Tuesday, November 21, 2017
The last official day of our tour began with a morning visit to the Alta Museum where ancient rock carvings made by Sami people as much as 7,000 years ago can be seen. It was raining, chilly, and sometimes windy as we hiked on wooden walkways to the site of the carvings.
The carvings were made on gray, flat, smooth-surfaced sandstone scoured by past glaciers. The stone surfaces reminded me of blackboards, and blank blackboards invite doodling. Perhaps ancient Sami carvers were similarly tempted to doodle.
Red coloring has been added by the museum to make carvings easily visible to visitors. The original carvings were not colored. You can see an uncolored carving in the next picture. Look closely just above the symbol commanding no shoes off the walkway and to the right of the crack in the rock. Can you see the uncolored shape of an animal? Click on the image to enlarge it.
Our guide thought the next carving showed elk and reindeer enclosed by a fence.
Archeologists have been carefully studying and dating the carvings for years. Wall displays within the museum show some results of their work. The first panel below shows the way animals, people, and boats were depicted over thousands of years. Click on the image to enlarge it.
The next panel shows how elk (moose) and reindeer were depicted. Click on the image to enlarge it.
There were many carvings of boats with elk figureheads and the museum displayed how a real boat would have looked.
I thought the wooden walkways around the rock carvings were beautiful. Click on the next two panoramic images to enlarge them.
Imagine how glorious the next two images would have been a few weeks earlier on a sunny day when the birch trees were clothed in yellow fall leaves.
Our trip was now winding down. After the Alta Museum we drove to the sleepy Alta Airport, the least busy airport I've ever seen. It seemed they had to wake up some reluctant security personnel to screen our bags. All the snack bars were closed, and there were no planes parked at gates. Nevertheless, our plane eventually arrived on time. We boarded the two-engine propeller plane and began our journey home with a short, surprisingly smooth 30-minute flight south to Tromso.
The next step was a 2-hour flight from Tromso to Oslo. After an invigorating long walk from the Oslo Airport to our hotel we had our last dinner with the tour group and gladly went to bed.
I like window seats on long flights because sometimes spectacular views appear instead of uniform clouds. On our flights home to Virginia three beautiful sights occurred. First, was a glory seen against background clouds on the way to Iceland.
Second, over Iceland, the clouds parted long enough to unveil five glaciers in Vatnajokull, Iceland's largest ice cap.
Finally, while flying over southern Greenland I could see massive glaciers, glaciers ending in water where icebergs had broken off, and sea ice.
Weather on this Norway trip was a complete reversal from weather on last year's trip to Spain and Portugal. Last year every day was warm and sunny except for one single evening rain shower. In Norway every day was cold and rainy except for one single midday stretch of sunshine in Finnmark.
We had a wonderful trip to Norway, but I was very happy to be home in Virginia again. The contrast in weather conditions was immediately apparent. Norway was drizzly, dark and overcast with temperatures in the 40's. Norwegian trees had lost most of their leaves. Near home in Williamsburg the trees were full of green leaves, the sun was shining, and the temperature was in the 80's! It was time to shed clothing and feel warm sun on bare skin. Although Virginia is warmer, Norway has auroras! I was thrilled to see two dramatic auroral displays whose fantastic beauty made our entire trip worthwhile.
Saturday, November 18, 2017
We left Karasjok on yet another cloudy morning and drove southwestward across northern Norway through the region called Finnmark. For the first time conditions matched what I thought we would find above the arctic circle. It was a cold morning with temperature at about 21 degrees F. Soon the surrounding landscape was completely snow covered. We traveled through very sparsely populated country containing only thin forests of dwarf birch trees. Click on the following panoramic image to enlarge it.
Hints of blue sky began to appear in the cloud deck. We rolled along on a well maintained two lane road when, suddenly, the bus driver jammed on the brakes causing our guide to stumble up the center aisle of the bus. Reindeer were crossing the road just ahead of us and running through the woods beside us! We would see many more reindeer before the day was over.
Soon clouds were gone and we had a rare sunny day! Eventually, we arrived in the city of Kautokeino where a visit to Juhl's Silver Gallery was scheduled. I didn't know what to expect as we got off the bus and carefully walked down a hilly, slippery driveway to the gallery. The top of the driveway is on the left by the signs in the next picture.
At the bottom of the driveway we came upon the following interesting building. Click on the panoramic image to enlarge it.
Once inside we passed through an area where workers/artists were making jewelry. Examples of their beautiful work were displayed in the next room.
At this point I thought we were visiting just another gift shop/museum, although a very nice one. Then I noticed the following little side room with a cozy fire burning.
Perhaps you notice some stairs going down to left in the previous picture. I went over to explore and saw this inviting scene.
Huh? What's this? Of course, I had to go down! At the bottom of the stairs I turned left and saw a fantastic room.
Then I turned to the right and saw more surprises.
What in the world is going on here in the middle of arctic Norway? It turns out the founders and creators of the gallery had traveled to Afghanistan years ago and fell in love with the art and culture there.
The magical corridor pictured above led to another amazing room containing more eye popping sights. Click on the first panorama to enlarge it.
Walking around the room eventually brought me to this pretty view through decorated windows.
The sunlit view of snowy Kautokeino below the gallery was nice.
Juhl's Silver Gallery was incredibly original, interesting and beautiful. It was a completely unexpected pleasant surprise, one of the best of the trip!
After the silver gallery we stopped at a local hotel for a lunch of "game stew" very similar to the delicious "elk stew" we had in Karasjok. Then we boarded the bus and headed to our next adventure at a Sami reindeer herding camp. We were met at a remote roadside location in "the middle of nowhere" by a cheerful teenage Sami girl who took us walking about one kilometer on a slippery, snow covered dirt road to the camp which you can see in the next picture. Click on the panorama to enlarge it.
The teenage girl's older cousin operates the camp. The pair greeted us in their brightly colored Sami clothing in front of the lavvu we would soon enter in the background. Notice how long the shadows are in all the pictures. Here, at midday, above the arctic circle, the Sun was only 9 degrees above the horizon!
The camp operator took some of our group into the reindeer corral to give them each an individual reindeer to lead by rope. Then he went to capture a particular blue eyed reindeer at the back of the pen. He lassoed the beast, but, somehow, this feisty reindeer got away and took off running through the trees. A moment later the Sami guy was flying after the fleeing reindeer on an ATV, both of them moving at high speed through the dwarf birch trees. This was quite an entertaining dramatic scene! The fleeing reindeer was at least temporarily victorious because his pursuer eventually gave up and returned to our group. He told us not to worry. He would catch the runaway later.
Animal lover C soon had her own personal reindeer under control. At first, it resisted being led, but a few soft words and gentle tugs from C convinced it to go along.
After reindeer playtime was over we were invited into the camp lavvu to sit around a warm central fire where pots of coffee were kept hot. The burning wood was fragrant, but, in spite of the smoke hole above, it was slightly smoky inside. We were offered coffee and cookies as the Sami guy explained the rules of the lavvu. His 10-year old nephew, taking his work very seriously, carefully maintained the fire all the while by adding birch twigs.
Then it was time for the Sami girl to sing a joik, (pronounced like, yoik). As I understand it, a joik is not a song about something, and it isn't sung to anyone in particular like a loved one, or a baby. Instead, it is meant to evoke the spirit or essence of something. In the picture below our singer shyly sung a reindeer joik. You can hear a beautiful example of a Sami joik at this link.
After leaving the reindeer camp we resumed our long drive northwest to Alta. Traffic frequently needed to stop or slow to avoid reindeer crossing the road or running along the roadside. At one point our guide announced, "These reindeer belong to my relative." We wondered how she could know this. She told us her relative owned all the reindeer in this particular area!
We arrived, tired, in Alta near sunset. After checking into our hotel room we returned to the bus for a drive to dinner at a remote restaurant some distance from the city. The halibut dinner was very good. After dinner clear dark sky outside tempted some of us to look for auroras, but no worthwhile aurora was seen. Then it was back to the hotel for our final night above the arctic circle.
Wednesday, November 15, 2017
From Tromso we sailed overnight to Honningsvag. As we approached our furthest northern location there was no sign of sea ice or any snow on land except on the highest mountain tops. While sailing along we passed a wind turbine array. Click on the second panoramic scene below to enlarge it.
The captain announced a whale was passing the ship, but, by the time I scrambled outside, the whale had disappeared. Soon after we saw our first reindeer herd on the shore. We were too far away for closeup pictures. The white dots you see near the shoreline in the next picture are reindeer.
We arrived at Honningsvag, pictured below, at 70.98 degrees north latitude.
We left the ship at Honningsvag for a bus trip to the North Cape (Nordkapp), the northern most accessible spot on the European continent. As the bus drove north over Mageroya Island we were entertained and informed by our cheerful Sami guide. Apparently, all visitors who travel this route end up stopping to take photos of an elderly Sami man with his white reindeer. A small souvenir shop stood nearby and a few small houses were located across the road in this otherwise completely empty landscape. It seemed these local people made a living from passing tourists.
Eventually, we arrived at the North Cape. If you look on Google Maps, you will see that North Cape is actually not the northern most point on Mageroya Island. The narrow strip of land jutting out toward the sea near center in the following panoramic view is really the furthest northern point, but there is no road to that spot.
There is a monument at North Cape and an amusing visitor center where we took shelter from the significant wind chill outside. The latitude here is 71.17 degrees north, roughly 0.1 degree south of Prudhoe Bay on the northern coast of Alaska.
In the visitor center I descended a couple levels to view some quirky underground exhibits and dioramas. One diorama was a miniature recreation of Norwegian royalty visiting North Cape in the late 1800's before any roads were present. Visitors then arrived by boat at the base of an enormous, extremely steep climb up to the Cape. Some miniature diorama figures were pulling themselves up with the help of a rope running parallel to the steep path. Small diorama women dressed in full gowns were resting on rocks near the top. The strangest exhibit, I thought, was an entire room set up as a shrine memorializing the visit of the king of Thailand in 1907.
After warming up in the North Cape Visitor Center we boarded our bus again and drove back to Honningsvag with our smiling guide. There we got back on the ship and continued sailing over the "top" of Norway. The sea was rough here, and we experienced the worst ship motion of the entire trip. By dinner time I had no appetite and ate very little. We spent an uncomfortable night as the ship pitched and rolled.
In the morning we were longing for solid ground. The ship was an hour late docking at Kirkenes, but, finally, we stood on land again. Of course, it was raining as we boarded another bus for a drive to the Storskog border crossing between Norway and Russia. Dim, dreary, drizzly weather added to the depressing border scene below. You can see the gate to Russia in the distance on the right in the next picture.
It's not surprising there would be lots of Russian influence in this part of Norway. Apparently, there is a significant amount of everyday travel between the two countries. Lots of local signs feature messages in the Cyrillic alphabet, and the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church has left it's mark through history. Our guide took us to an old wooden Russian Orthodox chapel sitting among birch trees next to a river. The chapel was supposedly built in 1565.
Our next stop was a Sami museum in Varangerbotn where we had some lunch and viewed indoor and outdoor exhibits including a Sami boat and dwellings.
After lunch we returned to the bus for a long drive to Karasjok. Along the way we crossed into Finland for a time and drove many miles along the Tana River. At last, after dark, we arrived at our very nice hotel in Karasjok. After six nights on the ship it was wonderful to check into a fine, modern, large room that wasn't swaying to and fro! The night was completely cloudy, so no aurora viewing was possible.
The next morning was gray, overcast, and wet, as usual, but the rain had finally stopped. Our Sami guide first took us on a drive around Karasjok, a center of Sami culture and government. We stopped at the old church seen in the next picture.
On the church grounds, beside some birch trees, was a memorial stone with names of Norwegian soldiers who died in the area while clearing land mines left by Nazis in WWII.
The whole region around Karasjok endured great suffering and destruction from Germany in WWII. Our guide showed us the somber location of a mass grave and repeatedly gave examples of German scorched earth tactics applied to the region near the end of the war. She explained how the Nazis thought Russia would invade and attack through this territory, so the Germans burned or blew up buildings, houses, and infrastructure to slow the anticipated Russian advance.
We next stopped at the Sami cultural park near our hotel where our guide explained many things about Sami history, culture, and life. She showed us small and large examples of the traditional Sami shelter called a lavvu. The next two pictures show the outside and inside of a small lavvu.
We also spent time in the larger lavvu pictured below where our guide explained the elaborate rules governing lavvu group living. There was a kitchen area ruled by the senior woman, and assigned places around the central fire. Guests would sit humbly near the entrance door until invited to move elsewhere.
Before lunch our guide demonstrated how to lasso a reindeer and several in our group tried their luck on mounted reindeer antlers. Then we visited the gift shop where several attractive items were displayed, including the Sami jewelry shown below.
After lunch we visited the Sami Parliament. It was easy to understand the relatively recent proud open assertion of indigenous Sami identity, language, and culture after many years of pressure to assimilate the Sami into the larger Norwegian culture. The Parliament building was built to resemble a lavvu. Among the artwork displayed on building walls was a collection of Sami proverbs written in the Sami language. Some were typical words of wisdom like, "One can't go far on borrowed wits." Or, "Knowledge will keep you from getting stuck in the mud." But some others were amusingly odd: "Filth and tobacco are fine in dreams." Or, "Don't kill a louse on a book because then you'll be not be good at reading."
After visiting the Parliament we were given a few hours freedom. We walked partway up a nearby mountainside to search for a suitable dark aurora viewing site in case evening weather cleared, but we found lights from nearby buildings would interfere even there.
Dinner was served in the unique sod-covered, nearly underground Sami restaurant shown in the next picture.
We sat in a semicircle around a central fire as shown in the picture below. Dinner trays rested on log stumps. There were four such semicircles in the restaurant. Our first course was raw salmon. The second course was "elk stew" which we later learned was stew made from the meat of a moose - a smaller European cousin of the North American moose. The meat tasted very much like beef, and the stew was delicious.
After dinner the sky unexpectedly cleared and we saw a spectacular aurora display described in a previous post.
The next morning I woke with aurora hangover, happy, but tired. After breakfast we boarded our bus for a drive across Finnmark to Alta.
People say I'm crazy doing what I'm doing
Well they give me all kinds of warnings to save me from ruin
When I say that I'm o.k. well they look at me kind of strange
Surely you're not happy now you no longer play the game
People say I'm lazy dreaming my life away
Well they give me all kinds of advice designed to enlighten me
When I tell them that I'm doing fine watching shadows on the wall
Don't you miss the big time boy you're no longer on the ball
I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go