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.