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.

Tromsø–Arctic Cathedral

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.

Polaria (2)

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…

Tromso Sound

to stern.

bridge ramp and beyond (2)

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!

against the mountain

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,

side walls

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.

wood church city center (2)

Leah and I crossed the Tromsø Bridge by bus for a closer look.

Tromso Bridge

Likened to the Sydney Opera House, the exterior of the Arctic Cathedral is simple in shape and style,

entrance and bicycle

while the interior design is modestly appointed to accentuate: the large prism chandeliers;

altar triangles

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.

Altar and window

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)

organ

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.)…

Viking Star and Artic Cathedral (2)

I returned to my veranda to record the Arctic Cathedral bathed in moonlight…

moonrise over Tromso (2)

and I imagined I heard Grieg’s Song of Norway playing from its soaring arches.

at night