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Sunday, June 8, 2008, in Bodø, Norway

Hi everyone. We made it to Bodø, and we’re above the Arctic Circle. Last week, we had just arrived in Rørvik, and I’ll start from there.

Our first morning was cloudy, but the day became sunny and warm. We did a small load of laundry because the facilities were so convenient, and walked to the town center. A city girl, I never get the chance to see a real farm store, the kind that must be common in most of America’s geography. While Art looked through practical items like batteries, I immersed myself in the culture of this farming supplier. One corner of the store was devoted to horses, raising them, riding them, and moving them around. Another side was apparently the haute couture line from John Deere: hats, jackets, and vestments from head to toe, all festooned with the equipment manufacturer’s name and logo. I especially liked the section of the shop devoted to a brand of work shoes called "muck boots." But my favorite area was the one for dairy farmers. There were milking sleeves for sale, and what looked like condoms shaped for udders, and something called "cattle weaners." I just enjoyed saying "cattle weaners" over and over.

In the afternoon, we visited a local museum that spanned the cultural history of Norway from the Stone Age, through the Vikings, and onward to the fishing industry at present. Norway is the largest net exporter of seafood in the world, notable for a country that only has five million people, of which many are engaged in oil production. The museum was nominated for the “European Museum of the Year” award in 2005, and its unusual building was nominated the same year for the prestigious "Mies van der Rohe” award for new architecture.

The next day held the promise of sailing, finally. We left Rørvik and began to sail immediately. The sails hadn't been out since we crossed from Sweden to Norway. Sailing inside channels as we were able to do allows you to avoid the seas caused by offshore winds. You get to sail in protected waters, making the experience very comfortable. Except we were heeled over, even in fifteen knot winds. And I hate heeling over. I especially was uncomfortable on this angle, unable to see traffic under the sail, in a channel rather than open sea. I was not assuaged by electronic charts that show us boat traffic. Nor am I assured by the science that clearly proves that the boat isn’t going to capsize. There’s a certain amount of heel – dare I describe it as the “tipping point” – that simply makes me miserable. And we were just past it.

I could have pressed for Art to reduce the amount of sail area that we were showing. This might have cut down on the heeling, and it’s actually a more efficient way to sail. I asked, but I didn’t insist. He’d been waiting for an opportunity to sail for three weeks, and our speed was fantastic. Furthermore, these forecasted winds weren’t supposed to last long. And indeed they did calm down after an hour or two, enough to keep up a strong speed, if not blazing, and keep us sailing for more than five hours.

Early in the day I spotted some mountains covered from top to bottom with snow on the side facing us. I thought they were close by. We kept moving north, and we never reached them.

A Norwegian minesweeper came up behind us and called on the VHF radio, asking for some details about the boat. It isn’t uncommon for military vessels to request a bit of information while you’re traveling in their waters. We’d heard them hail a German boat hours before they found us, and they later called to a Dutch boat that was behind us. We were the only vessel to answer, which led us to believe that we were the only ones that were listening to the emergency channel of the VHF radio, which all sailors are supposed to do.

Our destination for the evening was a small harbor called Tjotta. There wasn’t much in our guidebook about the place. It was mentioned in the section on another place as a possible excursion. The idea was that youd take the ferry from Tjotta to an island called Tro, where you could look for the 3000-4000-year-old rock carving of a skier. The design from that carving was used as the motif for the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. So the highlight of the place we were visiting was to ferry out to another, even more remote place.

It was a serene place to stop, since we were nestled under those mountains that we’d been tracking from fifty miles back. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized that we still had farther to travel before we would finally pass them.

We kept moving north. The next day was another motor through completely still water. Very warm weather was becoming the norm. For two days, we hadn’t worn long underwear for our sails. The afternoon temperature under our hard dodger was actually hot.

It shouldn’t have surprised us that we began to see puffins as we passed the island of Lovund. The island supports one of the world’s largest puffin colonies, about 200,000 of them living in the area from mid-April until mid-August.

They were smaller than I’d imagined, like rubber duckies, with creamsicle-hued beaks. Their appearance is so caricatured that they seem to belong only on cereal boxes. How could that beak be effective for catching fish? It looks more suited for stapling documents.

Finally, we approached the white mountains we’d been tracking for two days. It was a range called the Seven Sisters. One side of them overlooks the town of Sandnessjoen, but we sailed by behind them. No matter how we counted, we could never seem to come up with seven peaks. Conservatively counting, there would only be six peaks, but if we added the rounded hills at the end of the range, there were more like eight or nine. I concluded that the regal seven sisters had a couple of stepsisters stashed out back.

At the latitude of about 66 degrees 33 minutes – just shy of that, actually – we spotted a steel globe on land. Highways always show you when you’ve reached a milestone, entering one state (or country) and leaving another. It’s hard to accomplish that at sea. But here was our mark, a globe on a tilted axis on the island of Vikingen. That was enough fanfare for me. We’d crossed the Arctic Circle.

We docked at a village called Bolga, where we’d stay for a lay day. Bolga’s year-round population of 100 swells to twice that in the summer. I was pretty sure that there wouldn’t be a restaurant in town, though the place had a web site and there was talk of a general store. We’d save that exploration for the next day.

As had been reported, there wasn’t much to the town of Bolga. The restaurant-pub overlooking the harbor might be open sometimes, but it wasn’t open on a weekday in early June, and it might not be open for lunch ever. That was it for entertainment in Bolga. We walked to the other end of town – or stated a different way, about a hundred meters – and found ourselves at the bright little general store, which was a peculiar combination of gourmet shop and hardware store. It was exactly the shop I’d hoped to see somewhere in the middle of nowhere above the Arctic Circle.

Our reason for being there was that it was a good starting-out point for our trip to the second-largest glacier in Norway. Svartisen (or the Black Glacier) was just down a fjord a few miles south of Bolga. We left early in the morning, and there was just enough wind to tease us into sailing. Art put out the jib and the main. It would have been lovely. But one of the vertical battens in the mainsail stuck, and the sail simply wouldn’t unfurl all the way. We’d had lots of headaches on our previous sailboat with horizontal battens. In time, we had the battens removed and that frustrating sail re-cut without them. We really didn’t want to go through that again.

Luckily, the vertical setup meant that the strong wind eased the sail out of the mast where it had been stuck. Unluckily, our wind fell off and we motored the rest of the way into the fjord and tied up at the empty guest pontoon under the glacier.

We were blessed with yet another unusually beautiful day and we walked up a road towards the glacier. The tourist center overlooks a lake as it faces the glacier, and there are wooden picnic tables on the patio to sit out with a cup of coffee and look out on the splendor of it.

The tourist center, the only place resembling a restaurant for many miles, had rather odd meal hours: the possibility of a sandwich until 2:00, and “dinner” from 2:00 to 5:00. But the kindly restaurant manager offered us a local specialty any time we wanted it, and we returned at 1:30 to claim it.

The dish was rømmegrøt, a porridge or pudding that’s most often served to Norwegians at Christmastime or other special days. Rømmegrøt is served hot, like a soup, with a liberal slather of melted butter on top. It’s a mix of cream or sour cream, sugar, flour, and milk. You can garnish it like oatmeal with brown sugar or cinnamon. Even if you do that, the other accompaniment is flatbread and dried meat or speke, as we’d eaten in Silde a few weeks earlier. I was game, as always. Art was a little less adventurous than I, ordering fish with potatoes.

We arranged a tour for the following day to see the glacier from close up. From the description of the trip, its length, and the equipment they’d be providing to us, I was a little anxious. Art kept insisting that they probably haven’t lost too many tourists yet, and I reluctantly signed on.

The morning weather was glorious and almost too warm, and we walked the kilometer from the boat on the aspen-lined dirt road whose cross-streets were cow and sheep paths. Our guide met us on time at the Tourist Center, and we were deposited by van at the bottom of the mountain that was adjacent to the glacier.

I’d reviewed the various glacier hiking trips to see what I should expect in terms of difficulty and danger. I knew we would have equipment (which sounded dangerous) and I read that the minimum age for the hike was thirteen (which sounded better). We’d been required to sign waivers releasing the tour from responsibility should something happen to us. In Europe, waivers don’t appear in your life very often. There are lovely cliffs up to which you can sidle in your car or stroll on a sidewalk without disturbing your view of the horizon with one of those pesky guard rails. It’s very libertarian; you have the responsibility for the way you live your life, and in turn you accept its consequences. So a waiver isn’t just a formality. It’s a warning.

On the other hand, this particular Saturday was my birthday, one of those amorphous fifty-something numbers that bumped me into a new demographic group beyond any realistic definition of middle age. Art insisted that having new experiences was the reason that we were traveling like this. He maintained that this hike would be my birthday present. I thought that this present was a lot like a boy thinking that baseball cards are a good Mother’s Day gift.

As with so many other days so far this season, things had just worked out very well. The day was sunny and warm, almost hot. Our tour group comprised only the two of us and our guide Anna. I’d get special attention. I’d need special attention. And since we’d come early in the season, the top layers of the glacier were very granular, which made for good holding.

The first part of our glacier hike was really a rock hike up the mountain. The rocks were generally very smooth from the glacier’s erosion, and would be problematic in wet weather. This part of the hike, just to get to the shed where the ice-climbing equipment was stored, took an hour and a half. There were a few fairly steep spots, but Anna was always there with a wrist to grab, and Art often gave me a little boost from the rear. I probably didn’t need most of that help physically, but I was deteriorating emotionally. I should have felt proud that we’d achieved so much vertical progress even before we’d get on the glacier. Instead, I obsessed about the very slim ledges of rock right next to a deep gully. By the end of that piece of the hike, I was no longer willing to look down. And I was no longer willing to look up.

We arrived at the shed and picked out equipment for the glacier portion of the tour. We had helmets (at which point I wondered why helmets hadn’t been necessary while we were clambering over rocks that seemed quite hard), ice axes, harnesses, and boots with crampons, which are spikes that stick out the bottoms of the boots. The harness required stepping into two leg loops and tightening a belt around the hips. A ring in the front, threaded by a rope that would be connected to the two other hikers, might be the only hardware between you and the bottom of the crevasse.

Anna gave us lots of instruction, and I tried not to let my fears interfere with my retention of her guidance. Once we were outfitted with all but the spiky crampons, we hiked a short distance in the rented boots to the place the ice would begin.

The boots fit like the hiking boots I have at home, and I began to gain confidence from their sturdiness. Soon, we got to the ice, tied on our crampons, and Anna threaded line through our harnesses so that we were all attached. She then taught us how to walk uphill on ice. It was challenging, but not frightening. Then we got to a steeper section. Anna attached a screw into the ice and taught us how to thread our own lines through a shackle. It was important that we kept the line between us taut, so that nobody stepped on the slack, and that we kept our feet apart, so that we wouldn’t trip ourselves with our spikes on our own trousers. I did that twice and tumbled to the ice before I thought to roll up the bottoms of my jeans.

There were two rather steep uphill climbs, only about the height of a half-stair between floors of a building, but requiring a ballet of one of us climbing, or waiting, or releasing one line from a screw and setting the next one in place. There was also one slow section where we crossed a crevasse on a two-meter-wide (6 feet) bridge made of ice that was slanted into the deep. Anna’s reaction to being there was “Isn’t that blue ice beautiful?” I suggested that I’d buy a postcard of it in the Tourist Center later and look at it then.

We arrived at the tongue of the glacier, which was our destination. Anna kept referring to this area as the “flat part”. By that, she meant that it was flat in the sense that a sliding board is flat, that it’s smooth. And sloped downhill. The flat part of the glacier also had much more wind than any other place we’d been. Art put on a long-sleeved denim shirt. I was still in a tiny camisole top, even in the wind. Apparently having your life pass before your eyes is very warming.

We stayed there for long enough to take some pictures. Even getting the camera out almost wasn’t worth the logistics, which actually weren’t any more complex that taking it out anywhere else. But when you are only a small misstep from sliding into oblivion, your mind becomes focused only on getting back out again.

Hiking downhill is always harder for me than the climb, and its imminence is probably why I don’t enjoy mountain peaks as much as I should. Anna was always so cheerful that she answered questions like “Was that the steepest part of the hike?” with answers like “The next part of the hike is very beautiful.” So when I asked about coming down a glacier (and I held back from mentioning that I was doing it on feet that were wearing a set of poised knives), she said “it’s different.” And it was. Actually, it was a little less difficult. And this time we had the option of rappelling down, like Sir Edmund Hillary, from a line that Anna would set up and monitor from above. Incidentally, during all of this time, Anna was walking up and down the glacier to set up equipment or scout out paths as if she was just wandering about a field. Art used the rappelling technique on one of the steep parts of the ice, and I used it when we’d given up our gear and were returning to the van across and down the rocks. For the record, apparently nobody in Norway knows about the concept of switchbacks.

After we’d finished, Art said that the trip was a little harder to do than he’d anticipated. It was easier than I’d anticipated, as I�����d expected a good deal of terror and near-certain death. Neither of us was ready to speculate whether we’d do something like that again.

Maybe we had enough energy left to walk back from the Tourist Center to the boat, but luckily the van was planning to pass by our boat on its way back to the ferry dock. We were both about as exhausted as we could be. Ten minutes after we got back onboard, we motored out into the fjord and watched Svartisen disappear into the distance.

We’ve just arrived in Bod����, so there’s nothing to say about it yet.

Hope you’re all having a wonderful springtime, and keep writing to us. We love to hear from you.

Love, Art and Karen