sun sets and rises for the last time in four months. The temperatures, however, are subzero for weeks on end. Sometimes in May, though, the snow cover gets less solid, and snowmobiling and skiing gets les appealing. Instead, one can start hiking and go on boat rides. All, of course, depending on the weather.

Be ready for the odd disappointment

Some people say “April is the worst month – winter seems never to end”. And true; in large parts of Northern Norway, there is a lot of snow shovelling in April. In May, just as you thought Spring had settled in, you wake up to a layer of snow. “Oh” some say “No worries, this is melting snow. It helps the old snow to melt faster”. The logic behind this explanation is not clear to me, but let’s leave it at that. Reinkalvria is the dialect word for the snow that sometimes falls in early June. It is said to prepare the new born reindeer calves to the harsh realities of life. Be ready to give the locals a bit of psychological back-up when it snows in May, don’t say “oh, the fresh snow makes town look so beautiful”.

Play in the snow in the white spring

For anyone into outdoor, April is one of the best months of the year. The peaks, from the “Finnmark Alps” near Alta down through the Lyngen Alps, the Lofoten Islands and Narvik to the Okstindan peaks invite to Randonnée skiing. People go skiing from one mountain refuge to the next on the Finnmark Plateau. Locals go for leisurely ski hikes, including long hours on a reindeer skin soaking up sunrays. The snowmobile sets off along the marked tracks, leading deep into the wilderness. Ice fishing is particularly good now; the ice is thick, but the air temperatures are pleasant. High up in the mountains and far north, the good times go on onto May before the snow gets grainy and finally disappears.

Welcome spring weather on the coast

Not everyone finds it a good idea to go after the last snow. Instead, they head out to sea. Fishing is great in the good weather. The calm waters between the islands are perfect for kayaking. Hikers start the season with strolls along the bare shoreline. As the snow melts, one can do easy hikes, as long as one doesn’t mind crossing the odd snow patch. One can easily hike in the Helgeland and Bodø area mountains in mid May, give it another month further north.

The reindeer move down to the coast in Spring

Easter is the time the Sami people in the inland get together for weddings and church confirmation. This has turned into a multi-faceted festival in both Karasjok and Kautokeino, involving snowmobile races, reindeer sled competitions and lasso championships. Concerts, exhibits and cultural workshops are part of it. Sometimes in April, the reindeer are getting restless, and it’s time to move from the inland pastures to the coast. In a giant effort by the entire family, the reindeer are led down to islands and peninsulas, often involving ferry transportation.

Spring is time for the grand challenges

Strong men, not to mention strong women, gather in the deep snow for grand competitions. Around April the first the Reistadløpet, one of the ski classics, attracts cross countrie skiers from all ski nations. It runs for 50 km from Setermoen to Bardufoss, in memory of a war hero. Svalbard Ski Marathon mobilises a large chunk of the local population. Armed polar bear guards every few hundred metres ensure the polar bears stay away. The Vake (Varanger Arctic Kite Enduro) makes use of the endless, undulating snow landscapes without any disturbing forest for sliding kites in sunny days across the Varanger peninsula in the far northeast.

The birds herald spring

The oystercatcher, this leggy beauty, is prospecting the shorelines already in March. Other waders are right behind. The snow buntings fill up every tree in Finnmark in April, before trekking across to Svalbard. On the 14th of April, or thereabout, the puffins fill the horizon as they settle into the bird cliffs for the season.  Around the same time, the locals at Vega start gathering seaweed to line the eider duck nests. The honoured guests nest from mid-May onwards.

Look for the small flowers

The first spring flower, the coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), sprouts up the minute the snow melts. It bursts out of the asphalt in town, and from brown grass from last year along the shore. This can happen in late March in southwestern coastal regions, gradually moving north. Garden bulbs, such as crocuses, snowdrops or scillas, can be lured to blossom equally early. The daffs grace sunny days of May. In mild, southwestern areas, the rowans turn green in early to Mid may. The northernmost forests in the North Cape area sometimes turn green around mid June.