Midnight Sun in the Lofoten Archipelago, Norway—Part 2

3:15 am

I wake up for a bathroom break, foggy from too much wine.

Ess is standing in the middle of the room, squinting out the window. Bright sunshine beams dusty rays of light over the table and onto the floor at her feet.

“It’s three o’clock in the morning,” she says sleepily, incredulous. “The freaking birds are chirping.”

Midnight Sun in the arctic circle is a twilight zone of confusion. Night is day and day is day, as the sun simply circles around above you. Your body battles between natural fatigue and stimulation from the sun. How do you know you’re tired if the sun never sets?

We go back to our bunks, shutting out the light with headbands around our eyes. In the morning we hike around a fjord.

9:00 am

Last day in Lofoten. We have mapped out a hike by a fjord to the south, with an optional leg over a small mountain into the valley of another fjord. We pack a lunch and water, lather sunscreen, and gear up.


We walk to the edge of town. As we approach the small entrance to the fjord, we search for the path leading to our trail. All that’s before us are dozens of posts of drying fish hanging on beams, the pungent stench of decay filling our lungs.

“No way to go but through,” Ess says. “Breathe through your mouth.” And she steps forward into the path shaded by decomposing carcasses.



On the other side, a lightly-trodden path leads up, surrounding the fjord.




Click for full splendor.

The terrain is arctic tundra: rocks, moss, grass, mud, and sturdy low-growing bushes with gnarled branches. You have to be tough vegetation to survive here. We humans are moderately tough, but only with equipment and supplies. And even then, accidents happen. Just to be safe, I left a note on the table of our cabin, with our names and contact info, the date we left, and direction of our hike.

After the first cairn, the path leads down to surround the water’s edge. To our right is a rocky shore and arctic water, to our left is the steeply rising mountain. The “path” has been walked before, but it is not smooth nor flat: protruding rocks and roots; rises, dips, and twists; streaming water from the peak cuts across our way; thick mud; and then there’s the sections that require repelling.


It is not that repelling is terribly dangerous, and it is certainly not that we are afraid, but it is that we are not entirely prepared to scale steep rockface while hoping the chains hold. The first one we joked about, the second one we executed carefully, and the third one…well, the third one rose directly up from the water’s edge, and if we slipped and fell we’d bash our heads on the rocks before tumbling into arctic water. And neither one of us are prepared to lose our research grants.


The path rose up the side of that rock protrusion, with spikes and a chain link to help us ascend.

After staring at it for several minutes, Ess takes the initiative to head up through the bushes, circling the crevasse, to then emerge along the top.

It seemed like a sensible idea.

And it was, sensible. It just wasn’t easy. Neither was it graceful.

We scrambled up through trees and bush. Pushing and crawling up, grabbing each branch by the base before hoisting ourselves up. Thankful for tundra plants and their wind-weathered sturdiness. Here, if we slip and fall, the bush will catch us.

The twigs claw at my backpack, my knees stained with grass and dirt.

“Rodent shit,” Ess frowns, looking down at her smeared hand after scampering through the underbrush.

“At least it’s not bear shit,” I offer. And for a moment I wonder if any large animals had been introduced to these islands. Unlikely, I decide. Hopefully.

When we reach the top we are indeed above the steep rockface, and entirely covered in mud.

“I don’t know if we made it easier or harder on ourselves, but that was fun,” I say, giddy with accomplishment.

We have been hiking for an hour in about fourteen degrees Celsius weather—sunny, and perfect for extraneous climb-hikes. We look at the map, and are shocked and amused to realize we have only come about two kilometers. That’s what happens when two academics go bushwacking; we get delayed by bright ideas.


Another kilometer and we turn the final bend around the water’s edge, spotting the sandy beach we’ve been looking for.



The last section in the lowland area is almost entirely wet mud. My feet are soaked through. Ess’ shoes have fared much better, but we are both looking forward to rest and a picnic.

But first, we have a ritual to perform. We rush the beach, throw down our backpacks, and quickly strip off all our clothes, running into the arctic water, with whoops and hollers.


No pics of the polar dip. That’s between us and the Norse gods.

It is cold. We run to about waist depth and dunk to our shoulders. Once. Twice. When we stand the second time we notice hikers on the hill, advancing on the path we just came from. We giggle as we rush back to dry off and get dressed. The hikers are polite enough to wait for our redress before continuing towards us.

It is a couple. They nod hello as they pass us.

“Care for a swim?” I ask, gesturing towards the water.

They laugh. “That’s six centigrade water,” he informs, with a French (Belgian?) accent.

“Oh? Just perfect, then,” I respond.

As they pass us and head onwards to the next bend, we prepare our picnic of bread, cheese, salami, and mandarins. Halfway through our meal, we look across the fjord, and notice that the man has taken off his clothes and waded up to his knees, splashing water on this face. 

“It doesn’t count if you don’t get your junk in,” judges Ess.


Freshly anointed by arctic waters.


Not quite Greece.


Witness to our shenanigans.

After lunch, we look up in the direction of our next leg. The plan was to ascend the steep incline, and then descend to the next fjord, but there is no demonstrable path. There is also a change in weather, with a wall of mist and snow blowing over the top, coming towards us.


We are not mountain goats.

Weather can change so drastically. We nix the plan, and instead decide to head back while we still have sunshine.

The return is easier, though when we reach the steep rockface we previously circumvented, we decide that descending doesn’t look as scary as ascending. We have gravity on our side, and a quickly approaching mass of arctic weather behind us.

How to describe two moderately active yet decidedly not expert climbers trying to navigate down sheer ninety degree rock with only man-maid chains and small naturally occurring protruding foot rests? Ess’ approach was to talk her way through it. One leg here, then maybe grab this here, and slide my body down this way…she mutters to herself, grunting. I wanted to laugh, but then had an image of it disrupting her, causing her to slip and fall, bashing those wonderfully smart brains against the rocks.

So I STFU, as the kids say.


Don’t be fooled, this was taken near the bottom.

We do this section by section. When it is my turn, I pass her my backpack first, sliding my body down, easing my foot unto one rest, then another, holding the chain. At one point I have grip the chain, knees bent, and repel backward down the rock. I wonder if my arms are strong enough to hold my own weight, thinking that letting go at this position means almost certain death—the rocks and fjord are twenty feet below. I decide to lie on my belly instead, and ease my body down along the rock, scratching my clothes and abdomen. I somehow feel more secure, and I have never been more grateful for my long legs.

But we do make it unscathed.

Much later—after we’d showered and eaten, had a few beers, were playing cards well into the evening, and drinking more wine—we joked about our inferior repelling skills. A giggle that turned into a laugh that turned into a breathless howl of nervous guffawing. “This is relief for NOT DYING on a rock,” she cackles.  

Nearing the mouth of the fjord again, we climb up to take pictures and soak in the views.

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Finally we return to the cabin. Tomorrow morning at 5:00 am we walk the three km to the terminal, then take the ferry back to Bodø. Ess will leave on a plane to another European city, and I’ll hop on a ten hour train ride to Trondheim.

But first, we sit on our porch and talk, watching the fog come in and mingle with the sunshine.



Goth slug hates the sun anyway.

It is bittersweet, that feeling of having a great time, then knowing it’s over. We declared the weekend a success and made vague plans for hiking in Scotland in 2017. Before we left, though, we made an entry in the guestbook. It is a very special message, first from myself and then from Ess. Unsigned, written on a blank spot somewhere well before 2015. We will never reveal what’s written, but if someone finds it and reckons it’s from us, shoot me a line here and I will send you a small prize.

Lofoten, you did us right. Norway never disappoints. Until the next adventure, here’s a panorama worth viewing large.


Death to false metal.


Read Midnight Sun—Part 1.

Midnight Sun in the Lofoten Archipelago, Norway—Part 1

Day 0 – 7:30 a.m.

It has been raining for two months. The sun has barely made an appearance since February, despite the fact that there is light for almost 24 hours now—the hazy grey sky lasts through the night, with no real sunrise or sunset, but only a dimming for about an hour.

I am heading north again—this time by train—to an area recommended in most guidebooks, known for its exceptional beauty of mountains, beaches, and quaint villages. A friend from grad school—“Ess” we’ll call her—will meet me in Bodø, just north of the arctic circle. From there will we travel together to a small fishing village across the water in the Lofoten Archipelago.

The ride is peaceful, and allows views of the Norwegian landscape as the train creeps north over the ten-hour ride. Norway is, in a word, breathtaking. Its lesser landscapes merely spectacular.


Day 0 – 17:30

Bodø is rainy, and cold. I have five hours to kill before Ess arrives by plane, so I tighten up my backpack straps and close up my rain-gear, heading out to walk around the town, and find something warm to eat. Not much is open. “City” in Norway is always a relative term; if it attracts tourists, it will have restaurants and small museums, and plenty of outdoor activities for the adventurous. It otherwise will have little in terms of Things To Do. No matter: I settle on Thai food, knowing the spice will help with the damp.

Panang curry it is. The dish comes with red curry and chicken in a bowl, and a heart-shaped rice mold with a heart-shaped carrot slice on top. Ten years ago I spent six months in Thailand, eating curry and rice the entire time. Never once did my dishes come with heart-shaped vegetables, but they make an appearance in Thai restaurants worldwide.

It is delicious. Curry and coconut milk; chicken and lemongrass; chili and rice: it is warm and creamy. After eating I reluctantly leave the cozy establishment for the blustery 5 ºC wind and rain. I stop by the grocery store to pick up food supplies for the weekend. Grocery stores and restaurants are limited where we’re headed. I stock up on ibuprofen and anti-motion sickness pills, popping a few as I walk to the ferry terminal.

Day 0.5 – Midnight

Ess arrives at the ferry terminal at midnight. We went to grad school together, learned about theory and method together, felt the highs and lows of funding disappointments and graduate-student life together. Ess—now the winner of a prestigious internationally recognized award for her important research—is in Europe for a brief study period. I—the winner of a somewhat less recognized award for my nefarious research—am delighted to travel with a friend for a change.

We compare spoils. Between the two of us we have two bottles of wine, a block of cheese, mandarin oranges, crackers, chocolate, tomatoes, salami, and bread. The budget traveler cuts costs by supplementing eating out with eating in. The budget traveler also buys their wine at the duty-free when flying in from other countries.

We head out to the dock. The ferry has arrived.

Last summer Ess and I attended the wedding of friends and colleagues in Greece. We had stood on a similar dock in Athens, waiting to be taken to the Island of Milos. The groom described the light as so bright that you think you forgot to wear your sunglasses before realizing they are already on your nose. The heat made me feel like I was breathing through wet wool, my lungs relieved only by an ocean breeze.

It is five minutes past twelve.

The rain cold, the sky grey like an afternoon storm. There is no sunset here in the arctic circle. It is the land of the midnight sun. I stare down at the grate underfoot, the bridge between dock and ferry, waiting in line to pay our fare. Water drips off my hood and tippity-taps on the metal grid. The polar water beneath us surges a little, jostles the bridge, and brings salty freezing mist into our nostrils.

“Definitely not Greece,” I observe.

“Definitely not,” Ess confirms.

Day 1

2:30 a.m.

We sit at the front of the ferry, inside, watching the sea as the ship takes soft rolling rises and falls. The window marked with droplets as the boat pushes through a wall of rain.

Oh, the seasickness. I lay my head back, try to focus on not throwing up. This never works. After an hour or so of trying to keep down my food, I stumble to the bathroom, almost tripping. Pushing open the door I immediately bend my head to the garbage can and vomit. Orange curry and chicken. A few seconds of relief. I stand up and head into the bathroom stall, then vomit again in the toilet. Lemongrass and rice. Finally it is over. I go to the sink and bend to wash out my mouth, spitting and rinsing. Another surge of the ship and I vomit a third time into the sink. Coconut milk and chili.

Shit. That’s $38.00 worth of vomit, right there.

3:30 a.m.

As we are slowly docking, an attendant comes to inform us that there has been a rock slide along the main highway—the only access north to our hotel in Reine. She has no idea when it will be cleared, but they will begin working on it immediately. No big deal, we tell each other, we’ll wait in the terminal until people wake up, and see if we can get more information then. 

Except, when we debark there is no ferry terminal. The other passengers drive out or get picked up. We search the dock for an open refuge, to no avail. There is no town to speak of, but instead a cluster of small houses tucked into the base of the mountains. There is only one road. Since we cannot head north as originally planned, we walk south, hoping to find something—anything—that will provide either information or shelter. What if it takes a week to clear? What if it takes just a few hours? Where do we go until something opens up? 

It is 4:00 a.m.

Walking through stillness. The town is comatose in the midnight sun. Nothing moves but us and the sporadic rain. Finally a shelter.

IMG_3228 It is actually just a shed for mailboxes, but it has three walls and a roof, with two benches inside. The reprieve from the rain helps to focus on our immediate problem. We have a small snack, and add layers of clothing. Decision time. I take out my phone and—data fees be damned!—look on my travel app for hotels near the area. Eureka! There’s a cabin available just 3 km south from here. I book it online, send a cancellation email to our planned reservation (of all the excuses, “rockslide” is a pretty legitimate one) hoping they won’t charge us, and then we head towards Rorbuer & Brygga Restaurant, in the fishing village of Å.

Å is quite literally the end of the road. The winding highway that begins in the north of the archipelago stops in a neat little loop just past this village. After the final twist of street, our destination is within sight.


Å i Lofoten, Norway

We find our rorbuer, which is the term for most hotels in the area. It designates the type of building—a basic cabin on stilts over the pier—which were built to house migrant fishermen in high season. We try all the doors, wondering about shelter for the next four or five hours (Please, please, please open at six and not eight or nine, we pray to the deities of fireside warmth.). On the dock, wet, chilled, and pitiful. The momentary glee from Having a Plan has turned to weary despair from our Dreadful Conditions. 

They opened at eight. We had been crouching in a doorway, dozing with the deep arctic cold creeping up through the ground into our flesh, when the reception attendant came to unlock the doors. They do not open until nine, she says, but invites us in for coffee after we explain the rockslide roadblock.

“Oh, that explains what all the people are doing outside,” she says, from her perfectly beautiful Norwegian face.

We weren’t the only ones with nowhere to go but south. But they had cars.

It takes a few hours, but they do let us check in early, around noon. By now we are chilled to shivering, and desperate to feel warm. Ess blasts the heat from the one small heater, as we each take hot showers. We lock the door, shut the curtain, and climb into our respective bunk beds.


“There are no demonstrable stains on the underside of your mattress,” I tell her, from below.

“That’s a good sign,” she mumbles, before we both fall into deep slumbers.

7:00 p.m.

Wine. That is all.

Day 2

Sunshine! We walk to the “town” of Reine, a downright cosmopolitan city by comparison to Å. The road was cleared last night, but how were we to know? Our cancelled reservation was answered with a tone that can best be described as “snippy”—by and large the exception in Norway—and a request to send my credit card information by email, so that they can bill me for the first day.

Uhm, no.

Ess gushes at Norway’s beauty, and even though I have grown accustomed to it, there is no denying the exceptional landscape.

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Our refuge looks different in the sunshine.

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IMG_3266 IMG_3263We return to our cabin in the afternoon, to rest up before dinner. My face feels hot, and not just from the long walk. Grabbing my make-up compact, I look in the mirror.

“Am I…? Is that…? I have a sunburn!”

“You do!” Says Ess. Her skin hasn’t been as affected, but she also has a preexisting tan because she lives in a sunny state. I won’t name it, but it rhymes with “alifornia.”

The sun was not that strong, and never gets high in the sky; it simply continually circles the horizon, dipping and rising in a small undular wave. My sunburn doesn’t seem warranted. But then I realize: my skin has not felt a full day of sunshine since December, in Montreal. And it was minus 20 ºC at the time.

This time it’s beer, hamburgers, and playing cards until the ripe hour of 9:00 p.m. We’re wiped out, sunburnt, a little drunk, and perfectly happy.


Read Midnight Sun—Part 2

Spring, Food, and Missing Home

I know. It’s been a while.

In the past few weeks I haven’t done much, as I’ve been nursing some injuries obtained from working out at the gym. I am rather competitive, and since January I’ve been gaining muscle and losing weight by pushing myself at the gym three-four times a week. More weights, more reps, higher intensity running… it took its toll when I hurt my knees jogging, and then hurt my shoulder with pull-downs, which caused a pinch in my neck, which then lead to a two-week headache and an aching scalp. That’s right. My scalp hurt. Apparently when this neck nerve gets hurt it irritates the entire side of your head. I originally thought I had a fast-moving ear infection that was growing up the side of my face.

But, it turns out, the cause of my pain is just that I’m not young. Not quite old per se, but certainly no longer twenty-two years old, with a twenty-two year old’s agility or ability to heal. Phooey. Almost-forty sucks.

As for my research here, I do not have that much time left—just over seven weeks. In that time I will write a draft of my entire proposal and an introductory chapter of the thesis itself. Though the proposal and chapter will likely change over the next year, outlining the plan on paper is a good way to get decent feedback as well as clarify one’s own thoughts and direction. When I return home I will do three comprehensive exams and then spend a year writing the dissertation. So far, I’m on track.

This is Month Five of my six-month adventure, and is the first time since being here that I’ve truly felt homesick. I miss my cats, my bicycle, and a damned grown up bed.


Dorm living is not for real grown ups who’ve paid their own rent since they were eighteen. I’ve regressed and there are no midnight cheerleader pillow fights to show for it.

I also miss real coffee.

In this pretty city of Trondheim, spring is trying to make its appearance. We had a high of 14 degree Celsius today, the highest temperature so far.


I’ll gladly suffer seasonal allergies for some greenery.

The sun is now setting at around ten p.m. and sets ten minutes later every day—a strange experience, as even at home at the height of summer, nine p.m. is usually the latest. By June 21st, I’m told that the day will last for twenty-two hours.

Another reason for my quiet on the blog is that I’ve been saving monies. I have adventures planned for the last month, including a trip to the Lofoten Archipelago

Even Norway’s sleepiest fishing villages are still breathtakingly beautiful.

…as well as Estonia to present at the annual CESNUR conference.

Magic and Media, yo.

My panel brings all the boys academics to the yard seminar room.

Despite the wallet-gouging prices here in Norway, I’ve managed to keep costs low by mixing cheap one-dollar food…

Canned tuna: cheap in every country.

Canned tuna: cheap in every country.

…with six-dollar-bags of spinach. Occasionally, I splurge and buy steak, and it’s the BEST THING EVER.

This cost me a month's rent.

This cost me a month’s rent.

When I’m feeling gastronomically adventurous, I try something unpronounceable yet visually appealing, to greater or lesser success.

My first meme.

My first meme.

But mostly, I stick to Norwegian staples.

Norwegians are obsessed with bad frozen pizza. Seriously, it's a real thing. Norway jokingly calls it their national dish.

Norwegians are obsessed with bad frozen pizza.

Seriously, it’s a real thing. Norway jokingly calls frozen pizza its national dish.

It’s Saturday night now and I’ve spent the day writing, so I’m going to go to the gym and try to sweat out the aches for home and the affection of my feline furkids. I may also buy chocolate, because chocolate cures all.

Just none of that Norwegian chocolate, because, like a true nerd, the foreign labels can’t tell me if I’m allergic to its ingredients.

And me without a bathtub.

And me without a bathtub.

Dog Sledding

Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015. Tromso, Norway

A tourist-filled bus picks me up at a downtown hotel, and drives to the Villmarkssenter base camp, about 30 minutes away. Most tourists are there for a quick tour, possibly a sled ride, some coffee, and then a return to their hotel or cruise ship. But I get ushered aside, and am introduced to three other people: a German couple and a Swiss woman. We are all booked to spend two days and one night dog sledding, and sleeping in a tent.


Our guide is Rob the Swede. He trains race huskies, owns eight of his own, is also a photographer, director, and general wilderness badass. We are taken into a room and given boots and outer clothing. As my experience in Norway so far has taught me that there is no accomodation for fat people (nothing even approaching my size is in the stores), I have dressed well enough to be able to keep my own clothes, not wanting to risk being without proper equipment. I have a wool tank camisole and long sleeved shirt, then an arctic fleece, and then a light waterproof hooded jacket. I also have a quilted down coat to throw over that if indeed it gets colder; I tend to overheat when I’m moving, and need light clothes. On the bottom, I have non-cotton underwear, thermal long Johns, light jersey trousers, then thin waterproof ski-pants. They predict -5 to 3 degrees Celsius over the next two days. As long as it doesn’t dip much below that, I will be warm enough. I do, however, take their boots. They are astronaut looking things, wide and round and warm. When I slip my wool socks into them, I am immediately cozy, even of they are awkward for walking.

They recommend to wear wool underwear, as it dries faster. If you sweat in cotton it sticks to you, and then you get chilled. Canadian winters do prepare you for this sort of thing.


The fellowship of the dog harness.

We are then shown the sleds and dogs. Rob demonstrates how to properly harness the dogs, and we get to work setting up our team and sled.


An employee bringing a dog to be harnessed.

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These three females below are the front of my sled team. The first two are the leaders, calm and patient, while the third is a little skittish, making low stress noises. No one is exhibiting threatening behaviour. I pet them all after harnessing them, hoping to ease the concerns of little miss cryer. She licks my hand and rubs against me.


These two goofballs are brothers. They play and roll around, constantly seek pets, and nip at Rob the Swede’s beard.


The preparations complete, we are finally off.
“Ok, Up!” Commands Rob. He leads the single-file caravan. I am immediately behind Rob. The dogs follow eagerly, and we do not “drive” the sled so much as control the enthusiasm of the dogs by slowing them down with dragging breaks, and squatting and swaying side to side, balancing our weight so as not to fall off. It is far more rigourous than I imagined.

But we get to see things like this (click on images for larger view):



After a few hours of climbing higher, we stop for lunch: a sandwich and hot tea, brought in a thermos by Rob.



The dogs rest while we eat, as they will be running for the next several hours.

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We head up the mountain, climbing higher ridge by ridge. On the hills we have to help the dogs by pushing the sled up. I am grateful for not over-dressing, as I am sweating and breathing heavy.


Rob occasionally parks his sled and walks ahead to check out the terrain. There are small swamps and streams he makes certain to avoid.

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It’s getting dark, but we keep sledding until almost dusk. When we park, we take care of the dogs first. We remove the harnesses, and then each team gets attached to a string of wire, tied between the sled and a tree. They are fed—a nice raw steak—and then settle down into a little pocket in the snow. They will sleep outside all night.

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With the dogs settled, we set up camp. Rob instructs up to stamp down an area for the tents. It has snowed just yesterday, and we get our hearts pumping again, stomping through three feet of fresh powder. With an area sufficiently cleared, we erect the tents. One small one for the German couple and a larger one for myself, the Swiss woman, and Rob the Swede.

The tents done, it is supper time. Again, we stomp a hole in the snow to build the fire. I retrieve the firewood from my sled, marveling at how strong the dogs are to lug this wood and my fat ass up a mountain. Rob is cook. He melts snow in a pot, then immerses sealed bags of soup into it. Once heated, he opens each bag with his knife, pours it into a tin bowl, and passes them around to everyone, along with a plastic knife/fork/spoon. It is a dish of reindeer meat in a cream sauce, with potatoes, onions, and longberries.

I have never eaten anything so good.

It is hot and meaty and creamy and delicious. We have been climbing a mountain for six hours, setting up camp for two, and beginning to feel a small chill now that we are sedentary around the fire. Hot food is the marvel of the civilized world.


I have no idea why the photos here are blurry. I blame exhaustion.

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After chatting and eating and desert—a pineapple. Rob brought a whole damn pineapple for desert—we crawl into the tent.

Well, first I ventured down the hill a bit to relieve myself. I held it until I was bursting, not wanting to have to drop my pants in the cold anymore than I have to. It is not the first time I have peed outside in the wintertime, but it is the first time I did it sober. It takes some coordination to get all my layers back up in their proper order.

Once the boots came off and I was in the tent, I tried to straighten out my sleeping bag. It is resting on an air mattress, on top of a thermal mat. I cannot seem to get my head inside the hood of it, as it has a built-in pillow and flap to pull over your face. Rob notices me struggling, and I ask for help, wondering how I have managed to screw up the basic instructions of “unclasp and unroll.”
“It’s too short.” He says finally, after examining it. It should have been adult sized, but it is not long enough.
Rob offers to swap sleeping bags, so I take his and he curls up into mine. He is not significantly shorter than I am, but he is accustomed to sleeping out in winter. He also has a companion to keep him warm.


No, not us human females, but this lovely lady that is one of Rob’s Siberian huskies. She is apparently eight or nine years old, and does not compete anymore. She also is put in the middle of the team when harnessed, and Rob tells us that she runs just fast enough to keep up, but not actually pull the sled. He laughs and kisses her. Clearly, she has a privileged position to come sleep with the humans.


Saucy minx.

Rob’s sleeping bag fits me just fine, and after removing all but my wool long underwear, I crawl in and try to settle for a comfortable position. Just before bed, I snap this with my iPhone.


I have eschewed vanity to show you all that winter camping is not glamourous.

I am warm. The sleeping bag is thermal. Once my body heat warms it, I am cozy inside, even too warm, and have to periodically open the zipper to vent a bit. I sleep deep, though I wake often from a cold nose. Finally, I drag my down coat over my face and turn my head just enough to get air but keep my face warm. A few times in the night I wake to howling wind and snowy rain that pushes at the walls of the tent, and I wonder if there are bears on this island. The dogs would certainly let us know if there was a prowler. But the cocoon is warm, the air in my lungs is cool and refreshing, and I drift back to sleep without a second-thought.

In the morning, Rob makes breakfast. First, he feeds the dogs—raw hamburger meat this time.

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Then he uses his gas stove for the humans. The meal is another pre-packaged bag of food, this time a cod and potato stew. It hits the spot. He also makes coffee. It is freeze-dried without sugar, but damned delicious.


From inside the tent.


Our camp in the morning.


The campsite, Rob making breakfast sheltered from the wind.


Always fashionable, Rob the Swede likes to coordinate his beard with the equipment.


Our snowy conditions on day two.

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It takes several hours to eat, pack up, harness the dogs, and then depart. Once we do, we are in a wet storm of sideways falling snow.


Nothing affects the mood of these two happy boys.


Rob consults with us on whether we want to keep going or return early. All systems go, Rob. We’ll take as much as we can get.

Another three or four hours (thankfully, mostly downhill), and we get to the base camp. Dogs first: they get unharnessed and chained to their respective sleds. We all give them plenty of kisses and pets.

Once changed back into our regular winter clothing, I head to the bathroom. A  real one, with a toilet, and a floor. I wash my hands and face with warm water and soap—twice—feeling a little grimy after two days exerting myself. We are then directed to a round building, to have a meal and coffee before being taken back to the town center.

The heat hits me. When I walk into the wooden structure and feel the warmth of the fire (aided by heat lamps) it’s like a sudden, powerful sedative has entered my bloodstream. We crawl into our booth, while Rob serves us some hot reindeer soup—a traditional Sami dish, we are told—and it’s perfect.

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Thoroughly exhausted, we begin talking about hot showers and beer and mattresses and blankets. Rob claims that his plans are to get drunk. Good plan, Rob. I had similar thoughts, but when I returned to my hotel room, I was so tired after bathing that I drank half a beer from the mini bar, ate some peanuts, and then fell into a deep sleep.

I’d do it again.


I turned thirty-eight on March 2nd. Birthdays do not upset me, overall, but I am now just that much closer to forty. Forty seems huge. And mature. Not sure where the years went.

Actually, that’s bullshit. It’s just something people say; I know exactly where the years went. In my early twenties I learned how to think long-term, not paycheck to paycheck. The learning curve on that one was pretty tough. The entire concept of a “future” was alien, much less planning one out, or even just beginning to aspire to one. You may have heard of “imposter syndrome,” wherein one is never fully convinced of one’s own skills. But there is also something I like to call “don’t dare to hope” syndrome. That’s where you know that in life Things Usually Don’t Work Out, and to protect yourself from disappointment you squash dreams of a better future. People assume it is laziness on your part, or a lack of drive, or—sacrilege—a lack of imagination. But they are incorrect. It is self-preservation. Do be a lofty dreamer means that you are Not Addressing Reality. And an acute understanding of harsh reality is the only advantage you have when you have nothing.

So in my twenties I learned to Dare to Hope for something besides working to pay the bills. It starts with a simple dream, a fantasy, wherein you imagine your ideal scenario without feeling like you are betraying your keen observation of human behaviour (your sharpest and most useful skill). You have seen those who walk through life living within a fantasy that has little relationship to their reality. You want nothing of that.

The trick, then, is to allow yourself to fantasize about what you want in life in a controlled way, without jeopardizing your armour. For those of you who have never faced this kind of challenge, who can dream endless possibilities without ever questioning whether or not it is possible because, by virtue of a fluke of being born into a pre-existing infrastructure of support (economically or emotionally), I envy you. Things Just Happen for you because Things Have Always Been That Way. You should thank the indifferent universe.

In my late twenties and into my early thirties, I learned to fantasize. Those scenarios (ever-shifting and sometimes fanciful) were small kernels of possibility beyond my immediate circumstances. Here is the most important thing about those fantasies: I indulged them without guilt or depression. That’s another thing others fail to understand: when your dreams never come true, when all you have ever experienced in life is that you have little to no means to achieve success (however defined), it becomes depressing to even dream. So you shut it down. I became determined to reframe fantasizing about my future as a tool to accomplish my goals.

It was slow, with many setbacks, as there was not a plan in place. It was part luck, part hard work, and part investment in psychotherapy—that wonderful Western practice of paying someone to listen to you, no strings attached. Friendships require reciprocity. Therapy requires only that you work on yourself.

By now, after fifteen years as an academic, methodically working through my degrees, one text, essay, class, and year at a time, I finally see a reward for my considerable investment of time, money, effort, and imagination.

Ever hear of the marshmallow test? It’s where they ask children to hold off on eating a marshmallow that is right in front of them with the promise of two marshmallows later on. Some gobble it up right away, some have the patience to wait it out. The test is designed to evaluate how children strategize the cost-benefit analysis: short-term pain for long-term gain. When I first heard of the test I thought with my childhood’s mind: but if I don’t eat it now someone else will come along and take it from me. A marshmallow now is way better than the mere promise of a marshmallow later, by some strange adult who I cannot trust to follow through on their promise. Prove to me that you, scientist, will follow through on your claim first, then I’ll pass your damned marshmallow test.

Poverty breeds such suspicion.

As I near forty, I feel pretty damn good about the future—a feeling that I can honestly say is wholly novel and damned wonderful. Despite dismal job prospects for PhDs and even dimmer avenues for religious studies scholars in bizarre and fringe areas of research, I am not worried. I am not worried because I have never lost my grip on Harsh Reality, and have learned to balance it with Fanciful Dreams. That balance is a tool like any other. Learn to use it.


If you want to get me a birthday present why not click the icon below to help fund my research?


I am currently back in Trondheim, but the past week in Tromso has been truly wonderful. I will post about my two-day dog-sledding expedition later on (it deserves its own stand-alone post) but in the meantime, here are some pictures that I took in and around Tromso.

Like Montreal (and Manhattan), Tromso center is an island. The city extends beyond the island to surrounding islands, in small, sparsely inhabited areas. At the top of the island is a lake surrounded by a park (also like Montreal, though Tromso is much, much smaller). I needed to get to the shopping mall on the other side of the hill to purchase some winter snow pants (I curse myself for not buying them before I came here–there are no people fat people in Norway, and I cannot find anything my size), hoping something in the Men’s section will fit. It’s about a 4.3 km hike, one way. So I don my winter gear and water bottle, and head up the hill.


This is the view behind me as I leave the Tromso city center.


And this is the view in front of me. Every Norwegian must have some wicked-tight leg muscles.


Just an idyllic house on top of a hill. The bastards.


At the top, here is the first view of the lake. I am not as brave as this man and his dog; even thick ice might break under my fat ass.


The lifeguard station.

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The dog pee makes it look like the Snowman is smiling because he just relieved himself after holding it in all day.

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As I exit the lake via a path, I walk down a hill again, but this time on the other side of Tromso, nearer the airport.

By the time I got back, I’d been walking for three and a half hours. I took a hot shower and relaxed, apologizing to my legs for not wearing my Long Johns.

Tromso and the Viking Feminists

Friday Feb. 20.

I fly from Trondheim into the Arctic Circle, to the city of Tromso. This trip is somewhat of a present to myself: I turn thirty-eight next Monday, and I cannot pass up the chance the see the Northern Lights.

I arrive and check into my lodgings, at which I’ll be staying for part of the week. I’ve divided my trip into budget travel activities (long wilderness walks, free/cheap museums and sites, grocery-store food), with a few higher priced adventures (dog-sledding, restaurants, beer). I’m staying at the Smart Hotel–hip and efficient, with micro everything, it is approximately the same size as my dorm room.

On the first night, I meet a colleague for a meal at Casa Inferno, a brick-oven pizzeria, with undertones of a Steampunk aesthetic. We discuss dissertations and magic, yoga and our parents. We lament the Norwegian male, who is a little unsure of his place in an egalitarian society, fumbling at flirtation, cautious not to offend.


What is it about Norway’s obsession with pizza? It’s EVERYWHERE.


House wine and Frutti di Mare.

Afterwards, she takes me to a bar. It is in the basement of the old police station, which used to be the jail. It’s cramped, made of stone, warm, and full of university students. I make conversation about chasing the Northern Lights, hoping to see them at least once. The bartender suggests I drink them instead. They are delicious.


Nordlys Pilsner (Northern Lights beer)

Near the end of the night, there is a Norwegian male standing next to me; he is bearded and blond, drinking and cool. I try to squeeze past him, as it is time to go.
“Oh, now I have to suck in my stomach!” He smirks, exaggerating with a sharp intake of breath.
“And here I thought Norwegians dispensed with chivalry, because you are all Viking Feminists.” He threw his head back, with a laughing roar, and in my mind’s eye I see him with an ax slung in a holster on his waist, drinking mead out of an animal horn.
“You just made my night.” He winks, and allows me to pass.

A little drunk and hoarse from conversation, I scramble back to my hotel in the cold and flop on the bed, already anticipating tomorrow’s hangover. As I close my eyes I notice the graffiti on the wall.


Thank you for validating my life choices.


I sleep until three in the afternoon.

Groggy, but with plans to hike across the bridge to take a cable car atop a mountain overlooking Tromso, I lug myself out of bed, don my wool underwear, and head out.



The small black dot is actually a duck. You can see the Arctic cathedral on the far right.


Crossing the Fjord.

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Finally, I arrive at the base of the cable car (getting lost along the way–my thighs are cold under my jeans). As we wait for the car, the operator lets me peak inside his booth, showing me the controls and pointing out how it works. Later, on the way down, I spot another young woman in the booth, smiling and laughing at his attentions. The sly dog.

On the way up I am among a group of middle-aged Scottish women. As the car lurches up with a start, one of them holds on tight to the bar, gives a little yelp (Oh Laird!), and tells her friend, “I don’t mean to be rude, but I am really, really scared right now.”
“Look at the floor and talk to me about something else,” her friend responds.
I am a head taller than all the ladies, and can easily look out the window as we ascend. The wind picks up, and it rocks the car a little.

At the top there’s a fenced overlook, and when you step outside the wind howls and rips at your clothes. I hold my camera tight, the sharpness nipping at my knuckles.


The view from up top.

After a few minutes among a throng of freezing picture-takers, I go back inside the cafe for a hot drink, a waffle, and to warm up after my long walk here. The Scottish ladies have a full meal with laughter. The Germans drink beer. The Asians play on their iPhones. I look out the window and write postcards.

When I’ve warmed up enough, I amble towards the descending car, but notice a back door. It’s unlocked, and I step out.

It’s dark. The sole light is behind me from the windows, and I’m staring at a snow bank six feet high. A trodden path is to my right and I hop up the bank and walk away from the cabin. In the daytime there must be people that venture outside, as the snow is trampled down enough to support me. But now I am totally alone. In the night. With the ground reflecting white, and the sky above angry, threatening to storm. I turn away from the wind, as it wants to push me along, edging me deeper into the night. It takes just a moment before I realize I am staring at a massive rising peak across a deep crevasse.
What did I ever do to you, Wind? That you’d want me to fall down the mountain?
Intruder, it tells me, why don’t you see if you can fly? 
I do. For a few moments, at least, I picture myself lifting with the wind, up and over the Fjord to the next mountain peak.

As I wait for the return car I look out at the city. It is rather small, as cities go, but its lights are enough to obstruct any glimpse of the Northern Lights. It’s cloudy anyway, even if they were active tonight.




I wake up to large softly falling snowflakes outside my window. All afternoon the snow falls, and I wonder if they’ll cancel my Northern Lights adventure. I head out early to take a stroll before meeting my guide at the Tourist Center.

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At six pm sharp my guide arrives. His name is Henrik, a Norwegian about sixty years old. He ushers me into a van with four other tourists. We drive to Vågen, in the Ersfjord, which is still part of the Tromso area. He owns a cabin on the coast, and hosts Northern Lights evenings for tourists. On the way, I have my doubts about visibility, and it’s still windy and snowing.


But Henrik assures us the weather will pass. Predict Aurora activity begins around nine. We arrive at his cabin, and all head out to have a look around.
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All the other tourists are professional photographers, and they drag their tripods out around the property, to the water’s edge and down the path, hoping the sky clears up. For the next several hours we chat, have food and hot drinks, alternating between standing out in the cold, and being in the cabin, looking at aurora forecasts. By ten pm everyone was inside, beginning to feel a little disheartened, discussing booking another night. I decide to go outside alone.

I am invigorated by winter. It is harsh and beautiful and isolating. Bundled in your clothes you know the creep of its cruelty; to enjoy it is to take all the necessary precautions.

Strolling out of reach of the street light, I round a bend by the water’s edge. The plowed path ends here, but there’s an untrodden path leading to a small unlit cabin. I wade through the snow, grateful for my high boots and wool socks. The sky is clearing, and the deep midnight blue sparkles with bright stars. More than I’ve ever seen. Orion’s Belt and the Big Dipper, but also hundreds (thousands?) more.

I am alone at the edge of the world in the deep night, the water gently lapping on the rocks.

A Norwegian friend recounted to me that his grandfather told him that if he waved a white flag, the northern lights would come take him away. I pull out my white handkerchief, and signal to the sky. Come on then, I tell the lights, I’m waiting. 

Keeping my head back, looking up and north, I watch as the last of the clouds slowly clears away, moving east across the stars, over the mountain top.

Oh. That’s not a cloud. It’s greenish. 

Oh, so you’ve come for me! I’m delighted. 

The others can now be heard making their way down the path. Within a moment they are within eyesight, trudging with their camera equipment towards my isolated spot, which is free from electric lighting interference.

For the next couple of hours we stand in the snow bank, taking, taking pictures, marvelling at the ever-shifting green wisps of light streak across the sky. I am told later that this was a four on a scale of ten in terms of activity. They are still spectacular, even at forty percent.

My own little camera captures nothing but black. I will have to rely on organic, not digital, memory. But here’s a photo of my hot jasmine tea sitting in a snowbank.


If you’re wondering what to get me for my birthday, why not make a donation to my Norwegian adventures via GoFundMe? It’ll buy me more woolen underwear.