Hammerfest: The Northernmost City

 We took a long day trip to visit Hammerfest, Norway. This city was originally our destination of choice over Alta, but for various reasons we’d decided not to permanently stay there. An interesting fact is that Hammerfest lays claim to the title of “The Northernmost City in the World,”although Honningsvag has disputed this title. There is also technically the town of Barrow, Alaska that is further north than both of these places. It was roughly a 2.5 hr drive for us from Alta, but there were plenty of exquisite snow-capped mountains for us to enjoy. 

  Once we finally arrived, we immediately geared up for a hike up Mount Salen. I was happy that Tom finally got to make use of his utilitarian snow boots (he does have a propensity to favor those boat shoes of his 🙂 ). In good weather, it’s supposed to be an easy 45-minute trail hike up a steady incline that spirals towards the summit. However, as it is March, the snow was still quite deep, so we followed footprints up the trail, carefully trying to place our boots in the existing footholes, and making our own where there were none. 

 Eventually the snow drift became steep enough that we found ourselves gripping the chain-link fence. If it had been a rigid, full-height fence we would have been comfortable continuing our hike. However, rigid posts with only two rows of chains did not give us a high level of confidence. When I found myself almost sliding through the bottom of the fence, after the snow underneath my boot had given way, we decided it was time to turn back. The sun was starting to drop from the sky, and neither of us liked the prospect of descending in the dark. Fortunately, we managed to get to a rocky outcrop just shy of the summit for a gorgeous view of the city and the archipelago. 

 

After returning to the car, we grabbed dinner. I had some Norwegian Fiskesuppe which I found really creamy and flavorful.

 We then stopped by for a quick visit to the Northernmost station of the Struve Geodetic Arc. It is a chain of triangulations that stretches through 10 countries all the way to the Black Sea in Ukraine. Completed between 1816 and 1855 by the German-born Russian scientist Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve, it was the first accurate measurement of a meridian. Tom wasn’t as excited about it as I was, but then again, I just spent the last year having to study the topic of Surveying for my P.E. licensing exams.

Then it was time to head home to Alta. The skies were generous and once again performed its dance of light for us.  

 

Alta: At First Sight

 The trade-off we made to stay in Alta, which is a bit off the beaten path, was having fewer day activities unless one wants to shell out $$$ to go dog-sledding or snowmobiling. I personally would have liked to visit the Sorrisniva Hotel, a hotel that is carved entirely out of 250 tons of ice every year, but at an entrance fee of $24, the price was too steep for either Tom or I to justify.

We intended to have our time in Alta be a bit lazy hazy, so we slept in and savored some extra sleep. As a result, we didn’t roll into town until the early afternoon. We popped-in to check out the inside of the Northern Lights Cathedral before grabbing some coffee and free wi-fi at a nearby pub.

The current design of the church is the result of a competition in 2001 that was won by a collaboration between schmidt hammer lassen architects and Link Arkitektur. The city council wanted an icon that would highlight Alta’s role as a gateway to the Northern Lights. In the words of founding partner John. F. Lassen, “The Cathedral of the Northern Lights is in its design a result of the surrounding nature and local culture. The building is a landmark, which through its architecture symbolizes the extraordinary natural phenomenon of the Arctic northern lights,…The cathedral reflects, both literally and metaphorically, the northern lights: ethereal, transient, poetic and beautiful. It appears as a solitary sculpture in interaction with the spectacular nature.”

 The sun sets earlier in the North than it did in Oslo, so we were greeted by darkness when we exited the pub. Outside, waiting for us was a varied display of ice sculptures. Some depicted human forms while others were animal sculptures. My favorite, however, was a realistic human heart that had a beating red light inside it. The heart was enclosed by icy brick walls, and I interpreted it as a metaphor for the warmth and life that lies in each of us despite whatever cold, outer, exterior persona we may present to the world. Tom thought I was overthinking it, but I personally like trying to analyze the message an artist is trying to convey.

 We then hopped into the car for Day 2 of our hunt. This time we drove about 2-hours west. The forecast was looking good for clear skies, and based on the lessons from yesterday, we knew we had to look for the stars. After all, if you can see the stars clearly, then you know that clouds are not obstructing the view. Eventually, I started seeing a light green shadow to our back right. At this point, I wasn’t sure whether I was hallucinating it due to my deep desire to see the Northern Lights, but Tom pulled over to have a look and verify my suspicion. It turned out I was right!

 Not too long after, bands of green danced across the sky. Tom and I were so excited about our discovery that we couldn’t help but laugh, and hug, and smile. It was a glorious gift that the universe had presented us, the gift of light. After you truly see the lights with the naked eye for the first time, you know exactly what to look for. It is true what they say, that the lights dance. You can see the shape and the density of the bands and swirls change as the particles shift with the wind. I was so happy to be able to share the experience with someone that is so special to me. 

P.S. I didn’t exactly have the right photography equipment for this shot, so we faked the lighting we’d need by using the car’s headlights.  

Alta: City of Northern Lights

Leaving Oslo behind, we caught a plane this morning to fly north into the Artic Circle. The earth is split into five major circles of latitude, and the Artic Circle is the most north of these. It received its name from the Greek word “ἀρκτικός” which translates to “near the bear; northern.” The term may also refer to either the constellation “Ursa Major” or “Ursa Minor,” which contains Polaris, the North Star.  

Credit: CIA World Factbook

 This polar region has mystified and beckoned to explorers for centuries; from the unique evolution of the local wildlife, to the giants of ice, and, the most mythical of all, the Northern Lights. It is for this reason that Tom and I have bundled up to brave the cold. It’s even expected to get as cold as ZERO degrees farenheit during our stay!

Alta is an idyllic city nestled further inland and east than other well-known Norwegian cities such as Tromso. While we could have chosen Tromso as our home-base for our hunt, we felt that it would have been too touristic in feel. Furthermore, based on our research, Alta’s geographic location makes it less prone to cloudy weather, as clear skies are a must. 

This is the reason why the first Northern Lights Observatory was built here in 1899 by Kristian Birkeland. It’s about a 3-hour hike up Mount Haldde and therefore inaccessible to visitors during the winter. We would have loved to see the lights at night from up there! 

 Since today was predominantly a travel day, we stopped by the city center to grab lunch before heading to the nearby Gargia to check in to our hotel. We knew we’d be renting a car for our hunt, so we opted to stay outside of town to save on lodging costs. Fortunately for me, Tom can drive a stick shift, a skill I have yet to learn! I had a Reindeer Wrap, and it was really yummy! 😄

After relaxing for a bit in our room, we ventured out for Day 1 of our hunt. We drove South-East for about 2-hours and steadily climbed up a mountain pass away from the city lights. Norwegian highways here have designated parking spots along the main thoroughfares making it easy and safe to stop between driving intervals to check the sky. The only time it was remotely scary was when one of the lots had deep snow, I was concerned that the car would get stuck and there would be no human-beings around to rescue us from our dire fate. 

 The skies ended up cloudier than predicted by the forecast, and since it was our first time out, we weren’t even entirely sure what we were looking for. There were some glimmers in the sky that I managed to capture with my Sony RXIII, but a lot of the lights were overshadowed by clouds. We were optimistic about our minor success and knew that we had 3 more nights of hunting ahead of us, so we headed home. 

Oslo: Munch and Vigeland

Edward Munch and Gustav Vigeland are two of the most notable artists with Norwegian descent, but for very different reasons. Each utilized a different medium but jointly they sought to evoke an interpretation of the human experience. One quite more morbid and grotesque than the other.

To explore the works of Munch, we visited the Munch Museum. He is best known for “The Scream,” which, to be honest, is exactly what I had hoped to see in the museum’s exhibits. Unfortunately, despite owning 2 of the 4 known versions of this drawing, neither were on display; Tom and I did not feel like paying an additional entrance fee at the National Gallery for the experience of seeing the original 1893 pastel, so we were pretty disappointed.

  In his pastel, Munch’s simplified forms and broad bands of garish color, focus the viewer’s eye on the agonized figure at the center. It’s form is that of a garbed skull who is commonly interpreted as being in the throes of an emotional crisis. The commonly accepted interpretation is that his drawing represents the anxiety and angst of the modern man. Munch had sucessfully looked within himself to depict his personal state of turmoil at that time. He expressed this with his own words years later, “You know my picture, ‘The Scream?’ I was stretched to the limit—nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again.”

 Tom’s favorite was “The Sun,” which we didn’t see in person, butwas one of 11 murals painted by Munch on the walls of the University of Oslo’s Assembly Hall to celebrate its centennial  in 1911. Compared to the other works Munch is known for, this seemed bright and welcoming, a contradiction to his darker, more violent expressions.

 My favorite was “The Kiss,” which shows a couple kissing, however their faces are amorphously fused together representing their unity. Other interpretations, including one from the MOMA have more pessimistic analyzed it as showin, ” a loss of individuality, a loss of one’s own existence and identity.”

P.S. The Maplethorp and Munch cross-exhibit that was on display was a little too graphic for both of us. Robert Maplethorpe was an American photographer who bluntly addressed controversial topics through his work. All-in-all the pictures on display were far more erotic and vulgar than what we would consider “child-friendly.” 

Gustav Vigeland happens to be the designer behind the Nobel Peace Prize medal. His largest installation of sculptures in Oslo is in Frogner Park, so we went for a winter walk amidst turbulent flurries that wet our faces. Today was probably the coldest it’s been for us in Oslo since we’ve been here! 

 In total there are 212 bronze and granite sculptures. The most iconic of this is a monolith with shows 121 figures struggling to reach the top. Tom and I took some time to walk around this massive pillar, before we realized that the figures carved into it seemed to be dead or in pain. This could be attributed to the fact that experts consider his works to be expressions of Nazi or Fascist aesthetics. After all, he had been a Nazi sympathizer even after Nazi Germany unprovokedly invaded Norway in 1940.

And, in between our artist adventures, we stopped by to take a quick pictures with Oslo’s most photographed citizens, the tiger outside Central Station. FYI Tom does not seem to like being in pictures; he was not the least bit interested in taking a selfie with me and my new friend. 

  

Oslo: The Norwegian Spirit of Adventure

Norway not only has a rich maritime heritage, but its citizens have also consistently demonstrateda thirst and tenacity for adventure. We visited museums dedicated to two of such explorations, and the Kon-Tiki Museum and the Fram Museum.

 An explorer named Thor Heyerdal developed a theory that Polynesia was settled by inhabitants from South America. According to an Incan legend, there was a sun-god named Con-Tici Viracocha who was the leader of a mythical fair-skin tribe from Peru. His people were nearly massacred during battle on an island in Lake Titicaca when Chief Cari from the Coquimbo Valley came to call. Con-Tici managed to escape with some close companions and disappeared westward out to sea.

In an effort to prove this myth, and demonstrate the plausibility that Polynesians and Peruvians exhibited common traits (such that they shared fair skin coloring generations ago), Thor and five other companions set out on an expedition. The raft was made out of balsa logs and other native materials in the traditional indigenous style documented by the Spanish Conquistadors. After being towed out to sea on April 28, 1947 and being left to the mercy of the wind and currents, they traveled a distance of 4,300 miles in 101 days across the Pacific Ocean before smashing into a reef in Raroia in the Tuamoto Islands on August 7, 1947. Against all odds, and defying expert options that each crew member was facing ultimate death, successful landfall was achieved.  

It’s hard for me to imagine how brave and courageous these men had to be. Not only did anthropologists dismiss Thor’s theories as impossible, but each member had to withstand the pressure and burden of knowing that everyone thought they would perish. 

Another historical vessel we had the wonderful opportunity to board and explore was the Fram Polar Ship. The captain, Fridtjof Nansen’s ambition was to explore the Artic further north than anyone else. From the beginning, he planned the for wooden ship to freeze in a polar ice sheet and float with it over the Noth Pole.

 In order to accomplish this, several creative and technologically advance design changes were made to what would have otherwise been a traditional wooden ship. The hull was built unusually wide and atypically shallow. This allowed do the force of the pressing ice to push the ship up to “float” on top of it rather than being crushed by it. 

Credit: Tom

Additionally, the ship had almost no keel to handle shallow waters, while the rudder and propeller were designed to be retracted. The outer layer of greenheart wood provided for a strong hull, and careful insulation decisions were made so that the crew could live on board for a maximum time of five years. The inclusion of a windmill allowed the ship to generate its own electricity. 

The Fram Polar ship was in service from 1893 to 1912, and is said to have sailed further north and further south than any other wooden ship. 

Oslo: Ashes of Vikings

The one thing Tom and I do every morning is to take some time to savor a good cup of coffee. We are both aficionados of this savory drink, and it’s a great way to to warm us up from the inside out before we venture off to galavant about a city blanketed in snow. 

Since our legs and feet were so tired from walking about 10 miles yesterday, we decided today would be a museum day. Specifically, we would pass our time by visiting the museums on the Bygdøy Peninsula, an area that still maintains its rural vibe, and houses the Oscharshall Palace, the summer home of the Norwegian Royal Family.

 Our first stop was the Norwegian Folk Museum, an open-air museum that has many traditional buildings on site that allow you to explore the daily lifestyles of Norwegians from the 16th century and onwards. They also had a few exhibit halls that displayed typical wardrobes and furniture from these eras. The primary reason I wanted to visit however, was to see the Gol Stave Church.

 This one is from 1212, meaning that its over 800 years old! Stave churches were medieval Christian churches that developed in Northern Europe. The name for this type of structure is derived from the Old Norse term “stafr,” meaning the type of timber framing where load-bearing ore-pine posts support lintels. It’s a descendent of palisades construction from the Viking Age. Logs were split into two halves, driven into the earth, and a roof erected over it. 

 The Gol Church falls under a smaller sub-category called the Borgund Group. The stability of the structure is further enhanced by cross-bracing that joins the upper and lower beams and posts. This essentially creates a truss which allows for the weight of the building to be transferred into the ground without the need for intermediate posts, creating a wider, more open, interior space. 

Next, we stopped by the Viking Ship Museum, because what visit to Norway would be complete without getting the chance to learn about Viking history? 

 

  

Oslo: City of Tigers II

In 1870, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson wrote a poem titled , “Sidste Sang”. In it, he illustrates a dramatic fight between a horse and a tiger. The tiger, metaphorically represented the dangerous city, while the horse symbolized the security of the countryside. This is where he first referred to Oslo as Tigerstaden, which represented his perception of the city as a cold and dangerous place. 

 This has not been the case for Tom and I. We have found this snowy, northern city to be warm and friendly. Our barista from earlier this morning graciously gave us a list of restaurants to eat at, and even attempted to teach me the word for “thanks” in Norwegian, “Taak”. (I hope I haven’t been butchering the word too much, but I always like to learn how to say “please” and “thank you” when I travel. I’ve found it is a simple way to show your enthusiasm for the local history and, even though they may laugh, the locals often appreciate your effort.) 

 Making use of one of the barista’s recommendations, we ventured towards Aker Brygge, a unique, waterfront development that was completed in 2014. It was formerly the site of a shipyard and industrial buildings. Vingen, a restaurant attached to the Astrup Fearnley Museet was difficult to find, but incredibly tasty! Tom had the Eggs Benedict, while I had their version of a Katz Pastrami Sandwich.

 After a brief break, we ventured back into the cold to explore the history of the Akershus Fortress. Construction of the fortress is believed to have started around 1290 when King Hakon V realized that the city needed a stronger defense center than that which currently existed. Since it lied adjacent to the sea, it allowed Norway to prosper commercially while providing the nation with a strong military presence. 

 The Akershus Fortress has never been successfully besieged by a foreign enemy. However, in 1940, it surrendered to Nazi Germany without combat. The Norwegian government evacuated the capital when it was unprovokedly assaulted.

  
Our feet getting wary, we decided to make our last stop for the day before heading back to the hostel to rest our laurels. The Oslo Opera House is uniquely designed such that the roof of the structure angles to the ground level. This creates an elevated plaza that allows pedestrian interaction with the building. Tom and I climbed all the way up and were greeted with a panoramic view of the waterfront.

As a structural engineer,the fact that this roof is merely supported by thin angled columns is intriguing. How, exactly did they analyze the load paths/patterns through the asymmetrical characteristics of the column geometry?  The minimalistic framing and specialty glass allows for optimal views of the surrounding water. 

 From the roof, and at ground level, we observed the sculpture, “She Lies.” The stainless steel and glass fabrication resembles ice and depicts a symbol of power for the region. As it lays on a transient concrete platform, it is free to turn with the bidding of the tide and the wind. I think the sculpture is a metaphor. For as quick as the tides change and the wind changes direction, so too can the power shift.  

P.S. Tom is currently passed out next to me. If anything, my boyfriend could certainly hibernate through a long winter if instinct required it of him. 😛

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