Not all Auroras are Equal

We are fortunate to live in northern Minnesota where we can see the Northern Lights when the conditions are right. Over the years, I’ve seen my share of Auroras. The very best was up at our cabin. Late at night, sitting around the campfire, someone looked up and noticed the green glow. We all trooped down to the dock where we had a view of the whole sky. There were rays shooting up from all directions, reaching the apex and waving.  Lying on our backs to watch the performance was awesome.

More commonly, the lights have been a green glow in the North. Sometimes they create spikes that stretch up into the sky.  Others form curtains that hang above the landscape like the display I saw in the Boundary Waters with my son Carl. Each is mesmerizing and special.

With that as my frame of reference, I was unprepared for the Northern Lights in Norway. Sure, I’d seen photographs and tourism posters, but those are unabashedly sensationalized.  I knew the chance of seeing the lights was better there. Pure geography means even weaker displays are visible.  I just hadn’t realized how different they would be.

Our first night we got really lucky.  In the vernacular of the serious Aurora Hunters, there was a “G2 storm” – which means an extraordinary amount of solar magnetic activity.  That translates to a high likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights.

Not only did the lights blanket the sky, but they were exceptionally brilliant and intense.  We didn’t have to look for a green glow.  The whole sky was glowing.  Against that backdrop bright rays shot across the sky, arcing over our heads and extending from horizon to horizon.  It was as if we were witnessing huge electric currents, pulsating and giving off waves of color.  Everything was perfectly aligned to bring us this fine display – location, clear skies, no moon and solar power in the atmosphere.  And boy, was that obvious.Mountain Pass AuroraThe following night, we knew that the solar activity was weaker, so we adjusted our expectations accordingly.  I think we were still harboring a Minnesota frame of reference, because once again we were amazed at what we saw.  This time the lights may not have been as intense, but the sharp streaks were replaced by patterns and movement and the performance lasted much longer.  For about an hour and a half we watched as the lights danced overhead.  They were constantly in motion, creating shapes then morphing into something else.  First active on one side of the ski, then picking up momentum on the other.  My favorite was the circular curtain of lights, waving its folds and draping its colors as it curved.  It was hard to know which way to look, because to view in one direction meant missing something behind me.Mountain Fjord Aurora 1Mountain Fjord Aurora 2Mountain Fjord Aurora 3I have Rich to thank for the photographs of these displays, as that is his specialty.  Often times I feel that the camera overstates what I was able to see with my own eyes.  But on this occasion, I think that the opposite is true.  His photos are quite true to what we saw, yet cannot do justice to the whole experience.  Not even his wide angle lens could capture the full image of what was happening up in the sky.  You had to be there to see it.  I can now fully appreciate the vast beauty of just what the Northern Lights can do.  And it is abundantly clear that not all Auroras are equal.  I’m convinced that we saw some of the best.

True Nordic Skiing

Skis, check. Poles, check. Boots, ski clothes and wax, check. For two avid skiers to visit the home of Nordic skiing in winter, the allure of plying the trails is irresistible. Never mind all the extra baggage required, we're going cross-country skiing in Norway!

Rich waxing our skis

There are plenty of trails to choose from around Tromso, and I select a loop based on the grooming reports – this one has fresh tracks laid just hours ago. Despite the old, dirty snow on the streets of Tromso, just a few kilometers away we find fresh powder. The lane where we park is pure ice – something we have learned is typical here, and we are thankful for the studded tires on our rental car. The sun tries to break through the clouds as Rich waxes our skis, and I feel the excitement build. We are really here, about to ski alongside a fjord.

Molly skiing by the fjord

I hadn't given it much thought, but if you ski away from the water, you're going to go up. Those mountains in the distance are beautiful, but they start right here. So we climb. And climb. The bonus is that we instantly have a wonderful view. The snow gets deeper and the grooming is excellent. At times it is wide enough for skate skiing, in other areas it narrows to a more modest woodland trail. But the firm tracks are a constant. They certainly know their skiing here.

Molly skiing by the lake

This isn't a workout, it's an “experiencial ski” Rich keeps reminding me. I don't need to be told, I have no inclination to hurry. No desire to push. I want to take it all in.

The trail skirts a lake with cabins alongside. We suspect we are skiing on a small road used to access the cabins in summer. However, it is clear that they are used in winter as well – perhaps reached by skis. That becomes my favorite part of the trail, winding through the trees. Scattered modest cabins on one side, lake on the other. Oddly enough, it feels very like Minnesota if I ignore the magnificent mountains.

Rich skiing by the mountains

Off trail the snow is deep and pristine. I am surprised to see numerous deep ski tracks criss-cross its surface, carving out their own back-country ski trails. It looks inviting and adventuresome, but I have no desire to leave the groomer's domain.

Here I can appreciate the silence of this sport. Swishing along the smooth tracks, we see only a couple of other skiers and a few walkers. At first I cringe to see those on foot, but clearly it is accepted here. They know enough to stay off the tracks and their boots barely break the firm surface of the snow.

The temperature is close to freezing, colder as we move inland. It is mild enough to get hot when we climb, cool enough to be chilly on our rapid descent. Our return trip is completed in a fraction of the time it took on the outbound leg. We now have a true Nordic ski experience in the bag. I can't wait to do it again tomorrow.

Sunny ski trail down to the fjord

 

Arctic Aurora Brilliance

When chasing the Northern Lights, there are no guarantees. Conditions can change in an instant. A promising forecast can evaporate. The atmosphere can refuse to cooperate. And even when there is a fantastic display, clouds can completely scuttle the view. How well we know this.

After four nights on our cruise along the coast of Norway dedicated to this pursuit, we have seen only a faint glow. While the trip's daytime scenery has been stunning, the unspoken disappointment over the lack of a nighttime performance is a minor undercurrent. But we still have three more nights on shore in Tromso to score an Aurora.

When I enter the visitor center, it is packed with people all anxious to see the Northern Lights. The number of tour operators promising to mine their expertise, drive to different locations all night long, and deliver a memorable experience is astounding. These visitors are prepared to fork over a small fortune, and they anxiously deliberate the selection of a tour operator and the night they will take their chance. I, on the other hand, am here merely to purchase a parking pass. My tour guide is en route with a rental car, already armed with weather forecasts, Aurora apps, alerts, Kp index and solar activity ratings. Rich may be as qualified as any expert out there.

With Tromso still socked in with clouds, we layer ourselves in warm clothes, collect cameras and tripods and begin our chase after dinner. Rich is buoyed by the recent reports, revealing that “the numbers” are suddenly escalating. The key will be to find open skies. Rich's research convinces him we should drive away from the coast, and he has selected an area 73 kilometers to the southeast for this target. Distance is of little concern in this pursuit.

Traveling down the fjord, I keep my eyes trained on the sky. It's hard to see with the reflections of the dash and outdoor lights on the windows. Peering into the darkness, I suddenly find stars. First just in one spot, soon all over the sky! We are still too near the lights of civilization, but we are on target. Constantly searching, I detect faint green rays in the sky over the water. Surely I am not just willing them into existence. They are there from every angle I try. Wispy and ephemeral they fade, but I'm certain I saw them.

30k short of our destination, the stars disappear. Rich chooses to turn around, hoping to return to the earlier opening. We are amazed at the constant lights along the road – who knew there were so many people living this far north?

Still panning the sky, I spy an unmistakable brilliant green pattern right above us! This time it is the real thing. It moves and changes shape before my very eyes. We have ourselves an Aurora.

We are on the top of a mountain pass between two fjords, and amazingly a pull-out appears next to the road. We park and are out of the car in a flash. Despite the lights in the house across the road and the glare of the passing automobiles, the display is so bright that nothing seems to dim its radiance.

Ribbons of green cross the sky. Stretching from one side to the other, we can't even tell which way is North. They twist and twirl overhead. They form and reform then subside. New shapes appear, like curtains with folds that wave in the breeze. Moving and dancing with varying hues of intensity, sometimes with a tinge of gold. The sky is aglow. Its green illuminates the big grins on our faces.

Rich is in his element, repositioning his camera every few minutes. So much is happening overhead and in every direction, there are endless opportunities to photograph the show. I abandoned all thoughts of trying my hand at photography the moment I exited the car. Riveted by the action in the sky, I prefer to see it all live than to risk frustration trying to capture it. My neck hurts from continually looking straight up – a sweet pain I happily endure. Even Rich shoots fewer pictures than usual as the display is so enthralling.

As quickly as it began, the performance fades. The striking shapes ebb into vagueness then dim into obscurity. The clouds have caught up with us.

In all, the glory lasted 45 minutes. But we continue to glow in its wake for the duration of the drive back to Tromso. It is a night for the memory books. My personal Aurora Hunter nailed it. He found a sliver of open sky during one of the brightest of Auroras. Both Rich and the Aurora performed brillliantly.

 

The Final Arctic Approach

Nobody likes to see a good thing end. But it's always nice to finish on a high note. Such was our last day cruising up the coast of Norway.

This ship's full itinerary takes it up over the top of Norway, almost to Russia. Indeed some passengers cruise all the way up from Bergen and back again. But we chose to stop at Tromso for a few days on land instead. So it was time to savor our final hours sailing through the islands and fjords.

We rose before dawn, hoping for a good sunrise. Crisp and cold out on deck, we were rewarded with dramatic color. At this high latitude the sun never gains much height in the sky, but it continued to grace us from its low angle through the day.

Sunset from the ship

The mountains still lined our passageway, now entirely snow covered. On some, we could see the clear delineation between forest and pure white above the tree line. The rocks receded into deep, gleaming white depths. Craggy peaks alternated with smooth rounded high expanses. The water was calm in the protected waters we plied, the only wind that of the moving ship. Mesmerizing, relaxing, soothing.

Fjord view 1 near Tromso
Fjord view 2 near Tromso

Despite our remote location, communities still abounded on the shoreline. As did individual homesteads. There is no limit to the draw that water has on people. No matter the location, they are still attracted to reside adjacent to its glistening surface.

Fjord view 3 near Tromso
Fjord view 4 near Tromso
Fjord view 5 near Tromso

Our bags packed and stashed under the stairway, we schlepped our shoulder bags with us around the ship. The impending finale hung over us. It was time to say goodbye to this portion of our adventure and move on to the next. We migrated onto land, but not away from the water. We're now in port, but the view from our hotel room is much the same as from on deck. We haven't left Norway's coast, just made our final Arctic approach.

Tromso harbor view from hotel

 

The Hurtigruten Way

If you're looking for a swanky cruise ship, this isn't it. This Hurtigruten vessel, the MS Midnatsol, is a hybrid, providing cargo and ferry service along Norway's west coast as well as catering to tourists. And while we may be referred to as cruise passengers, we are a unique breed.

Passengers on deck

If you want to fit in, there are a few simple guidelines. Leave behind your formal dress. There is no need to change for dinner, jeans are de rigueur. Don't fret over trendy footwear. Boots reign here. Well dressed means sporting a serious winter jacket. Fashion accessories imply a stocking cap and heavy mitts. Comfort and warmth are most important when traveling the coast of Norway in mid-winter. We are a supremely practical group of travelers.

There is a high population of fine cameras, elongated lenses and binoculars among these folks. The up-close views of the fjords, the mountains and the rugged beauty draw us out on deck at all times of day. We are here to see it, photograph it and marvel in its wonder. No matter that the wind is fierce, the temperature chilly and the sun scarce. We will still be out there.

Aurora by Rich Hoeg

This sailing caters to those eager to see the Northern Lights. Living with an Aurora Hunter, I already know this is not for the faint of heart. Late night hours, false alarms, waiting out in the cold and enduring all weather conditions are par for the course. Our first night on the ship, Rich detected a minor aurora merely by looking out our cabin window. Soon we were out on deck, swaddled in down and battling the wind at the prow of the ship at 2:30am. We were alone in that pursuit, but had the display been more dramatic, we would have had plenty of company.

What this ship lacks, we don't miss. We cheer the absence of a casino. Evening shows are non-existent. On this voyage, the scenery is the entertainment. We certainly have no need for a swimming pool, although there are two hot tubs outside on the top deck (and I noted its occupants wearing knit hats). The small size of the ship means we begin to recognize many people on board, and quickly strike up friendships.

Touring its nine decks, we are soon familiar with the important amenities on board. Deck six has a promenade all the way around, nine features a large outdoor space. Both are handy for viewing and photography.

Rich in our cabin

Our stateroom is probably half the size of that on our previous “real” cruise. But we still have plenty of space and storage. And although twin bunks are not our idea of cozy sleeping arrangements, we can manage for four nights.

I think everyone likes to complain about food, but I find our meals very palatable. Breakfast is predictably Norwegian. An abundance of cold meats and cheeses with hearty breads and not a sweet in sight is typical. Plenty of cooked options abound, keeping Rich happy, and the muesli with dried fruits and nuts is ample fuel to see me through the day.

Despite our casual apparel, dinner is served in a formal manner with assigned tables and two seatings. Thank heavens we are given the first at 6:30. Our three courses have been preselected for us, and are identical to all the other dinners in the room. But the appetizer, main and dessert have yet to disappoint and feature local foods. Few cruise ships can make that claim, and I appreciate the regional flavor.

For the armchair tourist or simply for some downtime, there are ample lounges to accommodate indoor viewing. A favorite is the large two-level space at the front of the ship. With enormous forward and side facing windows, the passing scenery is available in all directions.

Just for the record, there is a bargain to be found on board ship. At just $5 per day for a 3-day wifi package, we are online in no time. Our past cruise ship charged more than that per minute. Or so it seemed.

When it comes right down to it, we fit in here. These are our kind of people, out for the experience not the luxury. We're loving the Hurtigruten way of cruising.

 

Crossing the Arctic Circle

It's only an imaginary line. But since crossing it, our whole voyage has changed.

We passed the Arctic Circle at 7:26 this morning. From our cabin we could see the globe marker on a tiny island, designating that northern latitude. Overnight the landscape had been transformed to snow covered peaks dominating the background, with rugged terrain near shore. No longer were there brown open patches of grass. And the scattered enclaves of buildings looked especially remote. It was the definition of stark beauty.

Heightening the drama, the sun was just beginning to rise above the peaks. That scarce source of light had been eluding us until now, and its appearance was most welcome. Soon the snowy peaks were rimmed with a golden glow. The glacial mountain sides illuminated by the low early light. And blue sky reigned up above. It was a whole new world.

Sunrise over Norway by Rich Hoeg

I will admit to witnessing this beauty from the seat of a bicycle. A stationary one at that, pressed up against the windows on the starboard side, facing the sunrise. Alone in the minuscule fitness center, I had a front row seat to the continually changing scene. While I knew I was missing the perfect opportunity to photograph this phenomenon, having committed to this workout I pedaled on, my eyes rooted to the display. I knew that Rich would not let this pass without capturing it, and rationalized that his photos would be far superior to mine. And with 45 minutes dedicated to this bicycle seat I would remain attentive to the scenery rather than trying to compose photographs, missing the live presentation. It was one of the most picturesque bike rides I've ever taken. And Rich came through with stellar photographs.

The morning was perfect for roaming the decks. The landscape changed constantly. Fishing boats, ferries and even a sailboat came into view. The light was constantly shifting. And the sun felt so good. This was what we came to do, and it was easy to while away the hours moving in and out of the sun and wind in search of more sights. Everything was so much more dramatic in the sunlight.

Coastal Views above the Arctic Circle

The Arctic Circle landmark did not go unmarked by the ship's crew, who staged an appearance by Neptune. Arriving with his trident, he and the ship's captain initiated the brave in a legendary ceremony from the deep. We knew it involved some strong spirits, but being allowed to imbibe first required a shivering cold dousing with a ladle of watery ice cubes down the back. Some participants were brought forward unwillingly, but Rich knowingly succumbed to the torchure. I kept well out of range until the frigid ingredients were exhausted, choosing instead a timid pose with Neptune.

Neptune's Arctic Circle Ceremony

For this trip, the Arctic Circle was the weather's dividing line between blasé and brilliant. It was well worth crossing.

Hurtigruten views

 

Norwegian Ports of Call

True to its roots, Hurtigruten continues to run its ferries to service the western ports of Norway. Unlike cruise ships which typically sail all night and arrive the next morning for a day in port, Hurtigruten's ships make continuous stops all along the way – day and night. Most are short in duration, long enough to exchange cargo and deliver the mail, and the ships are very adept at docking and departing quickly.

Our trip up the coast of Norway from Bergen to Tromso on the MS Midnatsol takes five days and four nights. During that time we make about 4-5 stops a day, and once a day our stay is long enough for a trip on shore. Timing is erratic – it might be first thing in the morning, it may be mid-afternoon, with sightseeing time ranging from 2.5 hours to 6. The towns are all easily accessible from the dock by foot, and are small enough to explore in a few hours.

Being both frugal and eager for some exercise off ship, we pass on the formal shore excursions. Choosing instead to walk the cities guided only by the limited information I can glean from my guidebook, we meander in search of known sights and hope to stumble on some unexpected delights. And we manage to find both.

Alesund is our first stop, a town destroyed by fire in 1904 and rebuilt in the Art Nouveau style. Its center is adorned by ornate buildings in vibrant colors, with intricate designs painted on their facades. I am immediately attracted to the viewpoint high above the city, eagerly climbing the 419 zigzagging steps required to reach it. Despite cloudy skies, the views are expansive and rewarding. Exploring the quiet streets afterwards I am able to see the detail up close and observe the local flavor. Nursing a bum leg and discovering some intriguing birds, Rich is content to pursue his own interests.

Sights of Alesund

An obligatory visit to the cathedral in Trondheim might have been unremarkable had it not been for the information imparted by the robed man who greeted us inside the door. With an air of conspiracy, he shares that organists will be practicing from 10 until noon and invites us to return to hear the newly refurbished organ.

Whiling away the time before the music, we discover a delightful sight – a group of school children cross-country skiing alongside the river that runs through town. They could not be more than 7 years old, yet they fly across the snow with youthful glee and uninhibited athletic prowess. And speaking English! We learn that these youngsters are attending an international school. Their one-piece snow suits stir old childhood memories.

Once back inside the gothic cathedral, the huge silver organ pipes roared to life in fits and starts as the first organist runs through segments of his repertoire. Some of it is sonorous and dissonant, other bits more pleasing. Worth hearing, but a taste is sufficient.

Our return trip to the ship takes us through the most pleasant section of the city, an area refurbished into trendy housing and reportedly colorful eating and drinking establishments. More colorful buildings line the waterway, and I especially enjoy their distorted reflections in the water.

Sights of Trondheim

Not every town is particularly scenic. Bodo was almost entirely razed during World War II, hence is dominated by modern buildings of little interest. I always enjoy marinas, however, and while Rich is scouting some floating birds to photograph, I dally long enough to watch a local fisherman selling shrimp right from his boat. Very fresh! A cold wind whips through town, and with few other sights that intrigue us, we retreat to the Corner Cafe for hot chocolate, Diet-Coke and apple cake. Indeed a welcome respite.

Visiting Bodo
Our time on shore is a nice interlude. But the fjords and coastline await so we return to the ship, enriched by visiting these ports of call.
Molly returning to the ship