It wasn't exactly the "land of the midnight sun" when Sgt. 1st Class Chris DeGeest arrived in Bergen, Norway.
No lush green valleys or summer twilight greeted this traveler as he stepped off the C-130 military transport plane. The cold, gray landscape might almost have been Minnesota.
DeGeest, food service manager at PORT Group Homes in Brainerd in civilian life, was one of 100 Minnesota Army National Guard soldiers selected to participate in the 29th annual Norwegian Home Guard Exchange. When the Norwegian Home Guard stays at Camp Ripley in February, the Minnesota National Guard travels to Norway. Soldiers switch uniforms and for more than two weeks conduct winter training on the other's turf. But it is as much a cultural exchange as a training operation.
"I love to travel," said 13-year guardsman DeGeest. Stationed in Hawaii for active duty, he deployed to Korea and New Zealand and spent four weeks in Italy and Greece in the National Guard. This year he was one of two guardsmen from the Brainerd unit selected for the Norway exchange.
The Minnesotans left familiar terrain behind as glacier-covered plateaus gave way to snow capped peaks and fingers of Norway's longest and deepest fjord followed them inland. Six hours later DeGeest arrived at Camp Torpo, a rustic military camp in the Hallingdal Valley built by German soldiers during the occupation of World War II.
After a banquet and welcoming words from area dignitaries, winter training began in earnest. The Norwegians issued winter gear and then explained their system of keeping warm.
"Everything is ventilation," said DeGeest, describing the system of layering. "They laughed at our polypropylene (long underwear), preferring their woven string vests and wool blend shirts."
Next came assembling tents, weaponry and winter stoves, as well as cross country skiing.
Sgt. 1st Class Chris DeGeest participated in winter training exercises on the hills and plains around Mount Synigen, Norway.
"I hadn't been on skis in 20 years," said DeGeest, who admitted his skill level rose appreciably. After classes in waxing and ski techniques, the Minnesotans were ready for the mountains.
Bused upland on switchback roads, DeGeest's platoon reached Mount Synigen. Miles of white spread before them, like an Arctic plain dotted with sparse trees. They camped for four days and three nights, temperatures dipping to minus 10 degrees at night, rising sometimes to 20 degrees during the day. In preparation for a biathlon they skied up and down hills and trained with Norwegian weapons.
"I had to get used to shooting with skis on," said DeGeest.
The biathlon was the culmination of winter training. "We'd ski a course, then fall flat on the ground and shoot five rounds. Any time you missed (the target) you had to get up and ski penalty laps."
DeGeest's team took third place out of 14 platoons.
But the trip was about more than winter training. As food service sergeant, DeGeest fed his hosts a typical American breakfast of pancakes, sausage, bacon and scrambled eggs. In return, the Minnesotans sampled Norwegian specialties: "a lot of fish -- cod, salmon, canned mackerel, herring, goat cheese and lefsa with butter, cinnamon and sugar."
In honor of the Minnesota soldiers, the ladies of Hallingdal Valley served a celebratory banquet with dishes native to the area -- Smamat, a soup with finely chopped vegetables and lamb, and creamed rice and cloudberry fruit sauce for dessert.
After training, DeGeest traveled the countryside like a tourist. In Oslo, he explored the Akershus castle, a medieval fortress turned into a prison during the German Occupation, a Viking ship and dined on herb-crusted pheasant at a Danish restaurant. Everywhere he traveled people seemed to know of Minnesota and/or had relatives in the Midwest.
DeGeest brought back several Norwegian cookbooks and two Norwegian sweaters. One sweater factory sent a sales representative to Camp Torpo when the soldiers first arrived. For $50 a person could buy a custom made sweater that was delivered by the end of the exchange.
All DeGeest needs now is a Norwegian string vest and he'll be set for next winter.
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