The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 25: The Sun Always Rises; or, When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
New birds:1, Journey to date: 74, and a correction
Svarthvit fluesnapper (Ficedula hypoleuca)
The Uke 23 entry noted the Varsler, I was mistaken. I did my due diligence uncovered the true identity, the habitat and warning call were the keys to the mystery.
Møller (Sylvia curruca)
Varsler (Lanius excubitor)
The Sun Always Rises; or, When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
As I held out my hand a tiny gray flake alighted. Even for Oslo, a snowflake in June is a rarity. Ah, but this was no snowflake. This was Sankthansaften – Saint John the Baptist’s Eve.
My time in Norway was getting shorter, just like the nights. Sunset at this latitude and month is so slow, the angle so oblique, that the transition from direct sun to twilight is unnoticeable. The light of the just hiding sun lingers, as if the sun feels there is too much living to be done. I go to bed late, with visible light and wake to a sun that has been up for many hours. The analogy to my time in Norway has been obvious.
I have no personal tradition of celebrating Sankthansaften. My Midwestern summers accepted earlier and complete darkness in comparison to the high latitudes, perhaps in exchange for unrelenting heat. But when in Norway…
Sankthansaften also marks the end of the school and anticipation of summer holiday, the 5-6 weeks in Norway when EVERYBODY is on vacation, preferably at a coastal or mountain cabin. Side trips to America are allowed. For Scandinavians, the evening is properly observed with sea-side bonfires, maybe a speech, and revelry. I went fishing.
My catch in Norway has been zero although my satisfaction has been great. Remember, it’s called fishing and not catching for a reason. Tonight seemed like a fitting reason to whet a line – it’s nice to invent a special reason – and give it one last go.
The species of interest now in Norway is Atlantic Salmon. The mighty swimmers are coursing from near shore feasts to natal rivers. Their transformation from saltwater creatures to freshwater fish is nothing short of amazing. Their transition back to saltwater following the spawn squares the wonder.
I would not be fishing for salmon. To fish for salmon would require a car and a special fishing license, and probably a trespass fee. I fished the sea, a free right to all in Norway.
I expected nothing in terms of a piscine catch based on previous attempts, this was no different. Contemporary fishing is about the effort, the experience; I was really trying to catch a future memory. For that that there is no daily quota.
There is nothing odd about riding the bus in Oslo with fishing gear. I like Oslo. My ride on the trusty #32 Kværnerbyen dropped me adjacent to Lysaker Brygge, it was a short walk.
Merrymakers were visible in their preparation throughout the day. I saw an unusual abundance of shopping bags marked with the distinct logo of the state liquor store, the night demanded provisions. Others disembarked the bus with me, much better dressed and destined for an overtly social occasion. I headed for the docks.
Brethren with rods in action preceded me. Long rods were their symbols of legitimacy and purpose. My kit revealed my status as an interloper, but also as no threat to their efforts.
These anglers favored floats and live bait. They seemed to me like non-native Norwegians and truly interested in catching supper. A family left with a bag of fish. I found a solitary spot and cast.
Two days earlier was the Summer Solstice. I marked the low sun of the evening with a last photoshoot of the new US Embassy and birdwalk along Lysaker River. The meteorological differences between the Iowa home and Oslo were more striking than simple statistics suggested.
Daylight in Linn County was 15 hours, 15 minutes; Oslo logged 18:50.
Sunrise CR, 5: 31 am Sunset CR, 8:46 pm
Sunrise Oslo, 3:54 am Sunset Oslo, 10:45 pm
But the truer measure went beyond the gross metrix of sunrise and sunset. Dawn awakened at 2:10 AM in Oslo and dusk at 12:29 AM. If there were stars over Røa, then I missed them.
With the abundant light it was difficult to make out all the fires that I knew ringed the fjord. The ubiquitous smell of smoke confirmed to my nose what I eyes couldn’t see. Clearly, Ola Nordmann across the bay from me was no master of a healthy flame. That “bonfire” finally smoked me out and caused my retreat.
A new location, closer to the hungry anglers and a couple of last casts for good measure. A man hauled in mackerel, scrappy and lean they were soon brained and in the bucket. I took down my pole and pit stopped at the corner market on my way to the bus. Instead of fish, I would be headed home with mineral water and candy. I was sure Meghan would be happy with my catch.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
An Unexpected Award: the gold I earned at the back of the pack
I followed the arc of the sun over the day while outside, it was a long day. Nearing four PM many things were clear. One, my body was suffering. Two, the sun will set. Three, I was determined to finish. And four, I was trying to enjoy my gold at the back of the pack.
“Dear Dr. Hanson, It is a pleasure to inform you of your selection by the Board of the Fulbright Foundation in Norway and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board for a grant to teach in Norway. This grant is made under Public Law 87-256, the Fulbright-Hays Act, the basic purpose of which is to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries through educational and cultural exchange.”
This letter set into motion the fulfilling of dreams. Among the many dreams to be realized with a year in Norway was the opportunity to ski in the Birkebeiner, the “real” Birkebeiner that is. As a boy I dreamed of the birkie since I first read about it in an old copy of Wisconsin Trails magazine from the mid-70’s that my grandparents had (I have it now). I skied the Kortelopet (half-Birkie) first, because of my age, and then skied the full race several times. But the lore of the American Birkie in Wisconsin was tied directly to the legend and race in Norway, so naturally I pinned for the original.
Within a fortnight of arriving in Oslo I was registered for the Birkebeinerrennet, 19 March 2016 couldn’t come fast enough. We had brought our skis so I felt confident that I would get enough on-snow training to be ready. The goal of the Birkebeiner also sharpened my ambition to run, and run, and run all over Norway, wherever my travels and teaching took me.
I was excited and apprehensive that Saturday morning. The thrill of joining the ranks of finishers got me out of bed at 4:29 AM with ease. The concern that my shoulders would give out and general skiing readiness clouded out excessive optimism. Plus, it was dark and early, there is no sense in being too happy at that time of day.
The dark morning was mild. By 4:41 I was awaiting the taxi for a 4:50 pickup. A white Prius from Norges Taxi arrived at 4:49. As I got in, another taxi, a navy wagon from the same company, pulled up. They double booked, not me.
At the Oslo Bus Terminal drop off I was happy to see many fellow skiers, just follow the herd. The locals led me to the bus and by 5:10 I was seated, port side against the window and amidships. There were a lot of middle aged white guys aboard the coach. When did I become a middle aged white guy?
The driver did a silent head count at 5:21, the sky was inviting a blue suggestion of sunrise into the dark heavens. In addition to the usual suspects there were 4-5 women aboard. Among the riders there were eager conversations, quiet routines, and bodies trying to get just a couple more minutes of shuteye.
The cabin door closed at 5:29 only to reopen for a man rushing in with a coffee and the grin of a cheshire cat. The lights went out and we pulled away. 5:30 AM, right on schedule.
An early morning bus ride awakened memories of college band trips and drill weekends in the Marines. By 7:12 AM there was a steady parade to use the toilet across from my row. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
“Good morning Rena, Norway,” I thought as we stopped to unload. A stream of contestants coursed towards the welcome building. It was like a large pole shed that housed the race packet pick up as well as a small vendor fair and cantina. I passed on an early morning hotdog.
I weighed my backpack at the hall. All racers must carry a 3.5 kg pack to mimic the weight of the baby viking king carried by the original warriors. I boarded the shuttle bus to the starting area, a 3 km journey. We left at 8:46 AM.
The sky was overcast but the mood was merry at the start. The portajohns were aplenty and the wave-by-wave starting zones well designed. Ebullient commentators broadcast enthusiasm and well wishes and for all the intrepid. I just wanted 9:35 AM to hurry up. The temperature was hovering at the freezing mark, we were burning daylight and Wave 18 was chomping at the bit. “Boom!” went the starting gun, finally.
I predicted a demanding day, the warm and course snow would be a challenge for glide and grip. But I didn’t predict the condition of the course would be so bad. In classical skiing, the track is the key to happiness. The tracks for Wave 18 were in sad shape where they existed at all.
I passed the sign, “53 km to finish” and knew I was in a for a long hard day. My skis defied physics, they had neither glide nor grip. The worse was the lateral slipping. I fought and fought to keep my skis underfoot. Soon my adductors were burning and my feet were getting bruised in their boots.
The clouds thinned and the breeze increased. The atmosphere of the event was a fusion of RAGBRAI and a Big Ten football tailgate party. The river of brightly clad skiers flowed through the woods and up the first mountain pass. Along the way, hearty revelers who camped in the woods were now basking in the sun atop their sofas of snow. A fire to grill meat and warm the spirit was ubiquitous, as were the spirits. The Norwegians make up for their work-a-day sobriety on vacation, today was the start of the Easter Holiday. I seemed to notice a bias towards Carlsberg for beer and Jagermeister for liquor. Aside from being happy to be on vacation in the glorious nature I think most of the spectators were pleased they weren’t skiing.
I got a reprieve at 10 km, the groomer made a pass and laid 4 new tracks. My stride was still labored but at least I wasn’t fighting the splits. The gift was temporary though, after about 4 km the groomer doubled back and we were all forced back to the trampled tracks of thousands.
It was a beautiful and sunny day. I managed a moment or three to shed my backpack and take pictures. There was an invisible force that none of my photos captured though, the constant headwind was an unwelcome companion.
The Birkebeiner in Norway differed from the the American copy in several ways. One, this race was classic technique only. Two, the climbs and descents were sweeping and long. Three, most of the route was over three mountain passes and quite exposed.
Some people from later waves passed me. I passed some from prior groups. But generally I found myself skiing among an increasingly familiar cadre. But I wasn’t the only one suffering. The lack of banter was but one indicator of the demanding conditions. The long lines at the aid stations were another.
Oh, the aid wasn’t for thirst or hunger, it was for skis. Techs from SWIX worked feverishly to treat the skis of the needy to give them some traction. I paused once to apply a little klister; in a battle you make arrows from any wood.
By the highpoint of the race I was two-thirds to the finish and approaching Sjusøen and the complex of trails spreading from Lillehammer. Relief. I had been on these trails before and the course would lose about 400 meters of elevation to the finish; that is, mostly downhill.
Relief soon gave way to panic as the descents at Sjusøen were steep and curved. Compounding the treacherous course was the windrows of loose snow over an icy surface, the result of thousands of snowplowing skis.
I survived the hills and I do mean survived. At this point in the journey I was not sure I would be getting up from a hard crash. And then back into the deep woods and silence as there were no spectators. Just the weary and the goal, and the gold.
Skiing into the lowering angle of the sun gave us slow movers a gold medal of our own. The solar angle was 16º The snow absorbed the warm energy and reflected a most wonderful color, a very bright and yellow gold at the edges. It was like Mother Nature and Father Time conspired to reward the back of the packers with a visual prize commensurate with our persistence.
I shuffled into the stadium grounds, 1 km to go. On the last little descent I fell for the third time, this time with a full face plant in front of a couple of ladies. Only my pride was hurt. If the announcers called my name, I didn’t hear it. I just needed to finish, I was done in so many ways.
Time! 5:03 PM. I crossed the line and managed a smile as I accepted my finisher’s pin. My official time was 7:28:31 I had hoped for five hours but I was very happy I just finished at all.
Off came my skis, uff! Somehow I managed to touch the klister and then wipe my mouth. Don’t ever let klister touch your lips! My attempt to quench the burning with a hotdog in lefse was unsuccessful.
The stadium shuttle took the smelly and bleary-eyed to Håkons Hall. I changed, retrieved my finishers diploma and wolfed down the bag of cookies I carried on the race. At 6:22 PM my bus to Oslo was underway. Too tired to rest, I watched the countryside fade away into nightfall. My mind replayed the day, all the ups and downs, but most especially the gold I earned at the back of the pack.
The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 8: Old Friends in New Light
I took a last chance walk with Owen to find some new birds. Owen insisted on pitching every stick he found on the trail into the woods, heaving snowballs at imaginary targets, and singing an American song with Norwegian words he was inventing on the spot. I was trying to walk quietly and look for birds.
Still, I will take a noisy walk in the woods any day with my son sans birds than a walk alone in an avian paradise. A father only gets so many walks with a boy, every one is precious. I’d like to think Mother Nature rewarded my patience with a brace of new feathers, but I think I just got lucky to have my cake and eat it too.
New birds: two
Fuglekonge (Regulus regulus)
Flaggspett (Dendrocopos major)
Old Friends in New Light
It was easy to spot the black hair tie on the dark dirt trail at this time in the afternoon. The angle of the sun exaggerated the relief of objects on the ground. Other human debris littered the trail, I plucked the band. I had to walk about another 100 meters on the trail until I can upon the ubiquitous green trashcan, I walked with it on my extended left index finger as if I was a human ring toss target. The bin had a couple of beverage cans, wrappers and assorted filth, in went the hair tie too. I make a point to pick up some trash on every nature walk I take. I have never seen someone do that in Norway, I’ve been looking.
My return to Stavanger was a chance to revisit several cherished spots, including two lakes: Stokkavatnet and Mosvatnet. I have reported previously of how Stavanger weather is remarkably moderated. It may have been the middle of February but greenery abounded and ice was in short supply.
My run around Stokkavatnet was more pleasant than my first in October. One, I knew where I was going, there is comfort in familiarity. Two I didn’t get rained on.
I saw many of the same birds in the same spots, the Golden Eyes were particularly nice to see in greater abundance than my last sighting. In “Happy Duck Corner” I spied a small grebe. My stopping to stare caused it to change direction and swim into the reeds. Clearly accustomed to bodies in motion, it was uncomfortable with bodies at rest especially when accompanied with a stare.
The following day I walked around Mosvatnet with my binoculars with the express purpose of picking out birds, especially hoping to see the sister of that grebe. There were no new birds, but the familiar Tufted ducks in breeding plumage were a treat.
The low light made the drakes absolutely radiant. Oh, that I could ever look so fine in a suit. The hens as well exuded a more comely appearance than one should expect. The golden rays of the sun rebounded from their eyes when they drew near. Their stares caused me to pause.
Time spent in nature is renewing. One reason is that the experience is always new. The trail may be the same; the same trees and birds, you wear the same coat. But it’s also always new. The time of day, the wind, the sounds, and your mood. Each facet makes for a novel experience. I don’t know what makes the difference for you. For me, I pay attention to the angle of the sun, it helps me see old friends in new light.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 7: Near or Far, you’re a star
My spoiling is nearly complete, cross-country skiing back in Iowa just will not ever be able to live up to the wonder, diversity, and quality of trails here. Yesterday was the American Birkebeiner, 54 KM from Cable to Hayward. It’s a big deal. In four week I get to try my luck at the “real” Birkebeiner in Norway. So far, so good with my conditioning. I have conceded that this will be an event for me and not a race: finishing during daylight will make me quite happy.
New birds: zero
Near or Far, you’re a star
“Dad, is our sun a medium size or a big sun?” asked #1 son. I replied that our sun was a medium to small-sized sun. I intended to add some additional unsolicited wisdom but he interjected a fact of his own, albeit wrong, about how many earths could fit into the sun. And then we had a moment, some unanticipated silence where we both marveled about how big our sun was even if it was on the small size.
The power of the sun is returning to the high latitudes. This week I felt the rays of the sun for the first time, warming my face and neck in the cool air. I suspect it was the type of sensation that brings a smile to just about everybody.
The transition from the low and remarkably weak solar rays to the relatively vigorous radiation of this week surprised me. It is ironic that during our winter the sun is actually closer to the northern hemisphere than during the summer. But it’s not the miles that separate us as the angle unto which we are separated. Some poet-scientist has probably already artfully commented on that. Neil deGrasse Tyson anyone?
Yesterday the altitude of the sun in Oslo was almost 20 degrees, the effect is apparent. I had local teachers in Trondheim come within a hair’s breath about complaining about the sun because now it can be painfully bright when driving or skiing. I have seen melting take place on walks and pavement, trust me, that’s a big deal.
Of course back home in the corn kingdom, the sun has already surpassed 20 degrees by 9 AM. At high noon, the altitude of the sun is about double in Linn County. I’m not jealous, the sun’s rays are gaining strength here at a remarkable clip. Everyday I write in my log the sunrise, sunset, and amount of daylight, if I didn’t I think I wouldn’t believe it.
The birds were singing with full throats in the woods this morning, such was the glory of the sun. The trails today were a steady stream of skinny skiers with snazzy tinted glasses. I saw a man riding a mountain bike down the street, with just a dark t-shirt on. Such enthusiasm, all from a free boost in photons.
My moment of inspiration to choose this topic came while waiting in the glass-paneled walkway to board my flight to Trondheim. In that space the greenhouse power of the glass amplified the already stronger rays, I had to take notice. I hope you will too.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
That was it?
The predictions of gloom from my countrymen about the diminished daylight at this high latitude were greatly exaggerated. The winter solstice has came and went, and I feel none the worse. In fact, I’m probably in some of the best shape I’ve been in years.
On the solstice, there were 5:53 of daylight in Oslo, latitude 60º. I actually welcomed the day of little sun in Berlin. Berlin rests at 53º North; we enjoyed a full 7:39 of daylight. For reference, my Iowa home at 42º had 9:07 of sunlight.
Did the days seem shorter in Oslo than in Iowa? Yes, of course they did, what a silly question. But short days felt more like an exaggeration of my normal winter world. What was the noticeably strange element was the altitude of the sun.
Solar altitude is just a fancy way of saying how high the sun gets in the sky. During summer the sun seems to hang up high in the sky, broiling everything in Iowa: high altitude. In the winter, even short buildings can blot out the sun: low altitude.
The greater the latitude the more extreme the altitude of the sun. That was the change I most noticed. My Norwegian neighbors had to search for a sun that struggled to climb 7º above the horizon. I saw an altitude of double that in Berlin. The solstice low for Iowa was a towering 25º.
The good news is that at such a low angle, the sun baths all that it touches with a rich light. The trees, rocks, and even some people, just look so much better in that low light. In southern Norway, this has meant my waking daylight hours have been especially beautiful when the sky has been clear, and not just the golden hours at dawn and dusk.
The bad news is that the sun is so weak that it cannot melt ice. The walkways, the roads, seemingly everything gets a coat of frost for the season. Pedestrian beware. Today we “basked” in the sunlight at a local ice rink. It was a lovely scene. Yet facing the sun to take in its effect only got me temporary blindness, no warmth for my checks. I did feel our black duffle bag and noticed a touch of absorbed warmth, but it could not get hot.
Since 3 August, my Oslo daylight has diminished by 10:49. I refuse to say “lost” because the days are still just as long, there is just less light. The days still need to be lived; think of yourself more as a wolf than a bear.
I didn’t predict having a problem with minimal daylight, and I’m glad I was right. What I am worried about is the coming disappearance of darkness. The perpetual daylight of the Norwegian summer is something I think I will find very unsettling.