I’m Not as Young as I Used to Feel

After motoring through half of America in our Airstream for the past 1 ½ months and reporting travel highlights along the way (http://streamingthruamerica.com),

I’m temporarily suspending the chronological order of my posts to confess that I’m not as young as I used to feel. I’m usually up for a reasonable physical challenge, but I have to admit that today’s climb did not go as easily as I wanted it to.

Yesterday, Leah and I crossed from Taos, New Mexico to Alamosa, Colorado, and settled in at Base Camp Family Campground by midday. After hiking in Taos the past 2 days, we thought we had acclimated nicely to the thinner air (more to be said on that later), but we were feeling our age after our arrival. We took an early siesta in air-conditioned comfort, followed by a 27-mile sprint to the National Park Visitor Center just before it closed.

The park ranger suggested a climb to the top of High Dune (699 feet), but to keep in mind that tomorrow’s high will reach 92o F. He recommended a 9:00 am start time in order to reach the top of the dune by noon, and before the surface temperature exceeds 150o F. The ranger predicted the 2 ½-mile trek should average 2 hours, round trip.

Since we were already at the park, we decided to have a look around. We found it very refreshing to glide through three inches of snow melt, ebbing and flowing from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Considering it was a Sunday afternoon, and peak traffic was winding down,

there was still plenty of activity around us;

far too many interesting vistas to ignore;

and surprising driftwood sculpture to admire.

We arrived at the Dunes parking lot by 8:45 am the next day, and we were not alone. Many other families were already parked and trekking across the sand flats with sandboards in hand. Canopies and shelters were already sprouting up throughout and within Medano Creek, and kids were romping in the water and shaping wet sand castles.

We surveyed the 10,000 acres of dunes and plotted our course as there are no marked trails, but we followed along the ridgeline like most others.

Looking back gave us some satisfaction, because it reminded us of how far we trudged,

but looking ahead reminded us how much more we had to cover. The closer we crept to the top, the deeper our feet sunk into hot sand, slowing our progress.

We took a lot of breathers along the way,

and rated the sand boarders as they attempted to carve out a run…

but mostly, it was uphill twenty steps, pausing to catch our breath, having a look around, sipping some water, and repeating the process. Slow and steady wins the race. Right?

Many hikers passed us on the way down offering words of encouragement, but Leah–realizing her feet were about to catch fire–decided to mush down the sand slopes and soak her feet in the creek while I continued to the top.

And so I pushed myself, and willed myself up the final ascent, foot by foot, grabbing air along the way, until I finally reached the summit with barely enough energy to greet the younger people who passed me on the way up, and wave my arms for Leah’s snap.

Perhaps it was self-gratification…

realizing that I can still push myself,

or maybe I needed to see the other side of the mountain.

Either way, it’s all good. Ironically, as I admit to myself that I’ve lost a step or two, to my surprise, I often find myself taking a victory lap. As I get older, I’ll eventually have to make do with being young at heart.

But until then…

Regular programming resumes…

Coasting thru COVID–East Coast Edition

Leah and I have been eager to weave family and friends throughout our Great American Road Trip–Part IV. This summer tour is more than escaping Florida’s summer heat, or seeing the sights and exploring the great outdoors; it’s about personally reconnecting with the world after a year of COVID-19 constraints. For all the good that Zoom has given us to put us in touch with each other across the internet, there can be no substitute for face-to-face.

And in this moment of recalibrated norms, we are craving the sensation of normalcy.

From Virginia, we continued north to New Jersey, where it was previously arranged by Leah and her daughter Danielle, that we would occupy her driveway, and safely distance inside the trailer.

While Danielle and her husband Matt have been vaccinated for some time, Lucy, at age fourteen has not–although CDC officials are now in agreement that all teenagers will be eligible for the shot. So as an extra precaution, Leah and I agreed to a rapid test.

Honestly, I thought the PCR test was overkill, as Leah and I have been fully vaccinated since January, but half an hour later, all was forgotten after getting hugs from Lucy.

Other couples in New Jersey have been less fortunate. Phil and Cheryl both tested positive in November, but Phil required a hospital stay while Cheryl remained asymptomatic. To this day, Phil still suffers long-haul effects of COVID-19, so his reluctance to host our visit was understandable. Certainly, our negative test results must have eased his mind, and it was good to see him feeling more relaxed.

Whenever we return to New Jersey, we always turn to our hiking buddies, Doug and Arlene, who remained healthy throughout the pandemic. We reprised one of our favorite hikes at Pyramid Mountain during the height of pollen season,

sneezing our way to the ridge for electrifying views of New York City.

Next, we were on to Philadelphia with a lunch detour in Vineland to visit Leah’s brother, Harvey who’s lived in a group home with four other adult men for the past 20 years. It’s been three years since our last visit (considering our move to St. Augustine, and de facto quarantine protocols), and relaxed New Jersey state restrictions now gave us an opportunity to take Harvey out for the day.

Ordinarily, we’d plan lunch at a nearby diner, but group house rules precluded indoor dining, so a take-out meal, although less than ideal…

followed by a very brief walk through a minefield of goose poop, gave us some much needed time together.

Next day, while camping in Hatfield, PA, we coordinated a day trip to Lambertville, NJ…

to reunite with my oldest son Noah,

who most recently had been tasked with rolling out two dozen mobile testing labs for COVID-19 across metro Philadelphia–making Philly safe “one test at a time”–and ironically testing positive two days after his first vaccine shot. His recovery was rapid, no doubt because of the vaccine.

We cycled the Delaware & Raritan Canal Towpath together…

until we reached Washington Crossing State Park, 8 miles north.

Leah and I wrapped up our Philly reunion with a hike along Wissahickon Creek…

with long-time friends Alan and Andrea, who diligently practiced social distancing for the better part of a year.

On our way to the Valley Green Inn for lunch, I spotted a garter snake enjoying a meal…

by the covered bridge.

Lastly, Leah and I made our way across the state to Pittsburgh, my hometown and my heartbeat.

Leah and I thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality of my first cousin, Sandy and his wife, Barbara, who allowed us to park our rig in front of their house. Our intention was to sleep inside the safety of our Airstream, but after learning that all of us were dosed by the Moderna vaccine, we were easily persuaded to accept Barbara’s invitation to chill at her 6,700 sq. ft., 100-yr. old resort with Sandy operating as executive chef.

To shed our extra calories, we pedal pushed through the hills of Pittsburgh on our manual bikes

while our hosts cruised along on their e-bikes, assuring us that they were working just as hard as we were.

I don’t think so! From Point Breeze to Point State Park Fountain and back,

we reeled off 26 miles, and worked off some of the food and beer from the cousins’ reunion the day before.

Bottom Line: Leah and I have discovered that COVID-19 may have temporarily disrupted our families, but it’s also brought us closer together.

Natural Bridge Has Caverns Too!

The Caverns of Natural Bridge can’t be more than a 15-minute walk from the Natural Bridge State Park parking lot. Along the way, it’s impossible to miss the Natural Bridge Hotel poised on it’s perch across the road…

where very little has changed as a popular destination for tourists since its rebuilding in 1964 after a doomsday fire.

Continuing up the road and around the corner, stands a rustic cabin set back from the parking lot that’s been open for business since 1977.

The attendant tells us that this is a quiet time for tourists–middle of the week, before Memorial Day–and that’s fine with us. In fact, so far, we are the only spelunkers to have signed up for the 2 o’clock tour. As the hour draws near, only two other women have joined us. But as a party of four, Brian, our guide assures us that we can linger longer at each attraction, since our group is so small.

We are descending into a wet cave (as opposed to a dry cave),

34 stories below the earth’s surface…

where an underwater spring still feeds the formation of speleothems (e.g. stalactites and stalagmites).

The temperature is a humid 54o F, and with masks on

my glasses can’t help but fog with each breath I take. It’s never been so frustrating looking through a viewfinder to frame a photograph.

But as we snake our way through low overheads…

we are surprised to see boxwork, an uncommon, venous formation of calcite residue…

which forms when calcium carbonate dissolves within the cracks, resulting in unusual honeycomb patterns.

While not the biggest cave system (that belongs to Mammoth Cave), or the most ornate (that belongs to Carlsbad Cavern), Natural Bridge has a pleasant complement of columns…

and detailed domes,

and no shortage of surprises between the cracks and crevices.

Natural Bridge

If you’re searching for a town that’s so proud of their community attraction that their town is named after it, look no further than Natural Bridge, Virginia. It’s an unincorporated town tucked within the Shenandoah Valley…

that unsurprisingly features a rock bridge of limestone located in Rockbridge County.

Leah and I masked up, and approached the Georgian-styled Visitor Center to surrender $18 to view this natural wonder.

Our downward trail followed a moss-laden terrace of twisted roots and vines laced with wisps of water…

descending into enchanted dripping pools falling on flat rocks…

until we reached a T-shirt concession at rock bottom and an imposing graphic…

that tells the story of Natural Bridge:

The arch is composed of solid grey limestone. It is 215 feet high (55 feet wider than Niagara Falls) 40 feet thick, 100 feet wide and spans 90 feet between the massive walls.

Looking up at Natural Bridge

The span contains 450,000 cubic feet of rock. If man had scales to weigh it, the mass would balance about 72,000,000 pounds, or 36,000 tons. The rocks that compose the bridge are early Ordovician, about 500 million years old. The internal forms of these rocks that break and fold in the layers were imposed on them during the Appalachian Mountain building process toward the end of the Paleozoic Era, more than 200 million years ago. At its highest point, the bridge is approximately 1160 feet above sea level.

This was Nature’s working material. Her tool, Cedar Creek–a simple mountain stream flowing toward the sea. With these, Nature achieved her miracle. She painted her masterpiece with dull red and ochre, soft shades of yellow and cream, delicate tracings of blueish-grey.

Before white men came to our shores, the Monacan Indians considered this ancient wonder a sacred site, and called it “The Bridge of God.”

According to legend, in 1750 the youthful George Washington, engaged by Lord Fairfax, proprietor of the Northern Neck of Virginia, surveyed the surrounding acreage of Natural Bridge. During his visit, he scaled some 23 feet upon the left wall of the bridge and carved his initials, which may still be seen today.

On July 5, 1774, Thomas Jefferson purchased Natural Bridge and 157 surrounding acres from King George III of England for the “sum of twenty shillings of good lawful money” (about $2.40). Jefferson visited the bridge often, surveyed the area, and even drew a map in his own hand. In 1803, two years before becoming the President of the United States, he constructed a two-room cabin on the grounds.

From the literary classic Moby Dick, to such paintings as The Peaceable Kingdom, Natural Bridge has been used to portray the ultimate wonder. Edward Hicks, one of America’s foremost folk artists, used the Natural Bridge in his oil painting of about 1825-30.

Amongst many artists to paint or sketch an image of the bridge was Frederic Edwin Church, followed in 1860 by Davis Johnson, a second generation Hudson River School artist.

In later years, Natural Bridge became a merchandising magnet.

Personally, I was equally as intrigued with Cedar Creek as I was impressed by the monolithic bridge…

Even today, Lee Highway (U.S. Route 11) runs across the Natural Bridge, and that’s a very good thing, because we crossed many times to access our KOA campground down the road, and more importantly to visit Elvis at the Pink Cadillac Diner.

And We’re Off…

After driving hours upon hours of sameness along I-95 to I-26, Leah and I crossed the border into North Carolina, and rejoiced at our first sight at mountains in the past 9 months–the Blue Ridge. It was a sign that we were entering Pisgah National Forest and approaching Asheville, our first destination of the Great American Road Trip–Part 4.

Although the weather could have been more welcoming, we managed an urban bike ride through Carrier Park and by the River Arts District…

before doubling back along the French Broad River Greenway.

to admire the serenity of the lazy river.

Thank goodness for video downloads, because the incessant rain throughout the evening and into the following day kept us indoors–giving Smokey a much needed fire-watch break–

but preventing us from exploring our Lake Powhatan campground surroundings. Fortunately, by mid-afternoon, a partial clearing at the lakefront…

gave us an opportunity to loop around the water through mountain laurel archways…

past flora,

falls…

and flume.

All of which brought a smile to our faces.

Inhu•manatee

Florida manatees are in trouble and it’s troubling. Today, wildlife conservationists put their current census at around 6500 individuals–up from a few hundred in the 1970’s–

and have reclassified these docile creatures as “threatened.” However, the tide may be returning to “endangered,” given the increasing number of manatees at risk from boat strikes (averaging 100 every year), and the consensus that manatees are dying in unexpected numbers this year from extreme weather. Simply put, they are starving to death.

There’s a chill in the air, and the West Indian manatees of northern Florida have been scrambling to find warmer waters during winter months, where they usually huddle in large numbers, which assists in the yearly count.

Many coastal manatees migrate to Manatee Lagoon…

to bask in the warm-water discharges of FPL’s Next Generation Clean Energy Center at West Palm Beach,

while hundreds flee to Blue Springs State Park, in Orange City, Florida, where they find safe haven at a wellspring releasing 72° water year-round.

Others migrate to Silver Springs State Park,

where clear, calm, and temperate waters provide an abundance of sea grass for grazing.

But that’s not the case in many other places where manatees congregate. In recent years, massive toxic algae blooms accelerated by increased extreme weather have eliminated several hundred “sea cows” every year.

The Indian River Lagoon on the Atlantic side of the state accounts for the majority of manatee losses.

According to Indian River Lagoon guide Billy Rotne:

The raw truth of the matter is due to negligence of our storm water. We’ve had continual algal blooms over the past 10 years, which blocks out seagrass and kills it…so the manatees are starving to death.

And Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club further connects the dots:

I believe that seagrass loss is making manatees travel farther to get food, often going into man-made canals where they are more exposed to boat traffic.

Manatees have no natural predators. Sharks, whales and alligators usually swim in different waters and pose no threat to them.

Only humans have the capacity to put manatees at risk, with at least 432 having already perished in the first two months of 2021, accounting for 5 times the number of deaths in recent years.

Even more disturbing, a boat charter captain trolling the Homosassa River in the western part of Florida observed a manatee with “TRUMP” etched along its back.

Perhaps we need to do a better job of protecting them, if they are going to survive our abuses.

Just Wondering…

If gators…

and birds…

can coexist side by side,

why can’t we abide.


The above-mentioned poem and pics were motivated by a day-trip to Myakka River State Park, outside Sarasota, Florida.

Originally, my early inclination was to post this as a stand-alone, abstract reaction to all the hate that’s been circulating around the country of late, but as luck would have it–at Leah’s urging–I walked along Sarasota’s Bayfront…

and discovered the 18th Annual Art Exhibit Celebrating Diversity and Inclusion.

Almost immediately, after walking through the exhibition, I realized that showcasing birds and preying reptiles was too esoteric in getting my message across.

And I knew I had to include a sampling of the thoughtful, amazing talent from local and international students…

who have found a way to express themselves both poetically and graphically in ways that astound me, and give me hope for the future of our planet.

50 panels are spread throughout a marine park setting frequented by families, dog-walkers, tourists, and boaters, etc.,

interacting among billboard-sized art.

Indeed, a captive audience for a captivating display of enlightenment that’s too good to ignore.

Letchworth State Park

Without question, the feature attraction of Letchworth State Park…

LSP signage

has to be the trinity of waterfalls in the southern corridor of America’s favorite State Park (USA TODAY, 2015 Reader’s Choice), that stretches from the newly-replaced railroad trestle crossing the Portageville Entrance…

Upper falls and bridge

RR smile

RR span girders

to the Mt. Morris Dam, 17 miles to the north.

Morris Dam

And it’s the mighty Genesee River that flows between both boundaries–

Hogsback Overlook pano

continuing to carve out a bedrock gorge of mostly shale,

Genesee S curve

with exposed cliffs that rise 600 feet into the air,

Hogsback Overlook

earning Letchworth the distinction of being known as the “Grand Canyon of the East.” 

keyhole

But it’s the waterfalls that most visitors come to see…

curtain falls (3)

Well almost, because there are as many as 50 smaller waterfalls throughout the park that flow into the Genesee. But none are as impressive as Middle Falls, which cascades over a 107 ft drop.

middle falls day

As the name suggests, Middle Falls falls directly in the middle,

middle and upper falls

between Upper Falls…

pool of rocks

and Lower Falls.

20200807_144857 (2)

While the names of the waterfalls seem conventional, it was an unconventional man, William Pryer Letchworth, who had the foresight to buy the property surrounding Upper and Middle Falls to thwart the installation of a hydro-electric turbine, and save the falls from ruin.

trail

Letchworth also transformed an existing building atop the cliff overlooking Middle Falls into his estate, and named it Glen Iris.

Glen Iris B&B (2)

Today, it operates as a shabby-chic Bed and Breakfast, offering meals in the garden on the lawn, on the porch under the veranda, or in any one of several indoor dining rooms.

Leah and I sat outside, dining on spicy pizza and Parmesan-garlic chicken wings. We kept our eye on the New York sky, and we were eager for dusk to arrive.

At the appointed time–when daylight surrenders–the floodlights flashed on and burned onto the water spill.

Bar tab and entrees came to $60 bucks, but the view of the falls from the top of the cliff was priceless.

middle falls lit

Narvik

On our way to Bergen, Norway, the Viking Star docked at Narvik–a mountainside town reknown for its urban off-piste skiing,

Narvikfjellet_Skimap_2020 (2)

and notable for its ice-free harbor,

Viking Star at port

which was of strategic importance during World War II…

mother and child (2)

for transporting iron ore that’s been mined from the world’s largest underground reserve in Kiruna, Sweden since 1898.

distance and direction

Leah and I had hoped to ride the cable car to the mountain restaurant to enjoy the view, but on this particular day, the mountain was closed because of nasty weather.

Snorres Gate

Instead, we braved the treacherous icy streets…

hilltop advantage (2)

and climbed the hills for views of distant shores,

distant mountains

clusters of urban housing,

residential cluster

public art, 

wall mosaic

and commemorative sculpture, such as the National Monument of Freedom.

commemorative spire

Expanding our horizons, we boarded a bus bound for Polar Park,

road sign (2)

the world’s northernmost animal sanctuary,

signage (2)

and home to Norway’s large predators such as bears,

up from hibernation (2)

wolves,

wolf eyes (3)

and lynx.

chain lynx (2)

Although the animal habitats are vast,

You Are Here

and the wildlife seem well-cared for, it’s impossible to look past the fencing and not think of Polar Park as a winter zoo.

The wolves have been humanized since their arrival in 2006,

wolves on a hill

and available for kisses and snuggles, albeit for an extra fee.

wolf kiss

All things considered, I’d rather take my chances petting the barking dog that guards the reindeer down the road.

dog and deer (5)

Next stop…Bergen!

Ode to an Odyssey at Sea

The peaks were fearless

darkness falls

The winds were steady

lighthouse and building

The world was rushing by.

red boat and seascape

The clouds churned

redtop

About the mountain islands

mountain islands

Never budging

rugged cliff (2)

Anchored to an endless depth.

glass inlet

But when darkness settles

obscured by clouds

The sky salutes the sea

cloud cover lifting

Always reaching

green ice (2)

Never touching

snakehead

Until the two enlist the stars.

green curtain

Alta Mushing

Tucked into the Alta valley, lies a kennel of 98 Alaskan huskies that are so eager to pull a sled, that a team of six can pull their anchor out of the ground.

So much so that it took a Holmen Husky trainer to restrain them.

wanting to run

It was that kind of energy that had Leah and me so hyped to run the dogs on the trail, but only after properly outfitting ourselves…

boots

Leah posing

and learning the intricacies of mushing, as explained by Vicki from UK.

sled lesson

Most importantly, after witnessing the huskies’ enthusiasm, we focused on how to brake and when to brake!

how to use the brake (2)

After a visual review of the basic rules…

Basic Rules

we were appointed to our teams.

dog team and sled (3)

For the next 90 minutes, we rode through birch forests as the snow gently fell.

on the trail

Keeping our distance between sleds was our biggest challenge, as the dogs were more than up to the task of hauling a 25 kg /55 lb sled…

dog sled shed

with two passengers.

mush (2)

When occasional braking was necessary to prevent our sled from overtaking the sled ahead, the lead dog always turned to us, as if to say, “Why are you slowing me down?”

Why did we stop

And when Duke, one our wheel dogs sensed that his partner Nola wasn’t carrying her weight, he let her know about it.

pull your weight

Bred for speed and endurance, Holmen’s sled dogs can manage 10 to 14 miles per hour, and may travel over 90 miles in a 24-hour period, pulling up to 85 pounds apiece!

sled leads

The Holmen dogs are happiest when they are working, and even more so when they are racing.

diplomas

When our run was over, it was time to time to relax…

time for a rest

to pose…

leaders

and to cuddle.

time for love (2)

A fire, a biscuit, and some blueberry tea was the perfect nosh after our wintry mush.

fire aftermath

But doggone it, there would be no Northern Lights tonight!

Cathedral of the Northern Lights

Our quest to chase Aurora Borealis continued aboard the Viking Star, cruising northbound through Finnmark, the heart of Norwegian Lapland,

passages (3)

and on to Alta, our northern-most destination inside the Arctic Circle.

Viking docked (2)

Leah and I were praying for clear skies plus a surge in solar activity–given Alta’s reputation as the Town of the Northern Lights and home to the world’s first Northern Lights Observatory (1899) for conducting scientific research.

Alta harbor

To that end, we mounted a pilgrimage to the Cathedral of the Northern Lights to increase our chances of an anticipated sighting. However, on this temperate night, an unexpected veil of dew painted the town, offering up a cathedral bathed in shimmery titanium,

nighttime (3)

lunging 47 meters (154 ft) toward an elusive phenomenon.

belfry

To the townsfolk, this sanctuary is as much a tourist attraction as it is a church.

It represents “a landmark, which through its architecture symbolizes the extraordinary natural phenomenon of the Arctic northern lights,” according to John F. Lassen, partner of Schmidt Hammer Lassen–a Danish design firm that collaborated with Scandinavian firm Link Arkitektur to win the city council’s design competition in 2001.

And there is much to appreciate about the design–outside and in. The exterior’s circular body mimics a magic curtain of light once illustrated by Louis Bevalet in 1838.

lithograph

And the interior lighting resembles the long shafts of light associated with the Aurora.

Light shafts and altar

Religious overtones are emphasized through the metal mosaics representing Twelve Disciples…

12 Apostles

and the 4.3 meter (14 ft) modernist bronze of Christ searching the blue-glazed heavens, imagined by Danish artist Peter Brandes. While some worshippers may claim that a hidden face lives in the outstretched neck of the subject,

Jesus (2)

the illusion is subject to personal interpretation.

Jesus with 2 looks

Consecrated in 2013, the Cathedral of Northern Lights functions as Alta’s parish church of the Church of Norway, yet remains an open forum for assembly and performance.

One-year after the first benediction, the concrete walls had settled and the pipe organ was installed. The dynamic acoustics attracted notable talent and filled all 350 seats.

organ

Leah and I attended an organ recital by Irina Girunyan,

master organist.

Irina Girunyan

While following a complex score for hands and feet,

sheet music

Irina skipped and fluttered her way through an evocative program of classical and contemporary music.

organ performance with sheet music

The ethereal sound from 1800 pipes and 26 stops was heavenly,

med shot playing

and left me yearning for another reminder.

Northern Lights behind the Cathedral
The titanium-clad Cathedral of the Northern Lights (Photo: Adam Mørk/schmidt hammer lassen)

 

 

 

 

Ski-doo across the Arctic Circle

Whenever I’m traveling with Leah, the driving usually falls to me. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining. In fact, I enjoy driving as much as Leah prefers being the passenger. I figure our roleplay has lasted us through nearly sixteen years of togetherness and over 200,000 miles of highways and byways.

Over the years, we’ve worked out a reliable system where she tells me what to do and I’m inclined to ignore her.

Well, not exactly…

But ours is a predictable pas de deux that’s always destined for Bickerville.

For instance, if we’re traveling on the Interstate, Leah’s likely to order: “Slow down! You’re driving too fast.”

Typically, I’ll answer, “Okay,” and resume my present speed. I know it irritates her when I don’t accept her advice because she tells me so. Yet after a time, all is forgiven–but never forgotten. She never hesitates bringing it up again and again at my earliest convenience.

Similarly, if we’re driving in traffic, I’m likely to hear, “Why do you have to be on his tail all the time?” Her remark always seems to shift into hyperbole.

But I don’t blow a gasket. I simply suggest that if I was that close to him, I’d be able to read his license plate.

Then before too long, I’ll receive another Leah alert: “Slow down! You’re driving too fast.”

Occasionally, I’ll remind her, “You’re welcome to drive yourself, if you don’t like the job I’m doing.”

More often than not, she’ll respond with, “That’s okay. I’m good.”

But patterns are made to be broken. The chance of snowmobiling across the Arctic Circle brought a different scenario I didn’t see coming.

We arrived from Tromsø to Camp Tomak by the busload…

camp signage (2)

to participate in sledding for the day–either by dog…

dog sledding (2)

or by engine.

wave at the back

After gearing up for Arctic climate…

prep after

we were ready for our safety and operations briefing.

lesson (2)

That’s when Leah determined that she had no interest in driving, and even less interest in riding behind me.

“There’s no way I’m I getting on this machine with you,” she insisted.

“Why not?” I asked. “It’ll be fun!”

“Because I have no interest in getting hurt or dying,” she expressed.

“Neither do I!” I objected.

“And what if you should roll over?” she predicted. “I think I’d rather ride with Jan.”

Jan, our guide interceded and accepted to buddy-up with Leah. At first, I was insulted that she didn’t trust me–that she imagined I would risk our lives and limbs–until I realized what a huge favor she had done for me.

Without Leah behind me, I was free from scorn and criticism.

break time

The snowscape was endless.

running in a line

The cliff face was frozen.

icy ledge

The Nordic sky was vast.

driven snow

And the scenery was breathtaking.

mountains peak passes

The guests had good reason to be giddy.

zany behavior

When the sun set behind the mountain,

mountain sunset

we retired to the Sami tent for warmth, reindeer stew and tea.

keeping warm

Naturally, I thanked Jan for his hospitality and counsel.

“That was absolutely liberating,” I gushed. “I owe you big time for taking Leah along. Maybe you’d like to take her home with you,” I jested.

We shared a laugh together, but Leah wasn’t having any of it.

“Keep it up and you’ll be sleeping with Olaf,” she warned.

iceman

And that’s when I hit the brakes.

Chasing the Northern Lights

Our raison d’être for making this pilgrimage to Norway’s wintry Arctic Circle and beyond was to catch a glimpse of the elusive Aurora Borealis. Leah’s extensive web browsing helped us determine the best location and time of year when solar activity would peak,

solar flare

and Tromsø seemed to be a worthy contender for Northern Lights activity.

magnetic poles

Hence, our excursion to track the Northern Lights had been booked months ago using a local outfitter who would drive us a reasonable distance away from city lights to improve our viewing potential.

city lights (2)

We met Mag, our guide behind the Scandic Hotel, not far from the city square where earlier in the day the Samis were preparing for a weekend of Nordic games in celebration of their indigenous culture, including the reindeer race championship as the main event.

Sami selling skins (2)

Our plush mini-bus departed at 8:00 PM with 12 world citizens aboard–representing China, India, Brazil, Argentina, and Florida–all with an equal fascination for Northern Lights, and all bundled up, since we planned on sky-watching for 3 hours in frozen surroundings.

Of course, there was no guarantee that the weather would cooperate (nullifying any opportunity of seeing the Lights), but with passports in hand, our guide was prepared to drive us across the Swedish or Finnish border if need be, should our original destination in the direction of Overgård be too clouded over.

As he drove, Mag would occassionally crane his neck skyward, peering through the windshield in search of a sign. After an hour, he steered the van off the highway into a remote turnoff, and signaled that we had arrived.

He admitted that tonight would be tricky because of the full moon and passing clouds…

moonglow

but if we trained our eyes across the horizon, we might pick something up.

I planted my tripod and waited…and waited…and waited…

“There!” shouted Mag, “over the mountain.”

I panned my camera in his direction, and took a timed exposure, still uncertain of what I was shooting, and waited for results.

Mag was right! Something was there, but it was barely perceptible.

misty green

But who was I to judge? It’s just that I was looking for something more spectacular. Where were the crazy colors I craved, like the grand arc I recently recorded from a slideshow monitor?

grand arc

“Be patient,” he advised. “There’s something going on here. But the lights are fickle, and it’s too early to tell if the activity is significant or not.”

After making some exposure adjustments, I waited again…until I recognized a dim shadow moving across the horizon…[CLICK]…

green spout1

I was feeling somewhat gratified that I discovered the aurora on my own, but still, my Impression Meter was registering Underwhelmed, while my Expectation Meter was to set to Light Show!

Others among us wondered aloud if we should move to another location.

But Mag countered, “We could spend more time driving in the mini-bus, or we could continue to search the sky where we are standing. But I can guarantee that the sky we have here is the same sky we will find elsewhere.” 

Perhaps if I looked in a different direction…[CLICK]…

green moonbeam1

By now, only the hardcore remained outdoors, while Leah and half the others had retreated to a heated van. Hot chocolate and biscuits were passed around to reinvigorate us and keep our numbing fingers nimble.

The clock continued ticking and our time was coming to an end. Even though the solar activity in the sky was nominal, we were still standing under a full moon on a starry night with a beautiful backdrop.

icy mountains

But then…[CLICK]…

power lines

our brightest sighting of the night!

The hour ride back was quiet. Most were asleep. But in my mind, I was calculating how many more opportunities we’d have to see the lights once again.

Order of the Blue Nose

Captain Terje Nilsen of the Viking Star personally delivered the unfortunate news over the ship’s PA system during breakfast.

“Because of high winds, we will be cruising past the port of Bodø, and continuing onto Tromsø. I apologize for the inconvenience, but the weather is just not safe for us to make a landing.”

Of course, we were disappointed.

Bodø is a charming alpine village north of the Arctic Circle and home to Saltstraumen, the world’s largest maelstrom. Additionally, Leah and I had booked an excursion to Kjerringøy, and would have enjoyed hiking through this preserved trading post dating back to the 1800s.

But Captain Nilsen wasn’t kidding. If the gusting winds and pounding seas were any indication of what was witnessed as the Hurtigruten ferry attempted docking in Bodø, then I couldn’t imagine the Viking Star following suit–certainly not with so many passengers unable to handle the rough crossing from Tilbury, England.


Nevertheless, passengers were invited to the pool deck following breakfast to celebrate a longtime maritime tradition of crossing the Arctic Circle.

While Paulo serenaded us with folk classics and Beatles covers of Here Comes the Sun, and I’ll Follow the Sun, (ironic, don’t you think),

Here Comes the Sun

the crew assembled to initiate each of us into the Order of the Blue Nose.

Our Cruise Director, Brensley Pope took the microphone to give some background:

Good afternoon Ladies & Gentlemen and welcome! We have entered through the Arctic Circle, and it is time to make our journey official by welcoming you to the Order of the Blue Nose! First, a little history.

The word “arctic” comes from the Greek word arktikos: “near the Bear, northern” The name refers to the constellation Ursa Major, the “Great Bear”, which is prominent in the northern sky.

The region north of the Circle, known as the “Arctic” covers roughly 4% of the Earth’s surface.

The position of the Arctic Circle coincides with the southernmost latitude in the Northern Hemisphere at which the sun can remain continuously above or below the horizon for a full twenty-four hours; hence the “Land of the Midnight Sun.” This position depends on the tilt of the earth’s axis, and therefore is not a “fixed” latitude. The Arctic circle is moving north at a rate of 15 meters per year, and is currently located at 66 degrees 33 minutes North latitude.

Captain Terje Nilsen interupted, “I believe that’s enough history for now…”

The crowd responded with laughter. And then it became official with his declaration…

Hear ye… hear ye….

Whereas by official consension, our most honorable and well-beloved Guests have completed successful passage through the Arctic Domain. We do hereby declare to all in attendance and that those who possess the courage to take the Aquavit cleanse shall be marked accordingly, with the prestigious Order of the Blue Nose.

(Applause)

Captain Nilsen continued…

This is to certify that you all have been formally and officially initiated into the Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Chilly Deep, and should wear your blue noses proudly! With the order of myself, the Captain, I command all subjects to Honor and Respect those onboard Viking Star as one of our Trusty Blue Nose family.

We officially welcome you to the Blue Nose Order! Skol!

I got my blue nose and drained my shot glass of chilled Aquavit. Was I now a proud member of a society of alcoholics and sun worshippers?

drinking aquavit (2)

But I wasn’t alone.

Lines formed from both sides of the pool deck for distinguished crew members to efficiently annoint all worthy passangers with a blue-tinted dab of meringue.

closed eyes

What follows is a small sample of inductee’s portraits–some more enthusiastic than others…

red eye

pursed lip

plaid shirt

man wirth glasses

lady with glasses

grinning lady

glassy eyes

Chinese freckles

beard man

United in singular purpose, we now shared a common bond.

To validate our accomplishment, each of us received a certificate of achievement validated by Captain Nilsen.

Certificate

Soon after, while walking about the jogging track in whipping winds after a filling lunch, I caught a glimpse of what made this affair so special.

Arctic Circle marker

Now that’s what I call “Crossing the Line!”

Praying for a Glimpse of Pulpit Rock

Having pre-booked Rødne’s 3-hour scenic cruise through Lysefjord–Western Norway’s most picturesque passage–

route map

Leah and I were on an impossible mission to view Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), considering the current gray skies and dismal forecast. Reknown for its views, and famous for its cliffhanger scene in Mission: Impossible–Fallout, we considered Preikestolen a must-see.

On the bright side, there was plenty of legroom aboard Rødne’s Rygerdronningen, a 297-passenger, high-speed catamaran that carried only 24 guests this particular day, many with camera lenses as long as my arm.

boat tour

We pushed off at 11:00 am sharp,

playground

easing out of the harbor’s protected waters,

marina (2)

and beyond the bridge,

bridge columns (2)

where it became perfectly clear to us that this was a perfect day for seabirds,

seabirds

but less so for Leah–who required a double dose of dramimine to deal with the swells propagating across the horizon.

pier house

Along the journey, we passed scores of coastline cottages,

summer cottage

whose owners regulary commute to town by boat during the summer months…

boathouse

unless they have the means to vacation in Rogaland all summer long.

tiered roof

 

Midway through our voyage we passed under the Lysefjord Bridge–gateway to Lysefjord–

Lysefjord Bridge1

connecting Forsand with Oanes, a small farming village on the coastline,

mountain valley

that’s dwarfed by an imposing edifice.

gateway to Lysefjord

We eased into the fjord,

into the fjords

flanked by looming walls of granite…

cliffside

until the captain navigated the bow of the ship within a hair’s breath of the Vagabond’s Cave.

cave entrance (2)

Legend has it that the cave was named after a group of vagabonds who used the shelter as a hideout for months, trying to escape the police.

cliff face

As we backed out of the grotto to pursue a course to Pulpit Rock, the weather turned to sleet and snow, shrouding the cliff’s signature square flat top, 604 meters above the fjord, and driving most of the passengers indoors.

pulpit rock

But there were some intrepid sailors who were undeterred, because they had little choice in their RIB (rigid inflatable boat).

RIB (2)

We followed at our own pace…

falls and RIB (2)

until we reached Hengjane Waterfall, cascading 400 meters (1312 ft) into the fjord.

Hengjane Waterfall (2)

Soon after, we U-turned to retrace our wake before returning to Skavanger.

through fjord storm

Marie-Charlotte van Kerckhoven was among the few passengers on board. While nursing a hot coffee, Leah and I heard about her hiking expedition to the top of Pulpit Rock the day before. Braving freezing temperatures and two feet of snow, she and her hiking buddy made the ascent to the 25 by 25 meters flat top in 4 hours.

She was happy to share her view,

view from the top

and even happier to report that here was no trace of Tom Cruise ever being there.

Next port of call: Bodø