September 18, 2018
Today, while Justin and Andrea went to visit Norwegian huskies, we went for a walkabout in downtown Tromsø. Unlike Bødo and, indeed, much of Finnmark, this vibrant Arctic city seemed to have preserved some of its historic wooden architecture. There were nineteenth century wooden houses all along the main thoroughfare, the Storgata, that flanked the waterfront.
We could have taken an excursion, or visited a museum or two today, but instead we visited a small selection of antique, vintage, and thrift stores. For some reason Tromsø seemed to have quite a few. In Norway the Salvation Army, especially, seems to have locations in every city or town of any size. These “Fretex” shops, hold the same kind of objects that Goodwill and Salvation Army stores hold at home: clothes, housewares, used books, and the usual suspects. Of course, for us, the difference is that here is always a chance that someone’s old cast-off will be an exotic treasure. Value truly is in the eye of the beholder. Someone’s familiar and unwanted becomes another’s object of desire.
We purchased a colorful handmade woolen tapestry, a hand-knitted ethnic ensemble for a young girl, and a pair of klokkestrenge (Norwegian bell pulls). These textiles were wonderful mementoes and suited to our luggage and weight restrictions. For us there is a certain thrill generated by this modern-day hunting and gathering. We are no longer tracking down the forage and game needed to survive, certainly. But there is a faint echo of the daily hunt our long-ago ancestors pursued.
Satisfied and laden with treasure from an afternoon’s excursion, we returned to our ship, the MS Spitsbergen. Except, for a short uncertain moment, we couldn’t, much to our surprise, find it. We know we were in the right general location, but the ship was nowhere to be seen. Then, we saw a sliver of the bow peeking out—the ship almost entirely hidden by the embarkation hall. We walked gratefully up the gangplank. Tromsø was a thrill, but we weren’t prepared to spend the night.
That very evening, in fact, a treat lay in store for us. Just around the time we had finished dinner, about a quarter to nine in the evening, the ship’s tour coordinator announced the long-awaited appearance of the Northern Lights. Everyone, it seemed, rose at once from their tables and rushed for coats and scarves to escape to the open upper deck. Only to be disappointed. Everyone wondered aloud. Where are they? What Northern Lights? False alarm?
Then there was a small emergency with the automatic doors controlling access to the deck, and for a time, the two of us were stuck in a small vestibule, unable to access the deck or return below. The crew appeared with screwdrivers, access keys, and worried expressions but succeeded in freeing us from our temporary prison. We rejoined our fellow travel companions, Justin and Andrea, who had gone topside before us, when the doors were still operational. But the anticipated display of colorful lights had not appeared, and we began to notice discouraged passengers returning to their rooms below.
We decided to wait. The weather conditions have to be just right for the elusive Northern Lights to show themselves. Travelers have gone to Iceland, Norway, Finland, and other destinations just to see them, only to be disappointed when they don’t appear. Yet, for an experience said to be so beautiful, so magical and other-worldly, surely we could wait a little longer, for we may never have this chance again.
Justin, meanwhile, had met a seasoned traveler who told him the lights would be better viewed with a good camera. Apparently, our iPhones wouldn’t be able to capture the lights, should they choose to appear. Greg ran downstairs, retrieved his Nikon, googled the appropriate camera settings, and then ran back upstairs (through the now fixed doors).
And then we were rewarded for our patience, perhaps by the Norse gods themselves. The Northern Lights were beginning to be visible to the naked eye. But, through the camera lens, they were even more distinct, brilliant, and ethereal. Greg captured a half-dozen or so pieces of evidence on his camera. Not professional pictures, by any stretch, but, nevertheless, proof that we were here—that we four had stood together on this deck, on this very special night, and had seen magnificence in the heavens.
Andrea remarked that we four had been fortunate to witness two extraordinary celestial events together: first, a total solar eclipse in Oregon on August 21st, 2017, and now the transcendent and mystical experience of the aurora borealis.
Had Casper and Gjertine stood on the deck of the SS Stavangerfjord on just such a night? There is no mention in their 1932 journal about the Northern Lights, dancing green and blue in the sky. But Casper had described, eloquently, climbing to the top of Sankthanshaugen in Vikna at midnight to view sixteen bonfires burning for Midsummer’s Eve (Sankthansaften)—an ancient celebration when fires are lit to ward away the evil spirits most active at the summer solstice. Had great-grandparent, great-granddaughter and great-great grandson all gazed out into the distance, across the span of eighty-six years, sharing a brief moment of the sublime, gazing at lights in the darkness?