Wednesday, September 15, 2010

From Bergen to Rosendal: Switching Sides of the Family

I was totally sold the second the boat left the dock in Bergen. This, my friend, is the way to travel. Not that I have anything against the buses. They have served me well... but zooming across the fjords on a beautiful sunny day, you just can't beat it.


Where once, I saw quite a similarity between the west coast of BC and the west coast of Norway... These days I don't. I see the similarities in that they're both coastal. The weather can often be the same... Other than that though, not so much. To me, Norway is unlike any other place in the world. The little coastal villages we passed by on the boat only enforced this more.

We arrived in Rosendal. Beth had been looking forward to this part since day one. Finally getting out into the countryside. Away from the city. Just relaxing with family. Fishing. Fishing. More fishing.

It was interesting for me because it was the opposite of how I usually do this part of the trip. Never before had I first come to Rosendal and then gone to Mundheim. It's always been the other way around. But the boat across the fjords worked very very well and I think this might just become the regular way to get out here.

Gunvor met us at the dock... and we were home.

It's always interesting the split when switching sides of the family. Of course, being out in the country makes it all easier. Everyone is close by. It's not such a task to get everyone together or to see everyone. They're all there already.

It was great to be back. We stopped on the way back and picked up Oystein, who of course was in a river fishing. The boy lives to fish. Every waking second I think that he thinks about fish. All around. One day he will be a master fisherman, with his own TV show. We made it back to the house and to the rest of the family. Walking in, Rolf already had one of his famous dinners on the stove. We were set.

The first night we spent catching up. Talking, eating. Having a great time.

The next day my first good chance to jump in the fjord. You see, the weather had finally changed for the good completely. Basically the afternoon we left the family reunion in Sognefjord, we saw the sun start to come out... the blue sky start to take over. The weather, which we had wished to be good then... finally was good.

Brave swimmers

And when the weather is good, there's just one thing to do. Jump in the fjord. Ola was the brave one. He was already down there, swimming, jumping off the dock. I had to give myself a little bit of a push. It wasn't quite warm to the point of absolutely needing to get in the water. The water itself wasn't as warm as it would be after a long hot summer. But really, if the opportunity is there. You have to take it.

It was very good. Very refreshing. Much needed.

Try as I might, there was no way to convince Beth to jump in. Everyone else did. My lovely wife, not so much. So much for nature girl, the only water she'll jump into must be full of chlorine.

When we were done with the swimming, it was time to head out onto the fjord. Rolf took us and Oystein out zooming across the fjord in his new boat. We took a tour of the fjord, the local islands, did a loop of the fish farms, and just enjoyed the scenery. It's a beautiful, beautiful place.

Øystein: Norwegian Fisher King

The afternoon came and Rolf & Gunvor took us for a trip far up into the mountains. A fairly long drive from Rosendal up Hardangervidda to a power station way up in the hills. Again, the scenery we were passing on the way was just gorgeous. I'll never lose my appreciation for the natural beauty of Norway. Fjords that are the deepest most radiant blue. The majestic cliffsides. Massive waterfalls.

Beth & Jon & A Waterfall

We traveled far up into the mountains and the four of us went for a mini hike up the roads by the powerplant. Apparently it is quite a nice hike if you have more time for it. We didn't have a whole lot of time left before it would get dark and we had to get back to town to meet the kids, so we took some pictures, had some fun, and drove back to town.

Group Shot! Rolf, Beth, Gunvor & Jon

The next day we relaxed during the day. Finally a chance to just enjoy our surroundings and not worry about anything else. The kids were in school, Rolf & Gunvor had to work. So we enjoyed some time just for us. When they all made it back, again we took to the fjord.

The weather started to turn again. We got a little bit of a mist. Then a little bit of a rain. We crossed the fjord, did a loop towards the town and then back out. We came across some commercial fishing boats who were fishing for sardines. We pulled right up along side them. It was pretty fascinating. They had laid out nets throughout the area... then they brought the nets in quite a bit and scooped up the thousands and thousands of tiny sardines with a giant basket. It was one guy's job to aim the basket and then operate the scoop on it. Lifting them out of the water and over the cargo hold on the boat where he'd open the basket and thousands upon thousands of sardines would fall into the boat.

Sardine Fishing!

We stayed and watched for quite a while. Neither Gunvor nor the kids had ever been this close to the boats when this was done. It was pretty fascinating. In the end, we bought a bucket of sardines from them and headed back to the shore. The rain had started to get harder and harder so it was time to head back.

Beth had had enough of the rain by the time we made it to shore, so she and Gunvor went up into the house. The rest of us headed back out onto the fjord. Now that we had sardines for bait... It was fishing time!

We actually caught quite a few. The bigger fish had gathered around where the boats were fishing for sardines. They knew it was easy pickings. So did we. You could see them in the water below the boat. Of course, the bait worked quite well. The boys all caught good fish. I got one too. There's nothing quite like that absolute thrill that shakes through your sytem the first second you feel the fish bite on your line. The battle that ensues between you and him. Rolf said afterwards he thought I was trying to stay calm and cool when the fish bit. Like it was no big deal. But he could see how excited I was. I guess that might be true, but I didn't think personally I was trying to stay cool. I was most definitely enjoying the moment.

So with another great dinner, we felt our time in Rosendal was getting short. We had decided to head to Mundheim the next day to close out the trip. Ingebjorg and the kids in Mundheim had the day off, so it was a perfect time to get over there. We woke up early the next day and Gunvor took us out to the ferry. It's in a new spot from where it's always been. Apparently the old terminal wasn't big enough anymore for it's usage so it had to be rebuilt about 5km farther down the road. In a sense it was too bad, because it used to be so close. Time does change things, even out here.

We said our farewells to Gunvor. Tried to get her to commit to bringing everyone over to Mundheim for one last visit before we headed home... and she headed off to work.

The ferry arrived... and we were once again sailing across the fjord. Destination: Mundheim.

Ola posing again
Monday, September 13, 2010

Not A Lavvo

Joining up again Friday afternoon with Helge and his family, we were off to Norevik on the Sognefjord. The family reunion was upon us. It's about a three hour drive with a ferry across the fjord as well. I just started to daydream and watch the beautiful scenery race by. Norway is a beautiful country. There isn't any other (to my knowledge) like it. I love the twisting roads, the endless tunnels, the mighty fjords. The longest tunnel we went through on the drive was about 11km. In perspective, that's like entering a tunnel in downtown Vancouver and coming out in the middle of Burnaby. Some of them are crazy long. Beth doesn't like the tunnels. The thought of all that mountain above us, not so comforting. Me? No problem.

By the time we hit the ferry, we'd met up with more family (Sveinung & Eva, Camilla & Martin) and across we went.

The weather was a question. There were signs that it could be good... but more and more it was looking like it would go bad.

We made it to Norevik. Helge had a cabin, so they went off there to settle in. Us? In a romantic notion, thinking of beautiful weather of the Norwegian summer, I had decided that we would reserve a lavvo.

A lavvo is sort of a Scandinavian teepee. Some good friends of ours were married last summer and they'd stayed in a lavvo the night of their wedding. It was beautiful and spacious... filled with proper bedding. In remembering their lavvo, I thought that would be a great idea. Sure, the website didn't have pictures of their lavvos... But well, that was no problem. It would most definitely live up to the vision in my head. How could it not? A lavvo, on the Sognefjord, in the middle of summer... It would be fit for a king.

Well... About that...

It turned out what they called a lavvo was most definitely not. Not a lavvo. It was a tent. A big tent yes... but not a lavvo.


It was cold. It was wet. It was fairly obvious we could not spend the weekend sleeping in this "lavvo".

So again, it came to Helge to save the day. The guy should wear a cape... My cousin Stian volunteered to give up his room... So between the two of them, we had a roof over our heads and a warm place to sleep.

Helge & Hansa

The whole weekend was interesting for me. I came in to it feeling that I had to be there and yet knowing that it wouldn't stack up to my memories of the original. It was unfair to Beth in a way because I spent the entire weekend drifting. Not necessarily thinking about having her with me at all times but rather just about where I wanted to be, what I wanted to experience.

That was alright. She had plenty of new, previously unmet family to bond with.

Probably key among these were cousins that I hadn't met yet either. Helge's niece and nephews Anett, Jokke and Thomas. Along with Stian, they provided constant amusement all weekend. It was great to get to spend time with them all.

As for the weekend itself... Of course it wasn't perfect. We'd only gotten our cabin situation dealt with when we first met up with Arthur. A cousin of my father and member of the organizing committee... We hadn't actually ever gotten an invite (it was supposed to have made it to us, but never did). So in a sense we were a surprise to be there... Beth worried for a moment they were going to kick us out. I wasn't worried... I suppose I'm used to just showing up now. At any rate, it wasnt a problem. Beth & I became #173 and #174.

174 people. I expected that. Expected more actually... I was sure there had been more in 1999. Still, it was a huge crowd of people... all related to me.

The weather was the biggest hurdle. Though apparently it had been beautiful the week before and it would be again the week after... Our first week in Norway was cold and wet. This was true of the Sognefjord as well. So cold... So wet... and really, the hall was not big enough for the people... So a good portion (including us) ended up outside for the meal. When we entered the hall for dinner, we found ourselves subject to reservation signs... People had beat us down there during the day and called tables. Tables for families, tables for kids, no tables for us. It was a major flaw to it all. I had the feeling that if my Great Uncle Ledvin was still alive and there, then there would have been no chance we'd have ended up outside, but it was what it was. The speeches and festivities from inside did not make it to the outside... Mostly the outside crowd did a lot of shivering (even with the heaters) and once the food was served, enjoyed their meals and made a break for it. Back to the cabins. It affected the party afterwards as well, as I remember all the people outside partying for most of the night during the 1999 reunion. Wandering from group to group, drinking with every crazy Norwegian family member I found. This time, that wasn't the case. It was too cold, too wet for any outside merriment... and so that toned down the entire party to an extent.

I floated. It drove Beth a little crazy. I floated between the family I'm close with, the ones I barely remembered, the ones that most definitely remembered me. I listened to the speeches, even though with so many voices to pick through, I was having trouble understanding much of anything. I took video (I tell you, that iPhone4 is so darn handy) and pictures and just tried to suck as much of it in as I could.

Due to the weather, the group picture didn't end up happening. This was too bad as well... They had been planning to do it on Saturday before dinner, but that was not to be.

So there were speeches... Then came the food... Then came the party and the dancing. Of course, a good amount of Hansa (the beer of Bergen and the west coast) kept the night flowing smoothly.

There were definitely highlights to the evening. The chance to spend good time with my Great Aunt Asta. The two of us shared a dance, I felt a little ridiculous (which of course proved that I wasn't drunk enough to be dancing). It was still a lot of fun. She also explained a lot of the connections and the pictures on the walls. Pictures of her parents and grandparents. Of my grandfather and great uncle. Pictures that were taken even before she was around. A lot of history to my family in this place.

Old Family Pictures

Overall it was an excellent experience and I was glad to have made the trip just to be there. Of course there were hiccups... Of course things didn't necessarily go to plan. It was great to get the chance again to make these connections and to actually be far more able to process and understand it all... As opposed to the first time, which was a whirlwind... I'd only been in the country for five days, no experience with the language... So much harder to take everything in.

This time it was manageable. This time I could understand far more... and even though I couldn't convince Beth to speak a word of it, she did well with understanding as well.

The party went well into the night. We retired to the cabins and the drinking and talking continued. It was a great time with a lot of people that I've become amazingly close to over the last eleven years. People that took me in eleven years ago when I just suddenly showed up on the doorstep. The power of blood and this half of my heritage.

We woke up the next morning and the weather was starting to clear. We packed up all our bags, said our goodbyes to the people that were still there. The people that we wouldn't see again this trip. With the end of the family reunion, so too came the end of our time in Bergen and time with this side of the family. Helge, Tove and Stian took us back out to Bergen. The one person I had missed seeing yet, I had expected her to be at the family reunion, was my Great Aunt Gudrun. Ledvin's wife. Another that I am really close with... and who has been an absolutely wonderful beautiful person to me since the first day I arrived. Helge was good enough to take us to Eidsvag (where I had shown up out of the blue eleven years before) for a quick visit with her (his aunt). We hugged, we chatted quick. She was disappointed that we couldn't come inside. It was quick, but it was good we got the chance.

Us & Gudrun

Helge dropped us off in downtown Bergen. We said our farewells to the three of them, our endless thanks... and again, we were alone.

It was time to switch sides of the family. From my grandfather's family to my grandmother's family. Time to go from the city to the country.

A boat was leaving from Bergen to Rosendal about an hour and a half from the time Helge dropped us off... We bought our tickets, found the dock... the boat arrived... and we were traveling again.

Time for Rosendal!
Sunday, September 5, 2010

Norway? Well, it's hot and sunny in summer.

Or so I told my lovely wife.

This turned out not to be the case. Although it had been the previous week, all we got was rain the first week in Bergen. We made the best of it anyways.

Most of Sunday and Monday were write offs. Sunday we'd been so exhausted after travel that it was all sleep. Monday was much the same.

We did have a mission on Monday we wanted to take care of though. Sim cards for our phones. To be able to use our own phones would just be so damn handy while we were in Norway that it became our first priority. It was easy enough (in theory). We just stopped by a shop in sentrum, picked up cards, popped them in... and off we go.

Unfortunely for some reason, simple is never simple enough. We got the cards, no problem. Popped one into Beth's phone. It worked. Popped one into my phone? Not so much.

On the day we bought our iPhone4's... Mine had camera issues and I had to take it back to the Apple Store and get a replacement. Unfortunately, we think that the guy who replaced my phone gave me one locked to Rogers instead of the unlocked I had paid for. When you're in a foreign country and testing this, very little can be done. Rogers official response was "We don't care." Apple had no response. So, one working phone was better than none at any rate.

The first person we ended up seeing in town was my cousin Helge and his wife Tove. As always, it was great to see them. Helge and I have had some great adventures in the past and are quite close.

The pure amount of smokers in Bergen amazes me. People constantly have a cigarette between their lips. It's hard to comprehend how an otherwise healthy people can have such a common unhealthy habit. I remember the first time I was here people could still smoke in malls etc. Now it's all outside, so at least there's that. The amount of money people must spend on them here though is insane.

Tuesday night we took a trip out to dinner in Arna with my Grandmother's sister's family. Arna is an 8 minute train ride from Bergen Central Station. A quick shot under one of the seven mountains.

Again, they are all wonderful people and I've felt a strong connection to them since the first time I was here. We had a good visit and then hopped the train back under the mountain to Bergen.

Already I realize that everything on this trip is going to seem a lot more quick and brief than usual. Even the first time I was here I stayed longer than two weeks. On the flip side though, since we were here only eight months ago last, it doesn't seem like the normal "you have to catch up on three years worth of events". We'll see if there's a happy medium between the two.

My cousin Glenn, whose place we've been staying at in Bergen was back from his work on Tuesday. He arrived when we were on our way to Arna. He was planning on heading up to the family cabin in Lindås. Camilla (his sister) and Martin (her fianceé) were already up there.
After promising to call us back as the plan progressed, the next we heard from him he was on a boat to the cabin. Plans? Who needs em.

Now we just needed to find a way to Lindås.

It actually turned out to be a pretty easy trip. The great thing about buses in Norway is that they go pretty much everywhere in the country. It is a proven fact, however, that if there's anyone in the country who does not speak English, it's a bus driver. I'm pretty sure there's a spot on their application form that if English is stated as a spoken language it disqualifies you from being hired.
At any rate, we made it out to Lindås and after about an hour enjoying free wifi in a little cafe, somehow managed to wake up Glenn to come get us. Mission successful. We had arrived.

The cabin in Lindås is a beautiful place and exactly what I needed at this point in the trip. Accessible only by water, it was built by my Great Uncle Ledvin about 40 years ago. We had the chance to come here during Beth's first trip to Norway and enjoyed it immensely.

We spent the afternoon out on the boat, fishing. Didn't catch a single fish but that was alright. It was great to be able to spend some time with Camilla, Martin and Glenn. After the fishing we spent the evening back at the cabin... Drinking Hansa and playing Jenga. It was an amusing night.

YouTube Video

Then it was time to go back to town. The weekend was getting closer, as was the reason for this trip, the family reunion in Sogn. We could only hope the weather would get better as we made the trip up there. We crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.
Wednesday, September 1, 2010

And so we arrived...


In my rosy memories it's always hot and sunny in August. I'd likely say the same about Vancouver. The thing is, that's not always true.

The one thing that was kind of sketchy and unconfirmed about my plan was what exactly was going to happen when our plane landed in Bergen. The truth was I wasn't entirely sure at all if anyone would be there... and as it turned out, they were not.

So it was that we took the bus into town, not really knowing if we'd be able to get into my cousin Glenn's place at all. It had been a long travel day. I'd probably gotten all of two hours sleep in the previous 24. We were ready to just collapse... but we needed food and our bearings first. So some fine gluten free pizza at Peppe's was our first priority. We borrowed our waiter's phone and touched base with the family. Problem was, no one was in town. Turned out everyone we could call had been out to Eikelandsosen for a concert and party weekend. We pretty much just had to take a chance and go blind. Lucky for us, Glenn's roommate Christian was home (just ten minutes before we got there) and could let us in.

Relief! A home base... We got there about 3:30pm and were unconscious mere minutes later. We woke briefly in the middle of the night, but did not actually move again until nearly 3pm the next day.

The travel had wiped us out completely, but we were in Bergen.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Back to Norway already?

So, given that we're on the road again, I should probably get back to updating the blog. Not only on the road... but on the rails.

Tonight, we're taking a train from Vancouver to Seattle. Tomorrow we're flying from Seattle to Bergen. Norwegian summer only eight months after we were there last. Usually I make a trip once every three years or so... So this trip wasn't entirely planned.

To explain this one, I have to start at the beginning. Long ago, the previous millennium... The year 1999. The first time my feet touched the ground in Norway. The year it became a part of my soul.

A big part of that, of course, was meeting my Great Uncle Ledvin. The man who gave me a respect and pride for the family name. Another part was the family reunion we stumbled into... Such an absolutely amazing event unlike any I'd ever done.

You have to remember that we didn't announce we were going to Norway. We had no real plans to go to Norway. As much was on that trip, it was a random twist of fate.

No one knew we were coming, we just showed up. With perfect timing as it turned out... The following weekend after we arrived was a massive family reunion. Over 200 people, all related to me. It was crazy, it was intense... I had no idea.

I've never had so many pictures taken of me in my life. The long lost Canadian relative. There was a lot of explaining... Who I was. How I was related. That in fact I was just as close blood as were most of them.

Overall it was a fabulous experience... My first, which of course led to many more, including last winter's trip.

During that trip, ten years after the first, I started hearing the whispers. Another family reunion... Eleven years since the last. My Great Aunt Asta mentioned it... The idea started forming in my head instantly... And before we'd even left Norway, the cogs were rolling in my head planning the next.

I knew from the first mention of it that it was something I really couldn't miss. The last one was such an amazing experience that there was really no way I'd miss this. Plus, it's not like they were very often... Every eleven years?

So then it just came down to details. Originally, I toyed with the idea of going alone. Keeping the expenses down. It was a logical plan... A good theory. Though it didn't take me long to realize it wasn't much more that that. I could probably get away with a solo trip to... Umm... Well... Not Norway. So things morphed... And that's where we are today...

The train. Vancouver to Seattle. Day one of Norway 2010 (part 2).
Tonight we'll stay with friends. Tomorrow we'll fly Icelandair to Bergen, arriving Sunday midafternoon.

At this point I'm looking forward very much to a good jump in the fjord!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The End: Copenhagen to home

The morning started very early. Our cab was to arrive at 5 AM, so the alarm went off at 4 AM. We needed to pack all our bags back out to the road where the cab would meet us. Christel had been kind enough to bring us a large variety of breakfast food the night before, so we were able to eat before we hit the road.

It was so quiet. When we walked up to the road, we could hear the cab coming for almost five minutes before we could actually see it. (OK maybe it was closer to two minutes.) The cab took us into Karasjok and straight to the bus for the airport in Lakselv.

Then we were flying again. Lakselv to Tromsø to Oslo to Copenhagen.

It wasn't until we got to Copenhagen that we realized just how much the dog sledding had kicked our butts. We were mentally and physically exhausted. The change in climate from the cold dry air of the north to the cold wet air of Copenhagen didn't help, either.

Suddenly we were coughing and sniffling and not at our best. Plus we started to realize it was time to come home and perhaps we really had slammed a little too much into this trip.

Nonetheless, we were glad to be in Copenhagen.

Our friend Christian picked us up at the airport and took us back to their place. His wife Karen would meet up with the three of us not too long after. As well as their new addition, baby Viggo!

Christian & Viggo

It was great to see them. A few years back, they lived a year in Vancouver. Beth and Karen met and became close through a knitting group. We spent a lot of time with them that year. They'd been back to Vancouver last summer as well. Nevertheless, it was great to be able to see them on their turf this time.

We could feel that everything was winding down once we had gotten to Copenhagen. Suddenly our energy was gone, I wasn't taking hundreds of pictures every day, we were just relaxing... cocooning... preparing for the trip home.

We spent some time exploring the city. We did the cheesy touristy bus tour. Regardless of how cheesy these can be, I've always found them a great way to get an initial view of the city. Find out the history of the area. We didn't have much of a selection of tours to choose from, as pretty much all of them are shut down this time of year... But the one we took was quite good. We got to see the major spots of the city, the Little Mermaid, Nyhavn, the Bella Center (where the climate change talks had been just a few weeks before).

Ahhh wind power.

We took an afternoon and went to the Carlsberg Brewery, where we saw the largest collection of unopened beer bottles in the world. Something like 19,800 at the moment. I'd been here ten years before and done the tour, but it was interesting to do again. They'd added quite a bit to it.

Now, that's a lot of beer.

We also took a day trip to Sweden. It's a forty minute train ride from Copenhagen Central Station to Malmö, Sweden. We hadn't actually taken a train this trip and Beth wanted to add another country to her list.

The trip was nice. Heading over the massive bridge that connects the two countries, we saw some huge wind turbines out in the distance, providing Denmark with some portion of the 20% of its power that comes from wind. We also saw an IKEA actually in Sweden. Unfortunately we didn't get a picture of it, since we just saw it from the train.

As soon as we got to Malmö, we went to the tourist info center. We wanted to find out what we should actually see in Malmö. They recommended the Twisted Torso, a walk along the seaside, a visit to the castle and then finishing off by walking through the old town. We managed each of these, except for the castle.

The Twisted Torso was pretty cool. We took some pictures and moved on fairly quickly, since it was so cold.

Twisted Tower in Malmo

Us & The Twisted Tower

The seaside was quite nice as well. Reminded us a lot of Yaletown at home, with very trendy looking cafes and condos and such. There were even some house barges!

Houseboats in Malmo

Then we found that we were losing the light and we pretty cold, so we decided to head back towards the train station. We did a quick walk through the old town and jumped back on a train to Copenhagen.

We spent most of the week just hanging around in Copenhagen. Visiting several of the sights, but mostly relaxing and spending time with Karen, Christian and Viggo. A whole lot of board games and card games ensued (Settlers of Catan and Set). It was a great end to the trip.

To thank them for their hospitality, we all went out to dinner the last night we were in town to a place called Madklubben ("The Food Club"). It was a pretty fabulous meal and a fun evening.

When the last morning finally came, we were more than ready to head home. We said our goodbyes to everyone and headed back to Copenhagen Central. A quick train to the airport and before long we were flying again...

From Copenhagen back to Reykjavik. We both would have loved another dip in the Blue Lagoon, but unfortunately it was not to be... then from Reykjavik to Seattle.

The interesting part of flying west is that we arrive at the same time we leave pretty much. We left Reykjavik at 4:30pm and were to arrive in Seattle at 4:55pm. We did get back a little late... but still, it definitely throws you off.

Landing in Seattle we saw our first rain in five weeks. First time we'd seen rain since we were originally in Iceland. Very quickly I remembered how little I missed it.

Beth was going back to school and staying in Seattle, and Jon jumped on a bus and fled back north to Canada.

It was good to be home.

Overall, the trip was fantastic. The weather was amazing our entire trek. Getting the chance to spend time with family for a Norsk Christmas was wonderful. All that time playing in the snow. The dog sledding was amazing. Far more intense and incredible than we had been expecting in advance. The Northern Lights beautiful. Ending it all off with good friends in Copenhagen, the perfect touch.

We squeezed in a lot over the five weeks of the trip and we enjoyed all of it.

Have to admit though, suddenly being able to think about our next trip... After all that cold, the beaches of Costa Rica in February sound very very good. ;)
Saturday, January 9, 2010

Day 30 - 33: The Arctic Circle

And so we woke up... very early in the morning.

A travel day begins.

From Bergen to Oslo. Oslo to Kirkenes. Kirkenes to Lakselv.

The far north of Norway. Not all that far from the Russian border. (In the Kirkenes airport, even the ads were in Norwegian and Russian.) Really kind of the end of the world. Certainly the farthest north either of us had ever been.

Beth & the plane in Kirkenes

From the airport in Lakselv, we had a choice... We could either wait six hours for a bus or we could take a cab. Waiting didn't seem like much fun, so we took the cab instead. Chalk it up as my most expensive cab ride ever.

It was snowing. The roads were white. The scenery was white. It was beautiful.

The cab driver didn't say a word to us... I assume he didn't speak English, and I didn't really feel like breaking out the Norsk. It was enough to just sit silently in the cab, watching this world go by. We kept our eyes open for reindeer. Beth actually did see two on the drive. We arrived in Karasjøk early in the afternoon.

For reference...

Vancouver is at 49˚ latitude.
Bergen is at 60.39˚ latitude.
Karasjøk is 69.47˚ latitude.

The Arctic circle is at 66.33˚. We were officially in the Arctic Circle.

We wandered the grounds of the lodge. A team of dogs had just pulled in, so we stopped briefly to watch that. We were shown our cabin. Very cool log cabins handmade by the owner. Very natural.

We were introduced to our guide over dinner. Christel, a young woman from Bergen who was now spending her seventh year in Karasjøk.

It was just going to be the three of us. Well, fifteen dogs and us... heading off into the wild. (We each had four dogs, and Christel had seven because she carried all the gear.) We were outfitted with extra clothing. We already had four layers, and they gave us many more, including a second pair of snow pants, three layers of mittens, and a leather jacket with a fur-trimmed hood.

The next morning, we were off.

It was quite intense from the get go. We did two dog sledding trips last year, and compared to this, those were cheesy tourist things. This was hardcore. I fell off twice in the first ten minutes... We were flying down hills at high speed, hitting corners we didn't see coming.

We were told to lock our arm through the top of the sled in the event of a fall. We were also told that we would most definitely fall. And I did.

The arm locking was next to impossible at first. I held on as hard as I could, but the dogs don't slow down. When (if) you do manage to get them stopped, if you ease up the line even slightly, they start running again... pulling you down harder before you can get back up.

Twice I watched the dogs run away with the sled... Off into the distance. Twice I cursed to myself as I walked to catch up with Beth and Christel who had caught my dogs.

But once we were past those first hills, it wasn't so bad. We had this amazing sense of freedom, lost in our instincts and our own thoughts. Although we could see each other, we weren't close enough to talk. All you could do was watch the amazing scenery fly by and react to the terrain and your dogs.

We were glad to find out that there was more light in the day than the one hour we had been told to expect... There was actually a little over four. Not real sunlight or anything... just twilight. The sky gets bright for a little bit... and then it dims. It's quite an experience.

We were led over frozen rivers, frozen lakes, frozen paths... Well, let's face it, "warm" in these parts is considered -15˚C. Everything was frozen. Frozen, vast and beautiful. It felt like another planet.

We stopped on the way in and gathered wood to make a fire so we could eat lunch. There were reindeer skin pelts to sit on.

Us, eating lunch

Before long, we were off again. We had to take advantage of the light.

After about four hours of mushing 26 kilometres, we made it in to the mountain cabin.

The cabin is owned by the government. We were told that cabins without road access are generally owned by the government in Norway. There is a caretaker that works on the property year round, though he lives down in town with his family. He's the third generation of his family to care for this particular cabin. We saw him speeding around on his snowmobile on our last day.

It was very cold at first. The cabin is wood-fired, and no one had been there for days, so it was the same temperature inside as out. We loaded up on wood from the shed and Christel started up the two stoves. It didn't take too long to start to heat up and for us to thaw out. In the meantime we kept warm by carrying the wood from the shed and big jugs of water from the house, since the cabin has no plumbing. The toilets are unheated, uninsulated outhouses attached to the outside of the cabin. Brrr.

The second day was a journey up to the Finnmark plateau (Finnmarksvidda). We were above the tree line, so there was very little blocking the view. It was pretty amazing. Nothing but white snow as far as the eye can see, and maybe the occasional rock or shrub. It was incredibly peaceful.

For the record, I fell down five times on the second day. If you're trying to slow down your sled, stepping on the brake, it can be very easy to lose balance on uneven terrain... If your sled hits a hill at the wrong angle or any number of other things happens, suddenly you're hanging on to the sled for all you're worth, hoping that you can stop the dogs and regain your placement. Unlike the first day, I didn't let go of the sled this time round. At one point, this meant the dogs pulled me halfway across a lake face first. I used every bit of strength I had just to hold on and regain control.

Of course, for the record as well... Beth didn't fall once. She's a natural.

Each day was thoroughly exhausting and incredibly enjoyable. We were very glad to get back to the warmth of the cabin each afternoon. There was a lot of time to kill each day when the darkness came. Beth was very envious of Christel and her knitting, she'd left her own back at the lodge.

The farm at night

Each night we'd go outside to check, every hour or so, if the Northern Lights were in the sky. We had been hoping to see them since the beginning of the trip back in Iceland. The first night, there was no luck at all. The sky was clear and full of stars... but no lights. The second night, we got much luckier. As Beth and Christel walked back across the property from feeding the dogs, Christel spotted a green glow behind the cabin. Beth ran as fast as she could through the snow and ice in her 23948796 layers of clothing to get me from the cabin.

It was pretty amazing watching the green lights dancing across the sky. They only got brighter from when Christel and Beth first spotted them. The photos I got were well worth carrying my tripod the entire trip. It's not easy taking pictures when the temperature is -40˚C. My fingers were numb, my face was red... but I spent almost an hour out there taking pictures of the lights. It was really quite incredible.

Northern Lights

Day three was to be our trip back to the lodge. We cleaned up the cabin, gathered all the gear and prepared for the trek back.

Us & the dog teams

What a trek it was. Christel wanted to test Beth as she hadn't fallen off her sled at any point. We were asked before the midpoint of the trip if we wanted to take the easy way back (the way we had come in on the first day) or if we wanted to take a more challenging path (a trail used by reindeer herders on their snowmobiles that likely would be all fresh powder). I had my reservations against taking the harder path, but in the end it seemed like the bigger adventure and so we went for it. It was extremely intense. We were flying all out down hills with little or no chance of stopping since the icy ground left nothing for the brake to grip. We headed across lakes and suddenly found ourselves in the very middle in a half foot of slush. I'll admit, I did freak out a little the first time I felt my sled sinking into the slush... It is just overflow water from the lake, covering over the ice (which is likely several feet thick) but I didn't know that at the time. This day was easily the coldest of the three as well, our faces were taking quite the beating. Beth's boots hadn't properly dried the night before, so this became an issue for her as well.

The twilight was coming down on us. We stopped very quickly for lunch and some hot sugary juice to get our energy boosted up. We had only about 45 minutes of light left and likely an hour of mushing to make it back to the lodge. We were very tired, very sore... and very ready for the promise of a nice hot sauna when we did make it back.

The last 45 minutes of the run were the most intense and crazy of them all. There were times when all I could do was think to myself over and over "Ohh... This is going to hurt!" I fully expected to fall off at very high speeds on glare ice... yet somehow I managed not to. I think I prayed to every Norse god I could think of to get me through the runs.

The first signs of civilization were definitely a buoy to our spirits: lights and power lines through the trees. Finally, we found ourselves crossing the main road. The end was in sight. By this time, it was getting pretty dark and we were exhausted. It was nearly impossible to see the branches on the trail coming towards us, so I took a few good smacks across the face. I escaped with a bruised cheek and a few scratches. Beth was short enough and quick enough to be luckier than me. No damage.

Near the very end, we had to cross one more road. Unfortunately there had been snow plows coming through so each side of the road had a snow barrier close to four feet tall. We jumped down the first hill and up the second, only to find a steep tree lined hill challenging us again. There was very little time to react and brake... It was pretty much a miracle that I stayed on my sled for this as well. Beth put her foot through the inside of the brake, rather than on it. She came down the whole thing at full speed, but managed to keep control and not run over her dogs. It was one heck of a rush.

Then we heard the dogs barking from the dog yard... and a huge splash of relief came over us. We were back, the journey complete... and somehow, we were still whole.

I was definitely proud of Beth. She had done an excellent job the entire trek. I was proud of myself as well for surviving the last day without a single fall (well, ok, there was one... but it wasn't my fault).

Frozen Beth

We pulled into the dog yard, thanked our dogs and released them so they could play in the yard. Then we headed back to our cabin to prepare for our trip to the sauna. It felt so good to actually be able to have a shower after three days on the trail in the same clothes with no running water.

At dinner we found that there would be a bus the following morning to the airport. We were very glad not to have to take a taxi all the way there again. This would be a much easier hit on our wallets. As we were exhausted and it was to be an early morning again the next day... We said our farewells and retired for the night. Our alarms were set for 4 AM and our last big travel day before our trip home would be upon us before we knew it.

It was really an amazing experience. We're both very glad we did it. It was challenging, intense, and definitely an unforgettable adventure. Christel was awesome and we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Finnmark.

Now, with it complete, the trip was really winding down. Just a week in Copenhagen and we'll find ourselves on the way back home. As much as I love traveling, there is definitely a sense that it is time to get back to normal life.
Thursday, January 7, 2010

Day 22 - 29: Bergen

The week in Bergen was a balance of trying to get to seeing everyone and enough time just for us to wander around the city.

We started out just with a day for ourselves. Travel days are always tiring, whether it's flying across the world or just switching sides of the family from Hardanger to Bergen.

Our first day in the city we actually ended up running into my father's cousin Helge and his wife Tove. It was pretty amusing to just be wandering down the street in Bergen and to run randomly into people we know. Back home in Vancouver, it's usually Beth that does this. Leave it to Jon to do it in Bergen, Norway...

We did the needed touristy things. We went to the Gingerbread City (Pepperkakebyen). Children from all over the area make various gingerbread things: houses, boats, trees, churches... and on and on and on. They're all brought together yearly and a gigantic city is made. I wasn't as impressed with it this year as I have been in the past... Later on, we found out why. Apparently this year someone broke into the exhibition the day before it opened and crushed everything. The show was delayed by a few days and things were quickly fixed and made again... Just imagine the thousands of cute little Norwegian children and their disappointed faces. Christmas lost! Apparently the city was crying to bring out the stocks for a public shaming.

We also took the funicular up to Fløyen, one of Bergen's seven mountains... There's a national park at the top and just the most beautiful view of the city, not to mention some of the best damn sledding in Bergen. Unfortunately, we didn't get the chance to sled down it, but we did make two trips up to the day and one night. 

Jon high above Bergen

Helge was a great help for our entire time in Bergen. We met up with him the next day at his house. Given that I had only ever walked to his house once or twice and usually after several beer, this was a little adventure. Basically it consisted of me calling him every couple hundred feet for directions. Nine or ten calls later and we found it.

We spent some time with Helge and Tove. It was nice. Many pictures of trips to Thailand. It seems Thailand is a very popular tourist destination from Norway. It seemed as though anyone who spoke of vacation was talking about Thailand.

Helge took us out into the city where we met up with my second cousins Eirik and Camilla, also Martin (Camilla's fiancé). It was wonderful to see them all. Last time we were in Norway, they were all in different places, so we missed the chance to see them. It had been almost six years since I had seen them last, and it was great to have a chance to catch up and meet Beth.

Helge also took us out the next day to visit my Great Aunt Gudrun. She is a wonderful lady. I have so much gratitude toward her. Gudrun and her late husband Ledvin (my Grandfather's brother) were the first two people I met in Norway over ten years ago. Their reaction to me back then was amazing and one that I'll always be grateful for. They taught me the pride and strength in my family name and that I cherish.

(Gudrun, Jon, Helge)

Gudrun and I spent a lot of time together when I lived in Norway in 2002. She doesn't speak English, so there were many days when I spoke nothing but Norsk. Bad Norsk, but Norsk nonetheless. The two of us are quite close and it's always nice to see how excited she is to see us.

We found this time that she hasn't changed a bit since the first time I met her. It's amazing how healthy and fresh the Norwegian lifestyle is. We had a good afternoon eating snacks and drinking coffee. It's always very important that I see her.

We had hoped to go out to the island of Fedje for New Year's eve, but that wasn't meant to be this trip. Martin is from Fedje and his family always has a great Nyttår fest (New Year's Eve party). Unfortunately, there were just too many family members going to be there and no free beds, so we ended up staying in Bergen.

New Year's Eve in Norway is pretty fantastic. As the clock comes to midnight, the fireworks start. Every direction you can see, there are fireworks. We went outside on Glenn's balcony and watched. Excellent view over the water and into the heart of Bergen's harbour. Quite the show.

The next day our plan was to visit my Grandfather's sister, my great Aunt Asta. Helge was kind enough to be our tourist guide again. He wasn't feeling all that well, since he had been up until 4:00am partying. Norwegians definitely know how to party. He was a great sport though.

To me, Asta is sort of royalty. She is the last left of my Grandfather's siblings. Last of her generation. She is a pretty amazing woman. Her husband Arne passed on several years back, before our last trip. She definitely lost the spring in her step... However this time we had the honour of meeting her new friend Einar as well. It was great to see how happy she is again.

(Jon, Asta, Einar)

We spent several hours with them. Of course, once she heard that we were leaving on Sunday, she insisted that we spend the night there Saturday. Her house is very close to the airport, so it has become almost tradition that I spend my last night in Bergen with her. It was also a great reason to be able to go back and spend more time with them.

We ended up saying our farewells to Helge and Tove that night. We had much thanks to Helge for everything he had done for us.

Suddenly we realized the time was really ticking away for our time in Bergen. Our last day was a busy one of packing up and visiting. We went back out to Eidsvåg. My second cousin Christian and his wife Birte live on the main floor of the house these days, and Gudrun lives upstairs. We had missed them last time we were here mostly (we saw them for about five minutes) so it was great to be able to take some time and visit. Of course, getting the chance to see Gudrun again was a definite plus as well.

Eirik joined up with us again there, and Camilla and Martin soon thereafter. The five of us (and Martin's niece making six) went out for dinner to Peppe's Pizza for the last supper.

I have to explain a little about Peppe's. It's a Norwegian pizza chain. Like everything in Norway, it's expensive... but it's good. The real benefit we found though was that most of their pizzas can be ordered gluten free. As one could imagine if you know my wife, Beth loved this. Actually, we found Norway in general to be very easy and aware of the condition. The shops, even the littlest stores out in the countryside all had gluten free products. The whole thing made life for Beth quite easy in Norway during this trip.

So our last dinner with them was great. We didn't really get to see them as much as I'd have liked, but at least we did get a chance to see them.

Camilla, Martin & Beth
(Camilla, Martin, Beth)

Eirik was good enough to drive us back out to Asta's. We spent the rest of the evening with her and Einar. She really is a remarkable woman. Seeing them happy and laughing together was excellent. If I'm that happy when I'm 80, I'll be counting my blessings.

As our flight was an early one the next morning, we turned in not too late. Tomorrow is a travel day... Arctic Circle, here we come!
Friday, January 1, 2010

Day 20 to 21: Christmas and the road to Bergen

Originally we had planned to move on to Bergen as of Christmas Day. The main celebration is over and it seemed like a good time to switch sides of the family. However, we ended up finding out that things had changed in the past six years since the last time Jon was here for Christmas. These days there is no bus service at all on Christmas Day, so that put that plan to an end.

Turned out it was a good thing anyways, as it made it possible for us to spend our last day in Hardanger with the entire family out at Hans' hytte. Even Ola!

We got him! Ola, Jon, Beth

So, it was an afternoon of more great desserts... charades... and just general good cheer.

We said our farewells to all from Rosendal as well as Hans and Oddny, since we wouldn't see them again before we left the next morning.

We were having some trouble getting accurate information on just when the next bus actually did leave Mundheim. We didn't really want to leave, of course, but we knew that time was ticking down before we would be flying up north, and we knew it was time to go see the other side of the family. Calling the bus line brought up bad news... apparently there was no service out to Mundheim on the 26th either. Svein didn't think that was actually the case though, so we let everything slide until that morning. Then we would figure it out.

The morning came. The bags were packed. Everything was good to go... except by now we had confirmed that there were indeed no buses. So once Svein got home from work, he'd drive us out to Bergen.

It's about an hour's drive to Norheimsund, a town on the north of the Hardangerfjord, where we would have been able to get a bus. But it's just an hour and a half to Bergen. Bergen was the better call.

It was definitely a beautiful drive. Since the first snow came down, it hasn't left. Apparently this is very unusual for this area of Norway. Usually, like it does in Vancouver, the snow comes down, stays a day... and melts away. This year there has been much snow. Everywhere.

The problem was that I hadn't nailed down all the exact details on when we were to get to Bergen. So as the drive progressed, our plans changed. First we were going to Sveinung and Eva's. Then we ended up going to Gudrun's, who didn't turn out to be there at that exact moment. Finally we ended up back in Arna with the family there.

It was nice to get a chance to spend another afternoon there before we finally did make it in to Bergen.

We spent the first night with Sveinung and Eva. Eva is my father's cousin, my Grandfather's brother's daughter.

Then, the next day we headed out to where we were staying for our week in Bergen: my second cousin (tremenning) Glenn's apartment. Glenn, Eva's son, is out working on the local cruise ships right now. So for the first time since we'd left Iceland, for the next week... we're pretty much on our own.