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Arctic Summer


It’s bright.  A brilliant red sun is spreading over the mountaintops surrounding Tromso, a Norwegian city home to the world’s northernmost university, more than 200 miles above the Arctic Circle.  It’s July, it’s two in the morning, and the party is still humming as we inch our way out to sea.

Lofoten Islands

I’m on board a coastal steamer known as the Kong Harald. Travelling with me are more than twenty fellow university students from all over the world.  On leave from our summer jobs all over Europe, we’re heading out for a weeklong jaunt through the Lofoten Islands.

The Lofotens, we’re told, are rich in history and in the treasures of the natural world.  The spirit of Vikings and the knavery of trolls haunt these islands, located off Norway’s northwest coast.  Rugged mountains and irresistible fishing villages dominate the landscape.  Water is everywhere, and there is the Midnight Sun. 

As budget travelers, we’ve rented no cabins, and everyone is scrambling to find a place to catch some shut-eye.  Having spent last night on the uncomfortable mats of a smelly martial arts club, several of us have spread our sleeping bags on deck and put on sunglasses: it’s the only way to get some sleep around here.

The Kong Harald is one of eleven ships servicing Scandinavia’s most famous voyage, the hurtigruten.  Every night of the year, a hurtigrute ship steams north from Bergen on its weeklong coastal voyage to Kirkenes, a mining town near the Russian border.  When it gets there, it turns right around and heads back.  Like the other ships servicing the route, the Kong Harald is equipped with all sorts of goodies: a library, a fine restaurant, and massage therapists, but those are not what make the cruise memorable.  The romance of the journey is the main attraction. 

Henningsvaer

Upon awakening, I find the Kong Harald quietly winding its way through narrow straits occasionally so shallow I can catch a glimpse of sandbanks through the translucent water.  On both sides, towers of glacier-carved mountains knife straight from the sea.  Above, the sun peaks its way between another chain of mountains, this time white and cumuli-carved.  Always staying close to land, we pass low, craggy islands connected by a smattering of high-rise bridges, occasionally stopping so that passengers can get out and stretch their legs in amiable Arctic villages. 

Late that afternoon, our group hops off the hurtigrute in the port town of Svolvaer.  We were only on the ship for less than a day, but I now realize that that sometimes the transportation can be more important than the arrival.  After a brief stop we board a bus bound for Kalle, a quiet hamlet a short drive to the south.  There, we set ourselves up in what the Norwegians call rorbu, traditional fisherman’s winter cabins that now serve as tourist lodging.

Rorbu are everywhere on these islands.  Aside from tourism, the only real industry apparent in the Lofotens is fishing.  Cod-drying racks are among the most prominent architecture in every village.  Rorbu are the Houses That Cod Built.  Understated, yet striking, it is easy to admire these wooden buildings painted barnyard red.  But watch your head.  On my way back from an evening of barbecues and soccer, I am one of several the low-hanging doorjamb catches by surprise. 

Lake Agvatnet

A beam of light blasts through the square, single pane window.  Rubbing first my eyes and then the bump on my head, I check my watch.  Four in the morning.  Up here, way above the Arctic Circle, you really do need a watch to grasp what section of the day it is.   Although it’s right around the official end of the Midnight Sun, this sun doesn’t seem ready to fade away just yet.  Like a boxer refusing to stay down, it keeps coming back for another round.  I pull my sleeping bag over my head and drift in and out of sleep.  Our breakfast of bread, goat cheese, and cold cuts is still five hours off.

It’s not until we’re rumbling toward Trollfjord, nearly seven hours later, that I am able to fully shake off the cobwebs.  Aboard a battered old fishing boat large enough to accommodate six tables of card playing students, I find myself wondering about the Norwegian fascination with all things troll.  Trolls figure prominently in mythology here, particularly when the tales are associated with mountain areas.  A local legend claims that, struck by the light of the sun, trolls were turned to stone.   Moreover, some of the mammoth northern trolls, unmindful of that truth, now made up parts of these mountains. 

Whether carved by glaciers or a bunch of half-witted trolls, the results are – of course – spectacular.  Another tailor-made postcard in an area full of them.  Viewed through the eyes of an engineer, many of the mountains straddling this narrow inlet slope up as though they are tracing a logarithmic curve.  Try as I might, I can’t make out any trolls among them.  I suppose one of the omnipresent souvenir trolls will have to do.

Kalle

Back in Kalle, we’re glad to find our hosts preparing what is described as a traditional Norwegian meal.  The entire group loudly charges the tables laden with plates of whale meat, potatoes, and bread.  Norway, along with Japan, is one of only two nations with a commercial whaling program.  Despite significant international pressure and some domestic controversy, the country has continued to undermine the authority of the 1986 International Whaling Commission moratorium on commercial whaling.  This is the one aspect of life in the Lofotens I don’t find particularly appealing.  Still, I can’t resist trying a bite of the whale meat.  I soon wish I hadn’t.  The meat reminds me of a dry, tough steak.

The next morning, whale swimming in our stomachs, we all jump aboard a bus for the half-hour drive to Henningsvaer.  After crossing several bridges we arrive in the middle of what Norwegian literature refers to as the “Venice of the North”.  While the water is undeniably a significant means of transportation, I liken it more to a village on the coast of Newfoundland.  You’d be hard pressed to find five or six hundred people living in this community of white, red, mustard yellow, and occasionally sky blue buildings.  Overlooking these creaking houses, gift shops, galleries, cafes, and the requisite fleet of fishing boats is Mount Vagekallen, an intimidating hunk of granite if there ever was one.  It probably has something to do with the sun playing hide-and-go-seek above us.

Lake Agvatnet

After puttering around the village for a while, I come upon a rocky knoll covered in rows of the skeleton-like cod-drying racks.  I imagine the tens of thousands of fish it would take to fill out these bones.  Hundreds of thousands maybe.  Then I imagine the smell and am glad the fishing season here is primarily in the winter months.  I can’t say I’m a big fan of the smell of cod, perhaps it’s one of those things that takes some getting used to.  Even then with the racks empty, the smell of fish dominates the entire town.  Another few hundred thousand dead fish sure wouldn’t help things.

That evening, our final night in Kalle consists of more soccer and several rounds of scotch and vodka.  We don’t have nearly as much of the good stuff as we would like – the absurdly high Norwegian alcohol taxes are the subject of considerable flak – but several do make a somewhat respectable showing.  I’d like to say we did the jitterbug well after the sun went down, but this sun just doesn’t play fair. 

Having spent the last several days of our outing on the island of Austvagoy, we work in the Lofoten’s other three principle islands over the next five hours.  Heading west on King Olav’s Road (the frequently one-lane E10), we skip over to Borg, on Vestvagoy Island, where we spend several hours dawdling around the Lofotr Viking museum.  On this site sits an excavation of the largest building in the Viking world uncovered so far, a chieftain’s house measuring 83 metres in length.  The reconstructed building nearby features living quarters, a Great Hall, and a stable.  Guides in period costume heighten the experience, as does a hearty vegetable broth with chunks of lamb meat we are served for lunch.  Other highlights include a blacksmith, live animals, and a replica Viking ship.  To gain an appreciation for the tremendous effort it must have taken to propel that craft across the ocean, a rowing tour of the ship is offered. 

Lake Stokkvikvannet

With that in mind, I am glad to plop myself back down on the bus.  These days, going from Borg to A, at least, requires no effort at all.  Located on the southern portion of the island of Moskenesoy, much of the hamlet of A is designated as a museum, preserving the role of Lofoten fishermen.  One museum is dedicated to village life itself, featuring a bakery, houses, and weary-looking boats, while another is focused solely on stockfish, teaching you everything you could ever want to know about dried cod.  Trying it a few days later, I labor through just a couple of pieces of cod.  Chewy.  Very chewy.

On our last full day in the Lofotens, I spend the day with a few friends on an inland day hike.  As we wander from A along the western bank of Lake Agvatnet, we crawl up and down several mountains.  Wild berries, flowers, and grass join soft moss in covering the granite rock.  Clusters of trees provide a small measure of cover from the sun and then the rain before disappearing as we get higher.  Passing a beach, Melkersanden, we trudge toward Stokkvikskaret Pass, four hundred metres up a steep incline. 

Trollfjord

There, rewarded with what could only be described as breath-taking views of Lake Stokkvikvannet, Lake Agvatnet, and the mountains surrounding them, we linger for an hour I wish would never end.  The Lofoten Islands are a place you never want to leave. 
It is a place of Vikings and trolls, of water and mountains and fish.  And the Midnight Sun.  A place where people frequently take the long way and always the pretty way.  Where grace beats haste.

The next afternoon, we are all back on a boat, this time heading from Moskenes to Bodo: sliding ever so slowly away from the light.  About the only thing we didn’t get to see in the Lofotens was the sunset, but it is coming soon.  It is hard to believe that a place so extraordinary could spend half its time in the dark. 

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