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Published on: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 in 07:02 PM.
In the following categories: Travel notes, Journeys.
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Although they bring order in the organization of our physical world, the geographical imaginary lines like parallels, meridians, polar circles etc. are nothing more than meaningless abstraction. The fact that a certain place is situated at 68 degrees northern latitude, like the Lofoten islands in the Norwegian Sea for example, provides no real information. But if it is pointed out that in Lofoten the sun doesn’t rise at all in December and that in July no power can force it to set, one will understand right away that the talk is about the Arctic and its astronomical whims.
I think that to experience these anomalies face to face is a big emotion for the people from the “lower” latitudes—no less impressive than visiting natural phenomena and cultural landmarks. It is so because to travel doesn’t mean only presence and communication but also tasting, getting-to-know and experiencing different aspects of the entire character of a geographic place. This is why if someone happens to visit the Arctic during the night-less summer, he inevitably will wish to check the taste of the polar winter devoid of sun.

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On December 25, led by exactly that sort of curiosity, we went to the train station of Norway’s capital Oslo and took the express train to Bude. This is a small town 1,300 kilometers to the north that lies beyond the Polar circle and is a four-hour sail away from the six islands of the Lofoten archipelago. As is well known, the shoreline of Norway’s western coast is insanely indented and offers one of the most astounding sea sceneries in the world. Moskenes, the westernmost island of the Lofoten group is 60 nautical miles away from the mainland. Except for the inevitable fiords, the landscape here is enriched by photogenic rocky peaks that literally stick out directly from the sea to the sky to a height of one thousand meters. This is the reason why Moskenes is considered not only the most attractive of the Lofoten islands, but also one of the most picturesque places in Norway.
In Bude we get on a ferry we know from the previous year, and we become enveloped by darkness at sea. The previous time at the same time of the day, 3 pm, the sun was brightly shining and the deck was full of tourists, and now a black night reigns outside and you can count the passengers on your fingers. All of them except us are local people. The Norwegians are usually reserved and undemonstrative, but today they look at us in amazement. Obviously they don’t meet strangers very often around here in winter. And indeed, hardly any sober-minded person would prefer Lofoten to Mallorca!
We berth in the harbour of Moskenes in the bright light of the artificial lighting. Norway is the largest consumer of electricity per capita in the world. This probably is justifiable in view of the harsh climatic conditions in the country during two-thirds of the year. On the pier we land on a real ice slide. The snow is scanty and after the last cycle of melting and freezing everything is covered by a thin layer of ice. Thanks to the warm Atlantic Ocean current, the Gulf Stream, Lofoten is spared a hard polar winter. Temperatures rarely fall below minus 5 Celsius and the precipitation is half rain, half snow. There is no rescue, however, from the darkness. We already know that if the weather is cloudy, as it is most of the time hereabouts, the night darkness will turn grey to the colour of muddy water somewhere between 10 am and 2 pm before turning as black as ink again. And that’s it! This is the piece of the day which could be called “white day”. In case the weather proves to be clear, we are in for something really special, they say. The weather forecast promises tomorrow to be sunny and we eagerly keep our fingers crossed so that it comes true.
From Moskenes we leave for the fishing village Å, the world record holder for the shortest geographical name. The sheltered inlet is surrounded by rorbu—former pile houses of fishermen and rowers invariably painted red. Today most of the wooden cabins are restored and turned into inns. We put up in one of them—a cozy little house with paneling of manna-ash and typical for Norway inner decoration with miniature accessories. The evening drags on. It’s only 8 pm but it has been dark for so long that you think it must be midnight. Dizzy from the emptiness around and from the lulling spatter of the water under our feet, we go to bed in anticipation of the morning.

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As we find out the next morning, this is one of the many relative concepts of the Arctic winter. Here it is difficult to distinguish between the different periods of a normal day. Sunrise and sunset become one, morning and evening too, and the unsuccessful attempt of the sun to break through the astronomical barrier of the horizon lasts only two to three hours. Luckily for us the weather forecast comes true and at about 10:30, after a long dawning, a yellow-orange strip flares up in the sea to the southeast. It grows rapidly bigger, its intensity increases and at about 12:00 it reaches the painful brightness of pulsating glowing embers. Bloody streaks of light undulate diagonally in the sky. The steel blue clouds over the mainland become rosy as well as the white peaks of the pointed mountains. Embraced in silence undisturbed by mechanical noises or human hubbub, this still picture seems taken out of some apocalyptic film—a scene “the day after the end of the world”, for example. Or it could pass for a landscape from another planet. Finishing with a sinister magnetism, the next phase inspires mystical awe. Deathly purple shadows hemmed with sulphur-green reflections bury the glowing embers and cover the frozen northern landscape with a burial shroud. Then the queen of the night comes and assumes possession of the lifeless islands. The clock points to only just 2 pm.
Chased away by the darkness we again take shelter in the fishing cabin. No matter how much the winter polar days are brimming over with oddities, they come to an end too quickly. The rest is an impenetrable night that can be rather boring, except if another geophysical whim, the northern lights (Aurora Borealis,) decides to award the patient polar explorer with an unearthly performance. We frequently look about expecting fairy pinkish-green flashes of light to start dancing above the rocky peaks. Alas, the indigo curtain won’t be raised tonight either.
The next day we leave Å in the dark and head towards Reine, the largest settlement on the island of Moskenes, situated at the mouth of a deep fiord offering spectacular rock formations. We walk along the coast among a row of deserted fishing cabins. The island—34 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide—has only 1,400 inhabitants, so that it doesn’t look overpopulated even in the summer. Outside the tourist season, there is some bustle here in February and March during the fishing season for arctic cod. Feom the early Middle Ages to this day the economy of Lofoten is supported by fishing. As the technology of preservation by salting only reached the secluded polar archipelago in the 16th century, the traditional way of preserving the fish by drying is still practiced today. In Lofoten in summer there is fish hanging everywhere—like the omnipresent strings of tobacco in the Rhodopes in autumn. Now empty, the wooden beams that are loaded with cod from April to July stick out like gnawed skeletons in the frosty twilight. Here and there a forgotten gay scarecrow refreshes the monotony.

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By the time we arrive in Reine, the horizon has already turned orange outlining the sinister silhouettes of the jagged mountains in relief behind. The day is not as nice as the previous day. Low, metal blue clouds press the dawn to the rough sea and increase the foreboding feeling of an approaching cataclysm. Obviously the sun is just beneath “the line” (according to the calendar it should appear in five days) because its efforts to rise manifest themselves in glowing tints of colour. In a similar way—in the opposite direction though—the Lofoten midnight sun tries to darken, to vanish from the summer sky. Despite all its efforts, however, it cannot slip under the horizon—being only two-three fingers above it—and is destined to circle in an endless rotation in the sky for as long as an entire fifty days.
In Reine we get on a small ship servicing the fishing cabins in the interior of the fiord. An icy wind is blowing and salty splashes sweep over the deck. There is a storm brewing. Beyond the narrow entrance of the strait, the sky is overcast and it gets completely dark. Vertical rock walls tightly surround the narrow fiord and create the impression that we are entering a cave. The beaches at the end of the numerous water arms—so pleasant in summer—have turned into snow-drifts. Even the seagulls have taken shelter and no bird’s croak disturbs the winter whistling of the wind. As one could expect, there were no other passengers on board besides Greta and me.
With the dying light we come back to Å. This is the third night of our visit to Lofoten and our last chance to see “the heavenly play of the dead”. According to the Eskimos, the moving coloured veils of the northern lights represent the souls of their ancestors who enjoy themselves by playing with a ball made of a walrus skull. According to science, this is an electromagnetic natural phenomenon characteristic for the polar latitudes. Desperate because of our limited time we peer into the darkness until tears come into our eyes. Several times we fall victim to a false alarm, but that’s all. After midnight, being tired, we fall sleep.
When he sees us off the following day, the driver Bjørn Molid tries to appease us: “If the northern lights appear the very first time, you’ll grow haughty and forget that in the Arctic nothing happens when you expect it to happen.” It seems that this won’t be our last polar winter.

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