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8 Januar 2018

The runway was icy as we landed in Tromsø Friday. The three us had slept for most of the two and a half hour flight up here from Bergen. We came north of the Arctic Circle to run in the Polar Night. As the the sun went down Thursday afternoon in Bergen Brittan reminded us that we wouldn't see it again until Tuesday. Here in Tromsø they won't see it for a couple weeks. As the propellors on the plane finally turned off Alora breathed a sigh of relief. The constant drone of plane noise makes her sick in the same way it affects Cara. I'm wasn't sure why they only fly propellor planes up here this time of year, so I looked it up. The plane we flew on was a Bombardier Q400, and apparently it travels at slower speed than jet aircraft allowing it to land on shorter, unimproved runways. This makes sense since we landed on ice & snow.

Once we deplaned and crossed the runway to the terminal (the girls slipping only once), we stopped for a bathroom break where I donned my woolen underwear. Alora had been wearing hers all morning already, but Brittan didn't know to put hers on. More on that later. We picked up the Flybussen into town, and got to see the many tunnels with roundabouts of Tromsøya, the island that forms the better part of Tromsø. It was a little after 10AM when we got into town, so we dropped our bags off at the hotel and set out to wander. Our original plan was to make this a museum day.

The Nordnorsk Kunst Museum was our first stop. It was highest Brittan's list being that she is an artist or art student, depending on who you ask. The museum features exhibitions of artists from the northmost regions of Norway and had signage in Norwegian, English and Sami. Sami is related to Finnish and not in the Indo-European family of languages. It's also an official language in Troms and Finnmark since it's spoken by tens of thousands of people.

Our original plan was to spend this day on museums, but the call of the mountain across the fjord was too strong once we saw that the cable car was running. We walked along the harbor to the bridge across from Tromsøya to the mainland. It's rather high for a pedestrian bridge and we could see far down into the clear water. There were birds swimming along beneath the bridge and diving down for food. We could see them dive and take flight beneath the water, flapping their wings to propel themselves downward. The bridge ends at a beautiful white modern cathedral which wouldn't look out of place in Superman's Fortress of Solitude.

We made our way along to the Fjellheisen, or mountain lift, with the other tourists. We heard a lot of British accents and no small amount of Italian. The ride up was terrifying but beautiful and the view down to Tromsø is not one to be missed. I am, of course, partial to mountains. It's hard for me to image that my ancestors left them behind forever to settle the flat Midwestern prairie of the United States just a century and a half ago. Norway wasn't exactly a rich country then though.

Atop the mountain we found the customary restaurant but skipped that when we saw that there was yet more mountain left to climb. From this Fløya we could see up to the top of Tromsdalstinden! Or, what we thought was the top of Tromsdalstinden. What we actually could see was a weather vane about half way up. So we followed the well trodden path up the mountain through the knee deep snow. Alora and I were wearing our wool long underwear, but Brittan had neglected to put hers on so her legs got very cold. As we clomb the fog rolled in first across Tromsøya, then across the water, and finally up the mountainside to obscure the restaurant. Our little bit of twilight was failing when we reached the weathervane, Brittan was cold, and Alora was hungry, so we all decided to head back even though the true top of the mountain was still further ahead. Being, as we were, well above the Arctic Circle, it wasn't even 2 o'clock yet. I enjoyed running some on the way down and also sliding on my but where possible. The girls tried the running part at least a bit. It was easier in the deep snow than on the slippery well-trodden path.

There was varm sjokolade, øl, and vafler to be had at the restaurant at the top of the Fjellheisen. Brittan had gotten to cold though, and just sat there shivering. When a single hot chocolate wasn't enough to warm Brittan up, I decided we should stay there a while longer and made her sit by one of the space heaters until she warmed back up. The trek back to our hotel to check in was a long one, and having her freeze along the way would have been sub-optimal.

After checking in to our hotel the girls vegged on some TV while I worked until it was time to head over to the Polaria Aquarium for our pre-race carbloading pasta party. The food was good, and I got to practice my Deutsch a little. The part the girls were most excited about was the aquarium though. Probably the highlight was Brittan and I talking to the seals. I was good enough at mimicking the snorty blows they made that they would come over to investigate and give me a little side eye when I turned out not to be another seal. I think. At least that's how I interpreted their sidelong glances before they dipped back into their pool. Brittan, on the other hand, learned the name of one of the big ones and managed to get its attention by calling out to it by name.

After that we headed back to the hotel room where I finished up my workday and the girls headed to bed to rest up for our big raceday Saturday.

The morning came and we all slept in in that long, cold dark of the Mørketid, which is what they call the Polar Night around here. According to the local paper it lasts from when the sun sets on the 21st of November until it rises again on January 20th. We didn't want to expend too much energy before the race, so we got a slow start and enjoyed the rolls and juice we'd picked up the night before just sitting in our hotel room. There were plenty of winter sports on TV watch.

We ventured out for a short trip to the rådhus for packet pickup. Sadly like many races in Norway you had to also buy a souvenir t-shirt if you wanted one. We all passed on that. I still had trepidations about completing a race on ice wearing spikes attached by a rubber mesh to my shoes. I certainly didn't want a shirt for a race where I DNF'd. As we watched them setup the start nearby, I noticed a large tipi so I decided to go inside and investigate. Within the tipi there was a fire with benches encircling it. Striking up a conversation with a couple across the fire I discovered they were from Los Altos, CA. Small world indeed! Los Altos is right next to Sunnyvale where we lived while I was working at SLAC.

We spent the rest of the afternoon before the race back at the hotel, relaxing. My half marathon started at 3PM, so we headed over to the start around 2:40. I wore running shoes with spikes attached by a rubber mesh, regular underwear under long woolen underwear with running short overtop them, a long wool underwear shirt with my shirt from the last race in Las Vegas on top of it but under the marathon jacket I got in Savannah, and the new headband earwarmer Cara got me for Christmas. This outfit was a good fit for the race - I got a little hot and a little cold at times depending on my exertion and the wind, but most of the time it was just right. Alora and Brittan for the most part followed my example, although their race (5K) wasn't until 3:20.

At the start there was the typical Norwegian warmup that I'd previously seen in Stavanger and looks something like an 80's workout video. It's hilarious, actually. Kept us warm though! Soon enough I was off and on my way to the airport via the southern coast of Tromsøya. Some things to note about winter races above the Arctic Circle:

  • Spikes are magical for traction and surprisingly didn't hurt my feet even though I'd never really run in them before.
  • Water sitting on the table waiting for the runners to come by freezes a little bit.
  • Norwegians, pyros that they are, lined the course with candles even though there were streetlights along most of the course. They put these in little niches dug out of the snowbanks along the side of the road to protect them from the wind.
  • Races like these attract a lot of tourists and I think the British were the most well represented, at least based on the conversations that I overheard.
  • They served Energi, which is like Gatorade, warm at aid stations along the course. This is weird and irritated my tummy.

Alora and Brittan were waiting to cheer me on at the end of the half marathon. They'd finished their race sometime earlier, but I didn't come in too far past the two hour mark. They both ran great and even brought my jacket in case I got cold. The sweat is still there after one starts too cool off after all! I didn't need it though. The race handed out a reflective shawl along with the medal at the end of the race. Since I didn't live out my fear of a DNF, I decided to buy a race t-shirt and we headed over after I grabbed some toddy and a banana. Toddy isn't the alcoholic drink one might expect from American English, but instead warmed juice concentrate, which the norsk call "saft" (often something like black current juice), mixed with water. The t-shirts were fancy long sleeve zippered tech shirts, so they cost an arm and a leg.

On the way back to the hotel, the girls stopped at the grocery store for the next day's breakfast while I continued on to shower. They'd had time to freshen up earlier. Then we all went to a fancy post-race buffet at the swanky hotel on the harbor. Alora even bought me and Brittan glasses of wine! This led Brittan to lament being transformed to an adult here in Norway for only a short while before she loses it again in the US. The irony is that we Americans have the norsk to blame for those laws.

After dinner we went to the oldest pub in town, run by the Mack Brewery which makes that Isbjorn beer one sees all over Norway. It also claims to be the northernmost brewery in the world. They have over a hundred taps featuring beers from all over the world, including the Spitsbergen Brewery. This seems to me to discredit that "northernmost brewery" claim a bit, but it was still a gorgeous venue. Quite a few people from dinner followed us over.

Sunday's goal was to see the Northern Lights that we thought had hitherto eluded us. I was up at 7:30, but with not even a coffee shop in town open until 10AM I laid in bed for a couple hours. The girls were still asleep when I got up to take a shower, so I figured I'd be headed to the coffee shop alone. However, when I emerged Brittan was eagerly waiting to pee so she ended up coming to the Kaffebønna with me. As she sipped her latte and I my espresso we planned out the day's adventures, my next adventure with Cara, her Grand Canyon roadtrip plans, and how this summer in Tahoe for Kristen's wedding might work. It was a lot of fun to bounce our travel ideas off eachother since it's something we both have such a passion for it.

Alora joined us for lunch at a Nintendo themed burger place nearby. They even had an old NES with a fat butt TV to play it on! The burger was alright, but the kimchi side was impressive and took a little while to make my way through. Then we spent the afternoon lounging around waiting for our 6-9 hour bus trip to find the Northern lights that evening.

Our bus departed from the harbor at 5PM to head inland to get above the clouds. I brought plenty of beer and snacks to carry us through the long trip. The girls were a little nervous about the beer, but they don't know Europeans like I do. We weren't on the bus an hour before a girl was puking. It may have been the windy roads. I saw come up to the bathroom in a nervous manner not long after someone else went in and I knew it was going to be bad. She held her hand up to her mouth a couple times outside the door before heading back to her seat where she puked in her bag. Brittan did not handle it well, but I was pretty stuffed up and so couldn't really smell it. Poor Alora was already feeling queasy despite her initial excitement.

About quarter to eight we finally stopped to catch a glimpse of the nordlys (the Northern Lights) at Skibotn. We saw the nordlys a bit here. It was grey lines to the naked eye. Like we saw atop the mountain Friday. If only we'd known then! The tour guides had nice cameras though, whereby one can see the green. Their pictures are included in the album linked below. There were also some nice British girls who were drunk enough that they accidentally handed out spiked hot chocolate to a girl they thought was one of them. The tour had promised hot chocolate, so you can understand her misunderstanding at receiving it. The Dutch, on the other hand, brought whiskey. Most of the people on the bus were thrill-seekers, runners, my people. Nevertheless, clouds rolled in and the lights faded so we headed off further inland to Finland.

I did not realize we would visit another country on this trip, but the border between Finland and Norway is about like that between Minnesota and Wisconsin. There's a sign. Along the way we encountered a van that had gone off the road and gotten stuck in a snowbank and I helped push them back onto it with the help of a half dozen other tour members. Good deed done we pressed on to Finland. I think the Finland thing was just to impress us, because we stopped right over the border and saw beautiful nordlys. It was like minus twenty degrees celsius there, so even bundled up we got chilly. Fortunately the guides made fires and handed out hot chocolate. I don't like hot chocolate, but I did observe and take notes of fire building on the snow. I've never seen it done before in person. The trick is a layer of dry wood as a base underneath the fire. It still sinks in the snow over time. I'm sure Maxwell will be interested to try it when we get back. Oh, and the Dutchmen passed around the whiskey. These guys were in their 40's and pretty fun to talk to. They were using their Tennessee whiskey as an additive, and were surprised to see an American knock it back straight from the bottle. I may have also lit my shoes on fire.

Monday morning I was up bright and early - well, I was feeling bright. There was certainly no brightness outside. I did some work and then the girls got up around 10. We packed up, checked out, and left our bags there to spend one more day out in Tromsø. I'd seen a cool shirt at Mack's Ølhallen Saturday night, but they didn't have my size. However, the bartender said I could find it Monday at their brewing supply store. He was, unfortunately, wrong. On the other hand I did successfully show Alora & Brittan how to turn in cans and plastic bottles to the machine at the grocery store. They both agreed that this was much more fun than recycling in the US. Next up we went to the Narvessen in the local mall to acquire a stamp for a postcard to Grandma. Since she won't see any of our adventures online, the girls really wanted to make sure we did that. It's actually the first thing I've mailed in Norway!

After our morning errands, we tromped through the slush to the Polarmuseet. I was surprised by the amount of detailed information they had about sealhunting, and I spend a long time examining the different pelts and reading the Norwegian placards. There was also quite a lot about Svalbard - how the Dutch, English and Russians explored it and used it as a base of hunting operations during the season much as the Norwegians did. It's only in the past hundred years that Norway gained sovereignty over it. Also interesting were the exhibits dedicated to Roald Amundson and Fridtjof Nansen. Unfortunately I didn't get to spend much time in the latter of those because Alora got hungry.

There are a couple common responses to hunger: anger and despair. Today Alora fell into the latter of these. We went to a restaurant right there on the harbor, but by the time her food came the poor girl lost it. She'd decided to branch out a little and try reindeer, but ordered the reindeer carpaccio without realizing it would be raw. This discovery was too much for her and Brittan and I had to cajole her for quite some time through her tears before she tried it and enjoyed it. That didn't fill her up though! We retrieved our bags from the hotel and Alora got some candy while we waited for the flybussen. Then at the airport she ate fries and a chicken quesadilla. Clearly she must have a wooden leg to fill or something. While she ate and we awaited our flight I was able to get some more work done, putting out the Monday morning fires before getting on our prop plane which arrived late and so delayed our departure by about an hour. Now I'm relaxing on the flight, although sadly Widerøe doesn't know what scotch is any more than SAS does.


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