Let there be light
Is it CGI or real life
Perhaps if you’re of a certain age, you’ve spent a few hours each year – most typically in the darkness of winter – submerging yourself in games like Skyrim or Witcher, letting your mind detach from the every day and instead sink into the warm embrace of a thoroughly fantastical landscape, brightly colored, and Disneyesque.
In those digital fever dreams, you’ll encounter characters with names like Crach who lead Viking hordes from fortresses atop sheer snow-capped pinnacles rising over saltwater bays where flotillas awaited.
You can almost hear the eagles crying in the distance, almost smell the cold salt-laden air.
The vessels in the bay, ready to maraud unsuspecting villages oceans away, creaking in the water.
Could such a place actually exist? Or was it drawn from the minds of developers?
That was not the reason I was traveling above the Arctic Circle in winter. When I arrived in Oslo, the customs agent asked where I was going. Upon hearing that my destination was Bodo and then onto the islands, she brightened up.
“You’re going to see the lights!”
I smiled back in a ragged way suitable to untold hours without sleep and replied: “I hope so!”
I had checked the weather forecast in advance and “the lights” looked like a dim prospect. Each day threatened rain and snow, with temperatures hovering around freezing. I peered out the windows of the Oslo airport. The runways were clear of snow, clouds were breaking and sunlight was beginning to pour through. Anything was possible.
That, too, was not my goal though. I wasn’t deceiving myself. I’d seen the northern lights several times. The best, by far, was on a back road in New Jersey decades ago. Cresting over a low hill by the old 3M plant in Freehold, one late night, the sky blossomed with light. It was as if a painter had dripped wet, colorful, paint across the sky, letting it run haphazardly across the darkness.
I always hoped to see that again. Three later journeys to Iceland didn’t sate that hunger. At best, they looked like pale wisps of cloud or half-glimpsed green tentacles through hotel windows. At worst, the cloud cover made any sighting impossible.
No, I was focused on seeing a place where photographic opportunities were so spectacular, it was considered a bucket list location. I looked forward to a country where the otherworldly landscape would consume my thoughts, far from the noise of cities, where the quiet would be comforting and overwhelming.
But deep down, I was knew I was going for the lights.
Sleep, you’ve been gone for too long
As always while traveling, sleep arrives reluctantly if at all.
Certain things are predicated on sleep.
Lucidity and good judgment, for one. Safe driving skills, for another.
Why was that important?
My route would take a meandering path: leaving Seattle in the early morning darkness, flying cross country to Newark, leaping over the Atlantic to Oslo, spending a few bleary and fogged hours in the airport, staring at Jamie Oliver’s restaurant with an exhausted recollection wondering if they still sold pizza, then taking a short over-land flight to Bodo.
All told, that meant – in objective time – I’d been awake more than 36 hours when I accepted the rental car keys from Hertz.
Bodo. I’d never been so far north before. I don’t believe I’d ever been above the Arctic Circle before. In the declining winter light, it looked muddy and functional, perhaps a little militaristic. It looked depressing. It wasn’t unlike how I imagined Siberia might look. Flurries dusted the roads with a soft blanket, covering otherwise grimy snow. Street signs warned of moose and reindeer.
In order to make the 7pm ferry to Lodingen, I needed to drive several hours north to a small town called Bognes. I’m not certain I remember much of the drive. During the height of summer, it would no doubt be spectacular. There are national parks on either side of the road. In the grey arctic winter, it retained an inhospitable look. This was Norway. I expected to see towering mountains and pine trees. Instead, I saw bare trees and solemn towns.
Surely the Lofoten Islands would be better?
I decided not to stop for food or pictures, arriving at the ferry terminal three hours before my scheduled departure. If all went well, I’d be on an earlier boat and then to the hotel, where I could recover my wits with some much needed sleep.
Cars began to line up. Outside the temperature dropped. I left the car running and put on whatever radio stations I could find. Anything that would keep me awake. Much to my surprise and happiness, Jorn appeared on the radio. All was well.
This ferry terminal serviced two locations. The main trip was to Lodingen, across the water. The crowd waited patiently. A ferry arrived, but went to the other dock. A few cars got on, then it left.
I found the BBC and listened for a bit before determining that world news wouldn’t improve my outlook. Time continued to slip by. Another ferry arrived. This, too, went to the other dock, took on 3-4 cars, then departed. Meanwhile the lanes for Lodingen almost certainly held fifty or more cars by this point.
The sky darkened. When I’d first arrived, it was raining lightly. Now, the wind began to howl and ice pellets glanced off my windshield. People were starting to become concerned. Was the ferry not running? When would it arrive? The hours continue to march forward. The dock was rocking wildly back and forth as dusk declined into full darkness.
I began considering whether I’d need to sleep in my car, assuming the ferry would arrive the next morning. There were no hotels around and I was unwilling to give up my spot in line. The temperature had dropped below freezing and the car swayed as the wind increased.
At nearly 7pm, a ferry did arrive and the people who worked within it were clearly distressed. Normally, ferry personnel checked reservations as people pulled aboard. This time, in combinations of muttered Norwegian and English, they told people to get their cars onto the ferry as soon as possible; reservations would be checked later.
In the mad scramble, I raced inside, parked, and happily left my car. I’d forgotten how much time I’d spent in airplanes and cars. Standing up felt like a welcome luxury. The ferry had multiple levels and enough seating that I could stretch out in a nice quiet cocoon. After purchasing a traditional ham and cheese Scandinavian sandwich, I put my feet up and stared into the watery darkness.
An hour later, we arrived at Lodingen. As people returned to their cars, it felt unexpectedly like the start of a Formula One race. As soon as we were allowed to drive off the vessel, everyone took off. Or as the saying goes – like they had stolen the cars.
To my surprise, that strengthening storm over the mainland looked very much like a blizzard here. Snow was falling heavily, often sideways against the teeth of the wind.
I was clearly not driving fast enough as several cars raced around me through low visibility conditions. A sign appeared. Left to the Lofoten Islands. Left to A. I put my blinker on and followed the high speed derby.
I needed to get to Svolvear, roughly an hour and a half away. The road was a miasma of mountain passes, half-hidden bridges, and hairpin corners. With decreasing focus, I leaned forward - my face just inches off the steering wheel - as I stared into the heavy snow, trying to make sense of the cars, the terrain and the road.
The key to dealing with the traffic was to drive like a mad man. Don’t fall too far behind the pack. Don’t drive too slowly. If someone else is driving too slowly, pass no matter the risk or whether it’s a zone that allows for passing.
For a host of counter-intuitive reasons, driving like the locals was the safest option. For one thing, it meant fewer surprises and a more well lit road. I kept peering through the windshield. Drive fast. Slam on the brakes. Take a turn. Drive fast. Slow down. Avoid the snow drifts at the side of the road. Drive between the lanes where possible, over the median. Every glint of roadside reflectors seemed to portend another possible “game over” moment.
The last time I’d been involved in such intense driving was upon returning from my cousin’s wedding many year’s ago, landing at the start of a blizzard, and spending the next couple hours in white-knuckle driving down the Jersey Turnpike.
The further I went, the more the crazy cavalcade of cars diminished. With adrenaline still spiking, pushing back the edges of exhaustion, I had to remind myself it was no longer necessary to drive like it was NASCAR.
At around 10:30pm local time, roughly 43 hours after leaving home, I arrived at the hotel. When the hotel clerk said “willkommen” as a greeting and I looked back blankly, that’s when I knew I needed to sleep.
We’ve been up and down this highway; and have seen a great deal
As I look back, I often wonder: was there ever a plan? In all honesty, there was not.
Much of the week was consumed with wandering up and down the road between Svolvaer and Reine/Moskenes/A with no particular goal other than finding the unexpected.
I had four full days on the islands. As Terry Pratchett might have said, some people go looking for enlightenment, but I went looking for perplexity. It was more fun.
I’m uncertain, when Monday dawned, if I’d had more than six hours of sleep. It didn’t matter. It felt like sixty. My brain was operating at appropriate levels again. When planning the trip, I booked a room on a waterway. Well more specifically: over the waterway. I’d paid extra for a deck over saltwater. I had done so with the naïve hope that I’d walk onto the deck one night and see the northern lights overhead.
On this morning I walked onto the deck, looking around. Jagged mountains hung overhead in the grey light. Sea gulls squawked. It was just like the computer games. I breathed with a sigh of relief.
Viewed through the prism of photography, the traditional pictures were always taken from the hamlets of Hamnoy and Reine. I wanted to ensure I wasn’t in a rush to get there, though. The journey was the destination.
After a spartan Norwegian breakfast, not for the last time that week, I began driving south. Not unexpectedly, all road signs were in Norwegian. Some things remained constant, though. I might not always know how fast I was allowed to drive or when the road decreased to one-lane. But I always knew what this meant:
It meant: pull over! There’s something to photograph!
My first stop was at a place called Skulpturlandskap Nordland. The morning was mostly cloudy, but there was enough visible sky so that shifting blue and purple colors appeared over the encircling mountains.
At this stop, there was a cube. Why a cube? Well, it reflected everything around it. On this rocky beach, that meant it was displaying mountains and water on every side. It seemed to make the horizon bigger rather than smaller. A horizon, almost, without end.
One of the hurdles with describing a repetitive journey is that it doesn’t fit a true narrative. I might see the same places over several days during different weather and lighting conditions. To that end, we’ll collapse the space time continuum, focusing less on what occurred on a chronological daily basis and more what sights were seen overall. We will, though, return to chronological time later.
After being faced with the grim and foreboding mainland, my expectations were high that I’d see something different, something otherworldly, out on the islands. While the drive south from Svolvaer was sufficiently spectacular with sky scraping peaks and frozen waterways, it wasn’t until Vareid that I felt like I was on a movie set. Upon returning to Seattle and sharing pictures at work, several commented that it looked like Game of Thrones.
Mountains spiked out of the water, over boulder-strewn beaches draped with light snow, silence only broken by breaking waves. The only things missing were a fractured Viking boat, rotting and impaled on rocks, and a dragon flying over the distant mountains.
I had hoped to turn down a side road to see where it might lead. Unfortunately my progress was stalled by a rock slide that must have occurred not long before my arrival. They say that one should never get close to where a mountain side had recently dislodged. Whoever said that was clearly not a photographer, though.
Nusfjord is a small fishing village not far from Vareid. As is frequently seen on the Lofoten Islands, the structures were built on stilts over the water.
While photogenic and “cute”, the real novelty of Nusfjord was the lake at its entrance.
The ice covering the lake had begun to separate in almost symmetrical blocks. With the mountains overhead providing a backdrop, light would strike the surface, turning the otherwise dark melted lake water gold.
As this was another prized location, it wasn’t surprising to see groups of photographers standing in the middle of the road, oblivious to oncoming cars.
Can you imagine a place so overrun by photographers that every scrap of ground is seemingly covered with tripods? Now you know Flakstad. Showers mixed with sunbreaks, spiraling around, dusting the beaches and mountains with fresh coats of snow.
As surfers braved the waves, photographers scrambled across the frozen beach.
Let’s be honest. You were underwhelmed by the traditional travelogue above, and clearly I was too, waiting for the main attraction. You know that Hamnoy is just that place. The place where legions of photographers, tour buses, and otherwise demanding tourists descend to see what is likely the most widely photographed location in the Lofoten Islands, if not in all of Norway.
When you consider the islands as a bucket list trip, it’s not for Vareid or Nusfjord or Flakstad. It’s not for the surfers dismissing the arctic conditions. It’s not for the Viking museum or the old churches. It’s for Hamnoy. You may be familiar with the images, if not the name. You might not even have been aware what country it’s in. But you’ve seen the place. What is Hamnoy? This is Hamnoy.
Even if you never knew they were from Norway, you’ve seen these pictures before. Much in the same way that you may have seen pictures of Mt Shuksan in Washington state and believed it might have been taken in Switzerland, Turkey or Georgia instead, you know Hamnoy.
This is the place people travel from around the world to see. This is the location that turns otherwise average photographers into superstars.
By now you’re thinking – this is the most conventional, boring travel blog I’ve written in years. Where’s the adventure? Is it simply endless driving up and down highways, running out of the car for a picture, then returning to log yet more kilometers? More stories of sleep-deprived days? More unnecessary prattlings about how difficult the “travel” part of traveling is? Followed by boring gas station sandwiches for dinner and more containers of Pringles for dessert? Will there be yet more stories about cold salami and crusty bread for breakfast? When will the madness end?
Let’s get adventurous! And adventure, for me, is eating food I’ve never seen before. In the spirit of complete transparency, I fear unknown food. I fear food that looks slimy, grimy and a bit too colorful. I fear vegetables. I fear food wrapped in seaweed. A French foreign exchange student friends once hosted called me “Mr Picky”. I may be a snob when it comes to books, music, cars, you name it. But when it comes to food, the only word I want to see is “comfort”, ideally alongside “fried”. Perhaps with “mashed” or “cheese” in the vicinity. If a sandwich contains unwelcome condiments, I’ll likely scrape them off. Tomatoes and onions? I value their opinions, but don’t believe they’re necessary in any food. In the case of tomatoes, they’re not acceptable in their natural state and are only considered safe and palatable when in the form of a sauce or ketchup. And even in a sauce, they can’t be whole. No evidence of their former state can be seen.
I do like seafood, yet even in that there lies an edge of pickiness. White fish? Fried? Certainly. I could possibly survive for years eating nothing but cod, halibut, haddock, flounder and any number of other white fish as long as they’re fried. With a side of fries, or chips as the English call them. And perhaps a deep fried Mars bar.
In Hamnoy, there is a restaurant called Anita’s (https://sakrisoy.no/seafood/). As I embarked on my endless drives up and down the road, I frequently saw somewhat unappetizing racks of fish drying in the cold air:
The fish, often cod, would hang on the wooden racks to both dry and for food preservation.
After witnessing the sights, smelling the smells and trampling – unsuspectingly – over the fractured skeletons underneath, I couldn’t imagine actually eating them. I would sooner, willingly, go to a Chinese restaurant and order something previously unknown from the menu than consider ingesting this fish. Fish with their eyes still staring at me from beyond the grave; inspiring guilt.
I was curious, though. Anita’s is like a museum to fish. It’s worth going even for those who don’t like seafood. Crowds and tour buses stop for lunch. I’ll admit, I didn’t fully understand the menu. That might have been my first mistake. Fish burger, that seemed safe, right? It reminded me of the flounder sandwiches I used to eat on the Jersey Shore. Really anything with the word “burger” in it seems safe. Maybe I should have listened to that little voice in the back of my head, the one that reminded me of the chicken “burger” in Kathmandu and what I did with that. But I did not.
I ordered the fish burger, eagerly awaiting what it would taste like. The burger arrived and I took a bite. Through the mayonnaise and other condiments, I bit curiously into the fish. So far so good. The condiments provided the brunt of the flavor. Then the fish taste arrived. I can say this with no criticism of Anita’s at all. I’d willingly go back there to try something else on the menu. But as the fish flavor coursed over my taste buds, the phrases “slimy” and “grimy” came to mind.
As casually as I could, I dumped most of the sandwich into a trash bin, washed away the unwelcome fish flavor with a liter of Coke and wandered outside.
In search of…Burger King
That fish sandwich wasn’t sitting well with me.
Where most days had been cold with frequent snow, the next day offered heavy rain. Rain so drenching the thought of spending time outside was unwanted.
I’d spent a number of days wandering through the southern end of the archipelago. Now seemed like a good time to find out what the north offered. It wouldn’t be as dramatic, but on a day with so much rain, I was less concerned about whether it would be photogenic and instead whether there were new towns and cities to see.
I looked at the map, chose Sortland as my destination, and began driving.
Through the rain - grim, muddy and snow streaked mountains were passed. The road from Lodingen to Svolvaer that looked so intimidating in sleep-deprived darkness now seemed harmless.
I looked up into the hills, hoping to see wildlife. Out of a sense of growing boredom, I randomly flipped stations on the radio. Here a pop song in Norwegian, there a top 40 song from England. I listened to music I would otherwise despise. I listened to recaps of local football games in Norwegian.
Increasingly, I realized, this was a journey in search of food. When Sortland appeared, it reminded me more than a little of Bodo – almost a Siberian rust belt kind of town. I drove over the bridge, into the small downtown area. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. I just wanted to get out of the car for a bit.
While driving aimlessly, a small mall appeared. And on the outside was the most welcome sign I’d hoped to find that day. I hadn’t expected it. I didn’t know what to expect. But when I saw the sign, it made the drive worth it. My mouth started to water in expectation of a double whopper and large fries. There would be “American” food to wash away the fish sandwich. Burger King!
I raced inside and found the computerized kiosks. They didn’t offer English as a language. I wasn’t deterred. By dint of knowing the basic layout of user interfaces everywhere, I was able to order lunch in Norwegian. Upon accepting the food from the counter, I was greeted in Norwegian. I’m uncertain if English was widely spoken there or even an option.
It didn’t matter. I sat down and devoured what was likely several thousand calories in the span of 10 minutes. All was well. There was nothing more to see. I drove back to Svolvaer and contented myself by watching Pawn Stars for the next couple hours.
Boredom started to creep in, though. It was time for find a warm place with beer.
I wandered outside and found something called the Telegrafen Pub. The cold rain was still pelting down. I didn’t want to walk far and this was near the hotel. I peered through the windows. There was a warm light inside. I stepped in.
Do you know that feeling when you walk into a bar and wonder if it was a mistake? It was very comfortable. There was a welcome beer selection. But in some ways I wondered if I’d wandered into the previously unknown Norwegian deleted scene from Goodfellas. There were maybe four or five unspeaking older pot-bellied gentleman, sipping their pints and watching the Nordic world championship on tv.
What to do. It reminded me somewhat of a pizza place in Long Island City we used to go to for lunch, long ago. Around the tables sat older Italian men, reading the NY Post sports section. They always eagerly wanted to talk to us about the Mets and Yankees. What did we think about this trade or those playoff chances. It was all very friendly. And while we try not to be stereotypical, not once did I or my co-workers go in there for a slice of pizza or chicken calzone and not believe it was mob run. The chicken calzones were fantastic.
This bar had a similar feel at first. In truth, there was nothing sinister about it, though I did feel out of place. I had my first pint, laughing along as Norwegian athletes provided amusing commentary in languages I didn’t know. I still felt like an outsider. Somewhat hysterically, I was reminded of the “take the cannoli” scene from Godfather. I ordered another beer. It was nice being out of the rain and all I really wanted was a quiet place to watch sports anyway. There was a segment about steroid use in English. I listened for a bit, then returned to the hotel.
Reine and sunshine
The weather gods, in their halls of ice and snow, smiled down on my last day on the islands. The forecast called for sunshine. Admittedly, it was not quite as advertised. There was plenty of sun. And plenty of snow. The important thing was to make use of that sun.
When I spoke earlier about Hamnoy being the prime tourist location, I neglected to mention that Reine is the other.
Another fishing village nestled under sheer mountains near the southern tip of the archipelago, photographers amassed in droves to capture the snow glazed cliffs, the colorful buildings, and the expansive water.
While cold, the light seemed to warm the features of the landscape.
I had seen everything I wanted to.
I could go home with no regrets.
Or had I?
Wait, is that it?
No, it’s not it!
Before leaving the hotel that morning, I searched online for information about the northern lights.
Were there specific places I should go to find them? What was the risk of light pollution? What, in short, were my odds?
A writer on one particular blog mentioned that, above the auroral oval (the place where the aurora is most prevalent and which I was currently above), there was an incorrect myth that the lights could only be seen in dark places. To the contrary, they could be seen in downtown areas as well.
That thought stuck with me.
I returned from the long day and noticed the cloud cover, sadly, increasing over Svolvaer. I planned to go to bed early that night. My planning faux pas are now well known. I don’t always think everything through. That means booking a morning ferry from the Moskenes ferry terminal back to Bodo on the mainland so I could go home. That ferry ride takes three hours and I wanted to get back to Bodo earlier than later. The schedule had two runs: one in the early morning (6 or 7am) and another around 1pm. In a fit of poor planning, I decided to reserve the early morning run.
That seemed logical at the time – until I realized it meant a drive of up to three hours through the arctic darkness, dependent on road conditions. Most notably, I was concerned about the risk of snow and ice. I had to give myself more time. As a result, I set my alarm for 2:30am. My intention was to be on the road by 3:30, if not sooner.
At 8pm that evening, I was tiring of watching Pawn Star reruns. I glanced outside. Cloud cover had amassed overhead. The sky was no longer visible. I tried to sleep, unsuccessfully. In my mind, I envisioned a clock moving forward inexorably, followed by a frigid multi-hour drive through the coldest weather I’d yet experienced in Norway. When I say “cold”, it’s all relative. In Fahrenheit, it was perhaps between 20 and 25 degrees. At 3am, it might be closer to 15. It was all dependent on the amount of cloud cover at that time. The more clouds, the warmer it would be.
At 9pm with my eyes shut and no closer to sleep, I remembered that message again. Over the auroral oval, they can be seen anywhere. Sleep was not forthcoming so I got out of bed, pushed the curtains back and looked outside.
The sky was clear. And in the distance, there was a white smudge on the horizon. Almost a wisp.
I threw the lights on, grabbed my camera, and ran onto the deck wearing my ratty Mets t-shirt and a pair of cut-off sweatpants.
I pointed my camera at the sky and clicked. Ok, nothing happened. It was just black. I realized I wasn’t ready. The show was about to begin and I hadn’t prepared my photographic technical knowledge.
I put the camera down and before despairing, looked questioningly at my phone. I took that and went back outside.
By this point the white smudge took on a defined form. White streaks began appearing. Then the lights began to dance, disappearing in one place, only to reappear in another. Unbelievably, the sky started to turn green. In the next moment, the lights seared overhead in a large swath like a glowing green Milky Way.
In the distance, I could hear people cheering and shouting at the lights.
I had seen everything I wanted to.
Fifteen minutes later the aurora had come to an end and I was ready to return home.