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.  

 

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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.