A Day In The Big D

28 11 2012

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.

You’ve heard of gorillas in the mist? I give you flamingos in the snow.

A lot of the warmer climate animals were off-display, but that was okay. In animal appreciation, much as in other areas of my life, I’m an upper latitude kind of girl.

The big draw for me was what’s billed as the largest polar bear zoo habitat in the world. It’s right next to the seal exhibit, and the two share an underwater “Arctic Tube” through which visitors can walk and observe the animals in the water. (To clarify, though both habitats are viewable from the same tunnel, they are separated from each other to avoid what would be rather bloody interspecies interaction.)

I was a little worried about this harp seal, who was just hanging out by an air vent, until the docent explained that he was blind, as were the other seals in the exhibit, all of them rescues (it did seem the Detroit zoo had more rescued animals than most), and he just seemed to really enjoy the sensation of the air vent, spending most of his time there every day. “It must feel like he’s swimming really fast,” noted the docent, which struck me as bittersweet.

I am pleased to report that, unlike my adventure in an underwater Antarctic tube, the Arctic tube did not involve major embarrassment and an unintentionally lengthy stay.

There seemed to be two docents per visitor at the zoo the morning I visited, and every one of them was extremely enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge. It was kind of cool, but also a bit more social than I had foreseen. They would just materialize out of nowhere and start telling me Nuka the polar bear was celebrating his eighth birthday and had received eight loaves of bread but the other male polar bear, Akila, who was 19 and sterile due to a congenital defect, had only been given one loaf of bread because he was gluten-intolerant and…

Oh-kay, let’s switch to decaf, buddy.

Da Bears. The one on the left is sterile and gluten-intolerant. The one on the right just turned eight. In case you were wondering.

The volunteer docents were all so earnest and nice that I couldn’t be surly about it. Little did I know it was a hint of what was to come.

I spent a good chunk of time watching Nuka the birthday boy playing in his private pool, the one that cannot, alas, be viewed from the tube. He had a large floating disk the size of a manhole cover that he liked to throw into the water and then jump in after it and try to submerge it.

Nuka in action.

When not trying to drown his manhole cover, Nuka appeared to be working on his synchronized swimming routine. It was ridiculously adorable.

Nuka with his favorite toy.

Have I mentioned how much I love polar bears? (Or also that the polar bear is my triathlon totem animal because, like me, they excel at and enjoy swimming in cold water, on land they have good endurance and are capable of very short bursts of speed but it ain’t pretty and, well, the word that comes to mind when cycling is “ungainly.”)

On a tip from one of the docents, even though “The Giraffe Experience” was closed due to the cold weather, there was an unmarked but perfectly legit back door into their house, so I got to see two young giraffes courting. The girl giraffe is just over a year, I believe, but the male turned five this week and was simply enormous, the largest giraffe I’ve ever seen.

Young Giraffe Love

After leaving the zoo, I drove down Woodward Ave., one of the main drags of Detroit. Of course, when all you’ve heard about Detroit is what a blighted wasteland it is, you kind of, well, expect to see blighted wasteland. And there were certainly stretches of abandoned buildings or ramshackle nail salon/liquor store/cash advance/thrift shop strip malls, but I didn’t see squalor and never felt in danger.

The birds and the (gluten-intolerant) bear.

By the time I arrived at DIA, the city’s big art museum, I was feeling like reports of Detroit’s death have been greatly exaggerated. It’s a nice city. Great zoo, fantastic museum…I set off on foot from DIA to check out a couple places Brian had recommended, Avalon Bakery (tasty organic fare) and the Traffic Jam and Snug, a bit of a pub with its own on-site brewery, dairy and bakery. I opted for a slice of mushroom duxelle focaccia at the former and a pint of Oatmeal Stout at the latter. Neither were particularly to my taste but both were well-made and well-priced.

And the people…at DIA, the two folks staffing the desk (I had accidentally entered the “group admissions only” door but they didn’t mind) recommended a few other things to see and do and, like a few of the zoo docents, thanked me for visiting their city. At Avalon, despite a crowd, the woman at the counter had all the time in the world for me to place my order. At Traffic Jam, the bartender got out his laptop and looked up opening hours and directions for me without me even asking.

Everyone seemed genuinely thrilled that someone was visiting their city. It was charming and…a little creepy. Having grown up in and around New York and lived or visited some of the earth’s snobbiest, snottiest cities, I’m used to more confrontation, less patience, more disinterest, less engagement.

Hey, this place is great! I don’t see why everyone always dumps on Detroit. The people are nice, there’s lots to do…and…and…

Then I went in search of the Heidelberg Project.

The project was another of Brian’s recommendations, and it’s an interesting idea, encouraging people in one of the city’s tougher areas to use found materials to create art. Sadly, I didn’t take photos because by the time I found it, the light was fading and my camera’s memory card was full of polar bears, but you can get a sense of the place from their website.

I’m not sure which camp I fall into over the project. Is it art or is it an eyesore? A bit of both, I think, but, given its surroundings, it is, if nothing else, a sign of life.

Because, you see, I got lost on the way.

Look, a Detroit Tiger sleeping on the job…why am I not surprised? Something for my San Francisco readers.

Now, I have been in “bad” neighborhoods and I’ve been in “dangerous” neighborhoods all over the world. I’ve been in places where I felt all my senses go on high alert. I’ve been followed. I’ve been harassed. I’ve been afraid. I’ve had to resort to physically defending myself, once, in eastern Turkey, when a guy came out of a building and grabbed me (application of one’s elbow to the attacker’s diaphragm with extreme prejudice is an excellent way to convey “leave me alone” if you don’t happen to speak his language). So I figured whatever I’d see in Detroit I’d seen before and it wouldn’t rattle me.

I was wrong. Once you get away from the main drags, from the attractions, from the areas where businesses still thrive, there are huge swathes of the city that I wouldn’t call “bad” or “dangerous” as much as spooky. Sad. Tragic.

Which would you rather see, gutted ruins of a once-lovely neighborhood or adorable napping Arctic foxes? Yeah. I thought so.

Beautiful old homes now burnt-out shells, sitting alone in an otherwise empty block of tall grass. Or, somehow even sadder, a single home cared for and decorated, a Christmas tree in its window, sitting between two derelict ruins. I passed a block of houses that were still homes, but surrounded by acre after acre of overgrown bushes and trash.

I passed a few other cars on the roads, but mostly the streets and sidewalks were as deserted as the neighborhood.

It made me sad, and angry, and, well, incredulous. I felt like I was on the set for some zombie apocaylpse movie, only this disaster was real, and clearly didn’t happen overnight. As Theoden put it: “how did it come to this?”

If you want to see images of Detroit’s urban blight, go Google it. Here instead is an image of a rhino in snow.

I know I’m an outsider looking in, and maybe if I didn’t see so much potential in the city, if the people I met hadn’t been so genuine, I would think “well, whatever, it’s their business, not mine.” But because my experience up until then had been so positive it just vexed me more than I expected.

Look elsewhere for images of Sad Detroit. Here instead are some lemurs.

I drove around the Heidelberg Project and then headed out, on the recommendation of one of the DIA people, to the Ford House on the lake. It was closed already, but she’d suggested driving back along the lake and ogling at the houses.


I guess I was expecting Milwaukee’s stunning Lake Shore Drive, where one early 20th century house after another delights the eye with perfect proportions and not a line amiss, with only the occasional later and often ill-conceived monstrosity in the mix. But the lakefront communities of Grosse Pointe, well…no offense to any native Motor City types reading this, but damn, that’s a whole lot of ugly. Plenty of mid-to-late 20th century “statements” that would have been best left on the drafting table, mixed in with glorified McMansions or sandwiched between older houses apparently revamped with gaudy, misproportioned windows. Ick.

This Japanese snow monkey best expresses my mood after experiencing the juxtaposition of the Heidelberg Project with Grosse Pointe excess.

By the time I got back into downtown, it was dark. I got dinner at a small Greek restaurant–with the most delish vegetarian stuffed grape leaves–and stopped in at Ikea to pick up a catalog for when I have my own place again, one day. It will not be covered in weather-beaten stuffed animals like one of the Heidelberg houses. Nor will it be a Grosse Pointe monstrosity. And I am thankful for that.

I’d like to return to Detroit to see more of the sights. It has a lot to offer and it’s rare to be able to say every single person I met seemed to be decent. I’m rooting for you, Big D. I have no idea how to turn you around, but I hope it happens. You deserve it.

Indeed. Taken on the Interstate in Racine County, WI. I would just hope The Almighty has a better grasp of punctuation.

Of Ships and Journeys

7 10 2012

Give me an all-access tourist pass and by the gods, I will use it.

After several minutes of Travel Math (that specialty involving the calculation of public transportation costs and museum admission fees versus opening hours and time required for movement between two points), I concluded that it would be cost-effective for me to purchase a 24-hour Oslo Pass yesterday.

I hopped on the 91, the public transportation boat, yes, boat, that putters between Oslo’s center and the museums on the Bygdoy peninsula.

Akershus Fortress, Oslo’s medieval castle, from the 91 ferry.

First stop: the Fram museum, which I’d skipped on my last trip to Oslo, back in 1999. Now it had new meaning for me and I was not going to miss it.

For starters, every pamphlet and ad for the museum mentions it has new toilets and touts them as the finest in Oslo, which peaked my curiosity (sadly, there were so many other things to see at the museum that I completely forgot about the toilets until much later in the day. I’ll have to come back just to experience them).

The Fram’s marketing also pushed the “Polar Simulator,” a “terrifying” walk through “minus 10 Celsius temperatures”…minus 10C? Ha! Hahahahahaha! Hold on, let me put on the shorts and flip-flops.

Yeah. Whatever.

But the big draw for me was the Fram itself, which was not only the vessel that Nansen and later Amundsen used to explore the Arctic, but also the ship Amundsen used for his expedition to the South Pole. You know, his successful expedition to the South Pole, as opposed to Scott’s doomed journey a few months later.

Roald Amundsen (center) and his fellow Polies, outside the Fram Museum. On the base is the simple inscription “90 degrees S.” When I saw this, my first thought was “clean-shaven? Yeah, right.” I’m sure they were not looking so well-coiffed when they arrived at the Pole.

And right outside the museum, there was old Roald “Killjoy” Amundsen and his fellow Polies, all looking as dour as ever.

I joke about Roald, but in truth I am fascinated by the way he is largely unremembered outside Norway or beyond Polar Geek circles. He was meticulous and arguably far more practical in his planning than Scott, virtues I think we puny humans tend to undervalue. He certainly was as brave. But it’s Scott who is remembered more. Is it because Robert F. was more dashing? Because we puny humans value style over substance? (Scott was brave as well, no doubt, but there was a certain arrogance to him. And while I’ll never forgive ol’ Roald for killing most of his dogs, having planned for it all along, Scott had the bright idea to bring ponies–ponies! I call Amundsen a killjoy in jest for his methodical, “adventure is just poor planning” attitude, but I’m dead serious when I refer to Scott as The Doom Of Ponies.)

Lighten up, Roald! It’s not your fault that most non-Norwegians think you wrote “James and the Giant Peach.” [My favorite thing about this photo, by the way, is that I walked up to a guy to ask him to take it for me, all ready to trot out my piddling Norwegian, and I heard him speaking Russian to his friend. So I asked him in Russian. And he was actually quite obliging. Yay! A positive Russian experience!]

Even at the Fram museum, Scott gets his own exhibition, on the main floor, no less, and when I was there, it was the most crowded area, with one man taking photos of every sign and map and display. Seriously.

I didn’t take a single one. Out of respect for Roald, poor underacknowledged bastard.

Statue of Nansen beside the Fram, which was just too big to fit in the frame from any vantage point in the museum.

The neatest thing about the Fram, by the way, is that you can actually walk around it, even down into the lower decks.

Fram: I am in you.

The Fram’s arguably biggest achievement was simply not shattering–Fridtjof Nansen, another Norwegian polar explorer who doesn’t get his due, had the great idea in the late 19th century to sail up to the Arctic and intentionally get a ship stuck in the pack ice, believing the ice would then drift over the North Pole, or near enough to it to pop out and plant a flag.

Reaction to his plan was mixed.

Some thought Nansen was daring and brilliant. Others thought he needed counseling, or perhaps an intervention.

(In Polar Explorer Valhalla, I imagine Nansen having a beer with Shackleton, the latter saying “soooooo…you deliberately got your ship trapped in pack ice, huh?”)

Nansen got his way in the end, and had the Fram built with a number of unusual features, including a super-reinforced round hull, going on the theory that the ice wouldn’t have anything to stick to and, as its pressure increased, the boat would simply rise, like a round nut squished between two fingers.

Well, Nansen’s nutball theory worked, though the Fram never got close enough to the North Pole for him to enjoy that little slice of glory.

And while the Fram also survived Amundsen’s South Pole expedition, the round hull that worked so well in Arctic pack ice apparently was the bane of crew and dogs in Antarctic waters, where it rolled precipitously in the swells.

There was also a fascinating exhibit on sextants which helped me finally understand how they work.

As for the Polar Simulator, whatevs. It was dark and cold and covered in faux ice, and, inexplicably, decorated with skeletons. The other people going through it shivered and shrieked and ran through. I paused to consider whether it was really minus 10C. I don’t think it was, though they did succeed in making the air very dry, which makes it tough to gauge a temp as warm as minus 10C, especially in calm conditions. I wanted to tell the people dashing through the faux ice cavern that it’s not the temperature, it’s the wind that gets you on the Ice, but I decided that would be insufferably smug of me.

Another poster at the Polar Simulator. You’re not fooling anyone.

After the Fram, I headed to the adjacent Norwegian Maritime Museum, which is undergoing some renovation. Fortunately, their history of ships exhibit is still open, from a 2,200-year-old dugout canoe, the oldest ship in Norway, to a chilling video simulation of how the Estonia sank. I had just arrived in Moscow when the ferry went down in the North Sea and heard it was due to faulty locks on the bow doors to the car decks. But the video shows in absolutely horrific detail how the doors first leaked, then opened, then busted off, all the while more water sloshing and then flooding in, destabilizing the ship. If the simulator is correct, there were several minutes of wild rolling until the ferry finally capsized and sank to the bottom, upside down. What I gathered from the video was that there was no way people could even try to get to the lifeboats, but there was a long period of knowing they were doomed.

The museum also had, no surprise, a number of excellent ship-building exhibits, but truth be told I kind of lost interest after the evolution from clinker to carvel.

The Gjoa, which took Amundsen and his crew through the Northwest Passage, awaiting the opening of its own triangular home beside the Fram in 2013.

Across the street from the Maritime Museum and the Fram (and the Gjoa, Amundsen’s ship when he sailed through the Northwest Passage…yeah, he did that, too, and amazingly still found time to write “James and the Giant Peach.” Yes, I’m joking. But only about the Peach. The Gjoa is sitting outside the Fram building while its own home is being built, scheduled for completion in 2013) is the Kon-Tiki Museum, where Thor Heyerdahl’s famous reed raft, and its successor, his Ra II, reside.

Originally I had no plans to see the Kon-Tiki, but it was free with my Oslo Pass and I was there, so, eh, might as well.

The Kon-Tiki

Does that sound dismissive? I’m sorry, Thor, I guess it is. Staring at the Kon-Tiki and Ra II, I thought okay, neat that you proved people could cross the Pacific and Atlantic in this primitive kind of vessel. But, while acknowledging intellectually the importance of these achievements, I felt no emotional connection.

The day was getting long. I knew where I needed to go.

It’s about a ten minute walk from the Fram and Kon-Tiki to one of my favorite places in the world. I was a little worried that maybe I was misremembering my visit in 1999, that maybe the Viking Ship Museum was not all that.

It was. It is.

Oseberg Ship

When I visited the Fram, I thought, “oh cool.” When I saw the Kon-Tiki and Ra II, I was impressed. But when I walked into the Viking Ship Museum again, I got a bit choked up.

There is something about that place.

Close-up of the Oseberg Ship

It is partly the museum itself, its austere, church-like space. (I just learned they’re planning to move the ships to a new location to reduce risk of fire and all I can say is NOOOOOOOO! Fire-proof the existing building and leave them there!)

It is partly the wise choice of the curators not to crowd the space with excessive signage and hands-on “SAIL YOUR OWN VIKING SHIP” exhibits.

Karl and the Oseberg

But it is mostly the ships themselves, at least the Gokstad and Oseberg (the deformed Tune remains as it was found, like a squashed bug). There is such elegant efficiency in their lines, such power and beauty.

Copy of Oseberg prow

The Oseberg gets most of the love for its prow and, I think, for the fact that it was the burial ship for two women (and their horses and their dogs and so on), which raises questions about the role of women in Viking society that they would get such a high-falutin’ funeral. Scholars have variously claimed the women to be noble and slave, priestesses, wife and mother of a chieftain, and so on.

But the Gokstad, likely a military craft before it was used as the burial ship for a man, is my favorite. It has none of the ornamentation of the Oseberg, but its lines are so splendid. I was happy just to stare at it, appreciating its construction, how it must have sliced through the waters and rippled over the waves with cat-like grace.

The Gokstad Ship

I spent 45 minutes at the Fram and the same amount of time at the Maritime Museum, and a mere 10 minutes at the Kon-Tiki (sorry, Thor). I was at the Viking Ship Museum for two hours, until closing, and could have stayed ten more. It’s not that there’s a lot to do. It’s really just three ships, a couple boats, an impressive but, in the grand scheme of museums, relatively small exhibit of grave goods found mostly from Oseberg, including the only known surviving Viking wagon.

Viking wagon or, as I like to call it, the vikingvagon.

But the ships themselves, and the space they occupy command, touch me in a way none of the other fine and well-done museums did. I couldn’t help but think back on all that’s happened in my life in the 13 years since I last saw them. When I last stood before them, I was a year away from being diagnosed with cancer. I’d just finished writing Plaguewalker, but the characters of The War’s End and The Guardian had not yet stirred in my imagination. Iceland, New Zealand, Tasmania, the Lofotens and a dozen other places were still on my must-see list. Visiting Antarctica was only a dream, one too lofty even to put on that list. I could not have dared to imagine the places I’d go and things I’d do in the thirteen years ahead of me then.

Another view of the Gokstad. I get a little verklempt just looking at the photo even now.

It made me wonder what the men who rowed and sailed those boats thought of their own journeys, those accomplished and those that were still dreams. And I wondered what the next 13 years will bring for me.

As an aside, I was particularly glad I went back to see the Viking ships because, since my last visit, there has been an intriguing development. The skeletons found with the Oseberg and Gokstad ships (curiously, no one ever mentions the skeleton found with the Tune) were reburied in the 1940s, but in 2006, citing their scientific significance and risk of losing them, they were dug up again. This time, forensic pathologists went to town on them and discovered just about everything believed about the skeletons from earlier study was wrong.

The Oseberg women are both much older than first believed: one, likely in her 80s, appears to have died from breast or abdominal cancer that metastasized to her bones and the second was in her 50s, and might have died from complications of a broken collarbone (though, given the handful of bones that remain of her, it is extremely difficult to say).

The Gokstad man was even more fascinating. An apparent hormonal imbalance caused his bones to be extremely dense and large. He was a big man, almost certainly more than six feet tall, and a number of edged weapon wounds to his bones that show no signs of healing suggest he was killed. (When found in the late 19th century, he was described as frail and elderly and crippled.) A fighting man? A chieftain who fell in battle or was done in by his enemies with an ambush after a long night in the mead hall? We’ll probably never know, but it was fascinating to read how advances in science have upended the old theories.

Sadly, science is not omnipotent. Attempts to extract and analyze DNA from all three skeletons have failed due to apparent contamination, though they’ll keep trying.

A reason to return to the museum (hopefully still in its current location) in another 13 years. Not that I needed one.

Boats and tent posts (on wall) found in the Gokstad ship

Today is my last day in Oslo, and in Norway. Tomorrow will be a long day, starting with a two-mile walk with my luggage to the airport bus stop at three in the morning (hey kids, when you find a hotel that’s a third of the going price online, don’t just look at Google maps to see how close it is to a metro stop…check when the metro runs and what time your flight leaves and when you need to be at the airport!). Then there will be the flight to Stockholm, the flight to O’Hare, the bus to Milwaukee, the jetlag-stunned greeting and catching up with my amazing friends the Shorewoodians, starting the austere diet and exercise regime, getting the car out of storage, job-hunting, ramping up publicity for Plaguewalker, finishing the edit of The War’s End, training to volunteer at the pound, looking for a place to live, and so on, and so on.

When it gets overwhelming (and it will…I mean, seriously, no carbs and job-hunting? Who am I kidding?), I hope I remember to think back to the sight of age-stained wood and lines elegant and efficient, to the thought of journeys past and future.

The Most Northernmost Post in the UNIVERSE…Ever!

4 10 2012

Okay, that’s a lie. Or at least a besmirched truth. Or, as the fine people of northern Norway might appreciate, an optimistic reality.

But first, to recap:

I’m into my fourth week above the Arctic Circle in Norway. I came because, after wintering in Antarctica, Milwaukee in August was too freakin’ hot, and because I’d found a professional opportunity too enticing not to explore. Week One, wandering around the Lofotens, a place I’ve always wanted to see, was wonderful. Week Two and a Bit, investigating that job lead, was interesting in ways both bad and good but overall lovely and insightful. Week Three was mostly great, with only a few portents of Week Four, which so far has been one of those weeks where I seriously question why I travel.

Week One highlight: getting in touch with my inner Einherjar at the Lofotr Viking Museum; coincidentally, also the expression on my face for most of Week Four so far.

There will be many more posts about this whole adventure, but for now I want to focus on a Week Three oddity involving superlatives and imaginary polar bears.

(And if you’re a follower of this blog and only this blog of mine, right about now you might be wondering what’s going on and why am I not rambling about my fiction writing. I’m merging my travel and adventure blog Stories That Are True with this one, so expect some posts about writing and more posts about imaginary polar bears, forbidding mountains and my travel nemesis: The Elderly Package Tourist. I’ve been told by a very good, very earnest friend that my travel and adventure writing is “way better” than my fiction, so perhaps you will find this expansion of theme an improvement.)

Near the Oksfjord glacier, Finnmark.

I spent most of Week Three taking the fabled Hurtigruten ship up and down the Norwegian coast, from Sortland in Vesteraalen to its northern terminus, Kirkenes, and back to Sortland. I’ve wanted to do this trip since I learned about it in the ’80s, so I figured it was about time.

Almost immediately upon boarding (at the ungodly hour of 0300), I noticed a theme. The Hurtigruten, its signage and all its pamphlets, would like you to note that it’s “the Original Coastal Voyage since 1893,” as if no one ever voyaged around a coast before then. I wondered why the Hurtigruten folks felt the need to bill themselves as original about the whole thing. I’d find it impressive enough to say “bringing you closer to Norway’s rocks and water since 1893.”

Senja, heading north from Hinnoya

But, as I said, it was a sign of things to come.

The MS Nordlys took us to and past dozens of charming, scenic Arctic fishing villages and larger settlements, fantastic mountains rearing up near-vertical from the black sea (I do love me some water and rocks), glaciers, cities pummeled into rubble in World War II and a military installation that was almost 200 years old when the Hurtigruten started its whole “original” coastal voyage thing.

MS Nordlys docked at Honningsvaag, the alleged northernmost town in Norway. Remember you can click on any photo to “embiggen” it.

But that was not enough for the towns, cities and sites. No, no. We stopped in both the “northernmost city in the world” and the “northernmost town in the world,” though the two places (Honningsvaag and Tromso) argue about each other’s status and also duel with a few towns/cities in Alaska over bragging rights. We cruised by the “northernmost fishing village in the world,” though there were villages north of it with economies built on fishing (but, perhaps, without an ambitious marketing major).

Vardo, dating from the early 18th century, claimed as the northernmost fortress in the world

The town of Vardo, not content to be home to the world’s undisputed “northernmost fortress,” also claims the scrap of rock on which its lighthouse sits to be the “easternmost point” in Norway.

Lighthouse at Vardo, on the easternmost scrap of Norwegian land. Check out the evil troll face in the rain cloud approaching!

The pretty white church outside Harstad, on Norway’s largest island, Hinnoya (not to be confused with Norway’s northernmost island, Svalbard, though I have heard Hinnoya referenced as Norway’s second northernmost large island. Really)…

Wait. Let me start again. There’s a pretty white church outside the city of Harstad that is variously described as “Norway’s oldest medieval stone church in the north” (why they need “oldest” and “medieval” both in there, I’m not sure, but never mind) and “the northernmost medieval stone church in the world” as well as how our Hurtigruten announcer put it, “the oldest northernmost medieval stone church.” In the world or just in Norway, Ms. Hurtigruten? Ah, that part you left out. Clever.

The white building with steep red roof on the right is Harstad’s northernmostiest medievalish stoney church.

The barrage of northernmostiness made me wonder why we, as humans, constantly need to rank everything. Hollywood’s biggest grossing movie, the fastest man in the world, and so on and so on. It’s a trap I fall into as well, usually at social gatherings when faced with chatting with someone I don’t know well. “So, what’s your favorite book/movie/vacation/inane icebreaker?” It’s easy, I guess, and suspends the need for nuance, which most of us aren’t very good at anyway.

Northernmost wind farm in the world, Havoygavlen, Finnmark

So I applaud the town of Hammerfest for bucking the northernmostiness trend, though I would also like to point out it could easily claim “northernmost site that would be an excellent place for a huge heavy metal festival by virtue of its name alone.”

Instead of positioning itself as the northernmost something, Hammerfest has opted for a delightful alternative reality entirely.

Hammerfest guarantees you will see polar bears there, though there are no polar bears in Hammerfest.

The nearest Ursus maritimus is up in Svalbard, which happens to be Norway’s northernmost large island, if you’re keeping track. That’s hundreds of miles away. It’s 542 miles as the skua flies, actually.

There have never been polar bears in Hammerfest.

They are all over the place in this town.

Polar bear architecture, Hammerfest

Back in the 30s, some forward-thinking marketing major-turned-bureaucrat recognized that, at a mere 70 degrees north, no way could Hammerfest compete in the northernmostiness Olympics, and, as heavy metal had not yet been invented, the idea of Hammerfest as the Odin of all metal sites was not even a twinkling in someone’s eye.

Extreme polar bear close-up achieved by lying on the ground under one of the sculptures in the main square, much to the consternation of elderly German tourists loitering about. If Hammerfest ever does host a big metal gig, this should totally be their logo.

So, when creating the city’s symbol, they chose a polar bear, ostensibly to reflect “the city’s proud tradition of Arctic fishing,” much like the bear itself. They could have gone with a cod or an orca or a sea eagle or a wolverine, all animals that actually hang out in Hammerfest’s immediate environs, but no, they had to go for the Big Kahuna, the largest land mammal carnivore on the planet.

Hammerfest’s coat of arms. Aside from the pure fiction of it, I have to say that I love the design itself, especially the bear’s feet.

And by God, they ran with it.

Main town square and Radhus, Hammerfest, a celebration of an animal that has never lived there or even wandered through. Note the city’s coat of arms on the building just behind the sculpture.

Polar bears on the city’s coat of arms, in front of its Radhus (local government office), on its buildings and even its park gazebos. Holy Polar Bear, Batman, it’s even on their taxi cabs.

If only their cabs *were* polar bears, like Beyond the Wall in A Song of Ice and Fire. I totally would have hailed one.

The first thing you see when you get off the Hurtiguten’s original disembarking ramp is the home of The Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society (established 1963). There’s a small museum and a larger gift shop, and the opportunity to join the Society for less than $40, a relative bargain in Norway. For the money, you get your head dunked in a glorified water fountain and a certificate that proves you fell for the world’s northernmost tourist trap.

Okay, maybe I’m being too hard on the RAPBS. After all, they claim that by joining you are helping to save the polar bear, though it was unclear exactly how. The guy at the counter was nice enough, and admitted “this is mostly for the tourists,” though he insisted that some locals had joined as well.

Far more appealing (and free!) was a walk I took up the citizen-made-and-maintained zig-zag path above the city, which is built on a narrow slice of land between fjord and cliff. Hammerfest’s name, in fact, is a combination of “steep mountainside” and “fastening” (as in the place you tie up or anchor a boat) in Old Norse.

Hammerfest from the Zig Zag path, which happens to be polar bear-free (of both real and imagined varieties)

Standing at the edge of the cliff, looking out over the water and fantastically rugged mountains in all directions, I couldn’t help but think Hammerfest, baby, listen to me: the polar bears are cute and all, but you don’t need to pretend you’re something you’re not. Just be a neat Arctic city.

View to the sea, from the Zig-Zag Path, Hammerfest

If you must, call yourself the Hammerfestiest city in the universe. It would not be a lie.

The northernmostiest point Karl and I have ever been, trail north of Honningsvaag and south of Nordkapp, somewheres around 70 degrees north, 58′. Loyal followers of Stories That Are True will recognize Karl, my trusty Kiwi sidekick, but for those just meeting him, Karl has proven a valuable if squishy travel buddy through New Zealand, Australia, Antarctica, the US and now Europe. He is also far less camera-shy than I am.