The icy waters of the Arctic Ocean burned my skin as I plunged into the Barents Sea off the Norwegian coastal town of Vardo. At about the same latitude as Baffin Island, I’d have bounced off the water if it had been any colder (and no, I wasn’t wearing a wet suit). This was the final step in my personal goal to swim in all five of the world’s oceans, specifically the Southern (or Antarctic), Indian, Atlantic, Pacific and finally the Arctic.
But let’s rewind a bit. Never one to bypass an opportunity, I noticed last winter that Icelandair was inaugurating direct flight service to Keflavik from my home base of Halifax. My destination was Oslo, Norway’s capital and largest city. Since I loathe large airports with a passion, transferring via Iceland’s small but ultra-modern international airport was an attractive option. I quickly booked a seat on the inaugural flight on May 17th.
This proved to be doubly convenient as there were no long line-ups or transfers in Iceland and, since Scandinavian countries require no immigration formalities, deplaning in Norway was a breeze. Travelling Icelandair was also a Retro delight with blonde Nordic flight attendants wearing uniforms and providing service I vaguely remember back in the 60s on other airlines. They even had the little individual screw top liquor bottles!
From Oslo I flew to Norway’s far north, the town of Kirkenes, a small port huddled on the Barents Sea right on the Russian border. Norway can be compared to a narrow slice of Canada, stretching from the far north down to the United States.
Though it was May and lush spring in Bergen, winter reigned in Kirkenes with the ground still blanketed in white and snowflakes drifting down. I made my way to MV Nordlys (literally “Northern Lights”),the hurtigruten or coastal ferry which was to be my home for the next six days as it progressed back to Bergen via dozens of coastal towns ranging from tiny fishing villages to bustling cities. The hurtigruten have been providing their services for over a hundred years catering both to tourists and to passengers requiring transport.
Once settled away in my cabin I headed for the dining room for a feast of Norwegian seafood including king crab and lobster. We departed as I dined and I watched the rocky coastline with its snow covered mountains glide by. We headed north, en route to Vardo and I expectantly waited for it to get dark. It didn’t of course because at this latitude, well above the Arctic Circle, the sun never sets this time of year. At midnight, I admired the start of a glorious pink and golden hued sunset, then watched the sun rise again.
I had chosen Vardo as the site for my swim in the Arctic Ocean because once around Norway’s (and Europe’s) most northerly point at Nordkapp we would be back in the North Atlantic. Vardo is home to a small fortress with a geometric style similar to Halifax’s Citadel. After my dip at the beach (outdoor temperatures a balmy 0 degrees Celsius) I toweled off and, invigorated, explored the fortress until Nordlys’ horn summoned her passengers.
Back aboard we headed for Nordkapp or North Cape. Discovered by English explorer Richard Chancellor in 1553 while searching for the northwest passage, it is Europe’s most northerly point, perched on a plateau at N 71 deg.10’21”. We took a bus to the Cape’s interpretive center for breakfast. A large metal globe marks the tip of the Cape and there are awesome views if the polar fog hasn’t rolled in.
En route back to our ship, we traveled though a part of Norway known as Finnmark, home to the Sami people (once known as Lapplanders) and to ubiquitous herds of reindeer. A friendly Sami herder posed for photos. The younger Sami people are now choosing more conventional careers over the grueling work of herding, though at least one high school in Finnmark is trying to perpetuate the traditional life by offering a course on reindeer husbandry.
We caught up with Nordlys at the town of Hammerfest where visitors can join the “Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society” complete with a pin and certificate signed by the mayor. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) there were no live polar bears in sight, though a stuffed one graces their headquarters. Just prior to midnight we arrived at Tromso, a bustling university town of fifty thousand, still located well above the Arctic Circle. Enjoying the midnight sun I went for a walk with some new friends and dropped into a lively student-filled pub appropriately named Kaos.
The next day found us in the town of Harstad. From here we bussed to the nearby Trondenes for a visit and brief service at the world’s most northerly medieval church. The Vikings converted, sometimes reluctantly, to Christianity in the early Eleventh Century, under the guidance of King Olaf Trygvason. He was subsequently canonized for his efforts. In at least one documented case, two of St. Olaf’s missionaries, growing annoyed at being ridiculed by pagans, hauled out their swords and dispatched several of them to the afterlife.
By now the temperatures were warming up and the sun had gained strength as well as longevity. The afternoon saw us cruising through the narrow Trollfjord. Sunlit, with towering cliff faces and festooned with cascading waterfalls, the fjord was a fairyland. I half expected a troll to pop his head out of a cave. One of the locals pointed out that this would be unlikely as trolls turn to stone on exposure to sunlight. The Nordlys performed an incredible 180 degree turn to exit the Trollfjord and now progressed onward to the majestic Lofoten Islands. Along the way we were greeted by huge sea eagles that nest in the cliffs overlooking the fjord.
At the town of Svolvaer we explored the Lofotens, travelling to the town of Henningsvaer. Once an archipelago of islands and fishing villages connected only by the sea, there are now bridges and tunnels allowing road access. (The Norwegian government has been using its offshore oil wealth to build an infrastructure of tunnels and roads linking north and south, an effort we Canadians could emulate.) The towering mountains, blue-gray sea and unique light conditions make Lofoten a favorite with artists as well as tourists, as evidenced by the many galleries, which seemed to outnumber the fishing boats.
We rejoined our vessel in Stamsund and steamed south, ever closer to the Arctic Circle. The next morning we passed the Seven Sisters Peaks, seven mountains which seemed to bid us adieu as we left their northerly domain. At 0915 we crossed the Arctic Circle. I toasted the event on deck with champagne and orange juice in the company of several newfound acquaintances. We were now in “southern” Norway.
IF YOU GO….
Norwegian Coastal Voyage: 1-800-323-7436
“Sami (or “Lapplander”) in traditional dress, with reindeer” © George Burden
” The Nordlys turns withing the narrow confines of the Trollfjord” © George Burden
“Cod fish hanging out to dry on a cod ‘flake'”© George Burden
“Fishing boats in harbor at Henningsvaer”© George Burden
“Unusual light conditions which make the Lofoten Islands an artists’ haven” © George Burden