Woke up early for our 6:45 departure to the Oslo airport – among  the 8 of us who went out last night (everyone but Joni), we probably managed a cumulative 24 hours of combined sleep, so the whole group is pretty pooped.

Upon arriving at the airport we get our second “Willy Wonka Golden Ticket” moment. We have no idea where we’ll be flying, but will be handed a ticket for somewhere cool in Norway – like with Stavanger, one of the more surreal “pinch me” moments in my life.

I see Ane printing boarding passes and read KKN. Could we really be going to Kirkenes!? While my experience playing Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries is limited, I know that not only is Kirkenes north… it’s WAY north… like… top of the country north! Like… arctic circle north!!!

Sure enough 5 minutes later we all have maps and Norway travel books out seeing where we’re going and reading about Kirkenes’ rich mining history, and key role in WWII. Two hours later we’re flying north!

Our collective research proves to be for not, when upon arriving we’re told we have a 3.5 hour drive ahead of us. What follows is one of the most beautiful drives I’ve ever been on, through the arctic tundra first heading northwest along the water, and then cutting back northeast along the side of the fjord for the last 1.5 hours.

An immediate highlight of the drive was seeing 5 wild reindeer during the first 5 minutes of our drive from the airport! Having built a reindeer farm, my dad would comment on how cool it was just to see a reindeer in real life! “How many people have ever seen a real one!?” he’d ask – but to see wild reindeer in their natural habitat – unreal. (We ended up seeing 6 more on the drive, and Kelsey spotted a moose!)

The landscape up here is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There’s a specific tree that seems to thrive, though there’s very little biodiversity. It takes special organisms to live through 2 months a year without sun, and 2 months with nothing but sun – then throw in snow and constant below freezing temperatures for long periods and you’re not left with much.

The homes along the water are few and far between, but it’s beautiful to see their T structures used for drying fish still in full force today. Many of these belong to the Sami people, or indigenous people or northern Norway.

We know our road is of finite length, and eventually we go into a 1-2 mile tunnel which leads us to the island of Vardø (var-duh) in Finnmark county. It’s a beautiful but very small fishing island just off the coast that played a big role in trade with Russia (fish for corn). The population is less than 3,000 – and walking around, it feels like a bit of a ghost town. Many commented that it felt a bit like an American Indian reservation.

Before dinner we explored our nearby vicinity – lots of cool street art in the area – a particularly cool one (Tom thinks he recognizes the artist) says ETERNAL LIGHT, ETERNAL NIGHT – an ode to the midnight sun and polar night that takes place this far north. Our timing is amazing too, the midnight sun just started 6 days ago! Sweeeet!

After dinner, me, Joni, and Jeff go further exploring. We check out the military fortress which was constructed in 1738. We also discuss (something we read about earlier), the 91 witches who were killed in the area in the 1600’s, and their cave not far from here. Could we be going to the cave? That would be “dark” like Fridtjof mentioned. With that said, every guess we’ve ever made has been wrong, so why start now?

Oh! And Vardø is Norway’s easternmost city – further east than Cairo, Egypt! We’re also above 70 degrees North, so we’re over halfway from Seattle to the North Pole! Also worth noting, when we landed in Kirkenes, it was almost 70 degrees Fahrenheit! Ridiculous!

After a big group dinner (veal), me, Kate, Kelsey, and Lauren hung out listening to Tom play us about 8 of his songs – super talented guy who writes deep stuff, can’t wait to grab his EP when I get home.

Folks were exhausted and started going to bed, but it was only 11:00, so I went for a walk with my journal out to the lighthouse where I’ve been writing this entry – my first midnight sun ever will take place in exactly 6 minutes – really really cool being out here at midnight writing in perfect “golden hour” light.

Competition starts tomorrow but I’ll be on the sidelines with the troll. No complaints here! 9:45 departure so I’ll still get great sleep! What an adventure!