Living in darkness


I’ve written an essay about living through the polar night for Prospect magazine. Here in Enontekiö, in the far north of Finland, the sun goes down on 6 December and is not seen again for a month.

The picture above was taken on my iPhone while I waited with my stalled snowmobile, as described in the article below. Shortly afterwards the battery failed, as it tends to in extreme cold conditions (pro-tip: keep phones in a pocket next to your body for warmth).

The full text can be found on Prospect’s website here, or after the fold.

Land of the Never Rising Sun



6am in the cabin. I get up in the dark, long before the grey light arrives, and step out into the farm to start the morning feed. Here and there, the halo cast by my head torch picks out the shadows of the dogs as they dart from their kennels ahead. Pairs of eyes glint back at me.

This winter I have traded in my London life to work on a husky farm in the far north of Finland. I work with a dozen other guides in all weathers to train and care for more than 150 dogs. It’s rewarding, but of all the things I miss (including, but not limited to: lazy Sundays, make-up, 24-hour supermarkets, dry socks, salad) the loss that I have felt most keenly is the lack of sunlight. I had read that winters here could be long and black, and I was ready for the physical challenge, but it was difficult to prepare for the emotional toll of living in darkness.

The Arctic Circle, an imaginary line around the globe marking 66 degrees north, indicates the region that experiences in winter a period of at least 24 hours when the sun does not rise above the horizon. Here in Hetta, 300km north of that line, the sun dropped below the horizon on 6th December and has not been seen since.

On days when the sky is clear, we can look forward to a few hours of colour in the middle of the day—shades of sunrise and sunset, but never the sun. Usually we see that deep twilight blue, sometimes pink and purple. The day they said the world would end, I watched a great splash of crimson spread across the sky as though the planet was burning away. But today the clouds are thick and snow is falling. What little light gets through will be grey. As dark as my mood.

The depressive effects of the darkness are well known in this region. In Finnish, the word kaamos—literally, “polar night”—is also used to describe the despondency that follows.  Elsewhere in the north, the Inuit people describe an extreme winter depression, perlerorneq, which means to feel “the weight of life.” The nature writer Barry Lopez describes some of the symptoms in his book Arctic Dreams: “The victim tears fitfully at his clothing. A person runs half naked into the bitter freezing night, screaming out at the village, eating the shit of the dogs.”

In some countries, like Greenland, doctors’ surgeries offer access to specialist “solar” lamps to combat winter depression—what modern medicine calls seasonal affective disorder. It is thought that exposure to the lamps—which were designed to mimic direct sunlight, emitting a wide spectrum of wavelengths—can help stabilise circadian rhythms and serotonin production, and in turn stabilise our moods.

I asked my host whether any of these lamps were available nearby, but the request was met with bemusement. The sparse and practical Enontekiö population would be an unlikely audience for such a new age treatment.

“Then how do the locals cope?” I asked.

“By drinking heavily,” she replied.

Alcoholism is common in Finland, particularly in the far north and among the indigenous Sami population. It has been the number one cause of death among working-age citizens since 2006.

Even so, the Finnish drinking culture has its upsides. At night, the only café in my village transforms into a karaoke-playing drinking hall, where reindeer herders and husky guides lay down their traditional enmity to slow dance under the glittering mirror ball. It’s enough to raise the limpest of spirits.

But then, relatively speaking, we have it easy at 68 degrees north. Those closer to the poles must suffer through a night that lasts for months on end.

In March, the British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes will set off into the Antarctic night as he and five others attempt the first unsupported winter crossing of the continent. As well as withstanding temperatures as low as -90 degrees Celsius, during the six-month traverse the team must endure near-permanent darkness—with no way of being rescued, should anything go wrong.

“We will set out on 21st March, the spring equinox,” Fiennes told me. “From then, the sunlight will steadily diminish by half an hour a day until there is no more. That conjures up a picture of a bleak, black night. Not so. Whenever the moon is out—every other fortnight—there is wonderful moonlight and the reflection of the moon on the snow lights up the clouds.”

“Personally I don’t mind the dark, at all. It makes me feel quite fresh,” he said.

Two months into my Arctic adventure, I disagree. “Fresh” is not a word I would use to describe myself, after weeks of feeding and chaining, and shovelling all that “shit of the dogs” by torchlight.

But I find myself thinking of his words this afternoon when the engine fails on my snowmobile, leaving me stranded in the middle of a frozen lake. Someone will come to fetch me, I know, but not for a while. It will be an hour at least. In -34 degrees Celsius it could be an uncomfortable wait, but my desperate pulling at the engine’s start-cord has kept me warm, for the moment.

At least the sky has cleared. And as I wait, the moon, blazing orange bright, edges out from behind the trees along the shore. It is so bright I would have mistaken it for the sun, except for its ascent into the blackest part of the sky.

I find Andromeda, a spattering of stars below the moon. There too is Ursa Major, shining to the north. I haven’t seen the sun for a month, but perhaps Fiennes is right: for this sight it seems a fair trade. I jog on the spot, retract my fingers into my gloves, and wait.

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