6 Years Old and the First Day of School.

It is amazing how fast 6 years has flown by. Monday marked Odin’s 6th Birthday. Up to this point every one of his birthdays has  involved a big outdoor BBQ birthday party at our house in Missoula. We have been joined by family and friends, joining together to celebrate our wonderful, kind little boy. I am not so sure I can call him a little boy anymore.

This year we knew would be different. Originally I wanted to plan a fun family excursion to LEGOLAND or someplace warm with swimming pools and sunshine. After a busy summer or travel and also discovering that this little guy’s birthday also fell on the first day of First Grade, we opted for a party at home. Odin requested a soccer party so we invited over all of our friends in Tromsø which consists of 3 families with kids and our friend Jill who recently moved here from Alaska. We chose to celebrate before the first day of school, on Sunday. It was a beautiful sunny day which allowed us to complete Odin’s wishes of water balloons and a soccer match. The kids all under age 8 smoked the adults, winning 6 to 1 and we really did kind of try!  Odin was royally spoiled with gifts from his Norway buddies, gifts arriving in the post from family in the States ( a huge highlight to get presents at the post office:) , and several Skype dates. He even received the traditional gift for a 6-year old Norwegian boy, his first knife from his dad. We had one happy boy!

Odin’s ‘real’ birthday began on Monday morning with pancakes filled with rainbow sprinkles and covered with Nutella. We walked across the street to Odin’s new school, the Bjerkaker School, to begin First Grade. We struggled with the choice of whether to send him to the local Norwegian School or an International School where courses are taught in English. He was pretty excited to try the Norwegian School, so there we were with 60 other first grade students and their parents listening to the school principle welcome all of the students, in Norwegian of course. We followed the masses, which were A LOT. Every student had at least one parent with them and many had both parents there. I did not know what to expect, but as it turned out the parents stayed in the classroom for the entire first day of school! Another great part of the Norwegian family support structure…no one is actually expected to go to work on the first day of school….except those working at the school of course:) While Odin made his first steps into the big kids school, Adelheyd returned to Strandkanten Barnehage. She has many friends still there from last year and seems to thrive in playing with more of the kids her age now that her brother is not at school with her. I think it will be quite good for both of them to spend time at separate schools during the day. There has definitely been a lot more love between them in the afternoons after they have been apart. It warms my heart to see what good friends they have become.

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We are now done with one week of school. Odin did not shed one tear and put on a brave face every morning. His teacher commented on what a very nice boy he is and that he is trying hard to learn and understand what the other kids are saying/doing. I cannot imagine how difficult and frustrating it would be to make new friends at a new school and figure out what everyone is doing without knowing the language. I am so very proud of my brave boy. He has begun to get some Norwegian homework which we translate with him every night and we continue to do daily lessons in English at home after school so that he can continue at US schools when we return home. Luckily the school day is over at 1pm every day (quite short days at this age), so we have time in the afternoons to do some math and reading in English.

At his school, Odin has an outdoor gear cubby where all the kids shed their rain or snow gear and put on inside shoes. They then go to their inside cubby where they can put their extra change of clothes for when they get wet playing outside (not if they get wet, when they get wet), backpacks and lunch bags. From here they meet their teacher at 8:30 and head into the classroom to begin the day.

The highlight of the first week of school was a Friday trip to the beach. His weekly plan that is sent home instructed us to pack (1) drikke, mat, noe å grille (drink, food for the grill)  (2)  grillpinne (grill fork to hold food over the campfire)   (3) sitteunderlag (sitting mat so the kids don’t have to sit on wet/snowy grass) (4) klær etter vær (appropriate clothing)  (5)   ta med ved til bål (wood for the campfire).  The class joined their big kid buddies from one of the older classes, walked to the beach, built a fire and roasted pølse (hotdogs) while playing. This is a very typical way to spend an afternoon or evening in Norway. People meet just about anywhere to grillpølse – beaches, on the side of the ski trails, sledding hills, lakes, back yards, anywhere. Of course it had to pour rain all day, but as I have mentioned before, weather does not matter here. Nothing is cancelled due to weather…ever. Kids play in the pouring rain without a second thought. It is kinda nice because you never have to wonder if something will be cancelled. It won’t.  It sounds like there will at least one day long outdoor trip every week. School in Norway is fun:)

We are not alone.

Several of my Norwegian friends posted and reposted the following article on Facebook today. Intrigued by the few words I could understand when reading in Norwegian, I decided to Google translate (my best friend here) the newspaper article.sz55f924

http://www.bt.no/meninger/debatt/Om-flesk-og-virkelighet–2950972.html#.UhXjPVn8JMs

What I read was a very jumbled translation from Norwegian typical of Google translate, but it got the point across. It is a beautiful commentary by a Norwegian teacher speaking to the politicians and parents of Norway. There is currently an election going on in Norway, so many of these political issues are being reported. What I found interesting and a bit surprising about this commentary is that it sounds like the same issues teachers face in the United States. Two countries with very different sociopolitical structures battling the same issue.

Here is the Google translation:

Dear politicians across the country, I am the teacher. I note that you wish you the best school. You should educate the world’s best teachers and be on top of all international measurements. I think it’s nice that you have high aspirations, but I have something to confess.
Being greeted each day in all media with the mantra “we must have better teachers” do something with me. So do something about society’s attitudes to me. You have created a teacher contempt which may be useful in the electoral context, but very little appropriate if you think that respect for my profession should be increased.
I have five and a half years of university education, and what I would describe as highly skilled in languages ​​and humanities. I am not alone in this. A third of the teachers at my school have the same qualifications, like me. The rest of my colleagues have teacher education – no one is unskilled.
You politicians describe a future master’s program for teachers that will revolutionize schools. The truth is well that we have never been prevented from taking even higher education?
Another truth is well that a longer study would imply correspondingly higher loans and lost income for future learning – without specific mention how this is going compensated.
We’ve all gone to school. Strangely enough, this seems to mean that everyone has an equally qualified opinion on how the school should be run. I have in my school also had to deal with teachers I wish were different. At the same time I have during their life had to deal with an incompetent doctor, an unsympathetic nurse, a untruthful real estate agent, an unwilling executive and prinsippryttersk officer. I also met politicians directly disinterested in listening to what I have to say, even if they sit in the Committee on Adolescence in my own city council.
But does my personal experiences mean that we need to have better doctors, better nurses, better real estate agents? Do we have the world’s best officers – or should we rather go politicians more closely?
Most of my elected representatives who sit in the Committee on Adolescence, have no experience of school. Some of them want me to vote them into parliament in a few weeks, also has little experience from working at all. For me, as a school man, this provides good reason for skepticism when my vote to the ballot box.
You policymakers use research and statistics it is worth – it understands. But just to be right: We may have high teacher density – the village schools and coastal islands in our vast country.
Although I work at a middle school in a large, right-hand drive by and have thirty students in the classroom – every hour, every day. That politicians refer to Hattie’s research on class size gives little sense (when this research reviews blackboard teaching versus alternative methodology), when Hattie’s findings while emphasizing the relationship of each student is one of the most important preconditions for learning. This last mentioned rarely in one word – probably because relationships takes time, which costs money.
I do not know about you politicians, but my understanding of reality is that the quality of a relationship is closely related to the time invested in the relationship.
We teachers are a growing number of courses in formative assessment, classroom management, literacy and numeracy – without taking into account the number of hours and minutes you necessarily need to spend on each child to provide this qualitative teaching and assessment. I find it difficult to believe that mandatory master teachers will solve this challenge, not to speak of the Conservative proposal doctorate in teaching to achieve the title as “learning specialist”. Only politicians can minimally about school is faithful to fantasize about such a future.
Be honest: admit that matt lift, “teacher specialists” and master’s degrees are valgflesk – not a welcome career boost for teachers.
Dear Parent: I like to spend time on your children. I would like to have time to listen to constructive conversation with your child about school work, mastery and learning. I would like to answer any questions that pop up – to help ensure that your child is an active participant in human society. I want your children to dare to express themselves verbally, ask your own questions, be critical and be heard. I would like to teach your child basic skills so that she can face the world with confidence and courage. But I wish that your child was not always one of thirty.
Your child does not get better results at school through that I take continuing education. Hattie studies – that right often points out – actually shows that the continuing education of teachers and minimal effect on student learning. Then turn your gaze away from Finland, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan.
See a moment away from the OECD, PISA and PIRLS – all the abbreviations that induces us to believe that we are sinking like stones if we do not meet the international standings. But keep in mind that like two of the biggest success factors in the Finnish school teacher status and minimal politician involvement in school. Please let me know that we live in a competition-oriented society, the need to be in the top to assert itself.
But every day I meet cross-section of the population. Reality classroom consists of three who has not eaten breakfast. One that left both mother and father sleeping when he went to school. Four sitting up and playing Playstation to three at night. Two people who think they are too fat and who refuse to take off their coats. One who has carved up her thighs to razors. Three who love Justin Bieber. Three others who love One Direction – and hate Justin Bieber. One who will not live. Twelve living in two different homes. Wood that has jackets for 7000 crowns, two that have worn thin winter jackets they have inherited from older siblings. Four who do not have contact with one of their parents. One who does not know who his father is. Six own any books, fourteen have library card. Ti has never been read to at home. Fire has lived in Norway for less than three years.
All this taken into account (or rather not) have my municipality’s elected officials decided that the average on national tests in reading in all classes will be increased by a certain percentage per year. A number, determined by politicians without school competence, without educational or other scientific foundation. A number that lay people have come up with, but as professionals should be measured.
Do not misunderstand me: I enjoy in my diverse classroom – and do not think I do my best. But believe me that the Norwegian school can not run on the same principles as the private sector. Do not think that I have the same incentives as a career oriented economist of the investment industry. Neither I nor my students. Our formation mission to embrace the whole person – and all people.
Dear politicians: You want me to drive the world’s best school. Their election campaign almost crying that I nearly do my best. In spite of the mistrust and adversity seems I still think I’m doing the most meaningful in the world. How useless and senseless than it may appear me, I will continue to teach with both test regimes and congested classrooms.
I can even accept the unequal distribution of resources in the school, constantly restricted freedom to exercise my work as autonomous learning and bureaucratic reporting in all directions. Because I care. And because every day I will be allowed to work with those who are our future. But (and I know that you never start a sentence with “but”) destroys you more on my professional pride now, when I give myself.

A Simple Life: Some of my thoughts on Norwegian culture

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I wrote previously about our family’s simple life in Tromsø, personal stories and our take on these experiences living as an American family in Northern Norway.  I wrote about the joys and challenges that have come with simplifying our life.  As I was writing that post I was thinking to myself how wonderful it made life in Norway sound. That was not even really my intention as I was more trying to get across the point that our life when not travelling is so simple and monotonous that it is difficult. I began to think more about this and wondering why simplicity can be so hard. I have come to the conclusion that it is just because we are ‘so American’, an expression my Scandinavian friends sometimes pull out when I do or say something that to them is very American. What does this mean?

In the context of adapting to a simpler life, it means that as Americans we are used to having choices. It is easy to constantly stay busy with all of these choices because they are readily available. Spending all day going for leisurely  tur in the woods while picking berries rarely happens. We don’t make homemade jams and bread very often.  Why would we when we have so many other choices of what to do with our time AND we have enormous grocery stores full of jam and bread? (We have an entire aisle of cereals to choose from, compared to the 4 small shelves and total of 6 types of cereal you can buy here…no joke). We have car lots filled with a ridiculous number of new cars to choose from. We comparison shop not only for prices, but for which preschool or elementary school is the best. We then compare the teachers at those schools to make sure we get the best one for our kids. We are allowed to and encouraged to compare and choose. We have the choice. Choice is wonderful, it is a major foundation of American culture. The freedom to choose! But at what point is it too much? When do we forget how to enjoy simplicity? I don’t know the answer but I know it is definitely a hard transition for me to leave my American choices behind and find joy in the simple life.

Upon deciding that ‘simple’ was the best word to describe our family life here, it also became apparent that it is a perfect adjective to describe Norwegian culture in general.  When I looked the word ‘simple’ up in the dictionary this is a bit of what I found:

(1) Free from vanity, free from ostentation or display.

Definitely the Norwegian way of life. As a socialized country there is a strong emphasis on ensuring that all are generally treated and regarded as equals and that all adapt to the social norms in order to maintain such equality. There are very few people who ‘stand out’ with their behavior, their clothing, their cars, their homes. I have spoken to several Norwegians who say this begins from early education. Students are not praised above their peers, there is no one at the top of their class, no encouragement to be better than anyone else. The society in general is free from ostentation or display. There is a part of this simplicity that I admire and appreciate about Norwegians. I love that no one brags about or compares the achievements of their children, buys ridiculously fancy cars and homes, or walks around making a personal show of their beauty or wealth. I like that a hairdresser can be in the same social circle as a physician. I love that you will not hear of kids getting harassed or beat up because of the brand of their shoes or clothes.  On the other hand I miss variety. The saying ‘variety is the spice of life’ has new meaning to me. We are spoiled in the US with the amazing amount of variety, whether it be cultural, food, clothing, social behavior, or beliefs. All of the teenagers here wear Converse All Stars with the laces tied the same way, skinny jeans, the same hats tilted the same way. Everyone owns a variation of the same style jacket, drives one of 3 brands of cars all of which are practical sedans or vans, very few fancy sports cars. Traditionally you choose from one of 3 colors to paint your house – red, white, or yellow (though I have seen some newer houses in different colors in the cities!)  Everyone skis in the winter and turs the mountains in the summer – EVERYONE.  All the boys play soccer (as do some of the girls – the rest play handball), all the  girls know how to knit. Everyone eats sliced bread open faced with one of 3 types of meat or cheese and yogurt with musli for breakfast and lunch. Everyone eats dinner by 5pm.  There is very little variation in a daily schedule. Some days the simplicity is nice, you don’t have to decide what to eat or what to do – there are only a few choices. It reminds me of wearing uniforms in Catholic schools growing up. You never have to decide what to wear in the morning. I am  ‘so American’ in saying this, but it just gets sooooooo boring!

Onto another definition of Simple

2) lacking in knowledge or expertise, not socially or culturally sophisticated

I would never say that Norwegians lack knowledge, expertise or lack social or cultural sophistication. They are the wealthiest country in the world and have one of the safest and happiest populations. They are obviously doing something right.  I would say that in terms of their social support system, they are one of the most sophisticated in the world. Equal and free health care and education for everyone, including refugees, extraordinary support for new moms, children and families, lifetime benefits to support their aging population. For my liberal blood, it is a dream come true.  Though the two parts to the definition above were listed together in the dictionary, I think I have to split them in two for the purpose of applying them to life in Norway. I already gave the Norwegian system 5 stars for their social sophistication. What about their knowledge and expertise. Given that a majority of our friends here are expats living in Norway after experiencing life in other countries, most have children in school and most are here for purposes related to higher education or scientific research, we have had several conversations about the Norwegian education system. Norway gets 5 stars in that all education is free, even medical school!!! With everyone entitled to free education they should be churning out top scientists, mathematicians, physicians, etc… but they are not, or maybe they are but they are just not bragging about it:)

No, but really as I mentioned earlier, the strong belief in equality and not standing out from your peers begins in early education. There are no gold stars, no students outwardly praised for their good work above any other with awards or scholarships (school is free after all:), no valedictorians. It seems that the main driving force to excel at something would be within yourself. I have no scientific evidence to support the following observations, but just through conversation with various members of the international scientific community there is a consensus that the Norwegians are definitely not known for or respected in terms of scientific advancement or expertise in scientific fields.  There is a very relaxed approach to education.

Beginning with the barnehage, kids age 1-5, there are no lessons, no learning numbers or letters, just play. It is explained that the primary purpose of barnehage is to socialize your children and teach them to play with others. This is where both Odin and Adelheyd were last Spring and Adelheyd will continue in the fall while Odin moves onto first grade. From what I have been told, first grade is where the kids will learn their ABCs and numbers…equivalent to what a lot of US kids learn in preschool and kindergarten. The school days are short 8:30am-1pm with what is called SFO from 1-4. This is optional for the kids and is just 3 hours of supervised play time after school. At least one day a week, the kids spend most of the day on some sort of outdoor excursion – touring the woods in the summer, skiing in the winter. In other words, there is  A LOT of play time.

Somehow the education system works out, all Norwegian kids learn are fluent in English and Norwegian and usually one other language of their choice, they all get jobs (of course the unemployment here is less than 5% so it is not hard to get a job:), they all live happy and constructive lives. Once in the workforce,  you will find that the workday in Norway is from 8:00 to 3:30  in the winter and even shorter in the summer. Families are home by 4:30 to eat dinner together. There are multiple week long vacations during the year and everyone gets 5 weeks off in the summer. Sounds heavenly and it is, but how on earth do they get anything done?

The answer from what we have observed is that they don’t actually get too much done.  The wait to get internet hooked up or parking pass for the city is ridiculously long and takes persistence.  Very few Norwegians go on to become famous scientists or world renowned experts in their field, but they do get to have a good bit of fun and spend a lot of time with their families.  Is that all so bad? I guess it depends on what you appreciate. If you appreciate the simple life, then Norway may be just your place. I like the idea of balancing academics with play time and your career with your family and personal interests. At the same time, I think it is important to want to excel, contribute to the world of knowledge, and progress your chosen field of study.  Is it possible to adopt some of the Norwegian practice of balancing school and play or career and life while still striving for success and edging towards progress in your field? Can these two ideals coexist?

Can we adopt at least some of the Norwegian simplicity and incorporate it into US life? Can we free ourselves from overwhelming choices and negative comparisons while maintaining a good variety in life? Can we better balance our work and family time without sacrificing progress and success in an American workplace? I think we will try:)

A Simple Life: Days at home in Tromsø

We have spent these last few weeks of summer at home in Tromsø. I was not particularly looking forward to this ending to our summer as we have had so much fun with travelling and visitors throughout June and July. I just wanted the adventures to continue. As this final week of summer is coming to a close, I am grateful for this simple time we have had as a family. It was an adventure in its own in that I learned a lot about simplicity.  I have been thinking about our life here in Norway a lot over these past few weeks, trying to figure out how best to describe our days at home. It is easy to write about travels, adventures and visitors because that time is full on nonstop activity. But what do we do when we are just home as a family? What is our ‘normal’ life like in Norway?

I will just run through a list of what we have done these past three weeks to help answer that question.

1. Picking berries. This is just something that you do as a Norwegian in the summer. Every family seems to own a little handheld berry picker and everyone has their favorite spot. We joined right in, bought a berry picker and found that you don’t really need to search for a favorite spot because berries grow EVERYWHERE. Right out our back door in what looks like a hillside full of weeds are red currant, black currant and wild raspberries. On every hillside around the island are massive amounts of blueberries and crowberries. If you find a nice wet, marshy area you will find what is referred to as Norwegian gold, the cloudberry. We have our favorites, blueberries and raspberries, so that is mostly what we have been picking.

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2. Trying new recipes. This is mostly due to the accumulation of berries and rhubarb. Learning to make homemade juices and jams is quite rewarding and of the kids love to help mix the ingredients and eat the finished products. We have made muffins, breads, jams, juices and even some extra yummy oatmeal berry bars. We were also fortunate to have a huge crop of wild rhubarb on the hillside out our backdoor, so we added some of that to our yummy recipes.

3. Tours (or Turs in Norwegian) are popular year round. This is simply getting out in nature. You can tur on skis in the winter, on foot or by bicycle in the summer, tur in your canoe or kayak on the water. You get together with your friends for a nice day tur or a longer multi-day tur. If you topptur you go to the top of what ever mountain you are near. We only do short turs as a family. I like to bring a picnic and make the tur into a scavenger hunt with lists of things for the kids to find. It is a good way to spend an afternoon.

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4. Futbol. While a hillside full of lovely plants and berries is out one door, on the other side of the house is an immaculate soccer field lit and made of very nice turf. We play a lot of soccer. Not so different from life in the States other than we do this as a family. The four of us have made up some fun games and both kids are getting quite good. The best part is that they enjoy it…or at least Odin does. Adelheyd is still too young and gets bored easily. She prefers #5.

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5. Playgrounds. There are not too many city parks with playgrounds, but every school has a nice playground and there are plenty of schools around. Odin and Adelheyd have a few favorite playground features. The zipline which is just what it sounds. A platform that allows you to sit on a disc attached to a zipline and fly to the other end. Swings and slides are fun, especially the big basket swings that 7 or 8 kids can fit in. It is like a hammock made into a swing. The diving board into a sand pit is definitely a favorite as are the big rope ‘spider webs’ that you can climb around.

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6. Bike rides. We ride our bikes pretty much everywhere. We can bike to the beach, to the city center, to the mall, to any one of 6 grocery stores in biking distance, to the playgrounds and schools. Joel and I can both easily bike to work. We sometimes load our bikes into the car and head out to the trails around town. Adelheyd is still just learning to bike, so she is mostly in the Chariot or the kid seat on the back of the bike. The kids don’t even ask about the car. They just know that when we are home in Tromsø and want to go somewhere, we bike.

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7. Fishing. Need I say more? Fishing IS Norway. We are surrounded by ocean, rivers, lakes, and streams full of fish. When not fishing, there is always hunting for sea treasure or making ‘sand’ castles on the beaches.

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Odin's fish

Odin’s fish

Harstad Camp3

Harstad Camp3

mmmm.....

mmmm…..

My favorite people.

My favorite people.

8. Library. Thank goodness there is an amazing library in town. It is a beautiful 5 story glass building with the entire bottom floor set up for kids. There are couches and computers, tables filled with coloring supplies. Kids can eat lunch in the library. There is a little theater where they put on free puppet shows on Fridays (in Norwegian). There is a nice selection of English books and movies. We love the library and go once a week.

9. Movies. The library selection of movies for kids is amazing. The Norwegians are quite insistent that they do not translate many of the American movies into Norsk because they believe watching the movies in English helps with learning the language. I can’t argue because Norwegians speak better English than most Americans. We try to get some Norwegian made movies to watch in Norwegian for the same reason. We probably watch more movies than I would like, but we are doing it as a family. We aren’t plopping the kids in front of the TV (well sometimes we do:).

10. Learning time. In order to keep the kids up to date with the American school system (Norway is a bit behind as you will read in my next post), I have workbooks and games that I play with the kids almost every day to teach them letters, numbers, math, reading, telling time, etc… We all sit down at the kitchen table together and do our ‘work’ or head outside for some learning play time, usually in the morning after breakfast, reserving the afternoon for real play time. I am learning during this time too. I am learning patience. I am learning to spend A LOT of time with just my kids. I am learning to embrace and enjoy these simple days together.

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We occasionally have friends over for dinner or meet friends for an afternoon tur, but for the most part it is just us. We sit down and have breakfast, lunch (in the summer) and dinner together at the table every single day. We don’t have too many parties or BBQs to attend, there are no big family gatherings, no play dates, no nights out on the town. It is the four of us….together…every day.  The list above describes what we choose from when planning our days. They are fun activities, don’t get me wrong, but after 6 months repeating these 10 activities every week, life can get a bit repetitious. There are no options for summer camps or afterschool activities for kids under 6. The Norwegian way is to have family time, especially when the kids are young.  The workday is over at 4 in the winter 3:00 or 3:30 in the summer. The family unit is home for dinner at 5 and that is just the way it is. We are definitely experiencing this part of Norwegian culture. I am grateful for these simple days. They are not always easy, they are often frustrating and certainly monotonous, they test my patience to the very end, and we all miss sharing our days with friends,  but we are all learning to rely on each other… as a family….together.

Sunshine with Oma and Opa

As we were planning our move to Norway, I was both physically and mentally preparing for the adventure ahead. Part of that mental preparation was for the dark, cold winters and rainy,cool summers with all day light. I love the sun and warm weather of the summer as much as I love bundling up in the cold with fresh snow in the winter, so I was basically prepared to ‘give up’ one true summer of my life, leaving the warm weather and sunshiny days behind for a year. May arrived along with over 10 days of weather above 20 degrees Celsius – a new record for number of warm sunny days in a row in Tromsø for that time of year. In June we had a little rain then more sunshine for the duration of our visit from Grandma and Grandpa. We left town for the end of June through mid July where we were greeted with beautiful weather through Finland, Estonia, and Sweden. Rumor has it that it rained in Tromsø that entire time! We returned to rainy weather and I was worried that the visit from Oma and Opa would be a rainy one…our summer weather luck continued. Oma and Opa arrived and so did the sunshine!

Oma and Opa had just completed a wonderful cruise through the Southern Norwegian fjords and arrived ready to explore the North of Norway for a week. We began with a nice tourist day through town, visiting a well preserved Arctic Exploration ship, walking along the water and taking in the sights of Tromsø.

Next on the agenda was a nice retreat to the seaside village of Malangen Brygger, about an hour drive from Tromsø on a neighborhing fjord. We rented a great little hytta, translated to hut and the name Norwegians give to their seaside or mountain cabins. Almost all Norwegians own a small hytta somewhere within a short drive of their home. They spend summer vacations, weekends and year round holidays at their hyttas and take pride in their simplicity. In the summer, they enjoy berry picking and the sea, in the winter it is cross country skiing. Our hytta looked out over a beautiful fjord that was glittering with sunshine. We took a few little walks, enjoyed some ice cream, had a delicious fresh salmon dinner and of course great company!

We returned to Tromsø and decided to take the cable car to the top of the mountain. I have watched the cable car for months making repeated trips up the mountainside, but this would be our first venture up. It is of course a major tourist attraction, but I was surprised to find a number of locals with backpacks and hiking poles or in their running gear also taking the cable car up to the top. I now know why. It is breathtakingly beautiful to look out over the island of Tromsø and its neighboring fjords from atop the mountain. There is a fantastic network of trails and public hyttas sprinkling the surrounding mountain tops. The kids loved running around in this high altitude, treeless Arctic landscape, and moving rocks to add to the numerous cairns that dotted the trails. Another lovely day.

Thank you Oma and Opa for a wonderful visit. It was so great to have you here and sad to see you go. We created some wonderful memories to last a lifetime and look forward to the next adventure!

Grand Roadtrip Adventure Sweden

After spending just a week at home to catch up on some work following our Finland/Estonia roadtrip, we once again packed the trusty VW Sharan and headed South on the E6 down the Norwegian coast – destination Sweden. When we decided to move our family to Norway, one of the main things we wanted to do was explore Scandinavia. We were not originally planning on doing most of it this first summer, but once we realized that no one really works in the summer and those in charge actually encourage others to also not work in order to take Ferie (Holiday), we agreed that we should join the Norwegian cultural norm. So, with 3 Baltic capitals under our belts (Copenhagen, Helsinki, Tallinn), we decided to head for Sweden. The fact that Aunt Alli was in Uppsala just north of Stockholm AND it was to be her birthday were definitely big factors in our second Grand Roadtrip Adventure of the summer.

We left midday on Friday and drove South along the Norwegian coastline. This beautiful and rugged landscape is known to have some of the slowest and worst roads in Scandinavia. The fact that there is really very little room to make a straight or flat road due to the mountains and the sea in close proximity to each other may explain at least part of the bad roads. Either way, it was a looooooong day and night of driving. The 24 hour sun allows for 24 hours of travel without having to battle driving in the dark, so Joel and I took turns behind the wheel and pushed through the night while the kids soundly slept. Of course there was endless beauty along the coast and many recommend taking a week just to do this portion of our trip. Since we get to live on the coast and see this topography every day in Tromso, we elected to push through, stopping for meals and some time to run around.

Our first destination was Åre, Sweden home of Åre Bike Park, the biggest bike park in Northern Europe. Of course Joel researched this portion of the trip thoroughly and came prepared with bikes for he and Odin to explore some downhill mountain biking. Odin made his inaugural trip up a lift chair with his bike on Saturday afternoon. Despite the super slippery trails due to the rainy weather, Odin made his way down from the top and LOVED it! He tells everyone that he only fell once and that was when his dad pushed him off his bike. The real story is that Joel grabbed him by the arm to stop him after he lost control and was riding straight off the trail toward some sketchy rocks and a fence. Geez dad, pushing your kid off a bike:) Though Adelheyd did recently learn to ride her bike without training wheels, we decided that a 3 year old downhill biking was a really bad idea so she and I hung out and explored.

While in Åre, we got in touch with our friends, Tim and Elin, from Tromsø who had just returned from their own summer holiday to the States and were spending a week at Elin’s family dairy farm just 45 minutes drive from Åre. It was perfect timing, as it was raining and we weren’t too keen on spending the night camping in the rain, especially with Odin and Joel covered in mud from their bike ride. Upon arrival at the farm we were greeted by an amazing sunset over the open fields and our own little cottage to stay in on the farm. Tim, Elin, Frida (age 4) and Louise (age 1 1/2) are some of our closest friends in Norway, and are always ready to join us on a camping, skiing, running, hiking adventure. We spent a wonderful few days on the farm. Joel and Tim returned to the bike park for a day while Elin and I wandered the farm with the kids. They helped milk the cows, feed the chickens and played with the new baby kittens in the barn. We drank fresh milk and ate fresh eggs every morning, had home made baked goods, of which an almond scone was our family favorite. The kids ran around in the fields with the dogs and climbed around trees and walls. We learned about Fika, the Swedish custom of taking a coffee break with bread or pastries while chatting with friends or family in the mid morning, mid afternoon or really any time of day. It was a heavenly break from travel and ‘city’ life.

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Leaving the farm, we made our way to Uppsala, excited to finally meet up with Aunt Alli! She and Boris warmly welcomed up and set us up in a great little room near their apartment, fondly referred to as Hotel Bloden. We spent 3 nights in Uppsala visiting with Aunt Alii and Boris and their friends. On the first full day, we made a trip into Stockholm and enjoyed walking the streets of this lovely city. We did not check out any of the museums or many tourist attractions, but definitely walked our way around a lot of the old town, the palace, and the endless waterfront. We will definitely have to return one day and explore the museums and parks for a few more days.

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After our day in Stockholm, we opted for a day without getting in the car at all and walked through the Uppsala forests. We were told by the locals (Alli and Boris) that the best part of Uppsala is the forest. Of course this was coming from some orienteers who spend most of their time running through the forest, but we thought we should check it out. They were right – the forest trails, which began just across the street from their apartment, were wonderful. The kids were in their element walking around finding sticks, leaves, flowers and berries. We ended up picking about 2 liters of blueberries, eating just as many along the way. It was so fun that we decided to buy a little berry picker so that we can go on some berry picking trips at home in Tromsø. We are told that the berry picking in this part of the world is great and we all LOVE berries! Aside from berry picking, we were able to meet a lot of Alli’s friends, had a fantastic barbecue night outdoors and learned some interesting new games. Of course these games had to be complex and involve strategy since we were playing with a bunch of scientists/orienteers (the two seem to go hand in hand). Joel and I fared quite well for our first time, not winning but not losing. I guess we are kinda smart too:)

After a few days in Uppsala it was time to head north. We added Boris and Alli to our VW, strapped our bags to the roof and hit the road heading up the Gulf of Bothnia on the E4. We stopped and found a beautiful camp site on the water. We later learned by a local Swede who joined us for some time later that evening that it was a toxic area near a paper mill that had recently been converted to a nature area. We did not drink the water, but did enjoy some great scenery, good meals and excellent company. We woke to sunshine, coffee, pancakes and a birthday breakfast with Aunt Alli! Not bad.

The final stop on our Grand Roadtrip Adventure was Boden, Sweden, sight of the O-Ringen Orienteering Competition. I had never head of orienteering before moving to Scandinavia and meeting Boris (these happened almost simultaneously) and here we were arriving at one of the biggest events in Scandinavia. There were 15,000 participants ready to run through the woods to find ‘controls’ which were orange flags hanging from trees and various other objects in the woods. The goal is simple, be the first to find all of the controls (in order) and make it to the finish line. The process involves using a compass and a topographical map of sorts with the general area of the controls marked on the map. There are several levels to compete in. Boris is one of the best in the US and had recently returned from the World Championship in Finland where he ran for the US team. Unfortunately, the US is not known for its orienteering. Sweden, Norway, and Finland seem to lead the world in this sport. You can read more about orienteering here. In Boden, Boris and Alli had rented a house with fellow orienteers from around the world – in their house were representatives from the Czech Republic, England, Sweden, France, Finland, Ireland and the US. The very kind woman from Prague even brought up a few cases of Czech beer for Joel (thank you!!!) Alli and Boris took the kids out on an easy orienteering course and taught them the basics of the sport. They sent Joel and I out on an intermediate course given that Joel is pretty handy with maps. It was quite fun. If Joel liked to run or if I was patient enough to read a map properly one of us could probably enjoy the sport. I don’t think Joel will ever like to run or I will ever become patient enough to stop running and read a map so don’t count on us as future orienteers. We will leave that to Boris and Alli.

SWEDEN TOP 10

10. 7 Wonders and Dice Games (new games taught to us by Alli and Boris)

9.Camping Toxic Wasteland

8. Touring Stockholm for a day

7. Fika

6. Swedish Almond Scones and Grilled Haloumi – two of our new favorite foods

5. Orienteering 101

4. Berry Picking

2 and 3. This depends on who you ask – Joel votes Åre Bike Park, I vote Farm Life

1. Aunt Alli (and Boris)

Grand Roadtrip Adventure Part Two – Estonia and Helsinki

In Part One, you read about our fun, quirky trip through Finland. Next on the road trip agenda was catching a ferry on Tallink Cruise Lines from Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia. The boat was a regular cruise ship with the bottom 4 levels reserved for cars, busses and trucks; the top 3 levels included a pub, restaurant, grocery store, arcade and some additional seating. It was a fairly quick 2 hour ride across to Tallinn and of course the kids loved this part of the adventure.

Upon arriving in Tallinn we headed directly to the apartment where we were staying, just outside the city center. Just as in Copenhagen, we rented someone’s actual apartment from the website AirBnB. I wish I had taken picture of the building and the apartment because it was in a huge cinderblock building that was definitely a product of the Soviet Era of Estonia, but is was painted hot pink on the outside. The apartment owners were a young family who also had a house in the country where they spent their summers, thus renting their city apartment during this time. It was super cool inside as the husband is a architect/designer and she is an artsy documentary film maker. They have two small kids so the apartment was already equipped with kids beds and some toys. We unloaded our gear and headed out for a walk to the funky new café area that the owners of the apartment told us about. This area turned out to be our dining and beer drinking area of choice during our 3 day stay in Tallinn. It is half run down warehouses and padlocked, graffiti covered buildings and hald refurbished cafes, wine and beer houses, and playgrounds. There were a lot of young families hanging out and the food was delicious at every place we tried in this area.

We originally had planned only two nights in Tallinn, but loved this old city so much that we stayed an extra night. How to describe Tallinn with words is kind of difficult. It only recently gained independence…in 1991. Here is the Wikipedia link if you are interested in some history – Tallinn. Interestingly it is the oldest capital city in Northern Europe and a current UNESCO World Heritage Site. These facts are evident from the minute you approach Tallinn with its large stone wall surrounding the city, multiple steeples and tower rising into the skyline and narrow cobbled streets throughout. I highly recommend adding this city to your next European tour. Many say that you have to get there soon because it is quickly becoming ‘too touristy’. I am not sure what that means because I think everywhere that anyone wants to go is somewhat touristy. I have A LOT of pictures of Tallinn and I will try to pare them down, but will likely not be successful so you will all have to suffer through a ridiculous number of photos. At least I will try to put them in some order, starting with picture of the city:

Next are some photos of the family enjoying climbing along the walls, enjoying a few meals with amazing scenery, and just acting silly. You will see that Odin and Joel even did a little bow and arrow shooting by one of the castle walls. I am not sure who enjoyed it more:)

A few more interesting impressions of Tallinn. It was a most interesting city that is part old world, part Soviet Era dirty and oppressed, and part modern and hip. I am guessing this is what they mean by it getting more touristy. Not as much that it gets touristy (I think it already is), but it may lose some of its identity. Eventually, as the older generation dies off, I imagine that a lot of the Soviet Era will disappear. You could see in the faces and demeanors of the local Estonians in their 50s and above that they had seen some very hard and depressing times in their lives. The younger generation around our age was much more carefree and as we saw with the apartment we were staying at and the trendy area just outside the Old Town, there is a feeling of actually happiness and prosperity in this generation. I am not sure if I will ever make it back, but it would be interesting to see how this city and country evolves in the next 20 years.

In order to get a proper feel for Estonia, we decided to drive south through the countryside and spend a night in the beach town of Parnu. We had heard great things about this area as a popular destination for local Estonians in the summer. It was a quick 90 minute drive straight south to this seaside town in the Gulf of Riga. When we arrived, we found that a Medieval festival was taking place and the place was teeming with Estonians (and tourists of course). We witnessed some live music that had not one but THREE accordion players. Adelheyd was entranced by the music for quite some time. Odin found what he had been looking for over the past 4 days, his very own handmade wooden sword and shield, dragon fighter style. He says the red emblem on the shield is supposed to be dragon tongues, so he is ready to defend the family! That evening we returned to the city for dinner and found a nice restaurant with local ‘beer snacks’ on the menu. Feeling adventurous we ordered salted lard, various pickled items and some fried pig ears. None of this was good. There was still hair visible on the pig ears…I am not lying. Odin claims to have liked them (that boy will try anything), but not enough to have more than one. The meat dishes were MUCH tastier in Estonia…go figure. In the end, we had a great visit in Parnu, despite being rained out from our beach day the following day.

Due to the rain, rather than staying another night in Estonia, we drove back to Tallinn and took the ferry cruise over to Helsinki to spend a night and full day touring the Finnish capital. We are quite glad we did. We found a fairly cheap hotel 20 minutes outside of the city on the coast in a beautiful wooded forest area. The hotel was straight out of the 70s and quite odd, but in a beautiful area. We explored the coastline with the kids and then spent a day walking through Helsinki. It exceeded our expectations with some great architecture, nice walking streets, live music in the park and another Farmers Market to buy fresh peas and tomatoes! Back in Norway now, I already miss those fresh fruits and vegetables…(we don’t get anything fresh here excepts some berries and fish:)

Leaving Helsinki, we loaded our trusty minivan (now sporting new tires purchased for 1/4 the price in Estonia compared to Norway) on a train and climbed aboard. What a great way to travel. We squeezed our family of four into the bunk bed cabin, slept the night and woke up the next morning only a day drive from Tromsø. Again, the kids thought this was pretty cool to travel and sleep on a train! Of course this did not last long. We walked through every train car from one end to the other than returned to our very small room where the kids had to be quiet because of sleeping neighbors (very close on a train). Insert iPads here – thank goodness for movies on the train!   Whew, just writing about our Grand Roadtrip Adventure exhausts me!

Top Ten Estonia

10.  Our funky apartment outside the city

9. Boats and Trains

8. Riding the ancient Soviet era trams to our apartment that definitely did not look safe but gave us a great view of local life

7. Trendy area cafés and our yummy meals there…not the pigs ears and salted lard

6. Good, and relatively cheap, Beer (Joel may put this as number one, but he is not writing the blog)

5. I might as well just say  CHEAP as everything is really 1/4 the price in Estonia as it is in Norway…this was nice:)

4. Fresh fruit and veggies at the Farmers Market

3. Medieval Festival with 3 accordion band

2. Shooting bows and arrows

1. Exploring the castle walls and streets of Old City Tallin

Grand Roadtrip Adventure Part One – Finland

Just as Grandma and Grandpa were leaving from our wonderful visit with them in Norway, we were packing up our trusty VW minivan to hit the road and explore some new territory. The markers on the map above show where we stopped and stayed in both Finland and Estonia. We made quite a few stops, so I broke the reading up into two parts. First up…driving the E8 in Finland.

Driving first east into Finland, we were welcomed by more reindeer and mosquitos than you can imagine. The reindeer were cool to see and easy to avoid…the mosquitos were neither cool nor easy to avoid. They weren’t even possible to avoid, no matter how much bug spray and clothing covering every surface of our body (except faces and hands). It was less than ideal for a night of camping in our tent. We wondered to ourselves, how do people even live here in the summer? It was THAT bad. We were able to find a fantastic campsite alongside a river just South of Pallas Yllastunturi National Park , but ate in the parked car and climbed into the tent after braving the outdoors for only about an hour. Though the scenery was beautiful in its own way, we decided that we really don’t ever need to return to Northern Finland again:)

The next day we headed South and crossed below the Arctic Circle for the first time since our trip to Copenhagen. This does not really mean too much except we were soon to experience actual darkness at night when going to bed. I kind of got used to the light oddly enough. I almost forgot that lightswitches even exist! We arrived at the tip of the Gulf of Bothnia (sea between Sweden and Finland) for lunch and found a nice little Kebab shop. Starving, we ordered two Kebabs and a Pizza. Little did we know that the kebabs  were the size of Joel’s thigh…which is NOT small. The pictures on the menu just showed a kebab on a plate which we assumed was a normal dinner plate. Nope…it was HUGE and only 7euro. Ahhh…the best part of living in the most expensive country in the world (Norway) is that everything everywhere else seems oh so cheap!

Onward we went down the E8 (this highway actually is the same one that starts in Tromsø, so we essentially can drive to Helsinki without ever leaving the E8)! It is not an ordinary highway…just a nice little 2 lane country road in US standards. We found a beautiful little Euro campground in Oulu to spend our second night and even splurged on a cabin due to the previous nights experience with mosquitos. They do get better the further South you go in Finland, but we were still in danger territory. We spent the afternoon exploring this cool little city known for its vibrant youthful population and beaches. From the campsite we walked 4km into town on beautifully paved walking/biking paths – I was impressed by the extent of these paths all through Finland. Adelheyd made it pretty much the whole way walking both directions – 8km for a 3 year old is not bad! The paths were populated with cyclists and more Rollerbladers than I have seen since the early 90s – after seeing this all through Finland we decided this must be the Finnish national past time. To go along with the rollerblades, most of the men had ponytails and wore jean shorts, they love a drink they call Long Drink, which is on tap at most every bar and tastes amazingly similar to Zima. We are not sure if they got stuck in the 90s and never emerged or they have just regressed back to the 90s, realizing that it a better decade than 2000s for Finland??? We may never know.

Here is Oulu:

Back in the car after a morning at the Beach, we continued South through the farmlands of Finland and made our way to Rauma, a UNESCO World Heritage Town, famous for its traditional wooden village. We found another prime campsite on the water and very close to the city center. Though it is legal to camp most anywhere, a majority of people make use of the regulated Campsites that are like fancy KOAs complete with restaurants, rental bikes, showers, kitchens and any number of other attractions. This was a 4 start campsite and was particularly ‘fancy’. We had a nice restaurant, mini golf, a beach, and even late night Finnish karaoke…another of their favorite past times. We could not pass up any of these experiences. The karaoke being one of the weirdest things I have seen – in the hull of a wooden ship docked in the bay was a bar and that is where the Finns displayed their singing talent. We stayed for just one drink before we felt a little too uncomfortable with our company and called it a night. I have to also add here that Finland is somewhat famous for its saunas. I read somewhere that there is one sauna for every 5 people in Finland. That is A LOT of saunas. For those of you who know Joel well, a sauna is like torture for that guy. Why would you sit naked in a small room with strangers and sweat? So, there were saunas at every campsite and every hotel and even some random ones along the road. Strange. Back to Rauma…it was a very cool little town that we explored for an afternoon, saw a beautiful old church and bought some yummy peas from the local market. This became a regular purchase of our trip, fresh snap peas, cherries, and cherry tomatoes that the kids would gobble up! Yum!

Our next stop was a short drive south to the Archipelago National Park area, a string of islands off the southwest coast of Finland leading towards Sweden. We crossed a few bridges and found a quaint little campground in the town of Pargu (about 45 minutes southeast from Turku on the map) with another beach and some nice big shady trees. Nowhere near as nice as the others, but it served its purpose. The kids got to swim, we relaxed. I even went for a nice little run. It is amazing how hard it is to exercise when on vacation. It takes a good bit of effort when it really should not be that hard…  I only have a few pictures from this area.

This marked the end of Part One of our Grand Roadtrip Adventure. Top 10 List Describing Finland:

10. Flat land with lots of trees

9. Men with pony tails and jean shorts

8. Don’t smile, no small talk or you will be thought of as crazy or drunk

7. Great bicycle paths

6. Swimming in the Gulf of Bothnia

5. Karaoke

4. Reindeer

3. Long Drinks

2. Rollerblading

and number one you have probably guessed is…

1. Mosquitos

Part Two: Estonia and Helsinki up next!!!

A little Grandparent Time with the Summer Solstice

We had visitors!!! Yeah!!!! Grandpa (Darrell) and Grandma (Debbie) flew in to Tromsø on Tuesday afternoon to join us in celebrating the Summer Solstice under the Midnight Sun.

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The visit started with a nice day in town where we were joined by the King and Queen of both Norway and Sweden. This was pure coincidence as we had no idea they were coming until just the day before. It was amazing to see how the Norwegian police force (or lack there of) and people react to an event like this. It was not crowded, there were hardly any police around, just a simple rope to mark off where the people should stand, very casual. Definitely nothing like the King and Queen of England or the President of the US. Then again, I should have guessed the reaction and preparation would be casual as everything is in this country. It was quite nice.

We spent the sunny afternoon strolling the streets, stopping for some sunshine time at the Café Kino (one of our favorite bar/coffee shops in town) and just enjoying the company. In the evening we returned home to grill some whale steaks…mmmm. These delicious red steaks are illegal in the US due to Endangered Species Act, but in Norway there is one type of whale that is not Endangered and is actually taking over habitat of other whales so we get to eat it and it is DE-LIC-IOUS!

Day 2 began our Northern Norway adventure, a car trip to the 2nd largest island in Norway – Senja. Only a 3 hour drive along the narrow winding roadways, we arrived in the early afternoon of a rainy day at Hamn I Senja. This little ‘town’ has a history of being a mining and fishing village but is now a beautiful holiday mini resort with fancy cabins on the sea, beautiful scenery, and an amazing restaurant. We enjoyed many of the typical Northern Norwegian dishes – reindeer, shrimp bowl, fish soup, salmon, and lamb. Yum! We took a nice walk in the afternoon then hit the dock for some fishing. Odin even caught his first ocean fish!

We promised the kids they could stay up until midnight to celebrate the upcoming solstice with us. Adelheyd did not make it, but Odin was determined and joined us for our solstice cheers and photo at midnight. Pretty fun welcoming the solstice under the midnight sun!

The next day was beautiful and sunny. We enjoyed breakfast on the dock and took a few nice little hikes before hitting the road. This is definitely a beautiful and hidden part of the world.

After leaving Hamn, we made quick drive north to SenjaTrollet , a creative Troll Park on the Island built by an artist over the past 20 years and designed for kids to play and explore the world of Norwegian Trolls. Trolls are common characters to show up in Norwegian folktales and children’s stories. This artist has built the largest Troll in the World and his wife. You can play outside on the various troll themed playgrounds or go inside the large troll to see the many troll scenes from various folklore. It is pretty silly and very cool at the same time. It was well worth the stop to see this artist’s creative troll juices in action!

From the Troll Park we made our way along the scenic tourist route skirting the West and North edge of the island until we arrived in Brensholmen to take a nice ferry ride back to Sommaroy and on to Tromsø. It was a spectacular trip!

We spent the last day and a half with Grandma and Grandpa lazing around Tromsø, visiting the Mack Brewery for a beer at the northernmost brewery in the world. This is a funny title that several businesses in Tromsø claim to attract business. Of course we are at 69 degree north! So we now say farewell to Grandma and Grandpa who head off on a grand European adventure. We also begin another adventure, so stay posted for news on our trip through Finland and Estonia starting today!

Canoe camping

I have written a few times about our friends Tim and Elin here in Tromsø. We were linked up with them by our good buddies Jud and Kerri in Sitka (thanks!). Tim is from the States and Elin is from Sweden. They met in AK while Elin was on a year study abroad. The rest is history. A wedding and 2 kids later they are in Norway where Tim is pursuing his dream of becoming a doctor. Since the education system here is pretty much free and the support for families is incredible, Norway is a dream come true for those getting advanced degrees while starting a family. Can you imagine graduating from med school (or law school, or PT school…) with NO student loans. On top of that, you were getting a few thousand dollars/month to care for your new baby??? That is the story here. It is not easy to make that happen, but if you can jump through the hoops you will be rewarded. Tim has been required to pass several levels of Norwegian language tests and orals, but he recently finished his entry year and passed his language exam. In celebration of the end of school and the beginning of summer, we joined them on a canoe camping trip to Skogsfjordvatnet (click for map of the lake) on the island of Ringvassoy.

Despite Elin having to leave early for work, the millions of artic mosquitos, and the boys not catching any fish during a late night with the midnight sun in the canoe, we had a spectacular weekend exploring our little peninsula and some nearby islands. Frida (age 4), and Louise (1 1/2) are two great girls who are tough and ready for any adventure! We look forward to more fun turs (norwegian word for hiking or exploring)  with their family.