I don’t know what it is about snowshoeing that has such a hold over me. I began wanting to try it when I was at the Altitude Festival in 2012 but I couldn’t fit it in my hectic schedule of snowboarding lessons, paraglides off snowy Alps and long evenings of comedy. I wanted to do it in Iceland but it’s apparently not a thing they do over there. I finally got my chance for a snowshoe trek in search of the Northern Lights in Swedish Lapland in March 2014 and… I was terrible at it.
But I was undeterred in my quest for this perfect, beautiful activity which is why I’m standing outside Tromsø’s tourist information centre at half past ten on a Thursday morning in a white-out snowstorm. Actually, it’s not that cold. I’m regretting the thermal layers I’ve got on under my huge fleece and even huger Arctic coat (hereby named The Hulk because it’s enormous, I can’t control it and sometimes it smashes things).
We get picked up by Magne, a big hairy Norwegian with a blue minibus who drives us out to Kvaløya, the big island to the west of Tromsø where all the Northern Lights hunting, reindeer sledding, snowmobiling and other outdoors activities happen. Magne eyeballs our feet and then hands round snowshoes and I can see instantly that these ones are better quality than the ones I used in Sweden. They have an aluminium frame, a flexible plastic deck, a harness-arrangement to keep them properly attached to my feet and there are spikes on the bottom to give us traction. Mine are blue but everyone else’s are orange and I can see mine are smaller than everyone else’s but I don’t know whether that’s because my feet look smallest or because Magne judges me to weigh less than everyone else – of course, I now want my own snowshoes and looking into them reveals that size depends on weight rather than foot size. I’ve also learned that these aluminium snowshoes start at around £120 and the nearest shop that stocks this particular brand is in Amsterdam. Maybe I’ll wait until I move to the Arctic.
I’m a little bit apprehensive about setting off into the wilderness. Last time I did this I fell over on every other step, I had to be helped up every ten minutes, I lost a snowshoe three times, I was exhausted and sweaty the whole way round and I panted like Darth Vader right up until we reached the frozen lake. But today is different. These are better snowshoes and it’s better snow. We do start by scrambling up a snowdrift but the shoes hold firm and because Magne hasn’t clipped our heels down, we have better range of movement. Anyway, I’m fifth in the group of six and it’s very easy to climb up in the footsteps of the four people in front of me.
It’s even easier once we find ourselves in the flat snowfield. This is definitely good snow and I’m still following the nice compressed path the front four are carving out. True, with my feet three times their usual size, I can’t really take my eyes off them but we’re walking through a minor snowstorm and a big white cloud so there’s nothing else to look at anyway. The cloud is just light enough to disperse the sunlight throughout the entire sky so I’ve got my sunglasses on (and how much of an idiot do I feel wearing sunglasses in a snowstorm?) and if I manage to look up the polarised lenses can pick out a little more detail and texture than my normal glasses could but all we can really see are a few clumps of trees silhouetted faintly through the cloud.
Once we’ve got used to walking in the snowshoes, Magne encourages us to break out into the fresh untouched deep snow, just to see what that’s like. A recipe for falling on my face, I think, but when I step out there, it’s not at all. The snow is deep but it’s soft all the way through, so instead of falling through a deceptively crunchy top layer, I wade as if through knee-deep fluffy water, but without the water resistance. The snow parts perfectly easily. It’s still harder work than following the path but it’s no difficulty keeping on my feet. At first I try to lift my feet clear of the snow on each step but that takes effort and makes me look like a demented flamingo so I settle for letting the snowshoes drag through the snow. Should that trip me up? Absolutely. Does it? No. It looks a bit odd, seeing my legs vanish into a maelstrom of fluffy snow but it causes no problems with walking.
After a few minutes of stomping around in the deep snow, we return to the path and go back to walking along in a line but now we stop every few minutes for Magne to tell us about the invisible landscape or the snow – contrary to everything I’ve ever heard, Magne advises us to eat snow if we’re thirsty. It’s fresh and clean and fluffy so I give it a try. It’s tasty in a nothingy way and it’s reasonably satisfying if you don’t have time to stop and retrieve the bottle from your bag. I try taking a selfie while eating it but what with the harsh white light, it’s one of the worst selfies I’ve ever seen. I make up for it later by taking an adorably awkward selfie that’s meant to show me with the snowshoes on but fails. I love it nonetheless.
As we’re starting to head back in the direction of the road, the cloud begins to thin and we begin to see the scenery. We’re surrounded by snowy mountains – well, everything’s snowy. The only reason I’ve still got the Hulk zipped up is so my non-waterproof inner layers don’t end up soaked in the thick fluffy snow raining down on us. I stand by my assertion that there’s no better way to warm up in the Arctic than going snowshoeing. At one point, the sun peeks over the mountains. It’s a pale and watery sun but it’s present and we all squeak at the sight of it.
My luck can’t hold out forever. My snowshoes stay attached beyond even the point where I’m trying to remove them but as we scramble down a snowdrift to follow the road for the last little bit, I lose my footing. Actually, it gives me the first glimpse of the spikes I didn’t know I had on the bottom of the shoes. And yes, back at the minibus, I struggle to free my feet from the snowshoes. I’m not hugely flexible at the best of times and now I’m wearing a huge coat and trying to get at feet that are too big and rigid to go exactly where I want. I manage to get the right one off but it takes violent shaking to finally get the left one loose so I’m surprised to find I’ve got my shoes off while some of the others are still trying to figure out how the straps work.
It feels weird being back on my own little feet. My boots are reasonably tough and reasonably grippy but they feel slippery and tiny and they don’t crunch or creak properly in the snow. We were warm enough in the minibus on the way out here but now we’re all hot and sweaty and the various layers come off. The day isn’t over – in fact, for me, the day isn’t going to be over for another thirteen hours – and before we go back to Tromsø we’re stopping at a cafe for bolle and hot chocolate. A fika break, to use the Swedish.
Bolle turn out to be like buns. They look like big fat bread rolls but inside they’re light bread, very sweet and these particular ones have chunks of chocolate in them. The hot chocolate is thick and creamy and I’m a terrible human being so I add sugar to mine and as we eat, Magne tells us about the history of the cafe. It’s attached to a supermarket and it’s been here for a long time – there are photos on the wall behind us of the supermarket when it was just a local shop, there are photos of various family members and at one point, the owner strides up behind us, pats Magne’s shoulder and makes a comment in incomprehensible Norwegian. I’m reminded of a colleague at work who enquires whether you know local builders, publicans and people she sees in shops in a tone that suggests they’re minor royalty at least. But Tromsø is a small town and Magne has an agreement with this cafe to bring his tourists there and I’m being most unfair to hint at him being in the same bracket as “What do you mean, you don’t know James Smith?”
It was snowing again by the time I got back to Tromsø. Magne left us at the tourist information centre where he’d picked us up and I trotted off for a trip to the library to update the “I aten’t dead” blog I write for my mum, to the supermarket for a little shopping and a shower before I went out for a surprisingly long evening.