A cool spring in fall
ushers clear sparkling water--
As an automobile enthusiast, I had occasion to visit the recently opened Classic Car Museum of St. Augustine on a drab weather day. It was a fitting opportunity to take my newly acquired Porsche 718 Cayman out for a drive before the expected rain.
The 30,000 sq. ft. garage displays 80 cars from Sidney Hobbs’ collection,
showcasing every decade through the 20th and 21st century,
with a miscellany of antique and classic cars from private collectors consigned for sale.
like fins from the 50’s;
or hood ornaments;
Sometimes the accents serve little purpose…
and sometimes they do.
And sometimes it nothing more than a bunch of hot air.
But the unspoken truth is, none of it really matters unless the car is driven.
No tour of Newport, Rhode Island is complete without appreciating the summer “cottages” along the Cliff Walk. The walkway runs 3.5 miles along the Atlantic, offering panoramic views of crashing waves against a craggy seawall…
adorned with massive mansions belonging to America’s 19th-century titans of industry.
Leah and I parked at Easton’s Beach…
and followed clearly marked directions to the trail head,
for a walk through time to reflect on the splendor sponsored by owners during Newport’s Gilded Age.
Designed by a cadre of elite architects of the time, these summer homes represent the stylistic diversity of 200 years of architectural history in Newport, and offer a window into the world of its illustrious owners.
To date, many mansions like Rosecliff have been rescued by Newport Restoration Foundation after having been neglected for dozens of years, and threatened with demolition. Boasting the largest ballroom among its neighbors, Rosecliff has become a popular wedding venue.
The Cliff walk is essentially a pedestrian hike, but can be challenging in places,
with rocky outcroppings…
and unlikely obstacles that require reasonable footwear other than flip flops.
Of course, there are plenty of houses to ogle along 3.5 miles–some that have become museums, like Rough Point…
or repurposed as a Salve Regina University administration building, like Ochre Court…
or converted to condos, like The Waves…
while newer home owners along the walk eschew the notoriety.
But the real entertainment comes from people met along the way–for instance, a sunbathing cliffhanger getting in touch with her inner mountain goat just beyond the 40 Steps marker.
But she was not alone, as Wilson was seen lounging nearby.
It’s easy to forget, considering today’s smoldering political climate, that America was the best last hope for Separatists fleeing England in 1620. They were so determined to stand up for their Christian beliefs that they were willing to risk a perilous voyage and an uncertain future in the New World.
102 Puritans boarded the Mayflower in Plymouth, Devon…
and 102 landed in “Paradise” (one passenger had died and a baby was born at sea during the harsh 65-day passage across the Atlantic) on November 11, 1620,
commemorated by “a great rock”…
that’s protected by a granite canopy overlooking Plymouth Harbor,
at what is now Pilgrim Memorial State Park.
Thanks to Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag tribe who forged an alliance with the Pilgrims,
the colonists survived famine and disease aboard the Mayflower–losing half their numbers–before they eventually settled ashore to form the Massachusetts Bay Colony the following year, and celebrate their first Thanksgiving with the Wampanoags.
Roger Williams, a long-time friend of Massasoit was less fortunate in the coming years. He was exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635 for sedition and heresy after questioning the legitimacy of the Kings’s charter which provided no payment for land confiscated from the Wampanoags.
Smith went on to settle in Narragansett Bay, and established Providence, Rhode Island, which became a safe haven for all the like-minded dissenters who believed in true religious freedom, and separation between church and state.
This principle was later put to the test by Jewish settlers who migrated to Newport, RI from Portugal via Barbados as early as c. 1658 to form Jeshuat Israel, the second oldest congregation in America (Congregation Shearith Israel in New Amsterdam was first in 1654).
By 1758, consideration was given to design and build New England’s first temple. Peter Harrison, a sea captain and amateur architect drafted plans for what would become Touro Synagogue, dedicated in time for Hanukkah in 1763.
The interior design was drawn from references from Isaac Touro, the congregation’s spiritual leader and others,
whose religious upbringing called for separation of men and women between floors.
Religious freedom was tested once again, when Moses Mendes Seixas, then president of Congregation Yeshuat Israel greeted George Washington in August 1790 with a letter…
President Washington responded in kind…
…thus reasserting to the congregants that they enjoyed full liberty of conscience, regardless of their religious belief.
As a young Nation, the United States was a guiding light for the oppressed around the world. Folks from all walks of life risked everything to make pilgrimage to these shores in search of religious freedom. It was an idea that’s survived two World Wars, yet today stands perilously close to extinction, but only if we allow it to happen.
Without question, the feature attraction of Letchworth State Park…
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…
to the Mt. Morris Dam, 17 miles to the north.
And it’s the mighty Genesee River that flows between both boundaries–
continuing to carve out a bedrock gorge of mostly shale,
with exposed cliffs that rise 600 feet into the air,
earning Letchworth the distinction of being known as the “Grand Canyon of the East.”
But it’s the waterfalls that most visitors come to see…
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.
As the name suggests, Middle Falls falls directly in the middle,
between Upper Falls…
and Lower Falls.
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.
Letchworth also transformed an existing building atop the cliff overlooking Middle Falls into his estate, and named it Glen Iris.
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.
With Tropical Storm Isaias skirting the Florida coastline, and hundreds of northeast coastal towns preparing for wind-driven rain, subsequent storm surge, and certain power outages, Leah and I are presently gazing at a hypnotic sky across Johnston County, NC.
Rather than wait for bad weather, we put Florida in the rear view mirror in search of blue skies elsewhere. Seven hours of driving north through occasional downpours and lightning strikes across our windshield brought us to Selma, NC, where torrential rain was turning our campsite into an ankle-deep pond.
At first, we waited patiently inside the F-150, but within minutes the rain reduced to a drizzle, giving me a much needed window to set up camp…except for a nearby limb that crushed a power line and prevented us from accessing electricity.
Eventually power was restored by 1 AM, when the AC magically resumed its roar inside our capsule, and delivered timely relief from the incessant humidity.
The following day was hot and steamy. We took a ride into downtown Smithfield–a ghost town of shuttered businesses–
to explore our surroundings,
and happened upon the Ava Gardner Museum.
I would have enjoyed a trip down memory lane with Ava, the area’s favorite sharecropper’s daughter from Grabtown, however the museum was closed due to COVID-19. Unfortunately, all I could do was appreciate her stardom through a pane of glass,
and wonder how and when it will be safe to go to the movies again.
Long before COVID-19, Leah and I arranged a summer Airstream adventure that would start with a month at the Jersey shore–where we could spend quality time with friends and family. We were also looking forward to participating in granddaughter Lucy’s Bat Mitzvah ceremony which was three years in the making.
Thereafter, stops at the Cape and Portsmouth would precede a visit to Acadia National Park before crossing over to Canada to pub crawl along George Street in St. John’s, whale watch at Cape Breton, feast on PEI mussels, and stroll through Old Quebec before returning stateside.
It promised to be a rewarding road trip, worthy of miles of picturesque scenery and memories. However, the pandemic had other plans for us. For one, Canada had closed its border to us. And secondly, Northern New Jersey was adjusting to its epicenter outbreak.
It appeared that we were doomed to succumb to another of Florida’s steamy summers–unless we could tailor a brief, albeit cautious round trip to attend Lucy’s Bat Mitzvah. Of course, hauling our bedroom-kitchen-bathroom capsule would be a decided travel advantage, knowing we were insulated from motel maladies, risky restaurants, and nasty public restrooms on our way North.
So we sketched out a new plan, and off we went.
Ordinarily, to avoid RV resort and campground fees during overnight transitions, Leah and I would scout the area for Wal-Marts, since Wal-Mart has a long-standing tradition of allowing RVs and travel trailors to boondock in remote sections of their parking lot. But after driving 7 hours through stormy weather, we settled behind a quiet Cracker Barrel in Wilson, NC where drag racing and doughnuts were less likely to occur.
Another 8 hours of driving the following day brought us to Lucy’s house, where a deep driveway in the front provided a perfect spot for suburban camping,
and the tent in the backyard provided the perfect cover for Lucy’s weekend ceremony.
Attending this Bat Mitzvah seemed like a miracle, considering the circumstances, although Lucy could never have imagined that her special day would become a rain-or-shine, mask-wearing, socially-distanced ceremony staged in her backyard.
Lucy’s decision to become a Bat Mitzvah took many of us by surprise, because her dad, Matt was a lapsed Catholic who traditionally participated in holiday decorations and gift-giving, while Danielle, her mom was a non-practicing Jew who balanced Christmas with 8 nights of Hanukkah celebrations, which was always rewarding for Lucy.
Nevertheless, Lucy came by her decision independently, and was fully supported by both parents. Despite being Jewish by default (Judaism follows matrilineal descent), Lucy followed her curiosity, and with her tutor, Galia’s help, she slowly began to identify with Jewish history and culture, while looking for purpose in its doctrine.
After a year of discovering the Old Testament and learning the meaning of many age-old traditions, Lucy decided she wanted to become a Bat Mitzvah–to celebrate her coming of age and her beginning of life as a fully participating Jewish adult.
To that end, Danielle secured Cantor Barbra on Galia’s recommendation,
who home-schooled Lucy in Hebrew reading, challenged her to read from the Torah, and counseled her in conceiving a meaningful mitzvah project. It was a two-year task that Lucy embraced, along with her school work and dancing and gymnastics and music lessons and play dates with friends.
After brain-storming and soul-searching, and empathizing with the plight of immigrant children separated from their parents at the Mexican border, Lucy elected to stage a fundraising benefit for ASTEP Forward (Artists Striving to End Poverty).
She coordinated an evening of music and dance at Fairlawn Community Center, and recruited notable talent (including James Brennan, acclaimed Broadway actor, choreographer, director and grandfather) to fill the bill, ultimately raising $3500 in ticket sales and merchandise for the organization that delivers performing arts workshopss to underserved communities across metropolitan New York.
She also managed to perform a song and dance duet that featured Bumps (Grandpa Jimmy).
Two months later, Lucy was standing before us on her special day–her Bat Mizvah preparation now complete.
Lucy’s parents, Matt and Danielle had spaced 6 ft diameter tables under the canopy for appropriate distancing between guests,
while an internet audience joined us via Zoom.
A small selection of family members managed to assemble from Vermont, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida.
Lucy’s closest friends were also on hand.
For the following hour, prayers were chanted;
rituals were observed;
speeches were made;
wine was sipped;
bread was broken;
and Lucy’s Bat Mitzvah status was eventually conferred.
After an afternoon of spiritual enlightenment, it was party time!
Congratulations, Lucy on all of your hard work, and your accomplishment on becoming a responsible young woman.
Despite the three years since Leah and I visited Mt. Rushmore, what could be more American than re-posting this visit on Independence Day? And still, there’s great turmoil within the country. A trip to Mt. Rushmore means many different things to different kinds of people. One person’s treasure is another’s abomination. To visit was once considered patriotic. Now it’s an act of partisan politics.
There’s no better way to celebrate the 4th of July, than a trip to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Sure, the crowds were large; that was to be expected. But once the cars were garaged, the pedestrian traffic was easy to negotiate. And with everyone looking up at the mountain, the Presidents’ faces and intentions were never obstructed.
It was also a time to celebrate family. There were plenty of kids riding in strollers, hanging from moms in carriers, or balancing on dads’ shoulders. Generations of families–many of them immigrants–had gathered to pay homage to the principles of freedom that make our country a beacon for the oppressed and downtrodden.
Seniors were being escorted through the Avenue of Flags by their grandchildren. Extended families organized group pictures at the Grand View Terrace, unified by their love of democracy and their reunion T-shirts.
All expressed awe at Gutzon Borglum’s grand vision and remarkable achievement–the transformation of a mountain into a national symbol visited by approximately 3 million people every year.
The 14-year process of carving the rock began with dimensionalizing the Presidents’ portraits through Plaster of Paris masks, on view at the sculptor’s studio-turned-museum.
Additional exhibits detail the construction of the memorial, and the tools used by workers, like the original Rand & Waring compressor, which powered the jackhammers for all the finishing work.
An overlooked fact–Mt. Rushmore was once intended as a tribute to the “Five Faces of Freedom,” but funding ran short when Congressional appropriation for the monument approached $1 million during the Great Depression. Hence, the unfinished carving of the Great Ape to the right of Lincoln serves as a reminder that we are never far from our true ancestors.¹
No less ambitious, and equally as impressive, the Crazy Horse Memorial is a work-in-progress located 16 miles away in the heart of the Black Hills–considered sacred land by the Lakota people.
Conceived by Korczak Ziolkowski in early 1940s,
the memorial, when completed will stand 563 ft. by 641 ft. across, and is expected to be the largest sculpture in the world. Already, the completed head of Crazy Horse measures 60 feet tall…
…twice the size of any of the presidents at Mt. Rushmore. While the first blast was conducted on the mountain in 1947, the current prospects for the memorial are to complete the outstretched arm during the next twelve years. There is no completion date available for the finished carving, which has been financed entirely by private funding since its inception.
Mt. Rushmore was created by a Danish American. Crazy Horse was created by a Polish American. And visitors to both destinations manifest the melting pot that has brought us all together as Americans. It’s our diversity that makes us strong, our ambition and determination that makes us great, and our compassion and sacrifice that make us whole.
These are the values reflected from the faces we’ve immortalized in stone. Yet, we would honor them more by living according to these principles.
Happy Birthday, America!
¹ Just kidding, but the photograph is real and has not been retouched.
Eila Hiltunen’s landmark sculpture, Passio Musicae pays tribute to Finland’s Jean Sibelius, but not without controversy.
Sibelius was an internationally acclaimed symphonic composer inspired by Finnish folklore. Long regarded by Finns as a national icon, his celebrity and talent sparked a public fundraising campaign to memorialize him in a meaningful way after his death in 1957, while also fueling a public debate on the purpose of public art.
In 1961, the Sibelius Society arranged a competition among 50 of Finland’s finest sculptors. The local jury recognized five finalists with statuary proposals and gave consideration to Hiltunen’s abstract design of 600 stainless steel tubes clustered in free-form formations.
The second tier of judging was bolstered by three additional experts of international reputation, who ultimately favored Hiltunen’s more refined proposal, and awarded her the commission,
immediately angering half of Finland’s population who favored a more figurative solution (later added by Hiltunen as a compromise),
yet pleasing the other half of the nation looking for a modernist approach.
But irony abounds when Hiltunen’s monument honors an accomplished violinist, but resembles a mighty display of scrolled organ pipes, or perhaps a birch forest or the Northern Lights to an imaginative viewer.
Nearby, Leah and I huddled for warmth inside a fanciful shoebox called Cafe Regatta, located on the edge of the park,
to contemplate the Sibelius monument, and enjoy a hot cocoa and donut…
while around the bend, on the water’s edge,
two hearty locals dared to dip into icy waters–
reminding me that taking the plunge is risky, but the results can take your breath away.
With our Norway cruise behind us, Leah and I had designs on extending our Northern European adventure. Unfortunately, our plan to visit St. Petersburg hit a fatal snag after we neglected to apply for Russian visas in a timely fashion.
Originally, our flight from Bergen to St. Peterburg required a transfer through Helsinki, so Helsinki became our default destination for the next four days. Although my dream of touring the Winter Palace and Hermitage was temporarily dashed, Helsinki seemed like a worthy safety net and exciting city to explore.
But something about Helsinki was off. Ordinarily, Helsinki during winter months would be blanketed in snow with the harbor frozen over…
but during our visit, the landscape was fully thawed.
In fact, residents hadn’t seen a trace of snow since winter’s arrival, although they were experiencing one of the wettest and gloomiest seasons on record.
And that’s exactly how it felt to us as we wandered through Helsinki’s city streets, taking in the cultural setting and the vibe.
On our first day of touring, the rain and wind was relentless, but we were undeterred. In the end, we punished our umbrellas, and rendered them useless. But they saved us from a soaking and protected my camera as we found our way to Helsinki’s 50-year old landmark, the Church of the Rock–
embedded in bedrock,
and capped by an oval dome of skylights and copper.
In 1961, Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen–Finnish brothers and architects–conceptualized a church excavated from solid rock amidst Helsinki’s Töölö district, and were awarded the commission by a jury of their peers.
Ultimately, budget constraints and construction delays prevented the project from getting underway until February 1968, but the brothers saw their vision consecrated in September 1969.
The church became an instant mecca for concerts,
after sound engineers determined that exposing the rough-hewn rock walls could deliver an acoustic nirvana.
More than half a million visitors a year flock to Church of the Rock for worship, wedding celebrations, and meditation.
But I came to dry off and stare at the ceiling.
When Leah and I embarked on our Norwegian adventure aboard the Viking Star,
we were unaware that COVID-19 was invading the decks of Diamond Princess while she cruised from Hong Kong to Japan–inevitably turning her into a floating Petri dish of suffering for its 3711 passengers and crew.
There was no mention of Diamond Princess peril during our maritime emergency drill–but an advisory letter was delivered to our stateroom that evening.
When the general alarm sounded, all 450 crew members reported to their assigned muster stations,
while 920 passengers assembled inside the Star Theater to learn how to prepare for an emergency evacuation.
After instruction, the crew went about their business, and passengers scattered throughout the ship to enjoy themselves, unconcerned with what was brewing in Asia. Afterall, this was our home to share for the next two weeks.
The Viking Star never felt too crowded or too busy. The spacious Living Room had plenty of comfortable seating for small talk and table games.
As a whole, people took their time getting from point A to point B. Many strolled with canes–others with walkers. It made Leah and I feel so much younger than the seventy-somethings attracted to Viking’s vision of casual luxury.
During the course of our cruise, we always gravitated to the 3-deck Atrium at mid-ship,
where people gathered for conversation and daily music performances. While more than 20 different nationalities were represented onboard, nearly half the ship was American, with large blocks of Brits, Aussies, and Brazilians filling out the count.
When it came to dining, we had a variety of options that came with a couple of rules. The dinner dress code required shoes for all and collared shirts for men. Additionally, use of sanitizer stations or hand sinks at all dining room entrances and exits was expected before seating.
We enjoyed sampling the fish and meats at The Restaurant, located aft on deck 2. It is the Viking Star’s largest menu-driven dining room,
delivering breakfast, lunch and dinner.
But for intimate dining, we found Manfredi’s–directly below on deck 1–to be as good a classic Italian eatery as any on sea or land, and without a surcharge to boot. Naturally, early dinner reservations were coveted and prioritized by cabin category, but late-evening seatings became an acceptable compromise for us.
Next door was Chef’s Table, a small dining room that focused on delivering five fixed courses prepared from locally-sourced ingredients, and paired with selected wines. The course selection changed every few days to showcase a different world cuisine, and was included without surcharge, but by reservation-only.
The World Cafe, located aft on deck 7 was Viking Star’s buffet option, and most popular breakfast venue for a wide range of appetites.
However, Leah and I have always been wary of buffet lines, which are commonly compromised by passengers who inevitably return for second and third helpings. They unwittingly grab the serving tongs without considering that they may have licked their fingers earlier. Eww!
Bringing our personal hand sanizer to the table always provided a thin veil of protection.
An inspection of The Spa on deck 1 seemed appropriate after so many good meals. We discovered the weight gym,
and the machine room.
and an amazing thermal suite, with a salt water hydrotherapy pool, sauna and snow room.
Of course, climate-controlled swimming was available–if we were so inclined–at the Main Pool on deck 7, under a retractable roof.
For lounging and relaxation, we could contemplate the panoramic views of the 2-tiered Explorers’ Lounge, forward on decks 7 and 8;
or the Torshavn Lounge,
a nightclub venue for dancing and light entertainment.
However, to get away from it all, Leah and I felt very comfortable social distancing inside 5006–
our Scandinavian-styled veranda stateroom with a king-size bed, a smart TV, and a well-stocked bar refrigerator.
Our cabin was outfitted with a generous-sized bathroom…
that featured an amazing shower.
Thanks to Eric, our room attendant and all the other housekeepers, the ship always sparkled–
especially after two ship inspections during our voyage. It was reassuring to see crew members scrubbing and polishing so thoroughly.
On February 14th, our final evening, Leah and I enjoyed dinner at Chef’s Table to celebrate Valentine’s Day, and a return to live TV reception, now that we were floating south of the Arctic Circle.
While savoring our tenderloin stir-fry, we reminisced about our favorite ports:
and later toasted our crew, who kept us safe and made our cruise so enjoyable.
On the other hand, we learned from current reports that passengers and crew aboard the Diamond Princess had been less fortunate. They were riding out a quarantine south of Tokyo while confined to their cabins. We learned that 218 passengers and crew had shown positive results among a sample of 700 who were tested.
On February 14th, there were 15 cases of COVID-19 in America and over 64,000 cases worldwide with nearly 1400 deaths. Speaking to National Border Patrol Council members, Donald Trump theorized that April’s warmer weather would stifle the spread of the virus.
Today, the world is on fire. At this moment, over 1.1 million people around the world have tested positive for coronavirus, killing over 57,000. The US has reported more than 277,000 cases with over 7,500 deaths, and there is no end in sight. The warm-weather theory has been debunked.
As I write, Holland America’s Zaandam has finally docked at Ft. Lauderdale, carrying 4 dead and another 26 passengers and 50 crew members infected with COVID-19.
Sadly, for the near future, there can only be one way to appreciate a cruise liner.
After docking in Bergen, the Viking Star’s final destination of our 13-day cruise along Norway’s western coastline,
Leah and I were ready to explore our surroundings. First we wandered through the 13th century ruins of Bergenhus Fortress,
before entering Håkon’s Hall…
to regard the 1950’s restoration of the royal banquet hall that dates to King Magnus’s wedding celebration in 1261,
and where all furnishings have subsequently been replaced to commemorate the 700th anniversary of its first use.
Our walking tour continued along the Bryggen Wharf, a UNESCO World Heritage site preserving original Middle Aged buildings from the Hanseatic League trading era,
and the Old Wharf–
featuring a sea serpent once rumored to venture out from Bergen caves during summer nights to feed on sea traders.
We strolled across the cobblestones of Øvregaten, Bergen’s one-time market for craftsmen and traders,
but now home to residences,
galleries and specialty shops.
Finally we reached Bergen’s most popular attraction–its Fløibanen,
a funicular railway taking riders to the top of Mount Fløyen.
We passed through three stations in eight minutes,
until we finally reached the top.
Once we got our bearings,
we were rewarded with a wintry chill and a view that took our breath away…
unless that was the mountain troll’s doing?
P.S. This post (my 351st) represents 3 years of blogging! Looking forward to another productive year.
On our way to Bergen, Norway, the Viking Star docked at Narvik–a mountainside town reknown for its urban off-piste skiing,
and notable for its ice-free harbor,
which was of strategic importance during World War II…
for transporting iron ore that’s been mined from the world’s largest underground reserve in Kiruna, Sweden since 1898.
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.
Instead, we braved the treacherous icy streets…
and climbed the hills for views of distant shores,
clusters of urban housing,
and commemorative sculpture, such as the National Monument of Freedom.
Expanding our horizons, we boarded a bus bound for Polar Park,
the world’s northernmost animal sanctuary,
and home to Norway’s large predators such as bears,
Although the animal habitats are vast,
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,
and available for kisses and snuggles, albeit for an extra fee.
All things considered, I’d rather take my chances petting the barking dog that guards the reindeer down the road.
The peaks were fearless
The winds were steady
The world was rushing by.
The clouds churned
About the mountain islands
Anchored to an endless depth.
But when darkness settles
The sky salutes the sea
Until the two enlist the stars.
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.
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…
and learning the intricacies of mushing, as explained by Vicki from UK.
Most importantly, after witnessing the huskies’ enthusiasm, we focused on how to brake and when to brake!
After a visual review of the basic rules…
we were appointed to our teams.
For the next 90 minutes, we rode through birch forests as the snow gently fell.
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…
with two passengers.
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?”
And when Duke, one our wheel dogs sensed that his partner Nola wasn’t carrying her weight, he let her know about it.
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!
The Holmen dogs are happiest when they are working, and even more so when they are racing.
When our run was over, it was time to time to relax…
and to cuddle.
A fire, a biscuit, and some blueberry tea was the perfect nosh after our wintry mush.
But doggone it, there would be no Northern Lights tonight!
Our quest to chase Aurora Borealis continued aboard the Viking Star, cruising northbound through Finnmark, the heart of Norwegian Lapland,
and on to Alta, our northern-most destination inside the Arctic Circle.
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.
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,
lunging 47 meters (154 ft) toward an elusive phenomenon.
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.
And the interior lighting resembles the long shafts of light associated with the Aurora.
Religious overtones are emphasized through the metal mosaics representing Twelve Disciples…
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,
the illusion is subject to personal interpretation.
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.
Leah and I attended an organ recital by Irina Girunyan,
While following a complex score for hands and feet,
Irina skipped and fluttered her way through an evocative program of classical and contemporary music.
The ethereal sound from 1800 pipes and 26 stops was heavenly,
and left me yearning for another reminder.
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…
to participate in sledding for the day–either by dog…
or by engine.
After gearing up for Arctic climate…
we were ready for our safety and operations briefing.
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.
The snowscape was endless.
The cliff face was frozen.
The Nordic sky was vast.
And the scenery was breathtaking.
The guests had good reason to be giddy.
When the sun set behind the mountain,
we retired to the Sami tent for warmth, reindeer stew and tea.
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.
And that’s when I hit the brakes.
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,
and Tromsø seemed to be a worthy contender for Northern Lights activity.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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?
“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]…
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]…
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.
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.
Leah and I eagerly anticipated our arrival to Tromsø. For one, we were bored of cruising, having spent two consecutive days at sea after missing the port of Bodø because of high winds and rough seas (see Order of the Blue Nose).
But Tromsø, for us, provided the needed adrenelin rush to jumpstart our Norway adventure. Now that we finally arrived at the Gateway to the Arctic, we could participate in many of the off-the-ship excursions within our reach, like snowmobiling through white-carpeted mountain passes, and searching for the Northern Lights.
The Viking Star gently glided past Polaria’s domino-stacked building as Captain Nilsen steered us through the harbor on our way to docking.
While waiting for the local authorities to clear our vessel, I had an opportunity to photograph our new surroundings from our stateroom veranda, looking from stem…
But one building that piqued my interest sat off the port side of the ship, nestled in the snowy foothills of Tromsø Sound–the Arctic Cathedral. Absolutely stunning!
Strikingly modern, the church was designed by architect Jan Inge Hovig and built in 1965. It’s roof structure was formed by concrete sheathed in aluminum panels,
as opposed to Tromsø’s other landmark church, the Tromsø Cathedral. Located in the center of town on the spot of Tromsø’s first church built in 1252, this cathedral was finished in 1861, and remains Norway’s only cathedral made of wood.
Leah and I crossed the Tromsø Bridge by bus for a closer look.
Likened to the Sydney Opera House, the exterior of the Arctic Cathedral is simple in shape and style,
while the interior design is modestly appointed to accentuate: the large prism chandeliers;
the sparse altar rail and pulpit; and the grand glass mosaic commissioned by artist Victor Sparre–depicting three rays of light emanating from God’s hand: one through the form of Jesus, one through woman and one through man.
The western wall of the sanctuary is complemented by Grönlunds Orgelbyggeri’s organ, built in 2005.
The Star of David radiating through the eastern wimdow symbolizes a spirit of inclusiveness and community acceptance. (Just kidding)
The organ was built in the French Romantic tradition, and was adapted to the cathedral’s architecture, providing illusions of sails and ice floes. The organ comprises 2940 pipes, measuring from 32 feet (9.6 m) to just 5 mm. Much of the woodwork is solid pine with bellows made of reindeer hide.
It’s a pity I never heard it played, as I’m certain the cathedral’s vaulted vortex provides impressive acoustics.
Back at the Viking Star, after a brief bout of daylight (6hrs, 15min.)…
I returned to my veranda to record the Arctic Cathedral bathed in moonlight…
and I imagined I heard Grieg’s Song of Norway playing from its soaring arches.
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),
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.
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?
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.
What follows is a small sample of inductee’s portraits–some more enthusiastic than others…
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.
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.
Now that’s what I call “Crossing the Line!”