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.