National Geographic : 2013 Nov
norway’s coast 119 B ird cries seem to claw at the bright sum- mer sky. The birds themselves—puffins, gannets, gulls, guillemots—whirl in a tu- mult around the bluff islands rising from the water. We have put to sea about as far north as you can put to sea, off the uppermost cape of coastal Norway, high above the Arctic Circle. The boat pitches and heaves in the rockbound channels, and I rediscover an old truth. Seabirds are good at flying and floating, swimming and diving, and almost nothing else. They run across the saltwater until it seems they’ll never get aloft, and they land like heavy raindrops on the foamy spill from a crashing wave. But while airborne, surveying these waters with cocked heads, they’re the masters of this ragged shore, these broken islands along the northern fringe of Norway, which fits like a skullcap over Sweden and Finland. Here, and eastward toward Russia, Norway meets the ocean bluntly, hills scraped bare, protruding fistlike into the Barents Sea. No one knows the whole of the Norwegian coast, and among its lesser known reaches is the edge of the Varanger Peninsula, which ends at a point farther east than St. Peters- burg. It is a low, rimy strand studded with ancient boulders, a world away from Bergen and bathed in copper light among the endless archipelagoes where the fjords run out to sea. You could, of course, drive from Bergen to Vardø, at the eastern point of the Varanger Pen- insula. But a glance at a map or a set of nautical charts makes it clear that a car is just an encum- brance here. For the past 120 years vessels of the famous Hurtigruten (literally, “swift route”) have provided a lifeline linking isolated communities to the larger world. Traveling aboard this coastal express, miles make no difference—and at the height of the midnight sun, hours make no dif- ference either. You tell time by the progression of ports: Bodø, Svolvær, Tr o m s ø . Taken all in all, south to north, the coast of Norway may be the most complex land edge on the planet. In 2011 Norwegian geographers completed a three-year project to recalculate the length of their coastline. Using new techniques and better maps, they added thousands of is- lands and islets that had never been included in the total before. In all, Norway’s measured seashore grew by some 11,000 miles. If you ham- mered Norway’s 63,000 miles of fjords, bays, and island shores into a single line, it would circle the planet two and a half times. All that in a coun- try less than 1,100 miles from south to north. Whether you stand on the terminal heights above Geirangerfjorden, looking down into its yawning blue deep, or in the bow of a small boat besieged by seabirds, it’s hard to say whether the sea is encroaching on the Norwegian landmass, or the land into the body of the sea. The water may look more continuous than the land, but it is certainly no simpler. To travel the Norwegian coast is to glimpse an endless dis- continuity between land and water, the restless inventiveness of eons of ice. Miles inland, in the heart of Norway’s longest fjord, Sognefjorden, the water deepens to 4,000 feet only a few hun- dred yards from shore. Farther north, cod-dry- ing racks and tight red boathouses look out over water that is hundreds of feet deep. And yet among the outermost islands in the Lofoten By Verlyn Klinkenborg Photographs by Orsolya Haarberg and Erlend Haarberg The coast of Norway may be the most complex land edge on the planet.