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.