The North Coast

Last September Francie and I cruised the length of the Norwegian coast, starting down from the top. Half of that trip is north of the Arctic Circle – 66.33° – a region without trees or grass: just rocks, a wasteland, in a word, except for fishing villages. Our latitude up there averaged 70° north, the Pole, of course, being 90°.

The northernmost town – and the start of our cruise – was the town of Kirkenes, over the shoulder at the top of the country, and thus close to Murmansk. Russia is just a few miles away. (Most improbably, that part of Norway is technically east of Cairo!) One is exhorted not to stray over the border. The Russians have apparently released a population of immense, ominous, long-legged crabs, offered in restaurants. If you like, you can go for a “King Crab Safari.”

Our ship was called the Lofoten, named after a very striking island group in the nearby Barents Sea. The ship is the oldest (60 years) and smallest vessel in the Hertigruten line, which provides mail, freight and passenger service up and down the coast, Bergen to Kirkenes and return, about a week each way, pausing at dozens of picturesque fishing villages. As you go way north you tend not to paint your house white, like our typical charming New England villages, but rather in vivid colors, to liven things up in the snow. One might thus like to disembark and stroll around some of the villages you stop at, but that is incompatible with the freight-delivering function of the ship. On the contrary: the stops are as short as they can be made, with one exception, Hammerfest – still above 70°– which bills itself as the northernmost town in Norway, and where the ship stops for a full hour. There’s actually a more northern village, which bills itself as the northernmost spot in the country, but there you learn of even more northerly spots that you can reach after a six-hour trudge. Forget it.

The passengers who disembarked at Hammerfest fanned out to inspect the town and buy the trolls and other souvenirs eagerly awaited by the folks at home. I, however, had heard of the Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society, whose clubhouse is right by the docks, and so repaired thither immediately. Impressed by its worthy sound, particularly that they had rejected Elvis Presley’s application to join, I signed up as a member. The institution reminds me of the Shakespeare Society at Oxford, whose first order of business at every meeting is to move and resolve “that the Bard be not read tonight,” after which the membership settles down to serious drinking. Anyway, the Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society does little work in favor of the beasts in question, which haven’t frequented the territory for at least a thousand years. No, it does essentially nothing. If you cough up a few bucks, however, you get an elegant certificate, a card to carry proudly in your wallet, in case someone challenges your status, and a tiny gold bear to pin in your lapel or wherever. There are two huge polar bear skins on the wall, for atmosphere, and a pleasant young man who explains that the Annual Meeting of the Society, in the extreme cold of mid-January, attracts a dozen or so faithful members.

Certificate of membership in The Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society

A polar bear’s paws are about the size of squash racquets – essentially snowshoes – for at least two reasons: first, a central component of its diet is seals it digs out from under the icy snow, which the bear can sniff out at a considerable distance. To avoid alerting its dinner by compressing the snow, the bear cautiously distributes its weight among those huge paws. In addition, though, in its insatiable pursuit of seals, a bear will swim great distances, thirty miles quite happily, propelled by his powerful limbs and the immense paws.

Each hair on a polar bear’s pelt is hollow, for maximum insulation, and the skin under the hair is black, for maximum absorption of the sun’s light and heat. I stuck my fingers into the bear skins and found the hairs reached my knuckles : up to three inches deep.

The Norwegian coast is cut by its magnificent fjords, which we were in and out of constantly. Sometimes this got tight, as little as a hundred yards on either side of the ship, more like the course of a riverboat than a seagoing vessel. And outside, as we followed the coast, stretched miles and miles of sinister reefs, which have claimed many ships over the centuries. At least the end is quick for the victims.

Every now and again you pass rough, forbidding, mountainous islands. As you work your way along the coast, in due course crossing the Arctic Circle going south, the passing landscape becomes more human, so to speak. Gradually greener grass, trees, the occasional house.

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At the end of World War II, when Norway had been occupied by the Germans, it was a poor country. The discovery of the vast Ekofisk oil field changed all that. What’s more, instead of just spending the income from this bonanza they socked it away in a huge sovereign wealth fund, which they’ve been carefully deploying for public purposes. To the visitor, inland Norway looks like many another country, but in reality it is a very rich one, with a GDP per capita much higher than our own. (Of course, it is not flooded with immigrants, who usually arrive with no assets but their own energy.)

What about the ship itself? First, it runs quietly, and, almost always, smoothly. There were good, comfortable places to sit on the ship to view the admirable passing scenery. The food was simple but delicious, particularly the fish, and the crew invariably courteous.

The navigation was extremely skillful. Perforce it contained a lot of Norwegians, mostly large, stocky folks, the men often running to baldness. All the younger ones speak English well, and the older ones adequately. The Norwegians on board were genial, but polls show them as not friendly, surprisingly enough. That very sour artist Munch (“The Scream”) has a whole museum of his own in Oslo. They are in any event quite unlike their cousins the Swedes, whom I find complicated and interesting, and whom the Norwegians find snooty. I feel that Greig expresses the soul of Norway as Sibelius does of Finland and Sweden.

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In the Viking age the hardy Norse founded the Russian dynasty, reached Prague in their large ships, and created the Norman-Arab civilization in Sicily, which was brilliant as any in the western world at the time. The Norse settled Normandy, and from there conquered England.

In theory, Norway, with a population of only five million, should be anxious about its hungry neighbor, Russia; in practice, not very. Russia got a bloody nose in its “winter war” with the Finns, led by the dauntless Marshal Mannerheim. Norway itself was occupied by the Germans in World War II. Neutral Sweden is subject to constant Russian provocation. So the Scandinavians know about aggression and are ready for it, besides being members of NATO, whose navy could close down Murmask early in any conflict.