05 MARCH 2009 :: THE ARCTIC CIRCLE
From the moment I walked into the office, backpack over one shoulder and camera bag in my hand; I knew it would not be a productive day. I spent most of the morning drinking espresso and comparing the weather forecast for Alta, Norway, with the scientific forecast of aurora activity. After cross-referencing multiple weather and aurora websites, I'm convinced that Friday night will have some impressive aurora activity, but the weather forecast says snow and clouds. By Sunday the aurora activity will be minimal, but the skies should be clear. Will I see the Northern Lights? Will my camera survive the Arctic cold? I soon realise its not important, I've been given the opportunity to find out, and that is more then enough for me.
By mid afternoon the caffeine and nervous energy have got the better of me. Even my Arctic research masquerading as "work" becomes difficult to concentrate on. I decide this charade has gone on long enough, I take my backpack and camera from under my desk and quickly say goodbye to my workmates. As I leave the office and start walking towards the train station, a broad grin spreads across my face, I realise I have never been so excited to be getting on a plane.
Unfortunately, some of this excitement is slowly ground out of me on the train to the airport. The carriage is full of people, every last one of them either talking on a mobile phone, or frantically texting on one. The girl sitting next to me is having, what I can confidently say, is the most inane conversation ever conducted.
The train passes through several tunnels on the way to the airport, each one causing the mobile networks to drop out. Surprisingly, the girl next to me does not make the connection between being in a tunnel and her call dropping out. She takes the phone from her ear and looks at it quizzically, banging it on the seat a couple of times, confused as to what to do without a working mobile. She then redials the call, and without missing a beat dives right back into her conversation. I can’t help but admire her commitment to the inane.
Once we reach the airport my thoughts return to the Arctic adventure. Soon there will be no mobile phones, no internet, no electricity. Just wilderness to explorer, a new culture and language to grapple with and an adventure unfolding before me.
After a quiet night in Oslo I take an early morning flight to Alta, 1910km to the north and deep inside the Arctic Circle. Stepping off the plane I am greeted warmly by Anja who introduces me to Mona and Kirsti. Anja tells me Laurent’s flight from Paris was cancelled and he will be joining us later. Per Stian meets the four of us at the airport, he is our Sami guide and immediately takes charge of the group. "I need to check your luggage" Per Stian tells us. I notice the enormous backpacks the other three members of my group have and I feel a sense of pride in my small, well thought out bag. Per Stian lines up our bags and Anja spots mine, "is that all?" she asks quizzically. "What more could I need? I don't think I'll be able to change my clothes." Anja tells me that people in Norway always pack for two weeks, just to be safe.
I open my bag and Per Stian starts rummaging through it, pulling out my socks and thermal underclothes. Holding up my thermals Per Stian flatly claims "It's not wool." I tell him it's been specifically manufactured to draw moisture away from your skin while keeping your legs and chest warm, it's the absolute latest technology. He frowns, "It's not wool." His lack of enthusiasm extends to my socks, by the time he finds my hockey jersey all the bravado has been knocked out of me. Per Stian simply states "we must go to the shop."
We drive a short distance to a supply store, Per Stian and Anja start talking to the shopkeeper while Mona and Kirsti are looking around. I stand in the doorway feeling more than a little foolish with my small bag of ill-equipped gear. The shopkeeper brings me a pair of woollen thermals, leggings and shirt, Perstian hands me the thickest woollen jumper I’ve ever seen "you'll need this" he tells me. I want to tell him I'll be ok, that I can cope with the cold, but I trust his judgement. I pick up a couple of pairs of woollen socks and start paying for it all. The shopkeeper notices the chastised look on my face and shoots me a smile "where are you from?" she asks. I tell her I'm from Australia and I'm very excited to be in the Arctic. She smiles at me again and tells me I'll have a great trip, my spirits pick up a little.
Now that I'm correctly kitted out for the trip we start the drive to Lahpoluoppal, a small town in Finnmarksvidda, which is one of Norway's largest mountain plateaus and the home of Northern Sami. We arrive at a small wooden cabin in Lahpoluoppal, it's an understated home filled with warm and welcoming people. Per Stian introduces us to Kari and his younger brother Ante. Kari has prepared a traditional Sami meal, a stew made from reindeer meat, potato and carrots. The stew is cooked on an old wooden stove; it's warm, comforting and full of flavour.
The final 47km to the Sami camp must be completed by snowmobile. After lunch Per Stian and Ante take us outside for a lesson in snowmobiling, Ante, who speaks surprisingly good English runs me through the lesson. We take turns practising on the snowmobiles and while I am waiting I start talking to Ante and Per Stian about the landscape. They tell me that most of the time we will be travelling on frozen lakes, like the one we are on now. I scratch at the snow with my boot, there is only about 10cm of it before I hit the ice. I'm curious that there is so little snow, I 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?" Ante asks me with a grin. I tell him that because of my size people tend to leave me alone. They both nod and I get the feeling I may have just gained back some respect after my packing debacle.
That evening everyone goes to bed early, Per Stian, Ante and I are left chatting. I have a lot of questions I want to ask about Sami lifestyle & culture, they both seem happy to have someone to practice their English with. I ask about wildlife in the area and they tell me about Lynx and Bears. Ante tells me how both of these animals will kill and eat reindeer. I ask if they are allowed to hunt these predators and I'm told it's illegal to kill both of them. I'm impressed by Ante's English, he's a long way from fluent but his English is good. What really impresses me is this good English, on top of both Norwegian and Northern Sami languages. Ante tells me he went to a school with only eight students and two teachers, it certainly explains his impressive language skills.
I ask about technology and how it has changed the Sami way of life. Ante tells me how some of the old traditions, like travelling by wooden sleigh and reindeer, have been replaced by technological advances like snowmobiles. He explains they are trying to hold on to other elements of their culture, like traditional clothing and cooking. Ante mentions how some of the new technology like walkie-talkies can mean the difference between life and death in this environment. I ask how he feels about Finnmarksvidda being opened up to tourism and is he worried about the impact of tourists on Sami culture. Ante pauses to think about the question, before answering "The world changed, we needed to change with it."
We wake up early and dress for the journey ahead. I put on my new woollen thermals (leggings and shirt), my synthetic, technically engineered under clothes (leggings and shirt), my new woollen jumper, two pairs of waterproof snow trousers, two pairs of woollen socks, heavy boots and a heavy gortex snow jacket. We're told its minus fifteen degrees Celsius, I don't doubt it, it's certainly cold!
We set off across the frozen lake, Per Stian and Anja on the first snowmobile, then Laurent and I, followed by Mona and Kirsti. I am still surprised by the landscape, there really is very little snow, I had expected to see great piles of it. The thin layer of snow on the frozen lakes glistens and sparkles like diamond dust, where the wind has swept it asside the ice appears as deep, black, mysterious pools. There is also a surprising amount of vegetation, tufts of grassy tundra and forests of birch trees. The extreme cold has left the birch trees covered in ice, giving them a beautiful crystal appearance.
About half way through the journey we stop to rest, Per Stian explains he needs to cut down some birch trees for us to sleep on. Having never slept in a tent (ever), it's a concept I'm 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 becomes more treacherous, small hills of drifted snow and plenty of exposed ice. We come down what I presume is a riverbank and hit a big patch of ice, Laurent briefly looses control of the snowmobile, it wobbles and jumps before he wrestles it back into a straight line. I look back and Mona and Kirsti have not been so lucky, they are thrown from their snowmobile as it rolls onto its side. I tap Laurent on the arm and we stop, jumping off the back of the snowmobile I run over to Mona and Kristi 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 you've got?
We make it to the camp by early afternoon and once more we are greeted with open arms and friendly smiles. The camp itself is two small tents that look exactly like tepees. One tent is for sleeping, the other is known as the lavvu and it's where all the socialising and cooking is done. The floor of both tents is a thin layer of birch branches, covered with reindeer pelts. It's actually incredibly effective and you soon forget there is snow and ice two inches beneath you.
A morning spent travelling across frozen lakes and snow covered tundra has left us with a big appetite. After unpacking the sleighs we're invited into the lavvu, where reindeer is being cooked over a fire in the middle of the tent. Smoke from the fire fills the lavvu and we need to keep low, lounging and sprawling across the reindeer fur. The reindeer meat is served directly from the pan, it's tender and full of a strong, smoky flavour. I'm embarrassed to admit that I practically inhaled it.
After lunch I walk outside and Per Stian is setting up some reindeer antlers for us to learn to lasso on. The Sami use lassos from their snowmobiles to catch and separate reindeer from the heard. While watching him tying antlers to birch stumps I take the opportunity to ask about his traditional clothes. He tells me that his boots, trousers, jacket and gloves are all made from reindeer. And how the Sami put dried tundra grass inside their boots to insulate them from the cold. I ask him about the distinctive patterns and colours on his clothes, are they specific to his family? Per Stian explains that the Sami use these trimmings to signify the area they live in, all families in this area will wear the same colours and patterns.
Now that the antlers are in place we're given lessons on how to use the lasso. I'm curious about the plastic cord we're handed rather than a rope, it's similar to the cord you would use to put a washing line together. Per Stian tells me "rope freezes in the cold, these are always ready to use". It's another example of how the Sami have integrated technology into their lives for the better. The lasso technique takes a while to pick up, but once we've worked it out Laurent, Mona, Kirsti and I have a friendly competition. I somehow manage to scrape through and win it, although I think better of challenging any of the Sami!
Later that evening we are all relaxing in the lavvu, sprawled across the reindeer skins to keep low enough so the smoke does not bother us. We talk about the Sami way of life, I'm told reindeer have always naturally migrated between the coast and the mountains, the Sami lifestyle of migrating was born out of the necessity to follow reindeer. We talk more about the improvement in lifestyle new technology has brought the Sami people. Snowmobiles, walkie-talkies, plastic cord used as rope, I remember growing up and being exposed to all of those television programs that claimed technology would not only make our lives easier in the future, it would give us more free time. For years now I've been increasingly sceptical about the concept. But here, in the Arctic, I seem to have found a group of people who are not burdened with more work because of technological advances. They have integrated the technology they need into their lives for the better, it not only make their work easier to accomplish, but also make their lives safer.
I decide to take a walk outside, gazing up at the sky its 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 spread across my face, I know what the light behind the clouds 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 mounted on its tripod, I'm desperately willing the cloud to clear. Isak walks over to see what I'm up to, I tell him how I've wanted to see the Northern Lights since I was a small child, how I'm hoping the cloud will clear and I'll get a glimpse tonight. Isak tells me that he does not think the cloud will clear and that I might have more luck tomorrow night. I tell him I'm a stubborn and patient man, I'm happy to stand here and wait.
It does not take long for my patience to be rewarded. The cloud clears completely and I gaze up at thousands of stars, the likes of which I have never seen. A white mist hangs in the sky, subtly ebbing and flowing, sometimes obviously there, other times hard to spot at all, teasing us as we eagerly await the next shape and form. The mist soon thickens, becoming more fog like and developing a green hue, like a soft watercolour has been brushed across the night sky. Over time this green fog becomes more vivid, arcs of it streaming overhead, from one horizon to the other. Almost without warning the fog develops solid lines, like the sky has been torn open with light streaming down on us. The solid 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, aghasp.
I look through the photos on my camera and realise I've been able to capture this amazing spectacle. I giggle as I view them on the small camera screen, a moment of pure joy so blissful the only way I can react is to revert to a state of childlike wonderment and giggling. Gazing back up at the sky I watch the whole process begin again, the white mist morphing into the soft green watercolour fog, arcs forming from horizon to horizon. Then, once more, the Northern Lights explode into life, this time more intense and vivid then the first. From one horizon a cylinder of white and blue light forms, the light appears to be spinning at an incredible speed, creating 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 disappearing over the far horizon. The light ends with it and the mist returns.
I walk back inside the lavvu to try and warm up, having long since lost the feeling in my fingers. I sit next to the fire, my hands on top of the flame, trying to thaw them out. 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.
I wake up late after a surprisingly good night's sleep on the bed of reindeer fur and birch branches, stumbling into the lavvo where everyone else is enjoying coffee and breakfast around the fire. Over breakfast I ask how far we are from Russia, this draws a number of confused looks before someone finally breaks the silence and asks why? Russia is another one of those places I've wanted to see for a long time, but I'm sure I can come up with a better answer. I sip my coffee and announce that I have state secrets and plan to defect.
As we finish breakfast Isak brings an extremely large chunk of reindeer meet into the lavvo to smoke it. I look at the meat, so dark it's almost black and incredibly lean. It's cut down the middle and a stick is wedged between the two halves to help the smoke permeate. The reindeer meat is hoisted by rope to the top of the tent, the fire is stoked and I step outside so the smoking can commence.
Outside the sun is low in the sky, a white disc devoid of heat. I pace around the camp, feeling restless after the excitement of last night, I want to be doing something, anything. Maybe I should chop down a tree? I watch as Per Stian checks the snowmobiles fuel and oil, I'm still restless, maybe I really should defect?
Once the snowmobiles are packed we set of in search of the reindeer heard. We travel to a slightly higher altitude and there is considerably less vegetation. The landscape becomes stark and baron, it's looking more like the Arctic that I had expected to find. We eventually find the reindeer and the Sami scatter tundra grass in a big arc to encourage them to say. I sit patiently near the food and wait for the reindeer to come over. They approach nervously eating the grass a few meters from me. I work out that I need to keep my camera close to my face as moving causes them to be startled and move further away. The reindeer come closer, tentatively, but they soon back away again before getting within reach.
I've been sitting in the snow for a while now, watching the reindeer consider how close to me is a safe distance, apparently it's minus 25 degrees Celsius and will be even colder tonight. These numbers loose all meaning after a while. It's cold. Period. My fingers are cracked, and, in places, bleeding because of the extreme temperatures. It's become very difficult to take notes, although unlike my hands, my camera is faultless and keeps working despite the extreme cold. If only I could operate it easily!
That evening everyone goes to bed early and I'm left in the lavvu chatting with our Sami hosts. We talk about holidays and tourists, Isak tells me about how he and his wife went to Tenerife and they couldn't understand why people wanted to go to English pubs on the Mediterranean. We talk about wanting to learn from your travels and experiencing different cultures, rather then just visiting a warmer version of your home town. I'm still curious about the impact of tourists on the Sami and their way of life, I ask how most Sami families feel about people like me coming to spend time with them. Isak tells me "The world is a better place when people take the time to learn about one another. We want people to come and learn about our traditions and our culture. Most problems in the world are caused by people not taking the time to know one another."
Luke (of the Arctic)
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.