Northern Lights 2023
Northern Lights expedition by Marion Chessell
This was a bit of a last minute decision. Work is normally quiet this time of the year, so two weeks going up the coast of Norway to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis seemed a great idea. Roger was also hoping to be able to photograph some snow and dog sledding, which was also on offer. We went with Hurtigruten again on the MS Maud (for the 3rd time).
The journey to Dover was uneventful. We had left extra time as there were a lot of roadworks around but we got through no problem. The infamous A12 was kind to us.
The checking in process is now much quicker as they don’t do covid swabs anymore. Some of the check in staff recognised us, or should I say recognised Roger! Our cabin was an outside one with a window giving us a bit more space and light.
The first stop was two hours at the port of Harwich for some technical work on the ship. It was arranged for a group to come on board who sung sea shanties. Harwich puts on a shanty festival every year, with living history events included with groups coming from all over the world.
Sea shanties are folk songs which were sung as “work songs” by the crew of large merchant ships to accompany ryhymical labour. The most popular sea shanties come from the early 19th Century but with the dawn of steam ships and machines to do some of the labour on ships at the end of 19th century their use as work songs diminished. The group who came to the ship were excellent as they explained the origin of each shanty and the harmonies were really good.
Rock and Roll
We had two whole days at sea with information sessions and safety talks. Just before our second night at sea the captain had his usual greeting session and told us to expect a bit of “rock and roll” overnight as the North Sea was a bit choppy. Yes it was choppy and I don’t think anyone slept that well. We had been advised to take some travel sickness pills as a preventative measure. The daytime was also choppy at times and walking on board was extremely difficult. For those of you who know about weather, storms and shipping we were in was described as a force 9 storm.
There were periods of calm when we got close to the coast of Norway on the Lee side of the islands and eventually we reached a lovely calm fiord.
Carol Kirkwood, the weather presenter from bbc was a passenger on the ship and she had agreed to do a presentation. I expected it to be about the weather and climate change but Hurtigruten had asked her to talk about behind the scenes as a weather forecaster. It was interesting to know how much studying she had to do before she was considered fit for an interview. She also spoke about some of the locations she had been to, such as the “Blue Peter garden, Chelsea flower show”.
Loen was our first port of call and is a village situated at the end of Nordfjord and is home to some of the oldest farms in Norway. Much of the upper valley where good farmland was, had two devastating landslides and tsunamis some years ago, which wiped out the farming communities of Bodel and Nesdal. The first was in 1905 and second in 1936. The second was a rockslide which rendered the area unsafe to live. 16 farms had been totally eradicated along with the schoolhouse, power station and mills. 74 people lost their lives although only 33 bodies were found.
The main attraction in Loen is a cable car, going from the fjord to Hoven peak and is one of the steepest cable cars in the world. It goes up to 1101 metres above sea level. As you can imagine in February, when you get to the top there is lots of snow. An old folk tale claims that mount Hoven was named after the Norse god Odin’s horse, who is said to have struck his hoof on the mountain leaving a permanent scar on the landscape.
From our perspective, the cable car ride itself was great but the views when you got to the top are superb. We are not used to so much snow either. We had spikes on our boots for easier walking. One group from the ship did a snowshoe walk which apparently was hard work but really enjoyable. We saw families with the children on sledges and a paraglider launching himself off the top.
Back at the ship we cruised back along the beautiful Fjord to the open sea (more about that tomorrow).
Each evening there is a Tiny talk by one of the Expedition Team. The first Tiny talk was about the reindeer who inhabit Svalbard, which is an island on the northernmost tip of Norway. Two of the Expedition Team actually live on Svalbard. We do not go there on this expedition because it is an expedition in itself.
Scenic Inner costal route
Today we were supposed to be sailing to Reine. However, the previous evening the captain had done a briefing to us all about weather conditions. The waves on the route we were due to take were too high for our ship to handle so we had to resort to plan B. There was a bit of rock and roll on the ship today but it was not as bad as it had been previously.
Plan B meant another day at sea and not being able to land. As we were on an inner passage to the north the sea was calm as we were close to land. The destination was Finnsnes. The expedition team had gone into overdrive cancelling all activities in Reine and booking some for Finnsnes. We had signed up to do some dog sledding which was still on as it was a ride on a bus from either location.
The team also arranged more to do on the ship. We listened to a talk on the evolving of the coast of Norway. The fishermen used to go out in rowing boats to catch the cod which must have been so uncomfortable and dangerous in these waters. For navigation purposes all the churches on the coast had a bright red painted roof so they could be seen from the sea. The Hurtigruten company started by delivering mail to small communities up the coast and transporting fish for market.
Some of the fjords became battle grounds between fishermen when the shoals of fish were spotted. This was before regulations, on what and when you could catch, were introduced.
The navigation officer did a talk telling us how they navigate through Norwegian waters. This particular officer was from Uk and was the first British woman navigator in the Hurtigruten fleet. Boy, it sounds complicated, but an interesting insight into how things happen behind the scenes on these ships. There are many regulations and proficiency tests they need to pass in order to navigate in certain places, such as Norway. One of the Navigators had an examiner with him for a day to test his proficiency and passed, much to the delight of the captain. He has to be on the bridge if he has a navigator who is not yet passed as proficient.
We passed the artic circle this evening and went out on a blowy, cold deck to see the globe which indicated this. We also have a certificate to say we have crossed the arctic circle. What we are going to do with them I’m not sure! When you visit our bungalow you will have to look around to see if you can spot them.
The possibility of seeing the Northern lights increases now. There is an announcement on board when someone spots them, resulting In a scramble for warm clothes and cameras to get out on deck. I have done this twice at time of writing. The first time at around 2am I saw fuzzy white with a hint of green, which was apparently the right thing! The second time Roger and I both went out at 11pm and saw nothing as it started to snow quite heavily and you couldn’t see a thing. The on board photographer has some good shots which we will receive later! The deck is also quite slippery so it’s a sort of “slow hurry” across the deck.
The purchase of thermal underwear, Nordic socks and lots of layers was really beneficial on this part of the expedition. When we lived in Gozo I purchased a hand knitted cable jumper which has also been handy on this trip.
This port is on the Norwegian mainland and is connected to the island of Senja via the Gisund bridge. The man highlight for us today was a dogsled ride in Moen.
An hour coach drive took us to the Sami family who ran the dog sled business (More about the Sami people later).
We had four dogs on our sled and were given a brief introduction in how to drive the sleds. While we awaited our turn we were given a reindeer and vegetable stew and had a chat with one of the family members in their plastic dome representation of an igloo.
There were two major difficulties in this endeavour of a dog sled ride. The first was getting in and out of the low, enclosed and light sled. This was Rogers job. It was very low and it was quite difficult getting yourself comfortable. I have to voice my admiration to him and others in our group who did find this a struggle. They all tried it out and enjoyed it despite the struggle and knowing they are probably going to be sore the next day. I also sat chatting to a gentleman at Dinner who was in his 80s and he had gone kayaking for the first time in his life this week.
My job was the driving, which was the second “challenge”. It amounted to balancing on the runners at the back, using the brake and adjusting your body weight to make the corners easier for your passenger.
I must say we both enjoyed the ride very much. The dogs were enthusiastic and wanted to run so you had to keep your foot on the brake when you wanted to remain stationary. I also added a job to Rogers list. He used vocal encouragement to get the dogs to run. I didn’t have enough breath to do that very well. A few drivers fell off as they lost their balance but no injuries as they fell in soft snow.
Some of the crew and guests did a polar plunge into the freezing waters at Finnsnes. It was interesting to note that they had two nurses with them and along with the first aid kit they had a defibrillator. Very reassuring!
We had a call for the northern lights at about midnight and this time we did see them. They were not bright to the naked eye but showed up quite well on the photographs. The camera sees things differently to the naked eye!
Alta was the furthest north we went in Norway. It is closer to the North Pole than most of Central Europe. It is quite a small place and quite modern. We went to a cathedral here and then on into the shopping centre in town. While we were there we saw some ice sculptures which looked as if they were being prepared for a festival. Some of the guests on the ship went to look at an ice hotel which apparently was quite surreal. It closes in the spring when the ice begins to melt. Others went to spend a few hours with a Sami family.
The Sami people are the indigenous people of North Scandinavia and were largely ignored in Norway until Norwegian fishermen starting moving to the North. Just as many indigenous people the Sami faced erosion of their way of life and had to learn to speak Norwegian. They were semi nomadic because of the reindeer and got the reputation of being gypsies, but of course they were not. The traditional occupation of the Sami in this area was reindeer herding and fishing. Many Sami now are scattered across Scandinavia doing all sorts of jobs. In various parts of North Norway there are Sami markets and food festivals.
The rock art of Alta is probably one of the most famous features of this town. They were discovered in 1973 and probably date back to 4200bc.
The Northern lights cathedral was built in 2013 and is a modern concrete structure with titanium plates interlocking with each other around the outside. The titanium on the outside gives the building quite a glow at different times of the day. Especially when the sun is low. The organ could not be put into the church until sometime after construction of the building as the concrete had to dry. The acoustics in the church were really good and they often have concerts. It has become a real community hub as it takes a lot of people and has a cafe as part of it along with a museum underneath.
Much of Alta was bombed by German forces in WW2 as part of operation Nordlicht where, on retreating, the Luftwafer bombed a large part of Northern Scandinavia. As a consequence a lot of buildings are quite modern.
This is the home of Hurtigruten. We docked alongside another Hurtigruten ship. It was quite a snowy day here but we walked along to the Troll museum. This small museum uses augmented reality to make the troll sculptures move when you place an iPad over them. It was good fun. There is quite a tradition of folklore and myths around trolls in Norway.
Walking around the harbour area we came to the polar museum. This has artefacts and displays from seal and reindeer hunting in Svalbard in 19th Century and early 20th Century. The hunting was so prolific that when Norway gained Sovereignty of Svalbard in 1925 there were only about 1,000 reindeer remaining. They now have around 10,000. The most graphic display here was the seal hunting model. It was a common practice and although restrictions were in place, conditions for sealing didn’t change much until 1970. Selling seal skins was not economically viable, particularly as the EEC prohibited the importing of sealskins.
The top floor was dedicated to polar expeditions. Nansen’ s expedition on the “Fram” is featured with books, charts, replicas of kayaks used. The Fram set sail for the North Pole in 1893. To summarise the expedition in a paragraph would be difficult and there are many books about it. The whole expedition lasted 3 yrs. Nansen arrived back before the Fram as he set out on foot as Fram got stuck in ice at Svalbard. The significance of this expedition is the information about the flora, fauna, ocean depths and observation of weather conditions. The museum is in an 1850s warehouse which gives it a very authentic look.
On return to the ship I did a clay Worksop and made a troll which hopefully will get home intact!
Narvik has a sheltered harbour that does not ice up and is warmed up by the Gulf Stream. It is used to transport iron ore from Sweden. In Kiruna, Sweden there is a very rich iron ore operation but they lacked a reasonable port to ship it from. A railway line was built from the Swedish border to Narvik to enable the iron ore to be shipped and is still in operation today. Some of the passengers did a tourist rail journey along this route. Hurtigruten chartered the train for the guests who wanted to do the trip.
As you can imagine this harbour was of particular interest in WW2 to both the Nazis and the allies. The iron ore was taken to Germany from sweden during the summer by sea but in the winter they relied on the port of Narvik. Winston Churchill proposed to lay a field of mines in Norwegian waters outside the harbour. About the same time as this was done Hitler invaded Norway. Defending Narvik were two outdated Norwegian ships who were sunk by the German navy.
Narvik was recaptured by the allies in May 1940 by land as the German sea defences around Narvik were quite strong.
They recaptured Narvik but because of the difficulties defending France and then the evacuation from Dunkirk the focus of the allies went to France. Without the Naval support from the allies Narvik was taken again. However there was lots of guerilla warfare that took place in this area. Possession was important to Germany, not only for iron ore but also that the harbour was a sheltered place for German warships and u-boats and it was also a base to access Russia. There are many stories of heroic people defending this area. We had a lecture about this during the day on the ship but there was so much information it is difficult to know where to start.
Recently a film has been released about this area. Narvik, like many other places in this area is mostly modern buildings. Most of Narvik was bombed by the allies in their bid to sink German ships and u-boats.There is a very good war museum in Narvik which we visited.
We also went up on a cable car to one of the peaks that was used for skiing and snow boarding. There were quite a lot of young children skiing around as it is very much a way of life here. It was very cold up there but really interesting views over the harbour. The cable car posed a bit of a challenge as it didn’t stop to let you on and off. It moved very slowly so we negotiated it well! Hot chocolate at the top before the photography.
This is an uninhabited island in the Nordland area of Norway. The idea was to have a nature walk. We reached the shore with the RIB boats. Getting out of them was a challenge in that you had to spin on the edge of the boat to get your legs over the edge and then drop down. Roger chose not to do this landing and I think he was wise in that decision. The snow was quite deep which added to the challenge. I used two sticks along with my walking boots which seemed a good combination. The waterproof trousers were also quite handy as I got very wet on the return back to to the ship. I found a waterfall and had a bit of a search around the rocks on the shore.
Some guests did a polar plunge into the water (with nurse on standby again) There were some sheep on the island but altogether it was undisturbed. If trees fell down they were left there and had lichen, moss and insects on them. I even saw a little spider bravely making its way across the snow. The air felt very fresh and even with lots of Hurtigruten guests on the island it was quiet. It is quite a while since I have seen so much snow as we have seen on this expedition.
On return to the ship we attended a talk about identifying rocks and how different types are formed. I’m not particularly into geology but it was quite interesting and none of the talks on board are too long!
Saebo is a village situated on Hjorundfjord. There is also another village on the fjord and they are connected by a ferry. It is nestled amongst mountains and is a popular spot for fishing and hiking. There are quite few holiday cabins dotted around. I picked up a geocache in this location near a hut that is used by fishermen to eat some of their catch. It had benches, tables and an area to bbq.
It is a stunning location and we got quite a few lovely photographs from here. We had a walk around then went out on a rib boat around the fjord. By the time we went out the sun was starting to go down and left some fabulous photo opportunities for snow capped mountains with the sunlight just catching the mountain tops. A very beautiful, unspoilt area. There was a concert in the local church which some of the guests on the ship attended.
Around this time the northern lights are appearing in Uk. There was a photograph appeared of them being spotted at Stonehenge. The talk about tomorrows plans was delayed as the northern lights appeared early evening.
We pulled into Bergen today. Bergen used to be a trading port for the Hanseatic league. The Hanseatic league was a trading federation of North German towns in 12th century. They protected and helped each other. By 13th century they grew in power and it became a more formal arrangement. By working together they became a powerful force in trade of fish, furs, flax and made substantial profits. By 15th century their power started to wane due in part to the plague of the late 14th century, causing shortage of workers. Climate change drove the herring towards Holland and caused crops to fail. In Bergen there is a museum about it and it holds UNESCO World Heritage site status. There are copies of the Hanseatic league houses along the wharf and it is certainly very charming.
We have been here before and remember it being a lovely day. We had a ticket for the funicular railway which took us up to Mount Floyen. The area there is a starting point for a lot of walks and there are a few cafes and play area for the children. The views from Mount Floyen over Bergen are fabulous. While up here Rogers walking stick fell between the viewing area platform and the glass front, and down the slope. We were unable to retrieve it, so have to make sure we get him a new stick when we get home. We visited a couple of shops which sold outdoor gear but did not find anything suitable. The weather was really good today and it was a leisurely stroll sort of time in Bergen.
The last stop was Egersund which is on the south west coast of Norway. It has a very large natural harbour and is used today for the processing and transportation of fish. I went on a walking tour of the town. Our guide was from Holland and has a Norwegian wife. He showed us a shop that made the Norwegian National costume called the Bunad. They are woollen, very ornately decorated and are worn on National day and for celebrations such as weddings. It saves buying a new outfit every time, what a great idea!
The town had many fires which devastated large areas of the town in 1843, 1859 and 1862. After these fires, the town planners made the streets wider to form a natural break to prevent spread amongst the wooden buildings. The town even so, has some historic old wooden buildings including a rather lovely church, which is the start of a pilgrimage walk to Trondheim. To complete the pilgrimage you must go by public transport and walk. To do the first stage to Stavanger takes 4 days and on average the whole walk from Egersund to Trondheim takes 20 days.
Day at Sea
We have enjoyed this holiday and although we have spent a bit more time on the ship than we may have done on previous trips, it is Norway and it is February. When we got back home we had a little snow but it was nothing compared to what we have just seen.
We attended an interesting lecture on board about thawing permafrost and it’s effect on carbon dioxide and methane levels. The lecturer was a young graduate who clearly was enthused by the subject. He had been quite shy and unsure of himself during the expedition but he seemed to grow in confidence and will hopefully develop his style!
The whole theme of Hurtigruten expeditions is to encourage sustainable tourism. There is no disposable plastic on board and they do a system similar to a lot of hotels where you can opt not to have your room cleaned everyday, which reduces the use of chemicals. They do talks on climate and science, nature and history, which are really interesting. The personnel changes fairly frequently amongst the ships and many staff speak a number of languages. The activities on shore encourage walking, kayaking and don’t use huge amounts of carbon. It is a thoroughly enjoyable experience and the support for people with limited mobility is really good. They encourage people to push their own boundaries. Hurtigruten has a charitable foundation too which supports initiatives to preserve endangered wildlife and scientific endeavours particularly in Svalbard in North Norway. The newest ship in the fleet is the Roald Amundsen which works on Hybrid technology and has cut emissions from this type of ship dramatically. Maud is an older ship and was going into dry dock in Germany for repairs after our expedition.