In Search of the Northern Lights: Day 4

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Ornes

Ornes

At 7.19am we crossed the Arctic Circle. All of a sudden hardy souls were out on deck with all manner of cameras, tripods and professional kit that made me feel just an amateur. But what was there to see? A light. And if someone moved it 100 yards as a joke none of us would have known the difference.

It’s getting noticeably colder now and if you stand in the bow of the ferry, the wind is biting. And we are only half way to our destination of Kirkenes. Time to think of getting the thermals out.

Snow fell last night so we crunched around the deck, those of us who felt we ought to be greeting the day. The scenery has become starker too. Jagged mountains seem to rise straight from the water. There are fewer houses dotted along the banks of the fjords and some are empty as they are only used in the summer as either lets for walkers and campers or just as summer houses.

We paused in Ornes for 15 minutes to allow some goods to be offloaded and another flurry began. A Norwegian couple who lived in Trondheim but who were heading north to see his father said that there had been less snow this year. Mostly they had had rain. And more rain. Accusing an Irish passenger of sending their rain to his country she replied that she had seen enough of the Norwegian snow that they must have sent to them! Ornes is just a small village whose port links many other hamlets. I couldn’t quite see how one of the builders on a nearby roof was working without gloves. Each time I took my hands of my pockets, I felt the cold dig into them. I haven’t mentioned a tall big passenger who roams around in the outside dressed only in a short sleeved shirt with a couple of the top buttons undone. He was out again this morning, but this time I’m sure his arms were blue.

As we left Ornes, on another nearby roof, you could see a man, shovel in hand, trying to clear his roof of snow. There didn’t seem a lot. Maybe you do it when you get the chance. Not 10 minutes out of the town, we cut the engines so that one side of the ferries lifeboats could be checked. Out they swung them and lowered almost to the water’s edge before hauling them back in again. It gave us time to watch the scenery and the odd sea eagle (I’m told that’s what the big bird was) circling in the distance. About half an hour later we were on our way to Bodo where we would stop for two and a half hours. No lunch today; not if we wanted to look at the town.

Bodo in a whiteout

Bodo in a whiteout

Except that we shouldn’t have bothered. We arrived in not quite a blizzard but not far away from one. The snow ploughs were out clearing the roads but as soon as they cleared, the wind covered their tracks with whipped up snow. Still, no use staying on board so, insulated as best as possible from the elements, I ventured forth. That sounds as though I am an intrepid explorer and, at times, I felt like one. I headed for the city centre, paddling through slush and trying to pick the point where the zebra crossings were. But cars stopped whenever you came to a road. They couldn’t see the markings either. At one point I thought I could see the modernist cathedral but it probably wasn’t. After about half-an-hour I turned back. That was a mistake but I had no choice.
Ice cream in a snow storm

Ice cream in a snow storm

The wind spat snow into my face and I could barely see. How can snow sting like that? It seemed almost a white-out as the Americans say for all I could make out was the few steps in front of me. Eventually I got back to the ferry and tried to board. Shaking off the snow that had clung to me I went up to the gangway only to be told that I should shake my beard out as well. It was infested with snow which, as it part melted, had formed into an ice coating. I thought the beard would keep me warm on this trip, not be a liability!


I had given up on Bodo. This place is headquarters of the Norwegian northern defence force. It is a big town and must have things worth seeing. During the war over half of all the houses had been destroyed in a German raid. Most buildings then were new. But in memory maybe, the Norwegian aircraft museum was here. But that would have to wait for another day when I could see and the weather was better. After changing, settling down with some tea and a book I watched other ferry stragglers return. For the locals this may have proved normal. For the rest of us, the ferry was a haven. But just as we left, the skies cleared and we could see the town was ringed by mountains. And at the end of the harbour entrance there was a runway. The snow had hidden all of this. As we meandered pass the skerries – a series of small islands that left the ferry perilously close to both sides we now saw steep islands blanketed in snow from the waters edge up.

Day 4 - General scenery

Day 4 - General scenery

Now for the Lofoten islands where, after another patch of open water to cross, we would reach Stamsund, a town virtually built by one man, Julius M Johansen according to my “12 Days” and which became the centre of the dried fish industry. Here some people were leaving the ferry for a few hours to enjoy a Viking feast. They would rejoin us later. But it would be dark at all the next places so we would see little even if we stopped for longer than an hour. Maybe on the return journey we would get a better view.

Guidebooks say the Lofoten islands rear out of the sea like an impenetrable rampart which turns into peaks for the ferry to weave its way through. Linked by bridges and a 62 mile tunnel these islands are washed by some of the deepest waters in the world. But it’s dark. All we can are lights and not much more.

Overnight we will stop at three more places which probably means some disturbed sleep. One thing I have found is that when we dock the boat vibrates as the thrusters position the ship for tying up at the wharves. Maybe on the higher decks they don’t feel it as much. Down here, it will wake you.

An interruption. At 9pm comes an announcement to say that the Northern Lights are just visible at the front of the ferry. People dash for coats and hats and plunge onto the icy decks. Card games, books and meals are just abandoned. There are so many people there already but it looks as though there is a glow but just a faint one. As I head back in, a Yorkshireman looks at me and asks me if I’m cold. Looking at all the others who have grabbed whatever they could to wear he says, “Its overkill lad, its overkill.”
After the excitement, which gradually wanes as people wonder whether they really saw anything we head off to the last but one port of the day, Svolvaer. Some careful navigation is called for as we twist and turn into the port. You can only see these islets by the warning lights.

Ice sculpture in Svolvaer

Ice sculpture in Svolvaer

A group of us – well actually about 50 – head off to Ice Magic, a gallery just by the dock which has ice sculptures. You can see that this place, and other attractions, are geared to the tourist trade from the ferries as it stays open till 10.30 at night. We queue to get in and queue to take photos. Kept at 21 degrees Fahrenheit, some of the sculptures are over 12 feet high and one, some fishermen pulling at the oars of a boat must be that length and six foot wide. Back in a rush to the ferry as we only had an hour here and off we go again.

In just over an hour the full lights of the ferry are turned on so that we can see the entrance to a fjord. All helped by a fish supper on deck 7 which sees in the new day as well.

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