Sleep had come naturally, though in fits, while I was aboard the M.S. Trollfjord. When I awoke, it was clear it had rained overnight.
Throughout my three days in Tromsø, it hadn’t rained while I was outside. It had sprinkled a little on my last day (the museum day), but not like this; most of the mountains on either side of the boat remained shrouded in fog and clouds during the rest of the trip.
When we reached Trollfjord, however, the skies to the south had begun to clear and the rain had stopped. People gathered on the deck to take pictures of the scene. To be honest, I thought it was difficult to capture the steepness of the fjord and the narrowness of the inlet and backed away from my spot at the railing.
Perhaps an hour or so later, we reached the first port of call in the Lofoten island chain — Svolvaer. By this point, most of the clouds had parted, save some lower ones that hung around mountain summits.
It was a pretty neat sight — eerily beautiful and and yet angrily moody at the same time. The people on the northbound Hurtigrute probably thought the same.
I arrived in Stamsund somewhere around two hours later. I was staying at the youth hostel on that island on a recommendation to save money. It was quite cheap — 150 NOK / night for a bed in an eight-person room — and because the hostel was right next to the water, any fish caught would be a free meal. Nice financial contrast to my being lazy and eating out continuously in Tromsø. I introduced myself to some of the other “inhabitants” of the hostel and headed to bed around 1 AM. I use “inhabitants” only somewhat jokingly: some of the visitors had spent months in this hostel in the past, and one of them who visited Lofoten for the first time in 1991 has been to the islands over 30 times since then. Apparently, this area has quite some charm.
The next day, a group of four of us decided to go on a hike from Unstad to Eggum. We were two Germans, one Dutch, and myself. At first, it appeared to be an easy trail, with a wide path and only a gentle climb. The beginning (and end) are quite deceptive, however, as the trail quickly becomes narrow with steep dropoffs on either side. It wasn’t physically demanding but would be treacherously slippery when wet, no doubt due to the endless piles of droppings from cute, bleating friends. They and the partially digested remnants of their food were across the trail, on rocks, in the grass, and, well, unavoidable.
We reached Eggum about two and half hours later, ate a quick lunch, and headed back. At this point, clouds had begun to surround the mountains, bleeding off them to the north, and we headed back thinking that maybe our luck with the excellent weather (it had been an incredible summer — hardly any rain and very mild temperatures) had begun to wane.
Quite the contrary. When we reached the car, it was fully sunny again — clouds still hung around the mountains, but behind them the sky was brilliantly clear.
It was so nice that we decided to take a swim in the Norwegian Sea. Far above the Arctic Circle at a tick past 68° north latitude, we plunged in… and then out of the frigid water. Twice, actually, for effect.
In a matter of six hours, we had cursed at the sheep for making a mess of our shoes, glanced nervously at the clouds, basked in the sun, disagreed with what Norwegians deem a “family” hike, and swam in the Arctic. This — with no exaggeration — was an astounding day. I don’t think I could lay claim doing half of this in any other place, including, might I add, the Emerald City.
It got even better as we drove back. When we returned to the hostel around dinnertime, the skies had shed all the clouds that hung around in the early afternoon and was now completely clear. It was unequivocally gorgeous; it was easily the best weather I had seen since I landed in Europe nearly two months ago.
I in no way intend to brag here, so ignore the smug pretense of the final part of this post. I don’t believe I have the best eye for composition — this may be painfully obvious by now — but I do have a decent instinct for whether the weather might cooperate in the next few hours for a decent picture. Usually, if I think that there’s going to be a good sunset on a certain day, the sunset turns out to be good: enough clouds to catch colors, but not so much that the sky itself disappears. When I saw how clear it was when we returned from the hike, I claimed that this night, August 24, 2011, would be a solid candidate for auroral activity — provided there was enough solar activity in the past few days to make an effect to begin with. The sky would be clear enough to see any activity if it existed, I said. Most people raised a quizzical eyebrow; it was still August (and therefore quite light; darkness lasted about three hours), and normally the Northern Lights don’t appear consistently until at least September. In order to avoid getting my own hopes up, I quietly told myself that by 9:30 PM, the clouds that had begun to reappear would scuttle my hopes of actually seeing the Lights.
Sometime around here, I made the biggest mistake of the entire trip. Completely subconsciously, I thought that maybe it’d be foolish to stay up by myself, sitting in the cold waiting for an eery green glow to flicker across the sky. After trying to convince everyone else that tonight would be the night for Northern Lights to appear in Stamsund, I myself somehow decided that sleep would be a better use of my time than straining my eyes skyward. I don’t remember making the decision, but sometime around midnight, I crawled into bed and fell fast asleep.
Thirty minutes afterwards, I was told the next morning, my prediction came true. Four hostelers — two British, one Japanese, and one South African — had waited curiously to see if anything would actually happen, and they saw for ten minutes perhaps the most spine-tingling natural effect… in the universe.