The Way to the Top of the World

I’ve enjoyed staring at maps since I was a little kid, pulling the inserts from National Geographic. I’ve always been curious what was out there at the fringes, at the distended top and bottom of the map, rotating close to the poles of the globe, out there at the edges of the country, the continent, or the populated world.

The game of “close your eyes and put your finger on the map” often resulted in an imaginary trip to Greenland, Norway, Russia or some freezing and far-flung locale, so it’s fitting that I’d sit down to consider this topic on the most frigid few days of the year.

Walking outdoors last weekend required layering shirts, sweaters, and coats while covering every exposed bit of skin, then dashing into a storefront or restaurant when the wind gusts chilled our legs too much. It was so cold that the drafts followed us indoors, cold air pouring off our poorly sealed windows and requiring a coat and blanket indoors.

As I finish up this post a week later, it nearly feels like spring outside. Regardless, I’m still fascinated by the types of places where you need a military-grade parka just to step out the front door. The New York Times beat me to the punch, publishing a great story about building a road to the end of the continent, the Canadian Arctic. This isn’t Hudson Bay, rather it’s around 400 miles east of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, the town of Tuktoyatuk in Canada’s Northwest Territories, which was formerly only reachable by ice road or snowmobile during the winter or bush plane during the summer months.

Thus, here is my bucket list of destinations in and around the Arctic Circle:

Viewing the Northern Lights. Apparently in the 1960s, the magnetic interference from all the Soviet and American atomic tests resulted in the Northern Lights being visible as far south as Washington, D.C (read here or here). So much for the good old days (N.B. Just kidding, let’s not reenact the electromagnetic pulse from the movie Goldeneye any time soon, I’d need to buy a new laptop).

We’ll have to head further north these days to get the real show. From WikiTravel:

The auroral oval, meaning the area with the highest probability of seeing the northern lights, covers most of Alaska, northern parts of Canada, the southern half of Greenland, Iceland, Northern Norway, Sweden and Finland. As well as the western half of the Russian north (with the Kola Peninsula of Murmansk Oblast being the most popular viewing spot).

Here’s some great photos and more info about ideal viewing times from

It’s important to remember that aurora can be a bit of a diva, and she will only start the show when she feels the time is right. Patience is a virtue, also when chasing the northern lights. But here’s how you maximize your chances of a sighting: The lights are at their most frequent in late autumn and winter/early spring. Between late September and late March, it is dark between 6pm and 1am, and you have the best chances of spotting the lights.

However, remember how we told you about her being a diva? Aurora borealis likes it best when the weather is cold and dry, usually from December. Some will tell you that the driest weather, giving clear skies, is found inland, but that isn’t always true.

Greenland. Thanks to the Mercator Projection everyone wants to visit here like it’s a lost continent. It depends how you look at it. It’s not really that big, guys. My next-door neighbor was stationed here during the Korean War to man nuclear listening stations and it made me curious what was there besides ice. Speaking of it, seems like the main reasons to stay year-round this far north have to do with measuring bad weather and Cold War-era military exercises. Which are both things I find fascinating, so there we go.

Ceremonial start of the Iditarod in Anchorage, Alaska. Source: Frank Kovalchek, Wikipedia

The Iditarod. This has to be like the Winter Olympics if you’re a dog: an 1,100-mile sled dog race across Alaska. In recent years the race has been rerouted due to lack of snow. It might not be around too much longer if climate change in the North continues.

Pyramiden, former Soviet mining outpost. Source: Rachel Nuwer,

Svalbard, Norway. The Svalbard Archipelago is now open to tourism, but was originally solely a mining outpost, populated by Norwegians, Russians, and Ukrainians, as it was partially leased to the Soviet Union. It’s reachable by air, including by low-cost Norwegian Air Shuttle. Barentsburg is still inhabited, and still a Russian mining town, though Pyramiden, sold to the Soviet Union in 1927, has been abandoned since 1998.

Novaya Zemlya. Famous as the site of the Tsar Bomba test, the largest ever nuclear test. On second thought, I don’t really want to visit, but this happened there:

Over its history as a nuclear test site, Novaya Zemlya hosted 224 nuclear detonations with a total explosive energy equivalent to 265 megatons of TNT. For comparison, all explosives used in World War II, including the detonations of two US nuclear bombs, amounted to only two megatons.

Murmansk. The largest city north of the Arctic Circle and home to the ice-free port that allowed the White Army to resupply when fighting the Bolsheviks and later for the Allies to support the Soviets during World War II. It’s reachable by air and easily accessible by railway from St. Petersburg, with a balmy average high of 14 degrees Fahrenheit in January and February, though a relatively normal 60 degrees in summer.

Buckner Building, Whittier, Alaska. Source:

Whittier, Alaska. This town in southern Alaska is a cruise ship port and stop on the Alaska Railroad, from which you can reach Anchorage, Denali National Park, and Fairbanks. The entire town lives in one condominium, Begich Towers. During the Cold War, the U.S. Army built the neighboring Buckner Building as a fully contained “City Under One Roof” with space for 1,000 men. It was later abandoned, though the structure itself was strong enough to withstand the Alaskan Earthquake. See some amazing “ruin porn” (photos of destruction and decay, not nudity) here.

Wrangel Island. This island in the Russian Far East is home to the largest population of pacific walrus and highest density of polar bear dens, per UNESCO. At one time it was a Russian military outpost, though is now a natural preserve. Sherry Ott at Ottsworld has some amazing photos of her visit.

So there you go. Unless you’re either conducting military exercises, mining, or are native to the area, the Arctic isn’t necessarily the year-round polar bear and sauna party you may have expected, though neither is it a barren uninhabitable wasteland (other than the irradiated parts). Your best bet for visiting is via one of the more populated neighboring settlements, either via air, sea, rail or snow/ice.

Add it to the bucket list. Until next time!







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