Northern Lights in the Arctic
An electric train, glistening red, whisked me across Denmark, making the hops between the three Danish isles by train-ferry, as we sat comfortably in the cars. There was a stopover in Copenhagan, then by steamer I made the crossing to Malmo, Sweden, and was in the Swedish capital city, Stockholm, before I had had the chance to learn even two words of the Scandinavian languages.
But lack of linguistic knowledge was proving no handicap, so far. Almost everywhere I turned, someone was able to help me out with good English.
In Stockholm, there was a chance to admire the classic architecture of the city hall and to ascend an outdoor elevator shaft leading to an exotic restaurant suspended, so it seemed, high in the air, with a fine view over the city.
Good luck was following me every step of the way; I discovered that a train—electrified much of the distance—ran northward from Stockholm, penetrating to the country’s northern tip, above the Arctic Circle. The thousand mile journey would cost just $14.00, plus $1.25 for a sleeper. It was night when we departed, and I soon found myself in a Swedish sleeping compartment unlike anything I had every experienced. There were three narrow bunk beds, one above the other, and two other passengers with whom I would share these facilities. They were both large, burly Scandinavian gentlemen bound for central Sweden to sell snowplows, and I made no objections—which might not have done any good—when they arbitrarily assigned me the upper bunk, close to the car’s arched ceiling. Had there been a window for seeing out I would have skipped a lot of sleep in the hope of getting glimpses, even in the darkness, of this storybook land through which the train was whisking me with the speed of wind. Since a window was not available, I slept like a baby. Until the first signs of dawn.
Even before daylight I was up, dressed, and out of the compartment, where I could feast—not on breakfast, which didn’t interest me at all just then—but on the glory of a completely new world slipping silently and swiftly past us.
Most of central Sweden was heavily forested, with numerous lakes and rivers. The lakes, great areas of frozen white, looked eerie with their one or two solitary ski tracks across them. The ice of the rivers was piled high with fresh-cut timber, awaiting the spring thaw and the timber drive.
Each time our train stopped, more interesting wonders were revealed. The baggage trucks at the stations were huge sleds. Boys and girls of all ages-men as well—flocked about the train on skis. All were bundled up in colorful clothes. The air was filled with the steam from people’s breaths.
As we continued northward the forests rapidly became smaller and more sparse. The timber had dwindled to brush when the train suddenly slowed and the whistle sounded. There, on a vast field of snow, was planted a large white sign, printed in three languages with the words, “Polar Circle. “
In late afternoon we reached Kiruna, an interesting Arctic city tucked away in the northernmost part of Sweden. Our train sped on, circling west now toward Norway and the Norwegian coast, where the Atlantic blends into the Arctic Ocean. We entered the mountains and passed Lake Tornetrast, one of Sweden’s finest, with its shores hugged close by white-fanged mountain peaks. At the tiny Norwegian border town of Riksgransen, an immigration inspector and a customs man came through the train. The latter, I believe, thought my three-lens movie camera must have been a machine gun. He was worried, and went away shaking his head, mumbling something about revolvers.
At the border, the train started its descent toward the Atlantic coast. Some Norwegian youngsters had left a window open. I went to close it. But it remained open the rest of the way-for below me, visible in the dusk of twilight, was the Narvik fjord. Lake Tornetrast had been breathtaking. But the sight of the fjord eclipsed everything. Here was open water from the Atlantic—soft blue and mystic in the dusk. Frigid white peaks were everywhere, like dog teeth against the sky. Our train wound back and forth. Every view was different. One’s first sight of a Norwegian fjord should always be like this—approached from inland, without warning. It hits one between the eyes.
Full darkness came. I stayed by the window. The other passengers were reading, or napping, or visiting. But if there is anything whatsoever to see, I have to see it. The rewards have always been worthwhile. And here, far above the Arctic Circle, the habit paid off in a way that has made me forever thankful that I am an addict of “window shopping” for scenes of grandeur.
“Look,” I suddenly called out, to no one in particular. “Look at that sky. What is it? It’s fantastic.”
A Norwegian young man who was sitting nearby came over to determine the cause of my excitement. But even before he had the chance to utter a word, I was lurching into an explanation of my wild delight.
“It’s the northern lights,” I almost shouted. “I saw some in Michigan once. But not like this. I can’t believe it. Look. The whole sky is shimmering. It’s alive.”
A “sky alive” described it well. There, through the darkness which wrapped itself about the window, a dancing, shimmering ballet of luminous color was filling the northern sky. As a result of my reading, one of my hoped-for objectives on this journey was to see a display of northern lights. But I hadn’t ever imagined they would be like this—like some legendary watercolorist, splashing colored designs in wild abandon across this far northern slice of the hemisphere.
The young man at my side mentioned that we would soon be at Narvik-journey’s end. I only nodded-and kept my gaze on that spectacle in the sky.
Forests, in places, cut off my view. Gradually the display dimmed, then faded, and disappeared. If this trip accomplished very little more, here was a reward which had already made it worthwhile. This had been a treasure store which I would never forget. My education in wildly aesthetic wonders was expanding.
So, also, was my education in political geography. My youthful companion, a Norwegian sailor who spoke excellent English, informed me that Norway was scarcely twenty-five miles wide at this point. He began to tell me about Narvik, port city on this fjord leading out to the North Atlantic Ocean. Although his English was excellent, the words with which he described the town, in a sailor’s terms of derision, had been dredged from the sewers and left nothing to the imagination.
The small hotel near the railway station, to which my sailor friend directed me, was somewhat in character with his description of the city. But the sleep I had was filled with dreams of flashing northern lights and dancing snowy peaks.
In Stockholm I had found that the Arctic express which had transported me into this Scandinavian northland would make a rather good connection with a small coastal steamer, plying the waters poleward, to Hammerfest, known as the farthest north city in the world. Bright and early I was on that steamer and we began churning through the rough waters surrounding the Lofoten Islands. Small fishing vessels tossed in the great waves along our path, and low but ominous snow-clothed mountains lined the Norwegian shoreline.
There was a stop at Tromso, with time for me to look about the city and film a statue of Roaul Amundsen. It was from Norway that he had launched his polar exploration.
“But wait,” I said to myself “This is Tromso, close to the Arctic Ocean. But Amundsen was an Antarctic explorer.” Only later did I have time to research this matter and become acquainted with one of the strange tales of early expeditions—of how Amundsen, on his journey from Norway to seek the North Pole, abruptly changed his mind, headed for the Antarctic, and was the first man to set foot on the South Pole.
From Tromso, it was northward again, into the Arctic Ocean, with the bleak shoreline becoming more desolate, except for a few clusters of fisherfolk’s homes which became visible just before dark.
Far into the night I watched as our steamer plowed northward, until drowsiness forced me to bed. Long moaning blasts of the ship’s steam whistle wakened me. At 4:30 A.M. we tied up to the wharf at Hammerfest.
This was Good Friday. Stabbing cold surrounded us like a blanket. The wharf, the streets, the entire city seemed deserted. Only some crying sea gulls, a flock of scolding crows, and a raging snowstorm were on hand to greet me. No one whatsoever was available to supply any information as to how I might continue on inland to Karasjok in time for the festivities of Easter. Through the storm I found my way to the Grand Hotel, but no one was astir there either.
In the office, a large blackboard listed the rooms which were either filled or vacant. Choosing a vacant one, with a good ocean view, I wrote the notes of my journey until the city was awake. Karasjok was only 150 miles inland. This was Good Friday. I had two full days to make my goal by Easter.
Snow and Ice and Fjellstues
By 8:00 A.M. the city was astir. My first inquiry brought quick response. The whole interior of the Arctic region, my informant said, was frozen and snowed-in. Only on skis could the trip be made. That would take days, even for one who knew how to ski. “Get to Karasjok by Easter?” someone exclaimed. “It’s impossible; utterly hopeless.”
That was one of the most discouraging situations of my journey. There I was, at the top of the world, with nearly 9000 miles of hard travel behind me, and a bare but impassable 150 miles barring me from my Karasjok goal. Somehow, someway, I had to get to Karasjok by Easter dawn. Otherwise, the success of the strenuous journey might be jeopardized.
It took almost the entire day to locate someone with whom I could communicate effectively in English and who at the same time knew the back country. But the search was worth it. The man I found was a godsend. His help was invaluable. He proved to be a linguist. We explored every possibility and conceived a plan which offered a bare chance of success. Next morning—Saturday-I started out anew.
A tiny steamer was to leave about 10:00 A.M. for Repparfjord, twenty-five miles closer to my goal. It was a cold day but I perspired freely while waiting until eleven o’clock for the boat to start. Off at last, the vessel nosed through narrow channels fringed with snowy peaks.
Three times we stopped at fishing villages; each place was just a house and shed, with large drying-racks for the fish. In three hours the steamer panted wearily up to the wharf at Repparfjord. The place was marked boldly on my map. It proved to be a great Arctic metropolis of two houses and some storage sheds. But the dot on the map boasted an automobile, as my benefactor in Hammerfest had suspected. Showing him the notes and map, on which my linguistic friend had marked my route and hoped-for destination, the car owner agreed to drive me as far as conditions would let him. That was the all-important thing for me.
Altogether, we progressed twenty miles, through a wonderland of white. At times there was only snow—vast, rolling stretches of it, unbroken by twig or tree. At times the white drifts loomed several feet above the car on either side. At last we could go no farther. A Lapp man and woman and a Lapp youth emerged from a small but to see who we were. “Karasjok. This American needs to get to Karasjok,” my auto driver began explaining, in a combination of languages. I brought out my map and the notes my Hammerfest friend had written. Result: the Lapp youth, with a wretched pony and sleigh, carried me on to the so-called village of Kistrand, and several miles past it. Then we came to the house of a Norwegian who had what passed for a small truck. Out came my maps and my written instructions. For nine dollars the owner of the truck agreed to attempt the drive down to the fjellstue of Skoganvarre.
The good man earned his money. For a ways the road was open, but I would never have taken a vehicle of my own over the raw, jagged chunks of snow, across the slippery ice, and through the churned-up drifts which we encountered. At length the road disappeared completely and we took off over the surface of a river and skimmed along for miles. Farther back, where the river had narrowed, I had seen cold black churning water through broken gashes in the ice. I hoped that my driver wasn’t so intent on earning his nine dollars that he would risk his life—and mine too.
The weather was bitterly cold. With luck, we would arrive about dark at Skoganvarre-as far as any car could possibly go. From there I would have to travel by night-if I could get transportation. There were several families of Lapps living in Skoganvarre with horses and sleighs, my friend had said. They might be able to help.
While I was in the truck my constant fear was that we would encounter conditions entirely impassable and my journey would be brought to an end. If only I could reach Skoganvarre and get the use of a sleigh to continue on.
But then I began to wonder. In the closed truck, in the daytime, I was freezing cold. What would the weather be like in an open sleigh in the dead of night? But I was soon to discover there was no need to worry.
We reached Skoganvarre Fjellstue just at dusk. A fjellstue is a rest house for travelers, erected by the state in these northern areas where hotels do not exist and towns are scarce. There were many Lapps all about. Out with my maps and notes again. Sure enough, one of them-a big black-haired burly fellow—was ready and willing, for a price, to take me on my journey through the night, toward Karasjok.
My face showed my concern over the cold, but the Lapp just smiled. These people haven’t lived in the Arctic hundreds of years for nothing. Disappearing somewhere, he returned in a moment with a large sack and began hauling out its contents. First deer-fur leggings which he pulled high up over my legs and thighs. Then huge soft fur boots, which the Lapp proceeded to stuff with fine marsh hay until each of my feet resembled a gunboat. Then a voluminous fur peske, or coat, in which he enveloped me by slipping the thing over my head. It dragged the floor and I looked like a cinnamon bear just escaped from a zoo. Lastly, woolen mittens and a four-cornered star-shaped hat which pulled down over the ears. I could see now that it wasn’t going to be a question of freezing to death; the question was, would I suffocate?
Actually, that night ride in the open sleigh with my Lapp companion was one of the memorable experiences of my life. It was cold, very cold, and tiny icicles formed in my nose. I could understand the warning that had been given me, not to wash my face before starting. The face is the only exposed part; it could easily freeze. The rest of me was warm as toast.
Twilight lingered for a long time and I peeped out above my furs in wonder at the ever-changing scene. For a while our way led through unbroken pine forest in a semimountainous area. Then we swung down and out onto the surface of a river and jogged along mile after mile. I lay in the bottom of the sleigh and snuggled into my furs. They smelled strongly of reindeer and perhaps the odor acted as a sedative. Or perhaps the tinkling bell on the horse’s harness lulled me. At all events, I went to sleep, to be awakened with a start when we pulled up in the dead of night at a tiny hut.
It was a lonely fjellstue. There would be time, my Lapp motioned, for some coffee and a couple of hours of sleep. Going inside, he started a roaring fire on the earthen floor, poured coffee from a tobacco sack, produced a bottle of curdled reindeer milk, and put the pot on to boil. Then from his sack he took two hunks of deer meat, cut them up, and put them in a frying pan. Soon it was ready to eat.
We each spread deer furs in a corner and lay down for a nap. But two other travelers—Lapps going in the other direction—arrived and we all visited while they prepared their meal. Then at last the four of us, all in the one tiny room, nestled into our furs, snored lustily, and slept.
I awoke at 3:00 A.M. and called to my Lapp friend that we must be on our way. Quickly we hitched up and were off It had started to snow. Soon we were garbed in a white blanket of flakes. We were traveling through heavy pine forests; at length we started to descend. A river valley lay before us. Breaking around a curve, I saw a cluster of houses down below.
“Karasjok,” waved my friend. He swung his horse merrily down a hill and along the frozen riverbank to the door of the fjellstue. I looked at my watch just seven minutes after six on Easter morning. My race against time from California had been successful. I had arrived on schedule.