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Hi, Hamiltons here!
After realizing we’d be alone for Christmas, and failing to see the Aurora Borealis during our Canada-Alaska trip last summer-fall, we opted for an excursion to Northern Norway, primarily to hunt the elusive lights. This was more of a holiday than a service nomading trip, but like always, small opportunities revealed themselves.
We went to Norway during what is called the POLAR NIGHT (opposite than the MIDNIGHT SUN), and we never saw the sun. A subdued light would seep over the horizon for a few hours each day, which was beautiful in its own way. Here is a diagram that explains the phenomena:
Light (or the lack of it) became a factor in all we did in Norway. For example, we brought our Nordic skis, not fully considering that to use them would entail—as relative novices—navigating dark, unfamiliar trails in frigid conditions. We are not Scandinavians, who are rumored to be “born with skis on their feet.” Now we know why most of the wise locals wait until spring to do their recreational skiing. In fact, multi-day ski touring from one mountain lodge to the next is an annual tradition for many . . . in the sunnier springtime.
Upon arriving in the capital of Oslo, finding a taxi van that would fit our 7’+ long ski carrier was the first challenge. Fortunately Habtu, a former refugee from Eritrea/now Norwegian citizen, came to our rescue. He was dependable and friendly, driving us to/from the Oslo airport 4 times, the last day with a 4:00 am pickup.
Beginning in Oslo, looking at the weather forecast and planning activities with limited sunlight was an eye-opener. We were also suffering from some serious jet lag, which was an eye-closer. The only real signal to our brains and bodies that marked the time of day was the extravagant breakfast buffet at our Oslo hotel. The downside to that was after getting a bellyful of food then looking outside at the dusky dark, we just wanted to go back to bed . . .
The hardy Norwegians press on in their normal daily routines, dark or light. They are well outfitted with warm winter clothes, headlamps and reflective safety vests and could be seen walking, jogging, scootering, bicycling, and kick-sledding their way through whatever environment. Here are a few types of winter transportation we encountered:
During our two full days in Oslo (December 21-22) we were able to visit the Nobel Peace Prize Museum, the National Museum, the Viking Planet, and one of the many Christmas markets. The highlight was attending a Christmas concert in the Neo-Gothic Fagerborg Kirke, where some talented musicians put on a stirring performance of sacred and popular music (mainly in Norwegian). Music is one of the few languages that needs no interpretation. It was a great way to feel the Christmas spirit.
After two days in Oslo, we flew much further north to the town of Alta, 250 miles/400 kilometers ABOVE the Arctic Circle. This part of Norway is in the regions of Finnmark, and Sápmi (or Lapland). Going this far north meant even less daylight, more snow, AND most importantly, the best chance to see the Aurora Borealis.
We would spend the next two and a half weeks in an updated plankhouse (or plankehus) about 10 miles north of Alta, in Raftsbotn. A little history . . . after Germany occupied Norway during WW2, they retreated from the Alta area (and other communities in Northern Norway) burning and destroying as many structures as possible, including the homes. Only a few churches were spared.
The Germans had built an airport runway using wooden planks, and for some reason left them unburned. Local families retrieved these wooden planks and built small homes. Some of these plankhouses are still standing, and our Airbnb hosts had remodeled theirs into a warm and cozy (koselig) cabin for visitors to stay on their farm in the woods.
Upon our 2pm arrival at Alta airport on the Friday before Christmas—already dark outside— we bundled up, found our studded-tire rental car (studded tires are required in the winter), and drove to the rural community of Raftsbotn.
Homes along the way had lights in every window—with blinds and curtains wide open—and some had basic lights on the exteriors. We noticed, for the most part, a lack of the multi-colored disco-flashing arrays of commercialized Christmas that are common in the US. These lights there were a simple warm white, creating a consistent Christmas glow on the snow-covered roads, hills and rivers as we wound our way “home.” We arrived to find the little plankhouse warm and welcoming, wonderfully decorated, and perfectly situated.
It was interesting that in Norway and other Scandinavian countries HEARTS are associated with Christmas. Here are a few examples of Christmas hearts and some other unique decorations . . .
Because the stores were closing early the next day (Christmas Eve) for the entire weekend, we ventured back out to find food. As we have experienced in other countries, the first trip to a grocery store can be a lengthy one. Though pictures on the packaging are helpful, Google Translate is a necessity. We were almost tempted by a container with a cute kid’s photo on it, only to have Google tell is it was liver paste—no thanks. We were able to find what we needed and return back on the ice-covered roads to our place, ready for the Christmas weekend. Here are some other Norwegian delicacies we politely passed up (yes, that’s a sheep head). Maybe next time we’ll be braver . . .
WHAT WE DID
The days (more like 20-hour nights) that followed were filled with remote work for Jeff (a bit challenging with a 9-hour time differential between Norway and the California office), Northern Lights tracking, satisfying meals, and naps. Our outdoor activities were generally scheduled during the daily 4-hour window of light, but we also ventured out in the “day dark” sometimes.
THE INDIGENOUS SÁMI PEOPLE
We had encountered lots of Caribou on our Alaska trip. And now lots of Reindeer in Norway. So here’s a question for you . . . what’s the difference between Caribou and Reindeer? Officially they are the same species, Rangifer tarandus. Caribou are wild, but if domesticated, they are called Reindeer. After some generations, they develop slightly different traits. For instance, Reindeer tend to be smaller than Caribou, and have new antler patterns. If you want to know more, here’s a better explanation – https://a-z-animals.com/blog/caribou-vs-reindeer-4-main-differences-explained/
In Northern Norway, only Sámi families who have historically been semi-nomadic reindeer herders are legally allowed to own them. (Other Sámis do not practice reindeer husbandry, but are fishermen, farmers, or other professions.) Don’t begin to imagine that a “domesticated” reindeer is docile. Only the few that are chosen and trained to pull sleighs and interact daily with humans could be considered “tame.” And only one that we met tolerated being petted, but we wouldn’t dare cozying up to it. Most of the reindeer are herded and lassoed and are still quite wild. If you want to know more about the reindeer and their seasonal migration, this is a great article – https://www.visitnorway.com/media/news-from-norway/the-great-journey/.
THE ICE HOTEL
We stayed one night in the Sorrisniva igloo hotel, where all the rooms and common areas are made of ice and snow. The only “non-ice” things were the wooden door to our suite, the LED lights, and the reindeer hide-covered mattress. There was an adjacent warm wooden lodge containing restaurants, restrooms/showers, and a sauna to thaw out the next morning. But once snuggled into the sub-zero sleeping bags they provided, we slept amazingly well. In full transparency, Karen also wore a down jacket and down pants to bed!
SNOWSHOEING, ICE FISHING, and LUNCH in a LAVVU
With our goal of seeing the Northern Lights, each day found us monitoring iPhone apps that predict solar flare activity and sighting probabilities. Of course, nothing was guaranteed, especially if it was overcast. Clouds became a four-letter word as we constantly looked out the windows, and sometimes parked the car in wide open spaces waiting for the lights to appear.
During our 2+ week stay in Alta, we had three spectacular viewings, beginning on Christmas night—the perfect gift! No words can describe what we saw, especially at times when the changing shapes and colors moved faster than we could decide how to photograph them. Also, they needed to be seen with broader vision than through the narrow lens of a camera. Sometimes they would be visible for 30 minutes—usually greenish in color. The more vibrantly colored green, pink, and purple dancing displays seemed to last only 5-10 minutes. These pictures do not do them justice.
DIFFERENT LIGHTS ON NEW YEAR’S EVE
We drove along the fjord road towards Alta to get a closer view of the 8:00 pm city fireworks. It was fun to watch young families walk to the viewing field—with children, in their warm one-piece snowsuits and reflective vests, carrying rolled up reindeer hides to sit on the ground. It was an impressive fireworks display, with some giant aerials and a huge variety of colors and effects . . . very exciting! The show probably could have lasted 3 times as long, but they set off the rockets in quick succession and many simultaneously. On a frigid New Year’s Eve, we suspect they opted for a crazy 15-minute show over a subdued 45-min one. Afterwards, we returned to our koselig plankehus and had a quiet evening. Happy New Year to YOU!
Most of the food we ate in Norway was extremely palate-pleasing! The fish soups and the salmon we tried were delicious. Surprisingly, to us the reindeer filet tasted just as good—if not better—than filet mignon. Don’t worry, Rudolph is safe, as they mainly process the calves. Other new “berriers” that we hurdled were cloudberries and lingonberries, and they were very delectable! There were tasty fresh juice blends readily available. We loved the Norwegian meatballs with potatoes and gravy (reportedly even tastier than the Swedish version), and potato Lefse rolled with honey butter and cinnamon. Lastly, the Freia brand chocolate was delicious and impossible to ignore.
We were able to attend three Sunday services with the 5-6 friendly members who gather each week. They meet in a government office rented for the 2-hour meetings. It was subtly symbolic to watch them, before the meeting each Sunday, respectively remove the Norwegian King and Queen’s portrait from the wall, and replace it with a picture of the King of Kings, then swap it back at the conclusion of the worship service.
We also had the chance to host dinner a couple of times (Christmas and New Year’s) for the young missionaries who had recently been assigned to the area.
We thoroughly enjoyed mingling with the gracious Norwegian people and were relieved that they could speak English very well. A special highlight was an invitation to Runar & Kristin’s lovely home, where we were served a wonderful supper of waffles, brown cheese, cloudberry preserves (hand-picked and hand-preserved), and glogg, then afterwards we were treated to a Norwegian folk song by Runar. Kristin is a nurse, a musician, and a knitter extraordinaire, among other talents. Runar works for Alta City, is a competitive sled dog musher, a musician, and leader of the local congregation. They are the quintessential Norwegian couple and we were so blessed by their warm hospitality.
Time slipped by, as we eventually gave up trying to adapt to a strict routine, just to have to readjust again at home. Our daylight/nighttime bodies and brains presented the most unexpected challenge of the trip. We plan to return to Norway one summer, when just the opposite will occur, with 20 hours of full daylight!
A last few glimpses of beautiful Northern Norway during the Polar Night:
Our return voyage to Oslo gave us another day in the capital, which we used to explore the old Akershus Fortress. This fjord-edge castle has a long and colorful history, and was the inspiration for Disney’s “Frozen” castle.
EUROPEANS AND RUSSIANS AND UKRAINIANS, OH MY!
We didn’t run across any other Americans while in Norway (except a woman in the Oslo airport). There were many European tourists, and a few from Asia, but no Americans that we met.
In the ice hotel we overheard a mother with two daughters speaking in either Ukrainian or Russian. We smiled and said “Hi” and left it at that. But the next day when we saw them again at the Alta Museum, Karen couldn’t resist chatting them up. They relaxed a bit once they realized we were friendlies, and had nothing against the three of them. As it turns out, they were Russian citizens who had driven 24 hours north from Moscow to cross the border straight into Norway for what they called “a holiday.” It was a short, interesting encounter. We said goodbye and wished them well.
On our last evening we were walking around downtown Oslo and came across a small demonstration. We first heard a man singing, then saw a circle of Ukrainian flags. As we approached, the anthem ended and a patriotic chant began. Our hearts hurt for the Ukrainian people, and for innocent citizens on all sides who find themselves embroiled in the conflict.
TIME TO GO
Our three weeks in Norway was one of the most unique travel experiences we’ve had yet. The contrast between the cold yet beautiful environment and the warm and beautiful people was probably our main take-away. Along with a desire to visit again and explore more of this incredible country.
The 25-hour flight back to SLC was smooth compared to the trouble-plagued holiday travel in the US, and it was nice to return to our relatively sunny home base in Utah.
Thank you for making these journeys with us virtually. 2023 will be an interesting mix of travel and service experiences near and far. We hope you’ll continue to come along!
Look below for our Fall/Thanksgiving report “AN AWESOME AUTUMN.” We did not send out a separate announcement for this one.