By Mackenzie Kirby
Hei!! (Hi!) My name is Mackenzie, a sophomore here at Salve Regina University. I am a Creative Writing Major with a Film Minor, and this Spring Semester of 2023 I am in Norway. The program is the American College of Norway where both American and Norwegian students attend. Yes, it is very, very, very cold.
The Cold Never Bothered Me Anyways
First things first, the heading is what it is. If I cannot escape the Frozen references and puns, then neither can you. Second, as I am writing this, I currently leave for the Arctic Circle tomorrow morning, but we will come back to that crazy sentence later in the blog.
When I first arrived in Norway for my Sophomore Spring Semester, the plane pulled into the gate with snowflakes swirling around every side. As I stepped into the gate walkway, cold air tingled at my skin and this refreshing excitement took over my lungs. It felt like Norway was truly welcoming me in to all its shivering wonders. Unpacking, the first thing I grabbed was a giant winter coat with brown fur edging the hood. I heaved it onto my frame. It fell past my knees and by the end of the first day my shoulders were aching from carrying the unusual weight. After wearing the coat nearly every day, I’ve built up the strength to support it. This is what Norway requires its people to do. You need strength to survive the cold and this strength comes in many different forms. Naturally, I have always loved winter ever since I built a snowman at age five, so the cold feels more like a friend than anything. Sharp, playful, perhaps a little bitter. (I like to think we have lots in common).
While the Norwegian environment plays a decently large role in my experience studying overseas, the American College of Norway takes center stage. Joining me this semester are only eight other students. So, we have gotten to know one another quickly and take all the same classes together, for the most part. The school has an events committee, and pretty much everyone is in attendance. This also means the events are tailored and personalized to our preferences versus a body of thousands of students. My favorite outing so far has been ice skating. We went to the Moss Pavillion Park which had been flooded and frozen to make the place an outdoor rink. Kids just off from school grabbed skates out of their backpacks and sped across the ice with their friends. We did the same, spinning and laughing, falling and getting back up. (For the record, I did not fall.)
Cold just fades away when you stick close together. When you have hot chocolate and waffles at a friend’s apartment, you do not worry about having to trudge through the fifth snowfall in a week. When the whole classroom is laughing, the icy breeze from the crack in the window is barely noticeable. Oslo, Norway’s capital, is just the same. It’s cold like the rest of the country but vibrates with this warm welcomeness as people crowd the streets, walking from store to store. Lights which resemble American Christmas decor hang overhead and illuminate the way as darkness settles in fast. I remember my friends and I giggling, hugging, and bursting into song by the end of the night. One weekend, we saw the change of the palace guard. Then we stared through glass cases at ancient viking swords at the Natural History Museum. By the time midterms came around, the cold temperatures and constant icing had become my new normal.
I did learn a few tricks:
- Layer one more time after you believe you are layered enough.
- It’s okay to walk like a penguin sometimes.
- When it gets dark at 3pm, find something to do or you’ll be asleep by dinner.
- Laughter cures most chilling ails. Schedule time for it.
Still, nothing quite prepares you for the Arctic Circle.
Then Again… Have I Ever Been This Cold?
Svalbard is an island of Norway situated in the Arctic Circle and is the northernmost town in the world. This is where I am currently writing from for the second half of this blog. Today’s forecast states the temperature ranges from negative five to negative ten degrees Fahrenheit, yet the wind chill makes it feel like negative twenty-three to negative fourteen degrees. The snow blanketed mountains rise up high all around while hundreds of snowmobiles are littered about the edges of town. Coming here, one cannot escape the thrill of adventure which permeates the body and air. For me, it feels like when you are holding your breath waiting for something extraordinary to happen.
The first day here, I walked across a frozen river without knowing and met a lovely old lady who reminded me, “it’s cold outside today,” so I’d better get indoors soon. Almost everyone has a dog besides the tourists as they act as warning signals to any possible polar bears the locals might encounter. We were informed not to worry as the bears rarely come into town as they like to stay out on the ice-filled waters to hunt. Yet the female reindeer munching on frozen bits of grass outside my Airbnb is completely normal. You get used to your nose hairs freezing as well.
The American College of Norway had my classmates and I jump right into the action the following morning with a snowmobiling and ice-caving excursion. After we were already dressed in two-three layers of our own, we were provided with heavy-duty snowsuits, helmets, goggles, mittens, ski-masks which made us look like we might pull a bank heist later, and a pair of the biggest boots I’ve ever worn. There were quick instructions on how to drive a snowmobile as well as a debriefing on the trip before we were lined up, motors running. An employee checks each person for any exposed skin as we shift ski goggles down tight onto our faces. Then the group is off.
Contrary to popular description, snow and ice is not soft or smooth. At least not in Svalbard. It is rigid and packed solid from months of layered freezings. As one pushes forward into this white, flat expanse between two just giant pair of mountains, it takes a couple minutes to adjust to the bumps and grooves from previous snowmobiles. The closest activity I could compare it to is riding a horse, speeding up to a gallop, but the bounces are irregular; unable to be timed out. One must simply be focused. It is difficult to do when you feel like you’re flying across the snow planet Hoth from Star Wars, waiting for an AT-AT to appear to your side. Then there is the wind element. It pierces straight through the wool face covering and into the skin, unforgiving. Yet it is so fresh and feels like the literal embodiment of excitement. Often, I found myself scrunching my nose and mouth to make sure the skin nerves still worked. When everyone stops and removes their goggles, you can see the red faces raw with windburns.
But as the group gets closer and closer to the glacier where the ice-caving will commence, the wind and bumpy ride become normal compared to the growing concern for the lack of feeling in my hands and feet. While the thrill of the whole adventure is unmatched, I was positive my fingers were going to be goners afterwards. The sheer coldness is… terrifying, to be frank. Yet the guides had not mentioned any protocols on frostbite or any frozen amputations, only “tell us if you’re cold!” I doubt anyone was not. They have the group stop twice before the glacier so we can stand, stretch our legs, look at reindeer, and swing our limbs back and forth. The flinging of the body parts causes blood to rush back and provide a small flare of warmth.
Finally, after another speed along curving snowmobile paths, we were on top of a glacier. The guides warned us not to walk far in case the snow was weak and we fell into an ice crevice. At this point, it was murderously cold, and I was anxious awaiting my turn to get into the cave. From past science classes, I knew ice caves were warmer than their exterior. Half of my brain was consumed by pure survival adrenaline while the other half was in disbelief that I was about to do what I saw National Geographic explorers do when I was fourteen. Thankfully, the aching numbness in my hands reminded me I was actually doing this, and it was all very real.
There was a hole the size of a small bedside table where we were instructed to climb down by way of a snow-covered ladder. As one descends, the white sunlight starts to dim into this pure blue and the helmet light blinks awake. When I got to the bottom, I turned to see nothing but tall ice walls with lines of sediments leading into darkness. Cursing at my classmate from trudging ahead without me, I clambered across the sleek floor to follow. The passageway was thin, but not claustrophobically so. It bent, sloped down, and elevated in a way only frozen water could. Rope on the wall helped guide me forward and the silence felt like an old friend from the constant roar of the snowmobile engine. My heartbeat pounded in my chest as I explored further and further, still alone. Sweat formed along my face and wrists after a climb over a tight ice hill. At the end, I found my classmate and instructor admiring a crack in the ceiling, which let a cascade of light shine into the cave. The ice held this gentle shimmer within itself. Like it had shatter diamonds into thousands of tiny fragments. I’d never seen such beauty before.
We rested there in the cave, running gloved hands across the walls, stunned and at peace. For a moment, at least. Due to the warmer temperatures I was previously craving, blood was returning to my fingers and toes. The fear of my limbs being amputated from frostbite immediately vanished as just pure agonizing pain greeted me. And this is not me being dramatic. I wished for my fingers to be amputated then because it felt like lava was stripping my skin straight from the bone. Luckily, we were running late to get back to town and everyone was hustled to the surface. The ride back was shorter than expected, but with more windburns gracing my skin, numb and burning parts of my body both present, I was happy to be back inside a building at the very least.
Svalbard is definitely an experience I will remember for the rest of my life. It is a shame anthropogenic climate change is causing this precious environment to vanish right before our eyes. On a more positive note, I will share the rest of the travel plans ACN has while we are here. There is dog sledding planned, a talk of a polar plunge, and a tour of the university. Oh! And scouting for Tom Cruise, who is said to be filming another Mission! Impossible in Svalbard at this very moment.
If you got this far reading, I would just like to say thank you. Thanks to the reader for giving me the time to share my story. Thank you, American College of Norway and Salve Regina, for providing me the opportunity to do a crazy expedition at Svalbard and an exciting term in Norway. The cold’s unending presence is combated with unforgettable adventure and friendship. If you have ever hesitated to go explore or do something you saw in a travel magazine, my advice is just going for it. Try. You will find yourself growing and being tested for the better. You will do things you never imagined you’d find yourself accomplishing. Finding that you are stronger than you once believed and seeing the proof. Studying abroad is worth it. It may not be what you expected, but it may just be better.