For months now, Bruce has talked about the Norway leg of our sabbatical, and his desire to go above the arctic circle. He grew up in the Michigan upper peninsula, which receives many feet of snow each winter due to its location on Lake Superior, and thus the lake effect snow, so the lure of the winter climate is deep in his roots. When he was a young man, he used to cross country ski, and as a child, had a beautiful Samoyed dog named Snow.
On my second visit to his home in Houghton one November many years ago now, I remember a snow settling in like no snow I’d ever seen. We’d flown up there on a small prop plane out of Minneapolis, which seated maybe 25 people, and I remember wondering how we’d ever get home. Bruce’s father was alive then, and he stood looking out the window for a bit before proclaiming, “It’s the start of another Copper Country winter.” He and Bruce had a jolly time the next day getting out their industrial strength Gravely snow blower, and blowing away the foot of snow that had fallen. Bruce and I made a snow woman that day, and then roasted a goose for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a wonderful memory.
We were in Norway last year for a conference in Lillehammer, and we toured a good part of southern Norway, but we didn’t make it to the northern part of the country. So this time, it was on Bruce’s “must do” list. I spent a lot of time researching the northern cities, the options on getting there, and things to do. We finally settled on the Lofoten Islands, which are an archipelago extending out into the Atlantic on the northern part of Norway, at about the 68th parallel.
Now, when I heard “above the arctic circle”, I was picturing frozen tundra, sled dogs, and eskimos. I can be so naively wide eyed at times. Last year in Bergen, Norway, in the touristed historic section of the harbor, I bought a “Norwegian” raccoon hat, a chic and fashionable piece of apparel similar to what Julie Christie wore in Dr. Zhivago. Ah, the romance! Surely, I thought, I would need such a hat if we were going above the arctic circle. Fortunately, early in my packing extravaganza, I realized there would be no room for the raccoon hat, so it remains neatly wrapped in my closet, and someday will be part of the girls’ inheritance.
As it turns out, it was relatively mild this time of year on the 68th parallel, with daytime temperatures in the upper 50’s to 60’s. I’d put on a wool sweater the morning we were leaving Oslo, with the excitement of a kid heading out on an arctic expedition. Upon arrival at Harstad/Narvik airport, I frantically ripped off my wool sweater, right in the middle of the Hertz parking lot, and slipped on my denim shirt, which was the lightest weight item I’d brought, other than my cotton night shirt. What was I thinking? I’d watched the weather forecasts all week and knew that with menopause, one really only needs a tank top in such temperatures. But that other half of my brain, the romantic half who wanted to be Julie Christie with Omar Sharif, won out.
The Lofoten Islands are stunning. They are known as “the rock wall” due to the massive granite mountains jutting up at beautiful angles out of the earth. Many an eon ago, I told Bruce, I could picture the volcanos and the sputtering and firing and crashing as those mountains were formed. Many an eon ago, he explained, there were dinosaurs, and Norway wasn’t where Norway is now, and there wouldn’t be anyone to witness such events. That’s what I get for marrying a scientist.
We spent four lovely days touring these islands, driving north and then south and then north again as the roads wound about the mountains, across the fjords and through dozens of tunnels. We spent our first night in Henningsvaer, which retains its historic charm while continuing as a working cod fishing and production harbor. Throughout all the islands, we saw the giant wooden drying racks, which are used every winter for the hanging and drying of the atlantic cod that is to be exported around the world, often known as bacalao.
On our second night, we drove to Reine, Norway, near the southern end of the Lofoten’s. Reine is often referred to as the most beautiful place in all of Norway, and being there, it’s easy to understand why. Reine is another cod fishing village with a set of Rorbuers, which are little cabins historically rented by fishermen who would migrate out to the islands to work the cod fishing season. Today, many of these are restored for tourist rentals. Our cabin, “Artur”, at the Reine Rorbuer was a splendid and cozy space filled with tweed furnishings, well done seafaring art, and a wonderful view of the majestic mountains that completely surround the harbor.
After dinner at the only restaurant open beyond August 31st, we settled in by candlelight with our wine and our tweed blankets to await the sunset, which lasted very late into the evening. I kept believing something was going to happen as there remained a rich colored hue deep on the northern horizon, well past when the sun had set, even when accounting for the waning season of the midnight sun.
Just past midnight, with only the reflection of the candles, I told Bruce I thought I saw something so he stood behind me and suddenly said, “Oh My! The sky is completely lit up!” And just like that, the night was filled with shimmering, waving shafts of green neon light all across the northern sky! Our hearts raced up into our throats and I vividly remember I was shaking as I circled myself trying to find my coat, hat, scarf, camera, gloves, all necessary accoutrements for the bitter wind that had settled in that afternoon. I honestly don’t remember a time when I’ve been that excited by something as I was at that moment when I knew I was seeing the northern lights. Maybe a Christmas morning, long, long ago, as a little child. It was an exhilarating moment I will never forget.
We rushed out to the front of our cabin, which faced north, and was in darkness except for the soft lights of the harbor below us. The aurora shimmered and moved from left to right and back, at moments filling the entire sky, and then dipping back down to cast an oval circle above the horizon, only to expand up again with vertical shafts of green lights, like a million hands waving spotlights from below.
It’s funny the quick fire decisions you run through on such an occasion. Our neighbors in the cabin next to us had been drinking since early evening, and their party was peaking right about the time the auroras hit. I’d thought of banging on their door to alert them until we heard them singing country and western of some sort at the top of their lungs, along with what sounded like line dancing. There were at least four of them going at it like some bad karaoke dream, and I thought, No, I’m going to just let them be.
In our euphoria, we decided to run to a darker part of the grounds to mute out even the low lights of the harbor. We chased our tails like bandy roosters running all over the place squawking with excitement, and all the while me stopping every few seconds to try to take a photo with Bruce warning, “Don’t Trip! Don’t Fall!”, a mantra I’ve heard from him many times since the year of my torn ACL!
Finally, we realized that the very best place was right back on our front porch in the darkness above the harbor facing north, and so we rushed back, grabbed our tweed blankets and settled in to watch. The Big Dipper was turned such that the right side of the cup was pointing straight up to the North Star, Polaris, right above us. Every few seconds, the lights would change … “Look! Over there! That direction! Oh! Oh My Gosh! Look to the left!” As if that weren’t enough, suddenly we began to see shooting stars. A lot of them. There was a meteor shower in the middle of this otherworldly, magnificent, heavenly gift.
It was something to see…
I finally got my bearings with my camera, and using my elbows as tripods, I held my breath and began to take 4 to 6 second photos. Naturally, the table top tripod I’d hauled over here for just such occasions was back at our apartment in Oslo. But I caught some great pictures. Great for me anyway. I’m a novice with my camera and certainly with astral photography, but I’ll take my later photos, after I’d calmed down enough to think. The early photos, when the lights completely filled the sky were nothing more than green globs, unrecognizable as anything, but that’s ok. I remember what it looked like.
I could wax eloquent on our remaining time in the Lofoten Islands. I could try to describe the raw, rugged, and utter beauty of the place. The massive granite mountains covered in moss and fern, a Tolkien landscape of waterfalls and deep fjords, cast a cerulean blue by the low angle of the afternoon sun, with mountain sheep bleating at us around every bend. I could try to explain the moments we had along the way, coddling together picnics beside the water, and Bruce wading his feet at an ocean inlet in the freezing Norwegian Sea. It was all spectacular. But nothing could possibly compete with that magical night of the Aurora Borealis, above the 66th Parallel.
Lorie McMillin, Lofoten Islands, Norway, September, 2013