Saturday, July 26, 2008

Day 6: Vardø

Gunnar and I had been talking about my itinerary - once again, just looking at google maps and pulling up places with interesting topography or infrastructure. I showed him a place a few hundred kilometres away and he told me I had to see it - like the surface of the moon, he said.

So he called his friend Are, and within a minute or two had secured me a bed for two nights in Vardø - the easternmost town in Norway. It's up there, and while I know that the locals are sensitive to this, I had to wonder what would bring someone all the way out there. It wasn't connected to the mainland for the longest time until they built a tunnel in the 80s (a tunnel that totally looks like you're going to the stargate, and pops your ears as it takes you 88m below the sea bed). It's light half the year, dark the other half, windswept and barren. What I'm trying to say is, it's not an easy existence. But they seem to like it.

I took my time driving to Vardø, stopping in Vadsø and other spots along the way to shoot. The scenery was ridiculous; the kind that sometimes you just resign yourself to never being able to do justice on film. It can be frustrating, but usually it's only at this point that you can fully embrace the experience.

There's a big radar in Vardø. It purports to be for tracking satellites, which would explain the steady stream of high-ranking American military intelligence types that fly in regularly, and the signs that tell you in no uncertain terms not to photograph the structure, and the helicopters that come out from behind the hill when children ignore the sign and photograph it, and the fact that when a storm blew the inflatable domed cover off it, it was pointed directly at Russia - a country not known for being a destination for satellites.

The radar is essentially a breach of the ABM treaty, and the Russians are still pissed about it. But what can they do? It's for tracking satellites! Just like the American stealth plane that they shot down in Russian airspace a few years ago couldn't possibly have launched from within Norway, as all the workers at the base that it hadn't launched from staunchly agreed.

Radar? What radar? (Photograph by someone else on flickr)

Needless to say, not knowing any of this, the first thing I did on my arrival in Vardø was to drive up to the radar in the hopes of photographing it in the half-light, but upon reading the warnings I reconsidered.

Are and his family were lovely, keeping some dinner on the table for my late arrival and talking up a storm about this and that. A strange small world moment pops up when it turns out that Corey Arnold, a casual acquaintance of mine and a great photographer, had spent some time in Vardø as well. I email him immediately to WTF the WTF.

The following day I wake up with their dog asleep on my feet. We drive out to Hamningberg, a ww2 outpost in the middle of nowhere. It's so far out there that the road is closed in the winter; mostly the buildings are only inhabited in the warmer months. The terrain changes significantly three or fours times during the 50km drive, and reindeer are hanging out all over the place. (Hint: not easy to photograph with a large format camera).

That night we kick it in the sauna and have an early one after all the hiking, ready to roll back to Kirkenes the following day, pick up my visa, and head to Russia.

Here's your soundtrack for the drive to Vardø: explosions in the sky, 'the only moment we were alone' (Buy it on itunes)

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