In Search of the Northern Lights: Day 8

By | Category: Travel destinations

The Northern Lights - taken from a video in the Polar Club

The Northern Lights - taken from a video in the Polar Club

After the excitement of last night, there weren’t that many people having an early breakfast. When they did drift in the conversation was largely about what had been seen. Or photographed. Hardly anyone has managed to get decent pictures. Those that were the most knowledgeable; those with tripods, were unsuccessful as well as us more amateur ones. Why? Because the motion of the ship meant that they couldn’t get a long enough exposure or steady exposure. The ferry has a multi-language handout that you can get to help you take better photographs. It still doesn’t help those of us who buy cameras that are almost idiot proof. We want to point, click and move to the next holiday shot.

Some were disappointed in not having seen the colours they had seen in photographs. Others are on a bit of a downer since, having seen them, what was there to look forward to? The optimistic say that the light will be even better tonight. Shutter speeds, ISO’s (whatever they are) have been discussed till the conversation goes around in circles. One man has said he finds that an exposure of 45 seconds is needed to get a decent shot. Has he got any? He admitted to only a few.

There are just a few stops this morning, just a quarter hour here and a quarter hour there before we reach the main destination of the day – Hammerfest. This is the world’s northernmost town they claim, so when we dock you might expect to see a sign or a photographic opportunity like you see at North Cape, saying you are so many miles from London or Buenos Aires or whatever. But there is nothing. In many ways, Hammerfest is undersold as a tourist stop.

Hammerfest in the snow

Hammerfest in the snow

How close the protective fences are to the houses in Hammerfest

How close the protective fences are to the houses in Hammerfest

There has been a lot of snow and once again, this town is partly protected by wooden fences built on the mountainside as a hopeful precaution against an avalanche. It is surprising how close they are to the highest built houses. The name, Hammerfest is an old Norse mix of fasten and mountain, I’m told. The fences are rather like ropes holding the mountain from delivering its snow onto the town. It has snowed a lot here and where the roads, pavements and gardens lie is anybody’s guess. But it functions perfectly well. You don’t hear shunts between cars and there is quite a bit of traffic around. Outside one parade of shops they must have under-floor heating as the pavement is completely clear. Elsewhere there are a few inches of ice and then compacted snow on top.

With just 90 minutes here, the ferry disgorges its passengers onto the quay and we head up to the shopping area. While some shop others head off to the church, a triangular building with a large tower on top. Plainly visible from the ferry as we came up to dock, you’re instantly reminded of the design of the Arctic Cathedral in Tromso. But by different architects they are both striking and there are differences. But you do wonder whether one borrowed a thought from the other.

Church in Hammerfest

Church in Hammerfest

No more than 100 yards from the church is the main museum, a rather quirky place because the main building is called the snappily named Museum of Post-War Reconstruction and through a door from this museum and you suddenly find you are in the Norsk Telemuseum. Here is a collection of telecommunications equipment including a copy of the first mobile phone I ever had. (For those old enough, this was the one that weighed a ton and was like carrying a heavy handbag around). The reconstruction museum isn’t just about what happened after the war, although one thing I’d not known was that the burning to the ground of some many houses, factories, churches and other buildings caused the Norwegian government of the time to introduce a “Norwegianisation” of the habits of the Sami nomadic reindeer herdsmen. It affected a way of life going back centuries. Now, those traditions are being preserved. Go upstairs and there are exhibitions. At the moment, one room has a floor covered with an artwork called Flower of Life by Mona Nordaas. Most of the flower is ingeniously created by using different coloured buttons. This museum then, is more than about the effect on the area of German attacks in which, incidentally, only one building survived. So the rest of the architecture of Hammerfest is no more than 70 years old.

Sun setting after another short day

Sun setting after another short day

One of the main draws is the grandly named, the Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society, commonly referred to as The Polar Bear Club. Founded nearly 50 years ago and having 230,000 worldwide members it was founded as a society to protect Hammerfest’s traditions as a fishing and hunting area. Linked to the WWF, World Wide Fund for Nature, it has a museum/exhibition on the quayside where it is easy to buy last minute souvenirs before running back to the ferry at the last second. Provided they haven’t run out of credit card till rolls and therefore unable to take credit card payments as happened to us!

Across the bay is where there is an unusual attraction. Here a company has the Energy House which shows how various cutting edge energy sources are developed such as tidal power and how conservation can work such as with liquefied natural gas. This is being brought to the surface but not here. It goes in a pipeline 140 kilometres out to island so that unsightly buildings are not eyesores for residents.

Oskfjord in twilight

Oskfjord in twilight

Off again on a long sail to Tromso where there is a late evening visit to the Arctic Cathedral for a midnight concert. Before then however there are a few brief stops and little opportunity to do more than walk down the gangway, turn around and come back up again.

After dinner, a walk on deck coincides with another opportunity to watch the lights. At first, they were not as bright as last night but gradually they improved. This time they last about 45 minutes as we saw swirls and then some boomerang shapes. Finally, we had some rings, a bit like those of Saturn which filled almost half of the sky. The cameras were out, the discussion turned to technical reasons but some have obviously been reading their manuals (or at least those who remembered to bring them) and there seem to be some reasonable pictures. Most of us just stand and gaze. As your eyes get accustomed to what to look for, you begin to wonder whether there’s a shade of pink there or a hint of yellow there. Mostly, it’s just whitish and looks like low cloud as much as anything.
But then, there will be many who will take home wonderful pictures of the lights. They went to the Polar Bear Club where a continuous video was running promoting a DVD that was on sale. It was just too easy to take pictures of the video. The DVD owner probably has to put up with this all the time. And there will be some tall tales told by people from this voyage about how they stayed awake for hours, desperately cold but persistent so that could bring home to their friends these wonderful pictures!

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