Marry Me, Iceland

My latest adventure, reposted from my “official” blog since that’s where I still have free space to upload photos!

Gemma Tarlach

DSCN0534(Yes, it’s been a while since a proper post, but I just took my first real vacation in more than three years, which should tell you how things have been. Since my last vacation, northern Norway in 2012, I took a job that involves a lot of staring at a screen and fixing other writers’ words, leaving me with little time and less energy to write for myself. I also adopted a cat (Charles), bought a house, adopted a puppy (Tyche), went to Japan for a week for work, adopted another puppy (Pullo…full name Titus Pullo 13th for any fellow fans of HBO’s Rome. Tyche’s name comes from the show, too), tried fostering a special needs dog (Waldo) and ended up adopting him as well, only to see him cross the Rainbow Bridge last month, leaving my house and my heart very empty (Charles, Tyche and Pullo are…

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Visiting Detroit and meeting Da Bears.

Gemma Tarlach

Driving back to Wisconsin after several days out East visiting my mom, I realized hey, I don’t think I’ve ever been to Detroit. It’s probably the only major American city I haven’t seen.

Well. Let’s change that.

Armed with suggestions from my Icepeep (and Detroit native) Brian as well as a few other friends, I tried to cram as much sight-seeing as I could into a single full day.

Unfortunately, my first stop was the zoo.

Let the three-hour delay begin.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no complaints about spending a good chunk of the day at the Detroit Zoo. It was great. It was in the 30s and had snowed a little overnight, and I think I was one of about ten visitors in the whole place.

A lot of the warmer climate animals were off-display, but that was okay. In animal appreciation, much as in other…

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Happy Halloween, everyone…for a special holiday treat and to show my appreciation for your support, please wander on over to for a brand new ghost story. Thanks! (And don’t forget to follow if you enjoyed following Stories That Are True, since I’ll be posting new content exclusively over there.)

Gemma Tarlach

It’s that most wonderful day of the year (second only to tomorrow, when Target has its post-Halloween clearance sale!). To celebrate, and to thank everyone who supported Plaguewalker, especially through the media blitz and area readings of the last week, here’s a ghost story I penned. Enjoy.


Everyone Knows

This really happened.

Ghost tale tellers are like fishermen and lawyers, always swearing their whopper is for real. But I can guarantee this story is true because I was the one running down a night-black gravel road in my pajamas, too scared to look over my shoulder.

I had a summer job in college as a public health intern in northern Canada. Part of my job was to take the coastal ferry from one tiny fishing village to the next, delivering stacks of pamphlets and posters reminding the locals not to drink and snowmobile, or to get their children…

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Why You Should Stop Reading This Blog

Don’t worry, I’m not giving up on chronicling my travels and oversharing. But, although it took more than three years of adventures nearly pole to pole, I have finally used up all of my image storage space here. WordPress would like me to subscribe to rather pricey additional storage on an annual basis, but that seems silly when I’ve got loads of space not being used at my other blog,

So…thank you for reading Stories That Are True. It will remain up, including all the images, and I may occasionally post text-only tidbits. But starting today, all my meaty posts, travel-related and otherwise, will be over at

If you’ve been following STAT, as I call it when scribbling my to-do list, please consider following GT, which will include some posts about my fiction writing (but not that many, because between you and me, I find writing about my writing as much fun as waiting in line at the DMV).

I’ve just posted the first STAT-ish update over there, in fact, and if you need any more incentive to check it out, three words: imaginary polar bears. Oh yeah.

Thanks for reading, for following, and for commenting over the years. I hope you’ll continue to do so over at my not-so-anonymous blog.

There and Back Again

It’s been an exciting couple weeks for me, including but not limited to outhouses, lighthouses, small boats, big ships, the Barents Sea and a growing fondness for salty black licorice.

(Sidenote: you know you’re taking to Norway when your last thought before falling asleep is “oh, tomorrow I’ll be in Sortland and can buy more of that great fish liver paste!”)

One thing the last two weeks has not been great for is Internet access. I’m hoping that changes soon, as I have a ton of photos to post of more water and rocks as well as the northernmost town, the northernmost fortress, the northernmost city, the northernmost church and on and on…also, there will be polar bear taxis.

For now, however, let me leave you with words we should all keep in mind:

Norway’s Area 51

“She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker.”–Mrs. Hurst’s opinion of Elizabeth Bennett, Pride and Prejudice

Traffic jam, Vesteralen-style

My whale safari plans scuttled and the clouds low and brooding, hiding the mountaintops I’d hoped to hike, I declined the offer of a borrowed bicycle (because the end result of cycling for me is usually acquainting myself with the nearest acute medical care facility). Instead, I did what I do best. I walked.

I headed out along the Strandgata, or Beach Road, out of Andenes and toward the community of Bleik, famous for its 2.5km-long white sandy beach and for overlooking Bleiksoya, the “bird mountain” as I’ve heard it called.

Bleiksoya is a spire of rock, jutting up from the waves off the coast of Andoya, that is home massive colonies of puffins, gannets and other birds. According to my map, it was about a nine mile walk, one way, from Andenes to Bleik.

Sure, why not.

The rain and winds came and went, but it was an easy, flat walk. And how great it was to walk, just walk, something I haven’t done in a long time.

Note low-profile tunnel entrance. Housing extraterrestrials is clearly the only explanation.

Nearing the halfway point, I passed an array of antennae behind a fence, with a small building flying a German flag. Well, that’s interesting. Across the road, the mountain rising above me was also fenced off, with signs warning me that it was a military installation and off-limits. A dark tunnel mouth offered a tantalizing suggestion of Secret Stuff.

Antennae and a German flag. Very suspicious.

A little further down the road, I passed a rocket launch site.

Rockets for research. A likely story.

Clearly this is where Norway keeps its UFOs and captured aliens.

Of course, I have no shred of evidence to support that, but then, “evidence” is passe these days, especially online, and just because I don’t have evidence doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

Craggy pinnacles of Sostran

Andenes is, after all, home to the Andoya Air Station, which has Norway’s only surveillance squadron. There are civil defense bunkers and mysterious berms all over the village. And the rocket range is one of the world’s busiest “sounding rocket” launch sites…sure, “sounding rockets”…nice cover story, Norway.

Rainbow over Andenes (lighthouse on horizon is where I started my walk). Near the rocket launch site.

After rounding the spiky headland of Sostran and catching a glimpse of Bleiksoya and Bleik, still a couple miles ahead, I saw something else: black skies descending.

Bleiksoya (island at right) and a change in the weather

I decided to turn around and made it back to the hotel moments before the downpour that’s lasted most of the afternoon. The skies are clearing again, however. I think it’s time for a walkies. I’ve only done about ten miles so far today.


North Country Girl

Sunset over Andenes on the island of Andoy, Norway, 300km/190 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The northernmost point I have ever been.

Aside from that being one of my favorite Pete Townshend songs, it’s the truth. I’m an upper latitudes kind of girl. And at this moment I sit in a place further north than I have ever been: 69 degrees 18′ 51″ N, to be exact, nearly 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Saying goodbye to the Lofotens on the Fiskebol-Melbu ferry

I left the Lofoten island archipelago today to head north to a neighboring cluster of islands known as Vesteralen. One of the many things I love about Scandinavia: no matter where you are, if the Bussruter says the bus will show at 1230 hours, at precisely 1230 hours it comes rolling around the corner. One bus ride, ferry ride and second bus ride later, I arrived at Andenes, at the northern tip of the island of Andoy.

Love that clear arctic light. Andenes church.

Turns out the hotel I booked online was not quite as centrally located as advertised. I asked the bus driver as I was getting off where it was and he said “It is long way. I will drive you.”

Well, okay. So he chauffered me all of about 500m to the hotel.

I’d come to Andenes in hopes of getting on the last whale safari of the season. It was supposed to be today, but high winds had postponed it till tomorrow. Alas, when I checked into my hotel, the guy at the counter not only greeted me by name (I suspect I am the only person staying here) but added that the whale safari people had called to say they were very sorry, there would be no whale safari tomorrow, either, and that they were giving up and just shutting things down for the season because the weather forecast was so dreadful for the next several days.

The hotel guy added he was also very, very sorry for me.

He seemed surprised when I shrugged and told him it was okay. It was weather. I understood.

Plus I’d seen some delicious looking mountains on the drive in. If it was too windy to head out to sea, I could still go for a hike.

“You do not mind the bad weather?” he asked, still wary.

I explained that I had spent 20 months in Antarctica. I’m used to Mother Nature changing my plans for me.

And yes, it would have been cool to see a bunch of whales (Andenes is the nearest human settlement to some of the richest feeding grounds in the world for several species), but I’ve seen whales in Newfoundland and Labrador, in western Norway and Stewart Island in New Zealand, even in Antarctica from quite a long distance away and, perhaps most memorably, in Tasmania when a gigantic humpback whale found our boat extremely interesting and swam straight for us.

Plus…have I mentioned I am farther north than I’ve ever been? That alone is a thrill.

My hotelier buddy recommended a couple good walks for me and also said he was going to find a bicycle for me to borrow to get me to the trailheads faster. I was too touched by his helpfulness to mention that I have a very high crash rate on two-wheelers, so I just smiled and nodded.

Andenes Lighthouse

After leaving my bags in my spartan but clean and functional room, I took a stroll around town. It was as dead as Svolvaer, but did have an assortment of cute buildings and a nice bench on a jetty where I sat and indulged in my obsession with bizarre potato chip flavors. Tonight’s new taste sensation: Jovial Chili. Extra bonus that the brand was “Traktor.”

Verdict: pretty much the same as the sweet chile chips I’ve had in New Zealand. Why, by the way, are American potato chip flavors so boring?

The view from my bench on the jetty. I absolutely love the light here.

Back in my room, I watched a documentary on Syd Barrett and caught up on the news. My friendly hotelier pal also gave me the free password to the hotel’s wifi so I could bypass the pay-per-use router. Sweet. Whatever tomorrow brings, it will bring it to me farther north than before, and that is achievement enough for me.

When Hitler Came To Town

I don’t usually find reasons to grin in World War II museums. But then, I don’t usually see informational signage like this:

I spent several hours yesterday at the Lofoten Krigsminnemuseum, the Lofoten Wartime Museum, in non-bustling downtown Svolvaer. When the volunteer who was staffing it noticed I was actually reading the signage and not just cruising through like the five other tourists who came and went during my time there, he came over and started chatting and pointing out things I might have missed.

And believe me, it was easy to miss stuff.

Tons o’ stuff and enough informational signage to satisfy even me

The museum is actually the obsession of one man who has set about, over some 40 years, acquiring what is believed to be the largest private collection of World War II memorabilia, uniforms and everyday items in the world. It’s all crammed into half a dozen rooms in a 19th century building right next to the busy bus station lonely central bus stop.

Norwegian WWII Bunny Boots!

Now, when I hear things like “world’s largest private collection of mostly Nazi memorabilia,” I get a little nervous. I don’t want to be supporting, in any way, any sort of nutball yearning for the days of the Third Reich.

The Norwegian uniforms were worn by the prettiest mannequins

So I am pleased to report that I saw no sign of a pro-Nazi bent to the collection. If anything, it was tremendously even-handed, which is not something I can often say about museum collections tackling difficult issues (I’m still vexed with Liverpool’s International Museum of Slavery for implying North American colonists were the only people ever who engaged in slavery anywhere anytime, completely skipping over, oh, I don’t know, Arabs, Vikings, Egyptians, Romans, and so on, and so on…).

The less attractive mannequins were stuck with the German uniforms. I did not know mannequins could have cystic acne.

Anyway, I loved the focus on ordinary items made and used in extraordinary circumstances, such as shoes made from paper or POW handicrafts like a guitar made of matches and decorative sword made from the leg of a chair and a soup bone procured from the kitchen.

Decorative sword made from a chair leg and soup bone by a Norwegian POW in a German camp in Poland. The belt is made from cigarette packet cellophane.

There were numerous uniforms from all sides as well, some with incredible stories. Divers retrieved a German sailor’s shirt from a wreck off the coast of Norway and the museum’s collector spent five years trying to track down its original owner, whose name was stitched inside the shirt. The man had spent time in Canada as a POW and then settled there after the war. When he was finally located and contacted, he replied with a Christmas card filled with a shaky old man’s hand, offering warm greetings and noting he had some photos he could send to supplement the display.

Salvaged German sailor shirt with card and photos from original owner

Yes, the museum had the cyanide capsule container that “may have been the very one Hitler carried!” and also some unexpected illustrations of Disney characters believed to be done by the failed-art-student-turned-Fuhrer himself (apparently, Adolf was a bit of a Disney maniac and particularly enjoyed the movie Snow White).

One of the illustrations found hidden in a frame purchased at auction and believed to be the work of Adolf Hitler.

But most of the collection was focused on how the people who lived through that era in northern Norway–local resistance fighters, innocent children, German soldiers, Russian and Serbian POWs, Croatian prison guards, hapless fishermen–endured.

In case: paper shoes “not for the wearing in rain” my guide helpfully noted. On top of case, jar of greenhouse-grown tobacco from the 1940s. The volunteer staffer opened it and it smelled fresh. Not sure I believe it was that old, but if it was, wow.

Aside from the overall focus of the collection, I loved the English translations on the signage. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not mocking the translator. Sure, there were errors, but no more than the average Facebook post from a native English speaker. But there was often a jauntiness to the wording that just tickled me.

All that and bad teeth too…what a guy.

And that was a good thing, to have a little levity, because reading for hours about the conditions endured, the savagery exhibited by some and the pain suffered by others, really could have been depressing otherwise. I found the line “man’s blind indifference to his fellow man” from “Willie McBride” running through my head over and over, as well as imagery from the attacks on Western embassies and consulates in the Middle East and Africa.

We as a species never learn, do we?

Water and Rocks: Now Featuring Eagles!

Yesterday was a day of false advertising. It worked out okay in the end–great, even–but more than once I stepped outside of the moment with a quizzically raised brow and asked the world “really?”

It began with a circuit of Svolvaer’s electrifying downtown…as dead at 9 am on a workday as it was at 5 pm the day before. Where are all the people in this place? It’s a neat town, with no sign of economic turmoil, mass heroin addiction or urban blight of any kind. Why is no one about?

Svolvaer’s downtown and port. Svolvaer is, I believe, Norwegian for “snoozeville.”

At least the tourist information office opened as scheduled at 10. Whew. After booking a boat trip to Trollfjord–the area’s “must-do” activity–with the lone remaining company running tours this late in the season, I asked the kindly older tourist information staffer if she could recommend a nice walk for the three and a half hours I had before the boat.

Without hesitation, she showed me on an area map how to get to Tjeldbergtinden, a “little bump” from which I would be afforded wonderful views, and it was such an easy walk! Well, sign me up. She told me it would take me 15 minutes to walk to the trailhead, and then perhaps another 45 minutes up and back.

“You will have plenty of time,” she added. “I did this in 30 minutes yesterday, and I was not running.”

Never believe little old ladies giving hiking information.

The way I see it, either I misunderstood, or her English was not as flawless as it seemed–or she neglected to mention that she has a jetpack.

At the trailhead

It took me almost half an hour to walk through the suburbs and find the trailhead, at least as she described it (I looked online at Wundermap later and saw there was another, easier route mostly on gravel road). The trail itself was obvious enough once I found it, but it was also all wet rock and mud on a consistently steep incline. This was my first actual hike since I was in Tasmania last November, so I wasn’t exactly physically ready for it.

Of course I slogged on, determined, I suppose, not to be outdone by a little old lady (a very trim, very fit-looking little old lady, now that I think of it…). And the views, once I got out of the forest, were fair enough.

Looking down at Svolvaer from the trail

And then the sky turned black. Weather rolled in faster than a little old lady racing up a mountain and all turned to mist and cloud and rain.

Another view. Note the dark clouds moving in from the east (right). Within five minutes the spot where I’d been standing was thick with fog.

I’m not sure how far up I was supposed to go. I’d reached a ridge that continued to lead upward a fair way to a rocky peak, much more to the south than the Tjeldbergtinden marked on the map. With the weather worsening and time ticking away (I’d spent an hour climbing), I decided to turn around and head back down.

By the time I got back to my converted fish warehouse hotel and wiped off at least some of the mud (up to my knees and all over my hands and jacket where I crab-walked down the more slippery bits), I had a scant ten minutes to get to my Trollfjord boat.

The boat motors were running, and once I was aboard, along with a German tourist and an elderly American couple, we were off, five minutes ahead of schedule and without a soul asking to see my ticket. Okay.

Abandoned fish warehouse just waiting to be turned into an affordable but slightly creepy unstaffed hotel, north end of Svolvaer harbor

The skies had cleared again, and the wind off the waves, though a bit chilly,  was welcome after my sweaty, rainy aborted Tjeldbergtinden excursion.

Water! Rocks!

We puttered between skerries and islets and larger islands with more formidable peaks for about an hour.

Something about the shape of this island made me think “Jurassic Park–the Arctic version” (yes, I am still well above the Arctic Circle. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, the Lofoten Islands enjoy the “greatest positive average temperature anomaly in the world” compared with places at a similar latitude. Take that, Greenland and Alaska!)

Hey, how about some more rocks with a little water?

I just love the shapes of these mountains. Apparently they are a mere 10,000 years old. Awww, they’re just babies! No wonder they’re so cute!

Okay, just put up with a couple more photos…these mountains are seriously the stuff my dreams are made of, as well as my books. When imagining the mountain kingdom of Khankhadda, setting for The War’s End and its sequel The Guardian, this is what I saw.

Welcome to Khankhadda

This too:

I loved the way the light was playing across the mountains, which I tried to capture with my rinky-dink point-and-shoot.

Then the boat motors mysteriously cut out. Two deckhands emerged and began fishing, pulling up two or three coalfish for each cast (they had three hooks on each line).

Fishing for eagle bait, catching about two dozen coalfish in ten minutes or so

I asked what they were going to do with the fish.

Don’t let the comely deckhands distract you. There are still cool rocks and water to look at.

“Eagles!” One of them told me. “We feed to eagles! This is eagle safari, no?”

Uhm…is it? I don’t know. I signed up for a trip through the Trollfjord, allegedly the most beautiful in the Lofotens, and so narrow that the famous Hurtigruten ferry cannot enter it. Or so I had heard.

Did I get on the wrong boat?

No, it turned out I was on the right boat, all right, but that the Trollfjord excursion doubled as a sea eagle safari and was sold as a separate trip for tourists on the Hurtigruten coastal ferry, who would be joining us shortly.

Oh. Okay.

Hurtigruten! Dead ahead!

Minutes later, the monstrous Hurtigruten came bearing down on us, opening a side hatch and disgorging three dozen elderly German tourists who immediately began jostling and complaining and generally being group tourists.

If nothing else, the Hurtigruten (Norwegian for, I believe, “really big boat”) gives a sense of scale to the mountains dwarfing it. Note side hatch opening midships to disgorge the Turistgruppe.

(Note: my problem is not with other tourists–the lone German guy on the boat with me was fine, for example. But there is a terrible herd mentality that seems to take over groups of tourists, who never seem to be really enjoying themselves or taking in their surroundings because they’re too busy pushing and shoving and trying to get a better camera angle than the guy next to them.)

While the Turistgruppe was anschlussing the deck, the deckhands began throwing bread in the air and into the water, luring a multitude of gulls who began, well, acting like group tourists, pushing each other out of the way for a morsel.

Sometimes my cheap camera and half-assed skills with it come through. I like the way the light hits the gulls’ wings in this shot.

The gulls lure the sea eagles, one of the deckhands told me. The eagles don’t eat the gulls, but the smaller birds’ movements attract their interest, since they know it could mean there is food to be had.

Another unexpectedly clear shot of a Gull in Motion.

Sure enough, amid the cloud of white wings and yellow beaks, a larger, dark brown bird with massive wings appeared, spiralling down toward us.

Helloooooo, handsome. Total luck taking this shot.

And that was when the deckhand injected the fish.

She inserted a large, empty hypodermic needle into one of the fish she’d caught (the fist had all died a slow, sad, flopping-about death in a plastic bin while we waited for the Hurtigruten) and inflated it with air. Then she tossed the fish into the water, where it floated.

An ambitious gull saw it, grabbed it and tried, unsuccessfully, to take off again. It surrendered to gravity and dropped the fish–or maybe it realized what was heading toward it and just got the hell out of the way.


The eagle swooped down, grabbed the fish and flew away with an amazing show of strength and precision.

Another eagle showed up. Another fish got puffed and tossed. Another Wildlife in Action moment. And another. And another.

I loved seeing the eagles with the mountainous backdrop. Permit me an indulgence, but one of the main characters in The War’s End is extremely fond of the mountain eagles, which are sacred to her people, and there are several scenes involving eagles soaring over rugged mountains so, yeah, I got a little swoony over this.

While it was fantastic to see all these sea eagles nabbing fish with, well, with the ease of shooting fish in a barrel, I couldn’t help but wonder how the eagles hunt when there is no one tossing them bloated dead fish. I mean, I don’t know of many fish who hang out motionless at the surface.

While I wondered and the eagles faux-hunted and more dead fish got injected, our boat was heading into the Trollfjord. And the Hurtigruten was following it.


Now, I had read a few things about the Trollfjord: it’s jaw-dropping gorgeous, it’s incredibly narrow and dramatic and the Hurtigruten most definitely cannot squeeze into it.


Does this fjord make me look fat? Hurtigruten easily fitting into the Trollfjord

As fjords go, the Trollfjord is pretty. But all fjords are pretty. It was not particularly spectacular, nor did it seem as narrow as the Naeroyfjord I saw south of here several years ago. And the freakin’ Hurtigruten most definitely fits. The big ship came with us all the way to the end of the fjord, then had the cajones to show off by doing a 360 while our smaller boat circled it in a weird kind of boat tango performance.

How close did we get to the Hurtigruten? This close:


After the boat shenanigans were over, the Hurtigruten continued on to Svolvaer and we stopped to feed more eagles.

The eagle has landed!

I actually managed to capture the moment of the strike on this short video. All the action happens pretty much in the first three seconds, so be ready.

Here’s another shot, moments after the eagle picked up the fish:

As we dawdled feeding eagles, the skies blackened again (it’s impressive how fast bad weather rolls in here…considerably faster than even Isla Navarina in sub-antarctic Chile or Iceland). White-capped swells smacked us about on the last leg back to Svolvaer, causing a frequent chorus of “OOOhhhhhoooOOOOOHhhhhh!” from the Turistgruppe.

You may recognize those rocks from an earlier photo in this post…just shows you how fast the weather changes here.

Back in my hotel room, as night fell I found myself frequently irked by what I thought was the club adjacent to the hotel, located in another converted fish warehouse.

“Man, that is some really bad techno they’re playing!” I hurumphed to myself.

At about midnight I realized it wasn’t the club. It was the howling wind and driving rain mingling with the percussive sounds of massive tires tied to the dock on which the hotel sits banging about.

Oh. It’s weathertechno. That’s cool.

Two quick notes: I’m moving on from Svolvaer tomorrow and am not sure what my internet access will be like, though I hope to have time to post about today’s visit to the fascinating Lofoten Wartime Museum before I get on the bus tomorrow. If I don’t get to post for a while, though, rest assured I’m fine and have not drowned/froze to death/been waylaid by trolls.

And also: seagulls poop the prettiest violet color. Just in case you ever wondered.

Vikings, Epiphanies, Lundehunds and Zombie Apocalypse

Chieftain’s Seat, Lofotr Viking Museum. Feeling at home.

As Helfdane the Fat* put it: “Today was a good day, a very good day!”

[*Helfdane the Fat is one of my favorite characters in my co-favorite movie (it’s tied with The Princess Bride), The 13th Warrior. What?! You haven’t seen The 13th Warrior?! Get thee to a Red Box or Netflix forthwith!]

Farewell to Reinefjord

I left Reine and the island of Moskenesoya behind with some regret–it was simply so beautiful and evocative it was hard to move on. Until I saw what was ahead of me.

Final shot of Reinefjord but not my final shot of cod racks

I do not know why the Lofotens are not more famous for their beauty (but I kinda hope they stay under the radar). I have been to some of the most beautiful places on planet Earth (New Zealand’s South Island, Iceland, the Faroes and, of course, my beloved Antarctica) and the Lofotens are at least as breath-takingly gorgeous.

The Road to Ramberg

Taking the bus from Reine to Borg, on the island of Vestvagoy, I was astounded at almost every turn by the clarity of light, the contrast of silken blue water with hardy yellow-green arctic grasses and, most of all, the impossibly photogenic mountains.

Water and Rocks. On the E10 near Ramberg.

Yes, all of these photos were taken from inside a moving bus. You may see a little window glare in some of them, but I couldn’t stop myself.

Isle of Flakstadoy

At first I was bummed that renting a car and driving myself wasn’t really an option. Then I realized it was a good thing I wasn’t behind the wheel–I never would have gotten anywhere! I’d be pulling off the side of the road every 20 meters to take another photo.

Considering I took this from inside a moving bus, I think it turned out pretty dang well! Somewhere near Ramberg on the E10.

Okay, just one more.

I like the totally unintentional way the mountain appears to be floating on the cod racks.

They’re like potato chips…you can’t stop at just one.

Near Leknes

Okay, okay, onward…after this one:

Outside Leknes on Vestvagoy

When I mentioned yesterday that I had a Hope To-Do list, I kind of lied. While I do have one, I also had an I Will Do This If It Involves Jumping A Fence list, which consisted of one item: visit the Lofotr Viking Museum.

Fortunately for all involved, there was no fence-jumping needed. The museum, in Borg, was in the last days of its summer season (as of Sunday they’ll be open only five hours a day for two days a week). Many of the live demonstrations, such as the smithy, were already closed, as was the lamb stew and mead-serving cafe, but I can’t complain. It was one of the most smartly-designed, entertaining museums I’ve been to, and that it was all about vikings made it even better.

Markers where the posts of the excavated site were found, with reconstructed house and another hellatastic mountain in background

The museum is built beside the excavated remains of the largest Viking house ever found. Not just in the Lofotens, not just in Norway. In the world.

The reconstructed house…that’s a lotta house!

Begun in the sixth century, it was rebuilt and expanded until, in the ninth century, it reached a length of 87 meters, more than 285 feet!

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the site was even found; a farmer using a new and deeper plow to work his field noticed the new plow was turning up more than just dirt.

Detail of door

The museum’s developers left the original remains of the house in place and did a full reconstruction immediately beside it. To get to it, you go through a new three-room exhibit hall where nifty mp3 player-like, remote synced audio tours guide you from one topic to the next. There’s also a 15 minute film that creates a slightly hokey but interesting narrative about the last Viking chieftain to live at the site, Olaf Tvennumbruni. A good deal is known about Olaf because he left Lofotr to settle in Iceland after running afoul of Harald Fair-Haired, and the Icelanders of that era were a bit obsessive-compulsive about recording who settled where in their young country.

All I know is, the actor who played Olaf in the short and rather well-made film was totally hot.

Best. Emergency. Exit. Sign. EVER.

Anyway, after the exhibit hall, I walked up the hill to both the original site and the reconstruction, passing a garden of onions and the muddy home of a wild pig that was supposed to represent the pigs kept by Olaf and friends.

Viking pig reenactor totally unimpressed.

The house commanded incredible views in every direction. I love standing at original sites like this, imagining what the people who lived there thought when they looked out at the same mountains I was seeing.

But, the reconstruction hall…well now. I haven’t had that much fun in a museum since Queen Laura and I ran amok at Warwick Castle.

When I entered, in the area set up to be living quarters, workspace and byre, a diminutive Viking reenactor cheerfully told me “you can touch anything here, don’t be afraid!” and I know that’s what she told me because she said it in English.

[Sidenote I meant to mention in an earlier post: when I wear my Tina Fey-esque glasses, people address me in Norwegian. When I don’t have them on, people address me in English. I find that fascinating. I’m pleased to say that whenever I start a conversation in my marginal Norwegian, the other person replies in Norwegian–as if they think I can actually speak their language! At that point, invariably, I sheepishly say, in Norwegian “excuse me, I’m sorry, do you speak English?” which just about exhausts my knowledge of their tongue and we continue in mine.]

I thought they did a great job showing all the different tasks–cooking, baking, weaving, shoe-making, and so on and so on–and the reenactor was very informative when I asked her my usual pesky questions (which included why the supports were unworked wood but the pillars had an even chipped pattern she called “fish bone” and claimed helped to reduce humidity in the building by channeling condensation down to the ground. I don’t know if I buy that, but I like it enough to repeat it).

I moved next into the meeting hall/throne room area. The one disappointing thing about this room was that it had no informational signage, but on the plus side it had a throne, or at least a really big, important-looking chair, which I promptly sat in. I put on a helmet with chain mail skirt, too, and unsheathed the sword left leaning casually against a table.

Hey, you don’t have to tell me twice that I “can touch anything.”

After my camera’s self-timer failed to take a photo I liked, I commandeered a couple elderly German tourists to take pictures of me in my regalia.

Ich schoene niemand!* Wrong language, right attitude when sitting on the chieftain’s seat.(*German for “I spare no one!” Shout-out to my friend Catherine for suggesting I needed a sword with that inscribed on it. My friends know me so well.)

And people say I’m bossy. Sheesh.

The Germans kind of got into it (my German blood understands, totally) and had me posing and even took pictures of me with their cameras. They said they’d email them to me. Stay tuned.

True story: the German granny egging me on and taking pictures told me immediately before this shot, in reaction to the shot she had just taken, “come on, now, you look like scared little rabbit!” I escalated my hamminess and this is the result. Ah, Germans.

After I set aside my helmet and sword (which felt good, really good, on my head/in my hand), I noticed other tourists taking photos standing next to the chair or beside the helmet.

That got me thinking. But more on that in a bit.

From the reconstructed house you follow a trail about a mile downhill, through meadow and forest, past the now-shuttered smithy and archery field, all the way to the fjord where there’s a reconstruction of a rather smart longboat. In summer you can join other tourists and actually row the boat around the fjord for what sounds like a really fun thing for someone else to do (I like rowing but not with a bunch of other people).

Awesome with awesome sauce on top.

The area around the boat was full of middle school children having lunch during a field trip, but the boat itself was empty, so I climbed aboard (well, no one said I couldn’t!) and set up my camera to take a photo of me steering.

After futzing a bit trying to get a good angle, I asked another German tourist (Germans! They’re everywhere!) to take a photo of me steering. He obliged, but then his Frau told him to pose so she could take a picture of him. And he stood there, hand barely brushing the steering thing (I used to know the term but it has slipped away from me, though thanks to the Vikings I always remember starboard is the right side of the ship and left is port).

I am the captain of my ship.

That’s when the thoughts teasing at the edges of my mind all day finally coalesced into an epiphany.

The reason I love the Vikings is not because they were badass (although…). My impression of them–which could be totally wrong, I know–is that they were intrepid and unafraid to hop in the longboat to move on to something better. Crops failed? Bummer, dude, let’s go raid a monastery in Northumbria. Killed a guy or stole his sheep and got caught? Hey, it happens, let’s sail over to Greenland and see if it’s as awesome as Erik the Red says on his informercial. Harald Fair-Haired getting in your face? Ah, screw him, get the pigs and the goats and the ducks and move to Iceland.

Again, that may be my completely historically inaccurate and romanticized ideal, but it’s the Viking as explorer rather than thug that appeals to me most. Although, as Dr. Virago and I learned when we toured a Viking exhibit on the Isle of Man, “a Viking is a pirate until he arrives someplace that he wants to be.”

True dat, homes.

And I realized too that, while the Vikings had rules and societal conventions, they were also probably the kind of guys who put the museum helmet on their heads and hammed it up for photos and grabbed the steering thingy and actually moved it around to see and feel how it worked rather than just rested their hands on it as if it might bite.

As I contemplated how some people seem so afraid to try something new, even if it’s grabbing the steering thingy of a replica long boat and giving it a turn, I noticed the sky had gone dark. I headed back up the hill as the rain hit, about ten minutes of sideways sheeting that felt wonderful.

On the way back to the museum proper, I met a guy walking his two dogs. I’m pretty sure he thought I was insane because I started staring at the dogs from quite a long distance away, thinking…can it be?

“Excuse me,” I said in Norwegian. “Are those Lundehunds?”

He nodded warily.

OMG LUNDEHUNDS! I asked him (in English, because I do not know how to be creepy in Norwegian. Yet.) if I could pet them and take their picture and ohmygawdLUNDEHUNDS!

LUNDEHUNDS! (Notice the polydactylism)

Okay, okay, so, let me explain. One of the many reasons I’ve been a little obsessed with coming to the Lofotens for more than 20 years is because I am fascinated by Lundehunds. They’re a breed that originated here in the islands and were used to climb cliffs to harvest sea bird eggs and hunt puffins.

Let me repeat. The dogs were bred to climb sea cliffs. There are a few around here.

Given their specialized use, the Lundehunds are some pretty freaky puppies. They are polydactyl, with two extra toes on each foot to give them better grip. They are extremely flexible (I’ve seen it sometimes described as being double-jointed) and can put their front legs out 90 degrees from their body in a way that, when demonstrated on YouTube, makes them look like oddly symbolic Christ figures. They can also bend their heads all the way back onto their spines. All of the flexibility helped them climb the sea cliffs and scramble in and out of tight places.

Have I mentioned the dogs were bred to climb sea cliffs???

The Lundehund (literally “puffin dog”) was on the verge of extinction after World War II but fanciers have brought them back from the brink. It was so exciting to finally see them and pet them, though the Lundehunds kept looking at their owner like “please make the crazy lady leave us now.”

They were smaller than I thought, about like a smallish Beagle, and alert but not at all yappy.

I want one more than ever.

If the pit bull I plan to adopt from the shelter gets out of line with him, my Lundehund can just seek shelter by climbing a bookcase or something till I get there to break up any trouble.

Still squeeing over my Lundehund encounter, I got out of the strengthening rain by ducking back into the reconstructed house, where a bespectacled and altogether unconvincing Viking reenactor was getting ready to do a bread demonstration for the field trip kids straggling up the hill behind me. I watched him get ready and tasted the dough (he didn’t know the words in English, but I definitely tasted rye and maybe barley) and then headed down to the bus stop, with only the briefest of detours through the gift shop.

Making bread the Viking way looks suspiciously like making tortillas. I’m jus’ sayin’.

No, really…I love me some museum gift shops, but Norway is so expensive that I knew there would be nothing in my budget. Then I found the coolest souvenir ever–a hand-forged fire starter, a piece of steel that you strike against a stone, holding it over tinder to get a spark.

Oddly enough, I’d been researching ways people started fires pre-Bic because I wanted to make a couple fire-starting scenes in The War’s End more realistic. At a mere $18 (a bargain in Norway, trust me), it had to come home with me.

On the road to Svolvaer, near Gimloy

Back on the bus, I took a few more photos during the hour-plus ride to Svolvaer, the biggest town in the Lofotens, with a population of–whoa!–nearly 5,000! Hold the phone! As the bus rumbled through the suburbs, the numbers aboard dwindled till it was just me and an old man. The driver parked in the middle of an industrial wasteland and opened the door. It was the end of the route. Time to get out.

I looked around and though hmm, I thought the bus took us into the Sentrum, the city’s downtown. I compared a street sign with my mental map of Svolvaer and realized…this was downtown.

Svolvaer’s bustling bus station. Actually not a station, just a sad and lonely bus stop marking the terminus of the route.

The bus drove off and the old man shuffled away and I was alone with my bag in a dead zone. That would be downtown Svolvaer at 4:30 pm on a Wednesday afternoon.

The city that never sleeps…because to sleep, you have to be alive in the first place! The heart of Svolvaer, 4:30 pm on a Wednesday. Yes, I am standing in the middle of the street. Why not?

Sidenote: if you’re ever interested in making a zombie apocalypse movie in a Nordic setting, might I suggest shooting it in downtown Svolvaer during the evening rush hour, when not a soul is stirring.

I had booked a hotel online the night before after realizing, sadly, all the budget places had closed for the season in August, and the rooms on offer this time of year catered to businessfolks, or at least people willing to pay $300 a night to sleep. I’d searched around and found what sounded like a great deal on Expedia of all places: my own room and bathroom, free wifi, breakfast included, $77 a night. That is a dirt-cheap bargain in Norway.

The hotel was on Fiskegata–Fish Street, I believe–and my mental map told me it would be down the street I was aleady on, which, standing there, I found difficult to believe, since the street seemed to lead between two abandoned warehouses to a dock.

Then I saw a sign for my hotel, promising it was 150 meters down the road–which would put it, strictly speaking, past the dock and in the water.

I set off, thinking maybe I could find a non-zombie to ask directions.

The road came up to the dock and veered right. I turned the corner and this is what I saw:

I am not kidding you.

Because, yes, it is perfectly reasonable to expect to see a Viking longboat at full sail, with a cluster of cod racks in the background. I love my crazy life.

I took the longboat as a good sign and continued on, turning another corner to find my hotel was a converted fish warehouse. Reception was only open 9 am-1 pm, rather odd hours, if you ask me, but another guest was arriving and already knew the door code and let me in, where I found an envelope with my name and a key inside waiting for me.

The hotel itself is basic but very clean and with all mod cons, as they say, including the much-valued free wifi. Oh, and you can’t beat the view out my window:

View from my hotel room, Svolvaer

After walking around Zombie Apocalypse Town and finding one grocery store still open, I bought some blueberries and skyr and settled in to watch the sun set.

No-effort sunset view from my room

Check out the cool cloud:

Okay, just one more:

Some more rocks, water and clouds, in case you feel there has not been enough elsewhere in this post

All in all, a good day. A very good day!