05 APRIL 2009 :: THE ARCTIC CIRCLE - FINAL VERSION
After many hours of healthy debate with professional editor, and my loving co-conspirator, Fiona. I was able to come up with the final draft for my Arctic Adventure piece. If you read the first one, I'm sure you'll see it is very different. We agreed that the journal style of the first draft made the whole piece too long and difficult to wade through. This one is much more succinct and concentrates on a few key moments. I hope people find it a more engaging read.
71 degrees north
Kristian Birkeland might not be the first name people think of when it comes to arctic expeditions, but this scientist turned arctic adventurer provided us with the basis of all aurora knowledge we have today. While Iíve often dreamed of seeing Northern Lights, like Birkeland, Iíd never thought of myself as an adventurer.† Yet here I am, about to undertake my own expedition, and hopefully, catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights.
After an early morning flight to Alta, 190km north of Oslo, Iím in Finnmark, home to the Northern Sami and deep inside the Arctic Circle. To get here Iíve travelled by train, aeroplane and car: the final forty-seven kilometres will be by snowmobile over frozen lakes.
In preparation for the final leg of the journey, our Sami hosts Per Stian and Ante, are giving us a lesson in snowmobiling. Standing outside I scratch at the snow with my boot, there is only ten centimetres of snow before I hit ice. Iím curious why there is so little snow and ask them if anyone skates on the ice. They both look puzzled, I get the feeling they are wondering why anyone would want to skate on it. Finally Ante asks, "Why? Do you skate?" I tell him I play ice hockey and their eyes sparkle. "Do you fight?" he asks me with a grin. I tell him that because of my size people tend to leave me alone. They both nod, satisfied with my answer. I get the feeling I may have just gained some respect.
As we set off across the frozen lake, Iím surprised by the landscape. Instead of the sparse land I had imagined, there are tufts of grassy tundra and forests of birch trees. The extreme cold has left the birch covered in ice, giving each branch a beautiful crystalline appearance. There is still surprisingly little snow, just a thin layer of it glistening like diamond dust on the lake and deep, black, mysterious pools of ice, where the wind has swept it away.
About half way through the journey we stop to rest. Per Stian explains he needs to cut down some branches for us to sleep on tonight. Weíll sleep on a bed of birch and reindeer hide, the snow inches beneath us. Having never slept in a tent (ever), itís a concept Iím unable to grasp. I watch as he takes out a large knife, swiftly and deftly removing birch branches. Not for the first time I wish I hadn't packed my camera on the sleigh, Per Stian's ability to gather birch is impressive. We put the branches into bundles and tie them to one of the sleighs, before continuing our journey.
As we get closer to the camp, the landscape turns treacherous. There are small hills of drifted snow and great pools of exposed ice to navigate. We come down what I presume is a riverbank and hit a large sheet of ice. Laurent briefly looses control of the snowmobile, it wobbles and jumps before he wrestles it back into a straight like. I look back and my travelling companions, Mona and Kirsti have not been so lucky. Theyíre thrown from the snowmobile as it rolls onto its side. I tap Laurent on the arm and we stop. Jumping off, I run over to see if they are ok. Thankfully, they are both in one piece. I breathe a sigh of relief as we are a long way from help. Per Stian and I push the snowmobile back up and onto its tracks. It stands in the sunlight, defiant, unscathed, as if to say, is that the best youíve got?
And light appeared
I step outside and gaze up at the sky; itís overcast. But, some stars are visible and there is a white glow behind parts of the cloud to the north. I feel my heart racing and a smile spreads across my face. I know what the light behind the cloud means... the Northern Lights.
I quickly unpack my tripod and set it up away from the camp, so there is no light from the fire. Standing outside in the cold, my camera ready, Iím desperately willing the cloud to clear. Isak walks over to see what Iím up to. I tell him Iíve wanted to see the Northern Lights since I was a small child; Iím hoping the cloud will clear and Iíll get a glimpse tonight. Isak is less optimistic and tells me I might have more luck tomorrow night. I tell him Iím a stubborn and patient man, Iím happy to stand here and wait.
Itís not long before my patience is rewarded. The cloud clears and I gaze up at thousands of stars, the likes of which I have never seen. A white mist hangs suspended in the sky, subtly ebbing and flowing. It moves across the sky, sometimes hard to spot and at other times obvious in its configuration. It teases us, like a ghostly apparition, as we eagerly await its next shape and form.
The mist thickens and develops a green hue, a soft watercolour brushed across the night sky. With time it intensifies, almost impenetrable like a winter fog, arcs streaming overhead, reaching from one horizon to the other. Without warning the fog develops solid lines, as if the sky has been torn open with light streaming down on us through a veil of blackness. The lines of vibrant light begin falling and flowing in the sky, green, yellow and white light radiating from the tears in the sky as they seem to dance, twist and fold before us. Then, as suddenly as it started, the light stops, we are left staring up at the thin white mist, our jaws open, aghast.†
I look through the photos on my camera and realise Iíve been able to capture this amazing†spectacle. I giggle as I view them, a moment of pure joy so blissful the only way I can react is to revert to a state of childlike wonderment and giggling.
The Sami believe you must never point or gesture at the Northern Lights as they would harm you. The Vikings thought the Northern Lights were reflections from the shields of Valkyries. Kristian Birkeland discovered electrons are ejected from sunspots on the solar surface, directed to the earth and guided to the earthís polar regions by the geomagnetic field where they produce the visible aurora.
Gazing back up at the sky this incredible spectacle begins again. The white mist morphs into the same soft green watercolour fog. Arcs stream from horizon to horizon. Then, once more, the Northern Lights explode into life, this time the light is more intense and vivid. From one horizon, a cylinder of white and blue light forms. It gathers speed, spinning at an incredible rate, giving the impression of dust trapped in a cyclone. In a matter of seconds this whirling tube of dust and intense light rockets over our heads before disappearing over the far horizon. The light ends with it and the mist returns.
I walk back inside the lavvu, having long since lost the feeling in my fingers. I sit next to the fire, my hands slowly defrosting above the flame. Per Stian cooks a strip of reindeer meat on the fire, he takes out his knife and cuts the meat in half, handing it to me. I think to myself, does life get any better than this?
At the extremities
Apparently itís minus twenty-five degrees Celsius and will be even colder tonight. Itís a fair drop from yesterdays minus fifteen, but these numbers have lost all meaning. It's cold. Period. During the day the sun is low in the sky, a white disc devoid of heat; at night, I gaze at the stars in anticipation of the Northern Lights. Neither skyline provides a sense of warmth.
If I stand still for too long my feet hurt; a burning chill that seeps up from the snow and ice, despite two pairs of woollen socks and heavy boots from a survival store in Alta. Taking my gloves off for a few minutes means my hands hurt, a few more minutes and I loose all feeling. Because I want to take notes and photographs Iím struggling to avoid this problem. My fingers are cracked, and bleeding in places because of exposure to the extreme cold. Itís become very difficult to write, although unlike my hands, my camera is faultless and keeps working, if only I could operate it easily.
I think back to when Per Stian met us at the airport in Alta and his insistence on checking that we had come prepared for what lay ahead. ďI need to check your luggage.Ē The others have enormous backpacks and I glow with pride at my small, well thought out bag. I open my bag and he rummages through it, pulling out my socks and thermals. Holding them up, he flatly states, ďItís not woolĒ. I tell him theyíre specifically manufactured thermals, designed to draw moisture away from the skin, while keeping your legs and chest warm. Itís the absolute latest technology, I insist. He frowns again, ďItís not woolĒ. His lack of enthusiasm extends to my socks. By the time he finds my New York Rangers hockey jersey all the bravado has been knocked out of me. Per Stian simply states, ďwe must go to the shopĒ.
I stand in the doorway feeling more than a little foolish with my small bag of ill-equipped gear. Iím handed a pair of woollen thermals, leggings and shirt and the largest, thickest woollen jumper Iíve ever seen. The shopkeeper notices the chastised look on my face and shoots me a smile. ďWhere are you from?Ē she asks. I tell her Iím from Australia and Iím very excited to be in the Arctic. She smiles again and tells me Iíll have a great trip.
Standing here looking up at the Northern Lights in my new woollen thermals (leggings and shirt), my synthetic, technically engineered under clothes (leggings and shirt), my new woollen jumper, two pairs of gortex snow trousers, two pairs of woollen socks, heavy boots and a heavy gortex snow jacket, Iím beginning to wonder if I owe my life to his clothing suggestions.
I feel a sense of sadness as we travel along the narrow, twisting road towards Alta. Itís the same sadness Iíve felt from the moment I woke up this morning. Every passing minute has brought me closer to the end of this incredible journey.
We spent the morning learning to drive reindeer sleighs. Domesticated is not really a fitting word for reindeer. Slightly tame and keen to run when tied to a sleigh is a better description.†Sitting alone on a sleigh and steering it across the frozen lakes, using a wooden harness handed down through generations of Sami was pure exhilaration. Thereís also an incredible feeling of achievement as you jump off the moving sleigh, and wrestle the reindeer to a halt. But, all of this was all done with a tinge of sadness.
Now Iím sitting in the back of the car, splitting a case of beer with Per Stian and listing to Norwegian radio broadcasting such 90ís rock classics as Four Non-Blondes Ė Whatís Going On. It will be hard to say goodbye to him, sitting here sharing a beer at the end of this incredible journey I canít help but feel a sense of camaraderie.
It was hard to say goodbye to everyone I've met in the last four days. People have opened up their homes and their lives to us. Theyíre proud of their traditions and genuinely happy for the opportunity to share them with a curious traveller. The people Iíve met and the experience Iíve been privileged enough to enjoy will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Luke (of the Arctic)
Little by little, one travels far.
J. R. R. Tolkien