I’m using the playful “jumping to hyperspace” image from the first Star Wars movie (above) to help readers appreciate what it looked like from our perspective during the post-midnight blizzard on route E10 between Abisko National Park and Kiruna, Sweden on the evening of 10-11 March. We were trekking intrepidly for predicted gaps in the cloud cover that might offer even just a hint of auroral glow.
If long hair is any indication, I’m the Wookiee on the right, however I was actually in the Hans Solo driver’s seat for the outbound portion of this epic excursion. Duke was in the Wookiee position. Okay at least the height (if not the hair) is consistent.
There are a couple of important differences between the Star Wars depiction and our predicament. Instead of stars stretching into parallel lines for a few seconds, the streaks of snow were oppressively persistent and eventually began to affect my perception of what it meant to stay on the road. To help you grok the visual experience consider how it would be to sustain for an hour or so the peak phase of the hyperspace jump simulated in this 10-second video. NOTE: This visualization may be especially valuable for Atlanta-based friends whose city necessarily shuts down at the first sign of a snow flurry.
To boot, large tractor trailer trucks often blew by us in the opposite direction, sonically shuddering the car and engulfing us in slush or a blast of swirling snow that blinded us for the interminable seconds it took our single wiper to clear the windshield. Imagine what you see in the image at left in terms of space on the road, then add blizzard and darkness.
Lest ye be tempted to think I am exaggerating the intensity of the conditions we encountered, please consider the fate of this fallen truck we saw alongside the road on our aurora-hunting route (E10). [Click to enlarge any of the smaller images.]
We were slowed to a crawl, barely able to see beyond the hood of our car. We all agreed that the orange plastic poles marking the side of the road (see one in the image above) were spaced about half as frequently as they needed to be to support safe driving in this hyper-snowy, hyper-windy space.
The Abisko Oasis Part 1 – Early Evening on March 10th
I began to write this post from the winter wonderland of Abisko National Park in Sweden at a time prior to the post-midnight perils I describe above. As I started to write, it was after 7 pm – well past dark. The wind was howling….gale force at least. We had already driven through a snow storm and challenging road conditions as we crossed over from Norway into Sweden. We were taking a break in the Park’s Visitor Center (Abisko Turistation) to re-check weather and our cameras for moisture on the lenses.
As the map below indicates, our location at Abisko is several hundred kilometers from Tromsø. We had been driving since 11:30 am in the morning (Monday 10 March) – which was a bit later start than planned because we’d been up late the previous night on our quixotic quest on E8 near the Finnish border (see Post 8). Given the weather we’d been facing, it was certainly difficult to imagine clearer skies on down the road toward Kiruna, but clear patches were still showing up on the satellite weather maps, so onward we would go!
NOTE: Also on this day (March 10th) my dear colleague Elise Osenga from the Aspen Global Change Institute published this thoughtful brief about our expedition for Earthzine.
A Note on Lapland while the Map is at Hand: All of the territory depicted above is within the Arctic Circle, meaning higher in latitude than 66.5° North. A notable geographic curiosity, hidden beneath the right side of the time & mileage rectangle, is a tri-point called Treriksröset (Three-Country Cairn) where Norway, Sweden, and Finland meet. Notice also how Norway arcs over the north of Sweden and Finland and shares its easternmost border with Russia. All of this (and more) is part of a vast cultural region called Sápmi inhabited by the indigenous Sámi people. Norway has the largest Sámi population and officially recognizes the Sámi flag (left). [NOTE: The circle is a motif derived from a sun/moon symbol that appears on Sámi shaman drums.] We are traveling into the northernmost province of Sweden called Lapland. Finland also has a northern province by this name. However these provinces are tiny subsets of Sápmi. Sámi people are as diverse and geographically distributed as Native Americans in North America, and they do not use the terms “Lapp” or “Laplander” to describe themselves.
The “Polar Zoo” – A Walkable Wonderland of Arctic Wildlife!
On the way to Abisko, we’d made a 1.5-hour stop to explore the “Polar Zoo” near Bardu, Norway (location marked on map above). I thought to throw up a slide show and leave it at that, but soon realized this would not do justice to the occasion. This northernmost animal park in the world was a big highlight of our expedition’s many adventures. It was a walkable wonderland of arctic wildlife that invited stirring connections with the sentience of some of our most exotic fellow inhabitants of Earth.
Be sure to click to enlarge and admire the gorgeous details of the lynx above — huge “snowshoe” paws, black fur-tufted ears, pure white furred chin and breast, bright golden eyes, and so on). In the wild, the stealthy lynx is renowned for seeing without being seen. My meditation teacher encourages a practice of walking in nature with the sense of being seen. Hah! By the lynx!….whose very name derives from old words meaning Light (apparently because of the cat’s glowing eyes and ability to see in the dark. Amen!).
The happy snappy camera I carried had a pretty good zoom: it made the above photo of the lynx, for example. But Will’s zoom lens….Whoa! While useless for making auroral photos, it was the perfect tool for wildlife photography! Both of us were blessed to make many remarkable images that seem to see into the very eyes of the marvelous animals we photographed.
Close Encounter with a “Bone-head Boss” of the Second Kind
I got so absorbed by the lynx, bear, and wolves that I missed seeing the muskox that Duke and Will visited before the Park’s closing time. Click the image below to peer into the eyes of this literally bone-headed beast. According to an award-winning, student-generated website about Arctic animals the muskox headdress is called “boss”. Quoting from the site: “The boss is four inches of horn and three inches of bone that lies directly over the brain with no other skull in between… It is estimated that when muskox bulls hit head-on it’s equivalent to a car driving into a concrete wall at 17 mph (27 km/hr)”. Okay…that’s about twice as fast as we could drive our micro-Yaris in the hyperspace blizzard. Sounds like we would have lost a head-on confrontation with the “boss”. But of course we were more concerned about tractor trailers.
Learning About Fox Tails/Tales of the Northern Lights
The Arctic foxes were another favorite subject of our photos at the Park. Our images below are among the few that show off its beautiful and mythically rich tail.
According to a lovely blog post I found about myths and legends of the aurora in different cultures, Finnish folklore says the Arctic fox runs far in the north, touching the mountains with its tail and making sparks that fly off into the sky. So the Finnish name for the northern lights is revontulet, which means ‘fox fire’. Cecilie (the owner of our Gulenvegen apartment who was introduced in Post 8) had shown us a draft of her new children’s book about the aurora which derives from this Finnish Fox tale/tail.
Wolves and a Wolverine
There was an ornery wolverine, and a playful pack of wolves. The sign posted said wolverines have a very powerful bite, many times stronger than a wolf. In the montage below, I could not resist throwing in another luxurious look at the lynx. All images were made by Will or me. Duke was protecting his lens for anticipated aurora later on. Thank goodness for zoom lenses! Click in to enlarge and enjoy greater details!
Bjørn the Bear – an Ursa MAJOR Dude!
The Arctic Wildlife Park was also home to a remarkably accessible bear (Bjørn) who absorbed the bulk of our attention during our brief visit. We have so many great photos of this guy from diverse perspectives, that it is hard to choose what to present here.
I paid a price for entering the zone between the two fences for a closer encounter (see the photo at right above and also below for the larger context). The closeness was thrilling. But on the way back over the little fence I collapsed down into the snow up to my waist and could not escape on my own without leaving my Keen boots behind. Fortunately Duke came to help. Will was within 15 feet of us, down the hill, but was so pleasantly engrossed in making monster zoom photos of Bjørn that he did not awaken to this micro-drama unfolding. I’ll spare you the details of my humbling extrication.
Later on we learned from Swedish soldiers that their Arctic training addresses this sort of hazard. It is possible to drop in up to your shoulders and rapidly freeze into the snow thus becoming unable to move…gulp! On a lighter note, by some miracle, the nifty, over-shoe ice grippers we had been issued by the Park to help us walk up and down the slippery paths stayed on my boots through my extrication process! Not so for Duke’s ice grippers. There were none large enough to fit his size 16 boot, so the bands rapidly snapped off as he walked up the first path!
I’ve been holding out on you in regards to photos of Bjørn. This bear is definitely an Ursa MAJOR dude (astro-nerd alert!). The first two photos below were made with my happy snappy zoom, which could fit between holes of the fence. The third and fourth photo were made with Will’s large telephoto. The last image bares tooth and claw, reminding you that Bjørn is no teddy bear!
What Bjorn “Nose”!
Look again into Bjørn’s eyes in the first and third photos of him above. Is there any question about his sentience? None if you ask me. There is evidence that bears are sensitive to color and see as well as humans do. But a bears’ ability to detect scents is crazy good because they have an area of nasal mucous membrane in their head that is 100 times larger than a human’s. Click to enlarge the image and find the droplet on Bjørn’s amazing nose. Evidently there really is such a thing as bear snot (documented during the final 15 seconds of this home video of a bear in the backyard). However Bjørn was certainly not averse to putting his snout in the snow, so the droplet might have come from that instead.
Unknown to me at the time, I was destined to have an impressive “nose job” done on me during my travels back to the US, not by a bear, but by a blood-hound who communicated to his handler about the forgotten fruit in my pack as I stood by the Newark baggage carrousel (for luggage that didn’t arrive from Oslo). I was startled to feel something jump up on my back. I turned rapidly to see a non-threatening, domestic-looking doggie, wagging his tail. His uniformed handler asked me, “Do you have any fruit in your pack?”. Well no…but uh wait! I’d forgotten to eat the Rema 1000 apple and orange I’d stashed for the long trip back. They were in my backpack’s closed top pocket, high up on my back. Wow, what a nose!
Yet that hound’s remarkable capacity is nothing compared to a bear in the wild. According to the American Bear Association, bears have a sense of smell that is 7 times greater than a bloodhound! Bjørn inhabits a universe of scents and aromas from farther distances and longer times ago than is imaginable to human beings. Fortunately he is well fed and uninterested in the power bars in our pockets that his nose knows are there.
Missing the (not Red-Nosed) Reindeer
Now if you can possibly believe it, we all missed visiting the reindeer at the Polar Wildlife Park, which for me had been one of the biggest motivations for our visit. When I now see photos of a big-racked reindeer on the Park’s webpage, it makes me ill that we may have missed them. The reindeer in the Sámi sky seen from the Northern Lights Highway had been awesome, but how could we possibly come to this part of our planet and not set eyes on a REAL reindeer?!?! Aaaaargh!!
Yes…but as we walked out of the Park our soul bellies were plenty full of the close encounters with Bjørn, the lynx, the wolves, and the tails/tales of the Arctic fox. The image above shows Duke and Will walking over the bridge that heads back to the parking lot. Note the odd greenish color of the creek water in this region…as well as the water droplets on my lens…sigh.
Arctic Wildlife in the Stars
Now I will respectfully conflate Western and Sámi cultural interpretations of the stars to allow three of the Arctic animals to be in the sky all at once. Well if you count the Finnish fire fox creating northern lights, then it’s a combination of three cultures and four animals in play. Anyway, please give this nerdly interlude a chance, but also be free to skip to the next bold header if learning about star patterns and motions is of less interest to you.
In the all sky image (left) I’ve painstakingly marked the Sámi reindeer constellation (Sarvvis), the faint zigzag of Lynx, and the Big Bear (Ursa Major) – a constellation that includes the familiar Big Dipper making up the bear’s hind quarters and tail. The legs and pointy head of the Big Bear are very faint. To see them for real requires dark skies and keen vision (such as the real lynx enjoys). To make sense of this image you have to imagine the starry animals in a circular “chase” around the North Star. Due to Earth’s rotation, the star patterns appear to “run” around Polaris in a counterclockwise sense as time progresses.
So in the image, the reindeer is “running” in the lead (with W-shaped antlers on his head). The lynx is “chasing” the reindeer (with her head toward the hind legs of the reindeer and her tail back toward the legs of the bear). The pointy-nosed bear is “charging” the lynx. Naturally, it takes them 24 hours to go all the way around one time. In Arctic winter you can pretty well detect the whole 24-hour rotation, but of course in Arctic summer there are no visible stars in the land of the midnight sun.
NOTE: The bear appears to be upside down in the all sky image above, with his nose to the left, legs pointing upward, and his tail out to the right. Try to imagine how this changes as he appears to revolve around Polaris over the course of the night due to Earth’s rotation. Thus in addition to its service as a pointer to the North Star, the “big dipper” asterism has found use as a clock and a calendar. Knowledgeable stargazers can use the dipper’s orientation as it revolves around the Pole Star to tell the time of night at a particular time of the year, or the time of year at a particular time of night (see calendar at right). Of course this doesn’t work below a latitude of 25° South (say in Sydney, AUSTRALIA) where the “dipper” is no longer visible in its entirety.
***And now we return you (from enchanting encounters with Arctic wildlife on the Earth and in the sky) to our previously scheduled saga of the hyperspace blizzard. ***
The Abisko Oasis Part 2 – Post-Midnight Return from Hyperspace
The Abisko Turistation (Visitor Center) had a nice lodge, restaurant, and outdoor equipment store associated with it. There were abundant opportunities for tours including snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and dog sledding. None of this was particularly affordable for us, neither in time nor NOK. At first our presence was a bit furtive since we weren’t formal guests of the lodge, but eventually we relaxed into the awareness that even in our damp and disheveled state, with no intention of buying or renting anything, we were still very welcome to use the bathrooms, lounges, free Internet, and a re-filling station for water bottles and thermoses. Such generous provisions! In all honesty I can say that as we left the Turistation the first time in the early evening of March 10th to chase aurora I’d sensed that we were destined to take further advantage of this oasis. Ya-ya ..to be sure.We finally made it back to the oasis of the Abisko Turistation at about 2:30 am (March 11th), having driven through blizzard and white-out conditions akin to the extended hyperspace transition described at the outset of this post. My co-adventuring brothers literally applauded our safe arrival at a space in the parking lot, and I’m sure we all found a quiet wave of gratitude in our own ways. Whew! Duke proposed that we stretch out on the couches in the Abisko lounges for a couple of hours, until dawn when we would get an early start back to Tromsø with more light and hopefully less hyperspace-like snow and wind for the journey.
So I found a couch in a room called the library. It took a little while to wind down to a state where I could fall sleep, but conscious breath is such a powerful way to calm the body. In fact, I had also been using deep breathing to reduce physical and mental tension while driving. White-knuckled grips on the steering wheel are useless compared to a more relaxed readiness for the demands of wintry conditions. Thank goodness for yoga! It really helped to create a thread of peace inside what might otherwise have been a completely nerve-wracking experience.
Gotta Love those Studs!
Between Abisko oasis stops 1 and 2, we had been cruising for hours back and forth on the E10 southeast of the Turistation (see map below), frequently zipping up and down narrow, and sometimes steep, side roads in both directions so Duke and Will could explore potential foregrounds and surroundings for the cameras. Yes, I really loved those studs (on our snow tires, I mean), at least under these conditions. Swedish medical researchers accuse studded snow tires of posing a respiratory health risk in cities. A Finnish tire maker recently announced a potential solution – retractable studs! This link to a hyper-hip, 30-second video shows how they work. It’s so James Bond-y (scene from Die Another Day). Fortunately, none of the side roads on E10 were quite this steep.
Nibbling on the Napping Aurora
Parts of our Swedish sky cleared at times to reveal the 1st quarter moonlight which set the mountainous snowscape aglow. [Wow! Someday I hope (like my jazz friend Virginia) to see this place during the season of the midnight sun!] Alas, there were no northern lights in the sky. Again and again we were foiled by bursts of wind and spurts of sleet that made it senseless to expose the cameras.
We paused to nibble and nap for awhile at a pull-off with a path that accessed the southern shoreline of the long and thin Lake Torneträsk (along which the E10 runs in this region – see map above). At first Will braved the elements to try firing up his camping stove. And you know, I might even have deigned to consume some re-hydrated stroganoff-like stuff were it actually warm. However, in spite of Will’s courage, his stove and the foreign-fitting fuel can he’d purchased didn’t mate well together. He said he managed to make some “Luke”-warm cocoa – perhaps a fitting “Skywalker-esque” prelude to the hyperspace blizzard to come.
I snarfed a banana together with the super fuel of a high-protein Isagenix chocolate-peanut crunch bar. This joined the spirit of Duke’s staple combo of bananas and granola bars. Yummy, ya-ya sure. And I do mean it, though it’s not exactly fresh cod with mango sauce, you understand. Yes, remember that fresh cod from Post 8? Well it was still sitting in the refrigerator back at our little red cabin in Tromsø, and we were still trusting that it would be good upon our return.
After a couple of hours of fitful dozing in the car we awakened to a promising green glow to the north intermixed with clouds and moon glow. There was still intermittent precipitation, and we debated whether to haul out Will’s camera for a shot. It wouldn’t be a great one, but at least we’d have something to show for our 800+ km round-trip. But setting up a camera to shoot aurora is NOT like whipping out your happy-snappy.
Why Making an Auroral Photo is Not a Happy Snappy
Auroral photography is no happy-snappy cell phone shot on a beach vacation. It takes time to deploy and level the tripod, affix and focus the camera on a bright star, connect the remote control, and confirm that the settings (f-stop, exposure, ISO) match the dynamic, low light conditions. It is dark, likely cold, possibly windy, and sometimes slippery. Find Will (below) at his camera on an Arctic “beach” juggling all of these challenges.
Below is another photo from the Spåkanes shoreline (see Post 7) for which the camera wasn’t leveled properly. Correcting the leveling in post processing would cut off the top of the dramatic auroral feature, and this “flaw” explains why I didn’t choose the image for the original post on the Spåkanes outing. Just for fun, I gave this beautiful image (below) a small tilt to level the mountains. Funny how this makes it appear more like a happy snappy…NOT! Click to enlarge the image and enjoy the perfection of its “flaw”. Truth is, that glorious shaft of light would likely have disappeared and not been recorded at all had the photographer (who was scrambling on slippery rocks early in our deployment) taken the time to level the camera first. In fact this “flawed” image documents the only minute or so of more intense activity we experienced that night. Sooo…it takes enormous effort to get everything right, even when Earth and space weather are providing for you.
The red and white glow on the distant horizon of the shoreline (beneath the shaft of green light) is another little light house such as we discovered in Post 6 (Fallen Camera). Will managed to make it all the way out there before the gale-force winds shut us down. No fallen photographers or cameras this night.
The Forces that Drove Us into the Hyperspace Blizzard
By the way, the Spåkanes shoreline marked the last time we’d photographed any northern lights at all (see Post 7). That was four whole days prior to this night near Sweden’s Lake Torneträsk!! What an auroral drought!! No wonder then…our veritable act of desperation… with the clock running out on our expedition….to travel hundreds more kilometers away from Tromsø in hopes of finding a couple of hours of gaps in the clouds coincident with an eruption of northern lights and great scenery. Quixotic? Foolish? Optimistic? Ya-Ya-Ya. That’s how it is. What else should we do, go shopping for Norwegian sweaters? The Arctic Wildlife Park was worth the journey, right?
We also knew from the Spåkanes photos that a hint of auroral green intermixed with clouds and moonlight, even if too faint to be detected by the unaided human eye, can contribute to spectacular, long-exposure photographs (see below – click to enlarge). It was this memory that really made me want us to try for a shot while there was detectable auroral glow overhead there by Lake Torneträsk.
But the spits and spats of precipitation were the big problem. No matter how good a photographic target is, if the lens has fog, frost, or big water drops on it the image is compromised. During the time it would take to set up a camera by Lake Torneträsk, water on the lens was a certainty.
So we didn’t go for the shot and agreed to zip farther southward again toward Kiruna where skies might still be more clear (though mountain scenery less dramatic). Perhaps that coronal hole was lined up better now than it was yesterday… Perhaps that glimmer of green we saw marked the start of a great burst of auroral light… Perhaps this would be the last opportunity for auroral photos on the entire expedition….Perhaps… Yada-Yada-Ya….Perhaps this is how we wound up in the post-midnight, hyperspace blizzard.
Those gaps in the cloud cover, previously noted on the satellite maps, had evidently come and gone for the evening. There were no more clear skies, only thicker clouds and a building snowstorm. Who knew what the fox fire of the aurora was doing now. Our focus necessarily changed to navigating the blizzard conditions in which we became immersed.
My Soul Scarf
I felt so grateful for the Abisko oasis, especially when we arrived there safely that second time at about 2:30 am – back in from the hyperspace blizzard. I cannot speak entirely for my teammates now, as we all took care of ourselves in different ways. In my case, after some gentle yogic breathing, I settled into a peaceful, albeit short-lived, slumber on a couch, finding some comfort with the soft “pillow” of my red Mountain Hardware down jacket and the soothing “eye cover” of my chenille “soul scarf” (handmade by master weaver Carolyn Hoedl). Carolyn is the mother of a dear song sister back in Atlanta. The blue arrow in the image above points to my “rainbow” soul scarf, which has now traveled with me on two northern lights expeditions, including our journey to Yellowknife, CANADA last year. Maybe I should now call it my “aurora” soul scarf.
If you click to look more closely at Will’s stealthy image of me collapsed on a couch at the Abisko Turistation, you can see my beloved scarf in action as an eye cover, and also a hint of what happens with moisture on a camera lens (at left).
How Good Can the Abisko Aurora Be?
How ironic that our blizzard adventure occurred in a place billed as the driest and best in Sweden for seeing the aurora. As compensation for our inability to bring you more aurora photos, here is a link to a short and lovely time-lapse video created by photographers resident at Abisko.
We are noticing that folks who record amazing auroral photographs in this part of the world live here. They do not come for two-week madcap expeditions. They sit patiently and observe what comes day to day, and they are ready to go when the Earth and space weather are right. There is no need for desperate acts of chasing, and you can sit down and have fresh cod dinners when the Earth and space weather are marginal. Ya-Ya-Ya…I’ll let the cod story go soon. Maybe a few more rounds of yogic breathing will do it (*grin*).
Truth is… I wouldn’t trade these life-long, bucket-list memories and epic adventures with my impassioned science education comrades for any fish dinner!
A Future Sabbatical for Duke and his Family?
Duke sometimes wondered aloud about how he could make it work to spend extended time here. I think a visiting educator/technical specialist program between the Tromsø and Clark planetariums would be just the thing! Duke, his partner Marsha (who made all of our lodging arrangements and did all of Duke’s packing and flight arrangements), and their 2.5 year old son, (I call him “super boy” James), are all blond-haired and blue eyed, with known ancestral connections to this part of the world. Jus’ sayin’….I think it’s a no brainer for them to do a sabbatical here in Sámi land.
Will Will Make it to the World Famous Ice Hotel?
It is also noteworthy that in a couple of nights, our teammate Will (shown here processing photos in the back of our micro-Yaris) is booked to sleep in the world-famous Ice Hotel located about 20 km east of Kiruna in a small village called Jukkasjärvi (labeled on the previous map above). Starting at 6:15 am on the morning of March 12th – uhm – tomorrow, he is scheduled to re-do travel from Tromsø to the Abisko-Kiruna-Jukkasjärvi region by bus and train. He says that for the privilege of a single room for one night in the Ice Hotel he would be expending more money than he has spent on lodging in a decade of adventure travel. It certainly would cost Will several hundred dollars for that special night, and he has surely earned it. It seems he generally economizes using his uncanny ability to sleep in cars. I think he even chose to do this at Abisko while Duke and I used couches.
Click on the image at left to see an example of what accommodations at the Ice Hotel can be like. The artful complex is re-created each winter season. By this time we all deserved a night in this luxurious space, complete with access to a sauna and simulated lights dancing over our heads. Ya-Ya…some cool sips of Akvavit…and…Oh! Back to reality…
Heading Back to Tromsø – Trying to Anyway
At about 5:30 am on the morning of March 11th Duke woke me up from my short winter’s nap (~2.5-hours) on the Abisko couch. I guzzled an Isagenix shake, went to the bathroom, filled my water bottle, and joined the guys at the car to begin our long trek back to the little red cabin whose refrigerator had (maybe) “cooled our cod” without us last night in Tromsø.
In addition to getting Will back to begin his solo adventures the next day, we had also scheduled a follow-up meeting with Anne Bruvold (the Tromsø planetarium manager introduced in Post 8), for 2pm that day. So we reckoned that this early departure time would, in principle, give us an adequate margin.
However, just a few kilometers northward of Abisko we were stopped by a flashing red light and gate indicating that the E10 northward was closed due to snow drifts and avalanche danger. We waited awhile with a small truck in front of us.
Duke was at the wheel now, so while we waited I got out in the brisk wind and snowy landscape to walk and do some yoga. Sun breaths seemed appropriate to support the light of the new day beginning to emerge in the east …well … until the view fuzzed into a white mist and a new batch of snow flurries. Before getting back in the car I wandered up to happy-snap the photo of the gate (at left above) and to speak with the driver of the small truck. He and his companion turned out to be handsome young Swedish soldiers in green camouflage uniforms. They told me they expected the gate to open at 6:30am.
We opted to spend intervening time topping off the gas tank and sending a message to Anne, alerting her to a possible delay. We were especially excited about this meeting at the planetarium because it was also to involve Cecilie, and the possibility of connecting Sámi stars to one of her children’s books (see Post 8). As Duke filled the tank, I snapped the only photo of Swedish aurora we have – the entrance to a restaurant & pub, complete with snowflake moisture on the lens!
The Abisko Oasis Part 3 – Morning till Noon of March 11th
On our way back toward the gate after gassing up, we saw the truck with the two soldiers heading away in the opposite direction. Uh-oh! So we decided to stop at the Abisko Turistation once again to see if the front desk could provide an update about the road closure. The new estimate for opening the pass was noon – 5.5 hours hence! There was no chance now to make our follow-up planetarium appointment as scheduled… bummer.
I sat in the car awhile in the Turistation parking lot, plugged into the power inverter to type notes for this post on my laptop. We neglected to bring with us our plug-in adapters for 220 volts, so the car’s system was the only means of charging the computer batteries. I dozed off but was shortly awakened by Will rummaging in the back to get his snowshoes out so he could go for a hike on the famous King’s Trail (Kungsleden).
Our man Will never wastes a minute. His motto seems to be (after Ben Franklin): “There will be plenty of time to sleep once you are dead.” In that spirit, I was tempted to scramble to rent snowshoes and join him on the Kungsleden, but my body and mind just said no. Will is also an evident master of making photos of himself in exotic places. In the image above he clasps a signpost on the King’s Trail in his snowshoes with the Gateway mountains playing hide and seek in the clouds behind him. I imagine there will soon be an exotic photo of him lounging in his new one-piece hooded base layer among the reindeer skins on an ice-sculpted bed at the Ice Hotel. [Ya-Ya send it along Will, and I’ll post it here instead of this fellow modeling your Patagonia body suit.] Got it! Click on image below for video as well.
Anyway, I used Will’s unwitting interruption of my car-seat dozing as an opportunity to transfer to the interior of the Turistation where Duke and I snoozed a bit more on the couches in the room with the small fireplace and the painting of the distinctively sloped Gateway mountains. Can you believe that in spite of my exhaustion, I had felt another impulse, this time to spring for the $350+ for a 4-hour dog sledding experience that was leaving 30 minutes from the time I walked back in the door? But, it turns out you had to have signed up the night before. Blessing. I’ll do this someday with my goddaughter and her mother when I’ve had more than a couple hours sleep. Anyway, we needed to be ready to depart at a moment’s notice if that gate came open sooner than expected. Will nobly abbreviated his snowshoe outing for the same reason.
Snowplow Ho So Off We Go!
The powerful snowplow truck (a Swedish Volvo, of course!) did arrive a bit early, zooming in from behind the now open gate, followed by a long stream of cars from the other side. Cars and trucks (including us) were lined up to venture forth. We were 9th in the queue.
It was very slow going. Two dark green Swedish Army trucks were in the lead and the slowest of all. As we found out later, these heavy trucks were being driven by young men from the south of Sweden who were up north for a 9-day training exercise. Two of them with whom we later spoke (while further stalled at the Swedish-Norwegian border) had run their rigs off the road. It made sense for them to take it slow. These young men were not experienced drivers of big trucks, let alone drivers of big trucks in the Arctic winter. Ya-Ya, that’s how it is.
One silver lining to moving slowly was that we got to see and photograph a couple of young reindeer who seemed to appear out of nowhere and trot across the road. Well…at least we HOPE they were reindeer. Their coats seem to be right.
Tossing Swedish Snowballs (not Meatballs)
An additional two-hour wait for a plow at the border between Sweden and Norway forced us to relax further into our predicament and release any expectation of when we would be arriving back in Tromsø. Before the sweater shop closed at least? Maybe…maybe not. Ya-Ya that’s how it is. We made the best of it.
We pulled up ahead of the trucks at the stop so we could go faster when the plow came along. The truck drivers didn’t seem to mind. In the photos I’m lobbing a snowball toward Duke who made a courageous photo. You can see the snowball in flight inside the dotted, red circle. It’s well camouflaged! Below, the man in the background (with right foot forward) is the senior sergeant for the soldiers driving the Army trucks.
Below left, Duke and I take turns trying to hit the up-slope rock face with snowballs. It’s much farther away than it looks! Will captured three of the soldiers scrambling up the right side of the rock formation, evidently for the sheer fun of it, and perhaps to make yellow snow more discretely.
Learning about Languages from Swedish Soldiers
I struck up a conversation with the sergeant and three of his men whose prior antics with snowballs and climbing the nearby rocks made me feel easy about it. Will was damp and chilled from his snowshoe outing and so stayed in the car, working to organize his treasure trove of images to help tell this story!
The conversation with the soldiers was lively and wide-ranging. Duke and I learned about the interoperability (or not) of Scandanavian languages, Swedish education (which is paid), and Swedish military service, (which is voluntary). Every third grader starts learning English, and a third language is chosen for study a couple of years later.
According to the Swedish soldiers, Swedes and Norwegians can understand one another. Danes can understand Swedes, but Swedes have a harder time understanding Danes. Finnish is a whole other type of language, and the soldiers said they use English when working with the Finns.
Click here for the humorous origins of the cartoon at right and the following quote: “All the other Nordic countries joke that Danish sounds like Swedes talking with a potato or porridge in their mouths, while Danes joke that Swedes sound like drunk Danes, and Norwegians sound like drunk Danes singing.”
The starting point for the cartoon: “Rødgrød med fløde” is Danish for a signature dessert: “Red berries with cream”. This evokes fond memories of having been taught to say this phrase as I prepared for my very first trip Europe back in 1986. I tried out my accent for the soldiers. They laughed, and I’ll never know if it was any good.
Juggling Snowballs (not Meatballs) with Swedish Soldiers
At one point in our extended wait I felt inspired to try juggling three snowballs. I’d taught my precocious godchildren to juggle over the Christmas holiday, so I was up on it. One of the soldiers wanted to learn so I started to teach him a bit. Then the soldier who had been the most quiet and reserved during our earlier conversation went to pick up big, irregular hunks of snow and started juggling them effortlessly. I asked him how he’d learned, and he replied that he’d just taught himself when he was a kid.
So he and I tried passing the three juggled snowballs to one another and actually found some success in both directions after busting a couple of snowballs on the ground. They’re slippery and delicate, you know? If you over-squeeze them or grab at them, they break. The young man’s sergeant was surprised by the “coming out” of his soldier’s excellent hand-eye coordination and said to him, “Hmmm…it seems I don’t know you as well as I thought.”
We don’t have any photos of our playtime with the soldiers, but I found this wonderful 2-minute snowball juggling video on Youtube. Wow! This kid is way better than any of us!
Our juggling was interrupted by the coming of the snow plow, so we all shook hands, mounted our vehicles and waited for the plow to turn around so we could follow it as it cleared the road for two-way traffic. We would have been first behind the plow, but two other cars zoomed up ahead of us before the line took off. We’d have done the same.
The little square car was loaded with young people, evidently on vacation. In the right image above, notice how their car is dwarfed by the enormous size of a wind farm’s propellers. One wonders if these machines can collect energy in a blizzard’s wind.
Here below are some other delightful examples of “dwarfing” that can be found along the roadsides of Norway. I honestly cannot explain why I am making this juxtaposition of a highly regarded Intrepid and a curiously gigantic Troll. Perhaps it is only the way they are both grasping their implements and curling their fists.
Soldiers, Soldiers Everywhere
The military exercise in which our Swedish soldiers were participating involved coordination among many nations, and included ships and aircraft as well as ground forces. Shades of the contemporaneous search for MH370.
For 100 km after we crossed into Norway, we saw many Army vehicles on the road, and also troops deployed beside the road with camouflaged tanks and guns. There were even some guys in white bunny suits who drove ski-mobiles. It felt odd to feel the military’s presence in the everyday sphere of society and tourism. I realized that this doesn’t really happen so much in the US, where military exercises are more confined in areas away from where people are living and traveling. But THIS is the Arctic, and there are only so many roads that go anywhere for any purpose.
Soldiers of the Aurora?
I sometimes fantasize that we could turn all the soldiers into aurora chasers, arm them with sturdy tripods and powerful cameras, and have them shoot the wonders of Earth and sky through their lenses instead of each other through their gun sights. Of course, we would still have to train them how to stay on the surface of deep snow and keep their vehicle on the road in a blizzard.
One of the most interesting things we learned from the Swedish soldiers we’d encountered was that it had been their second try to get over the border from Sweden to Norway. The previous night they had been ordered to abort their attempt to cross over due to the blizzard and to return to the Abisko area. Yeah…hyperspace blizzards are not good for Army trucks either.
Norwegian Sweaters and “Chili con Cod”
It was dark when we finally got back to Tromsø, yet our weary bones went directly to the famous Norwegian sweater shop in town. In a delightful inversion of perhaps more typical gender roles, this activity was driven primarily by Duke and Will (click on the image to see the shop closer up). I happily served as a size-calibrating model for the beloved women in their lives.
We next returned to our little red cabin to prepare and eat an irreproducible fish dish I’ll call “chili con cod”. The lusciously ripe mango (sweet testament to the luxuries of our carbon-based economy) became part of breakfast the next morning after Duke dropped Will off at the bus station.
Avalanches on the Northern Lights Highway
Later the next day Duke and I learned from Anne (the planetarium manager) that while we’d been blizzard-ing in Sweden there had been major avalanches on the Northern Lights highway near Skibotn. We had often traveled this route to the sites near Finnish border (3 times), and to the Spåkanes shoreline with the dramatic view to the Lyngen Alps. This Trip Advisor post of March 12th says the days prior involved aurora tour buses getting stuck for 14 hours before the road was cleared, and the Army reporting over 100 avalanches out in the terrain. The image at left is NOT ours, nor is it even near Skibotn, but it shows how a Norwegian avalanche can dwarf human infrastructure. Whoa!
Is the Arctic Really Drunk, or Does it Just Act Like This Sometimes?
Yes…a big part of the trouble goes beyond the natural seasonal warming of springtime that routinely causes avalanches in such terrain. The Arctic region of our planet is becoming unseasonably warm – the climate (the average weather) is changing. In a warmer climate it rains more (observed by Tromsø inhabitants), and it is well documented that rain-on-snow creates a greater risk of avalanches. Yes, a snowpack that “drinks” too much rain adds to its weight and lubricates its layers in ways that make it easier for an avalanche to occur (ahem).
Moreover, due to climate feedbacks that amplify higher-latitude warming, the rate of warming in the the Arctic has been twice that in mid-latitudes (say in the US). Paradoxically, global warming may be contributing to cold weather extremes at mid-latitudes through a weakening and wobbling of the jet stream (depicted above).
Rutgers’ climate scientist Jennifer Francis is a courageous leading light working to explain how this sort of extreme weather system could be related to Arctic climate change. I’m going to let this excellent Mother Jones article involving Dr. Francis do the job of providing accessible details in a playful style. The article is the namesake of this subsection. In other words, I stole the title because I liked it so much.
Out of curiosity, I looked into the inversion of temperatures with latitude for March 13th (late mum’s birthday) caused by the wobbling of the “drunken” jet stream. As you can see in the table below it was indeed vastly colder in New York City than in Tromsø on this day when Duke and I departed Norway. Whoa!
|Location||Latitude||Low Temp||High Temp|
|Tromsø||69°North||23°F (-5°C)||33°F (0.6°C)|
|New York City||41°North||–8°F (-22°C)||0°F (-18°C)|
Mangoes above the Arctic Circle?
Some scientists say that Arctic summers will be completely ice free within this decade. We are alive in a remarkable time when humanity (7 billion and rising) is conducting a big experiment on the capacity of planet Earth’s climate system to remain stable in the face of extreme provocation. The Arctic warming is an early warning signal. The coming changes may or may not be workable for our existing infrastructure. As my colleague John Katzenberger (Executive Director of the Aspen Global Change Institute) so aptly puts it: “We have become explorers into a world not known before and poorly imagined by modern humans.” Yes, we are rapidly running down the path to finding out the results of our massive greenhouse gas experiment. This includes routinely transporting tropical mangoes to folks living above the Arctic Circle. Such luxuries are not compatible with the more sustainable world we must now create. How interesting to note that Norway already runs on 96% renewable energy — predominantly hydro-electric with a lot of potential for wind!
A Frightful Return to the US
The wacky winds of the jet stream also made the westward return trip across the Atlantic two hours longer than the eastward trip from the US to Europe had been. Wind-induced turbulence frightened all of us aboard my flight as we approached the Newark’s Liberty airport. I was breathing deeply to help manage the fear — my own and that of others. We landed in a raging crosswind…first pounding in on the right side of the landing gear, and then lurching side to side before stabilizing. I’ve flown a lot, and even earned a pilot’s license in my youth. This situation was more hairy-scary than a Wookiee in a hyperspace blizzard. Truly, it felt as though we were close to digging a wing into the runway.
Whew! Then my flight to Atlanta in a smaller aircraft was cancelled due to high winds. Oh yes, my large bag hadn’t arrived from Oslo, and the sniff doggie had jumped on me thereby enhancing scrutiny in Customs, and…Well once again I will spare you the details of my extrication, except to acknowledge the blessing of my new friend Kelly for his late-night pick up at the Atlanta airport after my 24 long hours of traveling from Tromsø.
Closing on a Brighter Note – An Excerpt of the Sámi National Anthem
I close this epic final post (or e-book) with an English translation for the first two verses of the Sámi National Anthem. I was delighted to discover how beautifully these verses summarize much of our visual and aural experience in the Far North. If you’ve traveled with us through this blog (even a little), then these poetic words will evoke many of the images and ideas that have been shared.
1. Far up North ‘neath Ursa Major
- Gently rises Saamiland.
- Mountain upon mountain.
- Lake upon lake.
- Peaks, ridges and plateaus
- Rising up to the skies.
- Gurgling rivers, sighing forests.
- Iron capes pointing sharp
- Out towards the stormy sea.
2. Winter time with storm and cold
- Fierce blizzards [hyperspace, in fact!].
- Saami kin, with hearts and souls
- Their lands do love.
- Moonlight for the traveler,
- Living Aurora flickering,
- Grunt of reindeer heard in groves of birch,
- Voices over lakes and open grounds,
- Swish of sled on winter road.
Well, it seems we missed out on the “grunt of reindeer” and “swish of sled”. These will have to wait for the next trip of the Tromsø Intrepids! Thank you so much for tuning in….
Dr. Cherilynn Morrow, Aspen Global Change Institute (based in Atlanta)
Durand (Duke) Johnson, Clark Planetarium (Salt Lake City)
William (Will) Stoll, Atlanta International School