Lazy in Lofoten

Wednesday, Sept 2

Well, the wind continues to howl outside our windows, making us very reluctant to go outside.  It’s been blowing so hard today that there are white caps on the water (despite being in a sheltered fjord) and a few times the house shook from the force of the wind.  Just as I am typing this, the sound of the wind changed from what we’ve been hearing for the past 1.5 days to the sound of an airplane flying overhead. But I looked and there was no airplane.  We did venture out just after lunch to the Lofoten Wool farmstand. They sell wool and products (sweaters, socks, etc) from their own sheep, as well as dye some of their wool with natural dyes. I picked up some wool that was naturally black from a black sheep and some from a gray sheep that was dyed using madder to give it a really nice copper color.  Great for fall.

We’re now back at the house, watching the waves and listening to the wind. Since we’re not doing much of interest, I thought maybe I would take today’s blog post to tell you a few of my observations of Norwegian houses, specifically in Northern Norway outside of cities.  They generally look very similar to American houses, even in size. In my experience, European houses are generally much smaller than American houses, but there is more room here, so the houses are similar in size to ours, although yards are often still small with houses clustered close together.  They are generally built of wood like ours, but are often much more boxy and square. Some have revived the tradition of sod (grass) roofs, but not very many. Most have 3-4 foot wide walls built on either side of the front door, narrower at the bottom, wider near the roof, to protect from wind and snow. Nearly all of them have a ladder attached to the roof going up to the chimney.  Rob quipped that it was to assist Santa Claus. My guess is that many Norwegians use their wood burning fireplaces and find it useful to be able to go up to the chimney to make repairs or clean it out. Favorite colors for houses seem to be red, mustard yellow, white, and gray. Except for the white, they blend in nicely with the fall colors we are experiencing now. Barns and other outbuildings are nearly always red.  Many barns have a ramp of earth leading to a small bridge and into the upper story of the barn. I haven’t gotten a picture of this yet, but it looks neat. We have seen very few rundown houses or barns in our travels so far. Norwegians seem to take very good care of their houses and yards.

We noticed from the very beginning that Norwegians like their lights on.  In the little neighborhood that our first house was in, all the houses had multiple outdoor lights on every evening as soon as it got dark.  The lights on our house must have been on a timer, because the front door and porch lights came on every evening by themselves. Norwegians also don’t seem to mind that others can see inside their house.  No one closes curtains at night, but instead let the light of the house spill out. In fact, most houses hang a single light in each window. It reminds me of the old Christmas tradition of putting a lit candle in each window.  I guess the lights would make me feel better in Nov-Jan when the sun never really comes up.

Lollygagging around Lofoten

Monday, Sep 30

Not much to report today.  We literally stayed in the house all day, pretty much just stayed on the couch all day.  The sky was heavy with thick clouds. Wind roared outside tousling the small bushes around the house.  Rain lashed against the windows. It was a good day to stay inside.

Tuesday, Oct 1

The weather was still kind of gray and rainy when we woke this morning, but the forecast had the rain moving on by lunchtime.  We didn’t have much of a plan for today. The weather forecast for tomorrow is supposed to be more sunny, so we originally thought to leave our excursion to several fishing villages further to the southeast until tomorrow.  But, just to do something today, we set out to see just the closest one; Nusfjord. There is a board game by our favorite board game designer, Uwe Rosenberg, named Nusfjord based on this little fishing village in Norway. So, we were interested in checking it out, if only to take our picture next to the sign.  We arrived in town about 11:00am, after taking the obligatory picture on the outskirts with the village sign. We had very low expectations of the village itself, and were surprised to find it set up almost like an open air museum. There was a big sign saying that it would cost 30NOK to enter the village, but the ticket booth was locked up tight.  We didn’t see anywhere to pay the fee, so just wandered in. It is definitely the off-season for tourists here. We are often nearly the only ones at any given site -this is exactly what we hoped for when planning this trip for fall. Several of the buildings had informative signs explaining their function in the village’s heyday of the late 1800s. We saw a couple of small boat houses with row boats, huge ropes, and other nautical gear.  The bakery was closed for the season, but stood prominently next to the water. There were rows of cute red “rorbu”: fisherman’s huts on stilts jutting out over the water. Some of them are now part of the hotel/spa in the village, they have been renovated into modern guest accommodation. We wandered a little further past another set of red-painted cabins and past the mustard yellow general store and restaurant. Mustard yellow and red seem to be the favored traditional colors in this part of Norway.  We see many houses and cabins painted these two colors. They blend nicely with the fall colors of the trees at this time of year. From far away, we could hear the seagull’s squawks and calls. There were dozens of them nesting in any nook they could find on the buildings along the water. There were dozens more on a rocky cliff just across the narrow channel, creating a cacophony of sound. I don’t think I would want to stay in any of the cabins nearby with that racket going on all day!  

We found the cod liver oil processing shed and went in (dodging seagull droppings from the nest above the door) and watched a short video about cod fishing.  The cod fishing season is a major event in the Lofoten islands. People come here from all over Norway to fish the cod when they come in to spawn. Some of the footage showed so many boats out fishing that it seemed they would run into each other.  Once the cod are hauled in, they are processed, liver oil to one place, the heads somewhere else, then the bodies are strung up on massive wooden racks to dry. We saw the racks all over, in just about any open and flat space. Rob read somewhere that everything smells of fish on these islands during the drying season.  I can believe it with the number of racks that we drove by today. I was hoping to get a bit of lunch at the small cafe/general store, which seemed to be the only place open in Nusfjord. Unfortunately, the proprietress told us her waffle iron was broken and the other food wasn’t ready yet. But , then, she also told us a bit about the general store.  How it used to be the center of village life and chock full of supplies, even hanging from the ceiling, until the ceiling started to sag from the weight. The Owner of the village (seemed to be a sort of feudal system) had his office where the small cafe is now, on the second story with windows that looked out on all the ships coming and going. He would watch and take account of who came in and with how much.  He was at liberty to pay whatever he wished to each fisherman. So, if you were on his bad side, he could just pay you less for your fish than the next guy. She did tell us that the last owner was actually quite a nice guy. He treated people fairly, rather than abuse his power. If a fisherman died, this particular owner would send a basket of survival necessities to his widow. Since there was no food to be had for us in Nusfjord, we decided to get back in the car and check out the next little village along the way, in hopes (vain hopes) that it would have a cafe.  For Lofoten being a major tourist destination, there is a serious lack of places to eat here.

The fall colors here are really at their peak.  I got a couple of nice shots of them today as we drove.  I also snapped a picture of a little country church with a Russian onion dome as part of its steeple.  We’ve seen a few of these churches scattered around the countryside. Russia isn’t very far away, so it seems not unusual that it’s architectural influence would stretch to Norway.  We stopped at a couple of beaches. By this time, we were far enough out, and on the northern side of the island that the water was open ocean. Waves crashed against the rocky shore.   After we tired of the beaches we realized we were fairly close to the village of Sund. I had read in a tourist magazine about a blacksmith in Sund (his business name is literally The Blacksmith in Sund) who makes these beautiful cormorants and mounts them on a smooth stone.  I thought that might be really cool, so we headed over to Sund and his forge. Despite it being the off season, and the fishing museum attached to his forge being closed, he was in and working. We stopped in a picked out a beautiful cormorant. He told us a bit about his process.  We choose one of the black ones, he only makes a few of them because he needs to get the metal extra hot to turn the oil he uses into black instead of a bronze color.  

From here, we figured we were nearly to the town of Å.  Our original plan for tomorrow was to go to Å, check out it’s fishing village, get a picture by the sign (because it’s a funny name for a town; just one letter), then work our way back toward home stopping at any cute villages along the way.  But, that meant we would be driving down the road we were already on (there’s really only 1 main road all down the Lofoten islands) two days in a row. We didn’t relish driving back the same way the next day, and it seemed that the “cute little fishing villages” were already starting to all look the same.  So, we decided to just go the whole way to Å today. It was only another half hour drive. We did get our picture with the sign. We stopped in their 1800s bakery for a cinnamon roll. The old ovens were intact (although didn’t seem to be in use, at least not today). The doors were encouraged to close behind each customer by a large stone weight tied to a rope attached to the door.  As you pushed the door open, the weight rose on a pulley system, when you let the door go, the weight pulled the door shut behind you. Good in winter to help keep the cold out! We purchased our cinnamon roll, but we couldn’t eat it there because the small seating area was full with 3 people. It was extremely windy outside, and rather cold, so we weren’t interested in sitting at their outdoor tables to eat it.  So, we headed back to the car. The little fishing village at Å was pretty similar to what we’d seen in Nusfjord.  

A fun feature of Norwegian roads that we hadn’t seen before today was a sort of half tunnel.  As we approached, it looked like we were going to go into a tunnel. The mountain above sloped right out onto the roof.  But when we got closer, we noticed that the side facing the ocean was open; the roof held up with a series of columns. It was light and airy inside.  And any falling rocks that may have come down the mountain would just continue rolling over the roof and on down to the sea, the road no worse for wear.

Little Bit ‘o Lofoten

Sunday, Sep 29

Today is Sunday.  Pretty much everything is closed on Sunday.  The weather this morning was sunny, but very windy.  Both of us were woken this morning to the howling wind outside.  But, tomorrow is supposed to be rainy all day, so I wanted to get out and do something outside today.  We knew that most things would be closed today, so we decided to head to the north side of our island to settlement called Eggum.  There is supposed to be a sculpture of a person’s head along a walk near the beach and an old radar installation built by the Germans in WWII.  We were the only car on the road as we approached the parking area. And the sun had disappeared, leaving us with temps of 45, winds of 20mph. It was pretty miserable.  We parked, the only car in the lot, and headed toward the old stone radar installation, dodging an excessive amount of sheep poop along the way, much of it fresh. The only other people there were a couple just packing up their tent.  I can’t imagine camping there in that wind and cold. We checked out the stone tower from the radar, but the rest of the building was closed for the season. Then we set out to find the head statue. Rob tried to intimidate some sheep, with little success.  We walked for about 10 minutes and still couldn’t see the statue in the distance. We stopped and debated continuing. The way out was with the wind, so the way back to the car would be into the wind. Based on that thought, we turned around and headed back to the parking lot.  As we turned around, we noticed very dark skies ahead of us and wondered if we’d make it back to the car before it rained. The answer to that question was, “no.” We ran the last little bit, past a bus load of Chinese tourists who had arrived behind us – they were also rushing to get back on their bus.  

Our next stop was a cheese shop that advertised they were open every day.  We drove about 20 minutes out of our way, down gravel roads, through sheep pastures to get there.  When we arrived, the sign on the door (thank you Google Translate) said something to the effect that they had gone to church.  So, no cheese for me.

On our way back to the house, with rain showers on various horizons, we stopped at the grocery store in Leknes.  One of the 4 grocery stores is open on Sunday, the same one we’d been to yesterday. It’s a good sized grocery store for Norway.  We were surprised as we pulled into the parking lot that the few cars that were there were all parked toward the back of the lot, not next to the front door.  That’s when we noticed people going in a little door at the back. We headed inside and found a small separate little “store” taking up one corner of the main grocery store.  It was stocked with the most basic items (thankfully that included the Giflar Cinnamon rolls that Rob was after). The doorway to the main store was open and an employee was standing guard while she let one shopper go inside.  I noticed that the door had been closed by the time we were ready to check out. It all seemed so weird we figured that there had to be some law that required this strange setup. Once home, Rob got to researching. There is, indeed, a law that says only shops smaller than 100 square meters can be open on Sundays.  It was passed in the early 1990s, so isn’t some strange old law from 100 years ago that never got removed. The purpose of the law is so that nearly everyone has a day off each week to spend time with families. I guess that’s nice if you have family nearby to spend time with, or if it’s a nice day and you want to go for a hike.  For everyone else, though, it seems like it might be a pain. This does explain why the grocery stores were so full of shoppers yesterday afternoon – everyone had to get their shopping done before the Sunday shut-down. Maybe not surprisingly, the majority of the shoppers in the little mini-store today were tourists (several Chinese tourists and us).

Living on Lofoten

Saturday, Sep 28

Not much to report for today.  We drove another 4.5 hours today to get to the Lofoten Islands.  We are staying a bit south and east of the town of Leknes. The drive took us through pretty much the same scenery as we’ve been seeing.  Although, the sun is out once again, so each mountain lake that we drove by, and also many of the fjords are so still and have beautiful reflections of the mountains and nearby houses off of the lake’s surface.

Mirror lake

We will be here on Lofoten for the next 5 nights.  We’re staying in a house that is right on the water, so it has great views on 3 sides. 

Aurora Borealis

Taken with a normal iPhone 8

Tonight, after being in Norway for 1.5 weeks, we saw our first Northern Lights.  And, boy, did they live up to expectations! There was a KP index of 6 last night and the sky was completely clear of clouds.  The first good batch started around 8:00pm. The glow of the sun was still on the horizon, but matched the green color of the Northern Lights.  Because there was still a little bit of light from the sun, I was able to get a couple of photos on my iPhone without any special apps or equipment.  We couldn’t see much movement with these, they seemed stationary. We tried FaceTiming with my parents, but they couldn’t see anything on the video, so that was a bust.  Taking videos by iPhone was also a bust. By the time we finished up with my parents, the lights had mainly faded and we thought the sky was clouding up. We kept checking back until about 9:45 when I went to bed, but they were nothing special.  About 11:00 I noticed that Rob had gotten out of bed, I thought maybe he had gone to the bathroom, but then I heard the click, click of him taking photos. I guessed the Aurora Borealis was back so I hopped out of bed to join him at the great big windows of our cabin.  Sure enough, it was back in force. This time it covered the whole sky. The sun was long gone, so all the light was from the Aurora itself, and what we thought was the sky getting cloudy and obscuring the stars earlier was just a milky background to the Aurora Borealis.  Now, we could see the patterns moving and shifting. They were much better defined. We put our coats and hats back on to step outside so we could see the whole sky. There was a green glow around the entire bowl of mountains that our cabin sits in. Fingers of green reached toward the middle to stir the bowl with slow, fluid motions,  Rob had installed a special app on his phone to help him take better Northern Lights pictures, and it did work. Any that I took later in the night were terrible, but the ones he took pretty much turned out. The second 2 photos he took using this app.

Norway’s Natives

Friday, Sep 27

Our destination for today was Polar Park, an arctic wildlife centre.  We saw deer, brown bears, wolves, lynx, and musk ox. We missed the moose, reindeer, and wolverine.  They were hiding somewhere further back in their enclosures. We weren’t too sad to miss the moose and reindeer, since we’ve been seeing them in the wild.  All the animals in the park can be found wild within Norway. I was most excited to see the musk ox because I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. They were not native to Norway, instead were brought here from Greenland in the early 1900s.  I got a cool video of the male using his head to push a smaller one around a bit. Click here to see the video. We also really enjoyed seeing the brown bears. They are so much bigger and fluffier than the black bears we have back home in Asheville. And they have such cute ears!  We also enjoyed the male deer. I got a video of him calling and pacing around his enclosure. Click here to see that video. Just as we approached, the lynx were being fed by a tour guide so we hurried to get there and see the two of them while they were still hanging out close to the fence.  

Once we had our fill of the animals outside, we stopped in the little cafeteria to grab some lunch (even though they didn’t really have any lunch offerings, so I just had a slice of cake).  While we were sitting at the tables, we overheard the safety lecture for the people who had paid to go into the wolf enclosure and cuddle with the wolves. For someone like me who doesn’t even like dogs, the lecture did not make me want to join them.  The instructor was down on her knees talking about how the wolves will jump right up on you, but you need to be at their level. You can’t push them away because then they come back twice as hard. They will want to lick you inside the mouth.  If they really get in there and you are uncomfortable, raise your hand to signal the instructor, because you won’t be able to talk or breathe.  If they are fighting over which one of them gets to cuddle with you, lean back and stay out of the way of their teeth. Basically, it sounded like if you made one mistake you would be smothered by an over-enthusiastic wolf in your face.  I’ll take an aloof cat over an enthusiastic dog/wolf any day.

We arrived back at our cabin around 1:00.  After a bit of actual lunch, we set out to walk around the area.  First we walked out to the end of the resort’s stone jetty. Rob wanted to feed the seagulls some leftover cinnamon rolls that had gone a bit stale.  He didn’t get any takers from the end of that jetty, so we went out on the one with the boat dock. Still no seagulls interested in Rob’s rolls. Smart seagulls, I say.  But, the water there was so clear. We saw several starfish at the bottom, probably about 3-4 feet down. From the dock, we wandered over to see the owner’s sheep. There are 7 sheep, all different colors.  Next we wandered down the road a bit. We saw a sod structure and went over for a better look. It had a plaque on it. The structure turned out to be a storage cellar made around 1903. The builder used old railroad rails to add structure to the roof.  Next door was a cute mustard yellow house with a little side hut attached to one corner. It, too, had a plaque – it was the buttery where all the area farmers brought their butter to be sold on to bigger markets. A little further down the road was a small red hut with a sod roof with grass growing on top.  It’s sign proclaimed it the town blacksmithery. It was in use until 1970. There was also a nice stream flowing down to the fjord just below. The sun has been out all day and temps are nearing the 50s, so it was really nice just to walk a bit in warm sunny weather. I think the Norwegians agree. On our walk we encountered a few children out playing and a woman sitting in the sun on her porch mending a child’s coat.  She was friendly and waved to us as we walked by.

Driving Under Dark Skies

Thursday, Sep 26

Today was a driving day.  We drove for 8.5 hours from Hammerfest to a little village on the shores of a fjord near Lavangen.  We left Hammerfest a day early because the weather there was going to be rainy and cold all day, again, and there wasn’t really anything else we wanted to do there.  Jeff headed home a day early, so that left Rob and I free to set off toward the Lofoton Islands and hopefully see some Northern Lights, if we could get away from all these clouds.  We had done about ⅔ of the drive on the same road in the other direction on our way up, so it wasn’t really any new scenery. The intervening days had been warmer with a lot of rain, so those beautiful snow-capped mountains were now just snow dusted.  That meant that all the little streams coming down out of the mountains were no longer peaceful little rivulets, but raging streams coursing forcefully downward.

We spotted a trio of moose along the road, on 2 different occasions.  Unfortunately, my phone software was updated a couple days ago, and now I’m having trouble taking pictures of things that are moving.  The pictures turned out horribly (very frustrating – I was pretty cranky for a long time).

We managed to drive out of the heavy, thick clouds (and occasional sprinkles) by the final hour of our journey.  The sun was low in the sky, so a bit frustrating for driving, but so very nice to see the sun again. The fall colors are really starting to pop, but with the heavy thick clouds they really won’t photograph well.  Maybe tomorrow I can get some nice shots of the colors. We have a great view from our cabin across the fjord. The sunset tonight over the mountains beyond was full of orange and just a couple of puffy clouds like tiny bursts of fireworks.  Despite the (finally) clear night, we still didn’t see any Northern Lights. They are just too weak tonight. Our best hope is tomorrow night, when the sky should still be mostly clear and the KP index (indicator of how strong the Aurora Borealis will be) is a little bit higher.