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Assorted Tales from Arctic Norway

By Bruce Rule - Dec 26, 2013

In the 1970s and 1980s, the writer made numerous extended trips to a site deep in the interior of northern Norway where, unlike the BRIDGE site on Andoya, it could be extremely cold. Those who live in the far north have a saying: (quote) With the return of the light comes the cold. (end quote). Although I never saw anything colder than minus 35F, in January 1999, about a week after the return of the sun, it reached minus 60F officially and minus 65F unofficially at that location. Water pipes at a depth of five meters (16-feet) froze.

When I first arrived at this site in October 1972, I asked how often the aurora was visible. About once a week I was told; however, upon using the roof of the building were I worked and lived as an observation point, I found the aurora was visible almost every night but most often as a weak trace distinguishable from clouds only because it did not move with the clouds.

Unwilling to alter my exercise regimen of running five miles a day, I would run away from “town” - and all habitation - on a road that followed a river. My temperature limit was minus 15F unless there was wind which, at that temperature, could be very bad news. One night, at my turn around point more than three miles from the town, where the road dipped to a level only a few feet above the river, I stopped to observe a brilliant auroral burst in the northern sky which lit up the snow-covered landscape and turned everything a pale green. (Colors other than green – free oxygen excitation - were unusual.)

At that time, I could hear people talking even though the nearest population was more than three miles away. It appeared the frozen, snow-covered surface of the river acted like the deep sound channel axis funneling their voices along the surface so clearly that, had I been a native-speaker, I could have understood what they were saying.

The snow usually came to stay in Oct or early Nov and continued to pile up until late April or early May by which time it might reach a depth of three feet. Most of it was gone by about 20 May which also was about the date the ice on the river broke up. One year it snowed the first four days of June and then turned hot with temperatures as high as 88F for three days.

Unable to open the windows because of mosquitos, the building began to “cook” under the 24-hour sunlight. I sent a message to the Embassy in Oslo requesting an air-conditioner be sent north. Two days after I left on 13 June the temperature dropped to 34F and never exceeded 60F for the rest of the summer. The AC was never sent.

Spring lasted about three days. One year all the birch trees went from bare limbs to fully foliated in three days (10-13 June). In the fall, all the leaves were lost in another three days – no later than mid-September. The locals planted potatoes every year but harvested them only once in every five years; mid-summer frosts usually got them.

The site was on the southern side of the river valley and about 150 feet above the river. It was surrounded by 30-foot conifers, some of which may have been as old as 300 years. While there I collected a short section of one such tree that was eight inches in diameter and 135 years old. A section of a birch tree from a slightly higher and more exposed area had a diameter of two inches and an age of 50 years. The tree-line was at an altitude of about 1000 feet above the valley floor.

The living room in the housing end of the building had a very large, triple-thermopane window that looked directly north and from which you could see the sun from late May to mid-July swing through the low point of its midnight arc. I put a small black paper disk on the window and marked the position of the shadow it cast at half-hourly intervals against the opposite wall: a sun-clock. The 0130 mark was at the entrance to the kitchen. It was a different perspective that took some getting used to. When, as occurred several times, I left the site in November, I felt guilty because I was “escaping” while those who remained would experience the depression that came with the extreme cold and the dark.

One year, E-III (Ernie Castillo) and I had to leave the site on very short notice in late November. We were driven at night through the remote interior to a costal town where we could catch a southbound SAS flight the next day. On the way – in an area where no lights from any source were visible - the driver stopped so he could smoke outside the car; the temperature was minus 35F. Talk about an addiction!

Upon arriving in the town, the driver regaled us with a story that put reality into that old joke: “Look, in the road, a head.” Several weeks earlier, a head had been found on the road in the snow. It appeared a “love triangle” had been “resolved” when one of the men decapitated the other and left his head in the road.

Would I recommend visiting northern Norway as a tourist? Certainly, if the weather could be guaranteed; however, there are few areas as uninviting if the weather is cold and cloudy as it was in 1999 when I arrived at Andoya on 18 July and left on 6 Sep after experiencing no more than four days of clear weather with temperatures in the 60s to low 70s.

When flying north on 18 July, I sat next to an American woman who was to spend two weeks on one of the Vesteralen islands SW of Andoya. Since the weather was similar at both locations, I kept an eye to the sky for those two weeks and saw nearly continuous low cloud cover that obscured anything above about 1000 feet; temperatures were never higher than 55F, a somber vacation for the woman; however, this is not always the case; summers can be warm and sunny but there is no way to predict that in time to accommodate vacation plans.

Tourist traffic reminds me of one of the greatest tourist traps in Europe: Nordcapp (North Cape), generally believed to be the most northern point on the continent, and for that reason, it has become a magnet for visitors, especially those from southern Europe - especially from Italy - who drive enormous distances to arrive at what must be one of the bleakest perspective in Europe.

The North Cape experience is such a draw that the government paid to have a tunnel built under a two mile wide stretch of water that separates the mainland from the island on which North Cape is located. “Some 200,000 tourists visit Nordkapp annually during the two to three months of summer.” (Wikipedia)

The kicker that essentially zero tourists know about is that North Cape is NOT the most northern point on the continent. On days as clear as the one when I was driven there by my host, you can see Knivskjelloden (Razor Clam), a point of land that is about a mile further north than North Cape (71-11-09.57 vs 71-10-14.88). When asked about this deception, the response was: “They couldn't build a road to Knivskjelloden,” and so the money-making deception continues. Another note: one year a record snow storm (4.5 feet) buried North Cape on 21 June, the solstice and the first day of summer.

As I said earlier: it was a great ride, even when there was the risk of a head in the road.