National Geographic : 2013 Nov
120 national geographic • november 2013 chain—a broken tusk of snow-covered peaks thrusting into the Norwegian Sea—the water shoals away slowly, only a few feet deep, as if these islands rose no higher than the back of a blowing whale. Maps of the Norwegian Sea show a strong cur- rent—an extension of the Gulf Stream—bearing northward along the coast. These are relatively warm waters, the kind that make human life bear- able as far as 70° north latitude, well above the Arctic Circle, as far north as the northernmost tip of Alaska. But what looks on the map like a steady current is actually a chaos of meanders and eddies, wandering and interweaving. If you set yourself adrift in a boat, a graceful, traditional færing perhaps, you might be driven onto a strandflat—an etched surface of bedrock barely rising above the waves—or wind endlessly in and out among the skerries near the mouths of the great western fjords. You might careen out to sea only to swirl in again, caught in the eddy revolv- ing below the Lofoten Islands. Catch the right current, and you would spin into the Barents Sea, like a diatom drifting northward and eastward, enriching the island-strewn gannet waters before sinking to the seabed. From the deck of a working vessel, it looks as though little has changed along the northern coast since a voyager named Ohthere made his way up and into the Barents Sea in the late ninth century. He called the country “weste land”— Old English for “wasteland,” meaning unsettled, though coastal Sami were living there then, as they do today. The land still looks wild and wave battered, as if it were rising rapidly (as it is, in geological terms) and shaking off the sea. Well offshore, you can understand the affinity that Norwegian explorers like Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen felt with the sea. And inshore— watching still water mirror the pilings in Tromsø harbor—you can feel how domestic the sheltering hills are. In this seabooted country, nearly every- one is bilingual, speaking equally the language of earth and ocean. And so nearly everywhere there is still a cer- tain ceremony in the coming of the Hurtigruten, which is one of the ways time is told in the most remote ports. It may be 3 a.m., but people will be waiting for the ship to dock in the long shadow of the midnight sun. Some have business here in the wharfside warehouses, but some have come just to watch a sight that deserves watching. From high on deck, even in the smallest harbor, you can see a part of the great Norwegian fleet— fishing boats, fast commuter ferries, boats serv- ing the offshore oil fields, sailboats on spring lines against the pier, tankers and container ships, barges with dredging shovels resting amidships, sleek powerboats, restored wooden yachts that catch the water’s gleam. Here and there you might even spot a clinker-built, canoe- ended contraption that looks like a miniature tugboat, too small, too worn-out to take on the Norwegian Sea but going to sea nonetheless— a sentiment that might well be the motto all along this rugged, glorious coast. j On a velvet sky stippled with stars, the aurora borealis paints bold strokes above Flakstad Island. orsolya haarberg Nearly everyone is bilingual, speaking equally the language of earth and ocean. Verlyn Klinkenborg often writes about special places. Orsolya and Erlend Haarberg photograph nature, mainly in the Nordic countries.