Thursday, July 28, 2011

Norway, Part III

Having conquered our half-marathon in Tromsø, we were ready to relax. Fortunately, we still had another week left in Norway in which to do that. You may have gathered from previous posts that we like to take advantage of every moment of our trips and are not very good at the lay-on-the-beach-and-do-nothing types of vacations. But in Mehamn and the greater Finnmark area, we only felt a little bit guilty about sleeping late, reading books, watching movies, and generally not having much of an agenda at all.

Our stint in northern Norway didn't begin that way, however. After riding what was essentially an "air bus," we landed in the northern town of Mehamn. Once again, we had the good fortune of family to stay with, yet another of Jon's dad's cousins. As soon as we had finished dinner, our hostess declared that it was time to work. She wasn't kidding.

Our hostess is a member of the festival committee of Mehamn, a village that reminds me an awful lot of Brainard. The task at hand that particular night was to inspect the fest tents for damage and to clean them for presentation. So, there we were, in a tiny community center in northern Norway, scrubbing tents with industrial strength wet wipes. Our hostess was sitting cross-legged on the floor with her sewing machine, and other committee members were on their hands and knees spreading epoxy and fixing tears. Jon and I remarked more than once that all of the crouching and scrubbing was making us more sore than the 13.1 mile run from the day before. But we were happy to help; it made us feel as though we were earning our keep.

At some point during our trip, I asked Jon if he thought we would see reindeer. He laughed and guaranteed it. Yet even with that expectation, I was thrilled when we stumbled upon three reindeer the following afternoon. We just watched them in awe for the longest time, and even though they knew we were gawking, they continued about their business of grazing.

On Dasher, on Dancer, on Donner, on Cupid...
Riding high after this discovery, we were ready for our evening adventure. Once our hostess returned from work and fixed us a traditional dinner of pea soup and Norwegian pancakes, she ordered us to get dressed for an “easy after dinner hike.” While certainly not the most challenging hike I’d ever gone on, our climb up a mountain just outside of town took a bit of athleticism. I shudder to think what a difficult hike would entail.

Since Jon was helping carry the mailbox checkpoint we would be placing at the top of said mountain, I was in charge of the fancy camera we had rented for the trip.

We were amazed at the attention this photo garnered on Facebook
When our hostess encouraged us to look very closely in order to see the beauty that many others miss, I knew she was referring to more than just flowers; regardless, it was still good advice for nature photography. There were dozens of species of delicate flowers nestled among the rocks of the hill, and it was always exciting to notice something new. We did our best to capture the bright colors of the flowers and the vibrant green of the moss. If only we could somehow share the spongy quality of the tundra. It was like walking on the softest of carpets.

"Cat's claw" surrounded by that spongy moss
 We paused for a while when we reached the top of the mountain, both to install the aforementioned mailbox and to enjoy the view. The Hurtigruten cruise liner was coming into port at that moment, and in a bit of foreshadowing, we watched the big boat glide silently in and out of Mehamn.
The next day passed fairly uneventfully with another ramble about town before our nightly adventure. We endured fish balls for dinner...which really weren't bad, as long as I thought of them as dumplings and not processed fish parts. At any rate, we set out on our exploration with full tummies ready to see some animals. Our hostess encouraged us to keep our eyes on the sky for sea eagles. We passed any number of sheep grazing and saw, what had by now turned into a regular occurrence, herds of reindeer. Then our hostess saw it: the elusive sea eagle.
Sea eagle in flight
Thrilled with this sight, we kept our eyes glued to the windows as we drove on to Skjånes. In what seemed like a random location, our hostess pulled off the side of the road and told us to follow her. After prowling through the trees, we found ourselves climbing alongside a waterfall.

One of my favorite photos from the trip
There seemed to be no end to the surprises up our hostess's sleeve. She continued to show us various sights and somehow managed to conjure up yet another eagle. Whether leading us on a hike up a mountain, looking in the river near her cabin for salmon, spotting an eagle/fox/reindeer in the distance, feeding us Norwegian and international food alike, or letting us try on her Halloween costumes in the magic trunk in the guest room, our hostess went above and beyond the call of hospitality.
In fact, the following day, she even lent us her car, which we used to drive to Gamvik, where Jon's great-grandparents lived. His great, or "old" uncle usually spends the summer there, but unfortunately not this year. However, Jon was able to meet him on his last trip and so shared with me a bit of the history of the house and the town. During World War II, the town was burned not once, but twice, by the Germans interested in its coastal location. Jon's family actually lived in a cave for part of this time and then in a tiny shed while their house was being reconstructed.

The family lived in the shed with the grass roof during reconstruction
While in the area, we also checked out the Slettnes lighthouse. We quickly learned that everything in the area claimed to be the most northern __________. The lighthouse is the most northern lighthouse in the world and is also home to a bird sanctuary. We had a delightful guide take us up into the lighthouse, where we watched the birds and seals in the sea.

What the picture does not show is the incredible wind
After these adventures, it was time to get back to work. Northern Norway gets quite cold over the winter (as one might expect), so our hostess shuts the water off in her weekend cabin to ensure that the pipes don't freeze. Along with her brother, we dug around in the dirt and rocks for quite awhile to find the pipeline to reconnect the water.
Finally successful, we headed back to town where we continued our habit of lounging around. Since our hostess was officially on her government-mandated five weeks of vacation a year (fantastic idea), we had a movie night...which I'm sure Jon enjoyed immensely. By this point, we were starting to get accustomed to concept of the midnight sun. That didn't mean, however, that our bodies had adapted. Because it never got dark, we stayed up way later than we were used to, which resulted in our sleeping in the next day. This new schedule meant that we were wide awake when the movie ended at about 1:30 in the morning. Jon then had the brilliant suggestion to go for a walk.

We grabbed the camera and my sunglasses and were on our way. We knew that Jon's dad checked the Mehamn web cam on occasion, so we told him to look for us. Sure enough, he was able to spot us back in Seattle. During our late night/early morning wandering, we prowled about the hills of Mehamn and even saw a fox trotting down the street. It was all a pretty surreal experience.

2am in the morning
Needless to say, it was embarrassingly late when we woke up the next morning. We didn't do anything noteworthy during the day, but it was very nice to not have anything to do. We're not really used to that. On our final full day in Mehamn, we did have plans, however. Rather than take the Hurtigruten coastal liner all the way up the coast, we opted to take just a two-hour tour around the most northern spot on the European mainland (those distinctions are important).

Nordkapp coming into port
Boarding the boat in Kjellefjord, we watched on the deck until it became too windy to be fun. Resting comfortably in the lounge for the remainder of the trip, we watched as we sailed around the end of the world.

And just like that, our trip was over. It was an adventure from start to finish, full of new sights and new connections. Like any international trip, there were parts that were uncomfortable, like the fact that we don't speak a lick of Norwegian. But any time you go outside your comfort zone, it's a challenge. This was the trip of a lifetime...and if you ask any of our family in Norway, it is one that will be repeated.

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