August 14, 2012
ABOARD THE MS NORDLYS — King Neptune baptized me this morning.
Dressed in a flowing black gown and carrying a gold trident, his long grey beard blowing in the wind, he appeared on the stern of the seventh deck after being summoned by the tour director three times. He was there to welcome us to the Arctic, assure us of his protection, and dispense cloudberry liqueur in little shot glasses –- but only after each traveler had submitted to a ladle of ice cubes and freezing water poured down his or her back.
Warmed by alcohol, chilled by the icy Arctic waters, we headed for the town of Tromso — Paris of the North, Gateway to the Arctic and Polar Capital of the whole country.
A pretty university town with cobblestone streets and fine restaurants, this city was the starting point of many expeditions for hunters and trappers in the Arctic Circle. It’s also the home of Mack, the northernmost brewery in the world.
The sun shines around the clock for two months of summer here, making berries and vegetables particularly sweet. We first noticed this when we ate the local carrots, which taste so candy-like that Tromso mothers might well say to their children: “If you’ll finish all your reindeer meat, you can have some carrots.”
The MS Nordlys feels in some ways like a commuter train, with new passengers constantly getting on at each of the 34 stops and old ones departing. If you get to know a fellow passenger for a day or so, he may be gone the next day, after reaching his destination. The cruise ship continues on to the top of the country without them, regardless. There will practically be a whole different cast of characters by the time we reach the North Cape at the top of the world.
For those of us on the entire route, bottom to top, we were given the choice of three different excursions this afternoon while docked in Tromso: a guided tour of this historic town; a visit to the hundreds of huskie dogs and their puppies who work for the local dog sled company; or a sea kayaking trip in the waters off the coast.
We chose to kayak. How often do you get to paddle in Arctic waters and live to tell about it? The sea was calm, the water clean enough to see to the bottom, and the scenery – red, white and yellow cottages, massive mountains (the Lyngen Alps) in the distance, a duck family at the shoreline and some red-billed oyster catchers flying overhead – made for a memorable excursion, especially in the extraordinary summer weather to which we’ve been treated. Our guides, who serve at the huskie training camp and dog sled Wilderness Centre during the winter, tell us that we are “very lucky.”
We paddled by the spot where a World War II Nazi ship with a crew of 1,500 was blown up by the Royal Air Force during the occupation of Norway. For years, fishermen and kayakers have found parts of the wreckage. Only two months ago, they discovered a German boot that had been preserved intact in these frigid waters.
Returning to the ship by van, we passed by our first reindeer, sunning himself in a field by the bay, an impressively large fellow.
This evening, after a tasty dinner of local stock fish in port sauce with bacon, we strolled leisurely around the deck of the ship. The Nordlys was rocking gently in the still waters.
We were at peace in this northern wilderness, protected by the grace and power of King Neptune.
Photos by Timothy Leland