Put This on Your Bucket List
Our small ship, Azamara Journey, sliced through the rough, open waters, hugging the western coast of Norway on Day 7 of our 3,300 nautical mile voyage, zigzagging in and out of Norwegian fjords from south to north. Passengers had gathered on Pool Deck 9 that day at sea, to celebrate traversing over the most northern of the earth’s five major lines of demarcation. The ceremony to observe crossing the Arctic Circle at latitude 66.5° N had just begun when a raging tempest hit without warning. The captain cautioned that weather patterns above the Arctic Circle could be capricious, untamed and shift through the four seasons within an hour.
Huddled together under Deck 9’s recessed roof, we struggled to avert the stinging splats of rain, slanting at us sideways in a steady assault. There was no escape. The icy deluge pelted my face, as I pulled my quilted coat tighter. I clenched my hands inside my pockets and regretted that I hadn’t packed mittens in August.
Above, on Deck 10’s oval walking track, I spotted people in distress, white knuckles grasping the rails, hair and jackets wildly flailing in the wind. Fierce gales whooshing through the open space lurched their bodies to and fro, as they inched their way toward safety. I feared a gust would whisk them up like paper dolls and toss them into the angry Norwegian Sea. Swells peaked to white caps and the choppy, metal-gray water below looked cruel and frigid. Masses of steel clouds pushed down on the flat horizon with a heavy, open palm, grinding the northern chill through my wet jacket. I shuddered at the power of the Arctic Circle’s intense welcome.
The Norse Gods had smiled upon us the past six days. Daily temperatures of 65°F, moderated by the warm Gulf Stream, a wispy breeze and drenching sun had made ports of call explorations thus far, a traveler’s dream. Norway’s oldest, southwestern coastal settlement, Stavanger, at 58.9°N, had served as a jump start for our voyage toward our goal of Nord Kapp, the farthest northern point in all of Europe.
The next morning, well above the Arctic Circle, we docked at Svolvaer on the island of Austvagoya in the Lofoten Archipelago at 68°N. My husband and I fretted about what kind of outerwear we would need for our day ashore. Norwegians say “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” I surveyed our collection of layers; thermal underwear, hooded rain repellant dusters, Scottish woven scarves, merino wool socks and sturdy boots. Only the gods knew that none of this gear would ever be worn.
Norwegians affectionately call the entire region of the country above the Arctic Circle simply “The North.” This vast expanse of extremes of the Midnight Sun and Polar Night lets the traveler step into the land of the Vikings, and encounter the most dramatic natural landscapes in Norway.
Out on deck, a cloudless, neon blue sky had replaced the solemn gray; the sun blazed, but it had already intruded our sleep at 2:30 am when rising rays slid beneath our stateroom’s black-out curtains. The temperature, the warmest yet, had risen to a rare 72°F. Rugged, sheer cliffs rose from white sandy beaches fronting the calm fjord, as sunbeams bounced off the pure waters, like a sparkle of shimmering diamonds. An idyllic backdrop, a colorful strip of yellow and red wooden houses lined the harbor of this fishing village of under 5,000 inhabitants. The word picturesque took on new meaning.
Useless outerwear tossed aside, we set out on the day’s excursion to an archaeological site at Borg, where a Viking chieftain’s longhouse, dating between 500 and 800 A.D., had been excavated and reconstructed. Our senses sharpened by the uncorrupted ancient landscapes steeped with history, we felt like Vikings for a day- Ernie as Ragnor Lokbak and I with hair braided, as his wife, Lagatha.
Once everyone had returned to ship, the captain announced a short sail to a place so amazing that the experience would never be forgotten. I had no idea what was to come. Clear visibility, little wind, and no fog allowed the Journey to pass through the nearby 1.2 mile Trollfjord, the shortest but most spectacular of Norway’s Arctic fjords. Any change in the weather could abort the passage, but we were spared.
While the ship glided en route, the skipper joked that Norway’s mythological, mystical trolls, for whom this fjord had been named, had blessed our voyage. “Despite their reputation of being unfriendly to humans,” he said, “they had undoubtedly been impressed that we had valiantly endured the bitter taste of yesterday’s Arctic storm.”
Wide eyes and murmured gasps of awe filled the open upper decks, as passengers gathered to witness this wonder unfold before us. It seemed as though Austvagoya Island had been sliced through with a cleaver. The entrance to the short channel narrowed quickly to just 100 meters; the ship’s widest point (beam) measured 95 meters. Sheer, stone cliffs, carbon dated to 3.5 billion years, rose up 1100 meters, (3,300 feet) on both sides of the crevasse, and the 30,000 ton Journey had to pass through the eye of a needle with only five meters to spare.
I felt bodies pressing against me, everyone closing in on the guard rails to feel the cliffs closing in upon us. Norwegians, who cling to their mythology with persistence, believe that these giant jagged walls could be remnants of trolls, who hunker down in nature, but turn to stone immediately if zapped by a strong ray of natural sunlight.
Accessible only by boat, Trollfjord never experienced any settlements along its banks, leaving the land completely unspoiled by human habitat. The waters within the fjord and the 800 meter wide open pool upon leaving the constriction teem with cod, halibut and flounder. Seals, porpoises and whales can be spotted and bird life thrives. Just then a ‘Wow’ moment; a white-tailed sea eagle, the largest raptor in Europe, with its majestic, two-meter wingspread and acrobatic aerial maneuvers, soared above me and hovered for a split second.
Historical significance of this small inlet erupted when, in 1890, the Battle of Trollfjord was fought between the first industrial steam driven fishing ships and traditional open boat fishermen, over access to the fjord’s abundant marine life. This battle, described in the 1921 novel, The Last of the Vikings, by Johan Boyer, and the image, captured in the famous painting by Gunnar Berg titled Trollfjordslaget reveal the details. In 1960, the British ship TS Avalon, then the largest vessel to attempt this dangerous pass through this slit, turned around in the open pool and sailed back out. The Trollfjord passage, nicknamed the Mousehole, became an instant tourist attraction.
An experienced Norwegian ship pilot, knowledgeable of the currents, the dangers, the indisputable need for precision and perfection, joined the Journey’s navigational crew in Svolvaer to guide us through this keyhole. As soon as we entered the narrows, the ship moved forward by inches. The sheer cliffs rose into the sky. I stretched, reaching over the rails, willing my arms to lengthen, to let my fingertips brush the billion years’ old stone. The secular meaning of that 23rd Psalm line, ‘My cup runneth over’ echoed in my mind, as I reflected on this unexpected wonder and others I have experienced while traveling the world.
The ship squeezed through the gap, glided into the open pool, and lingered there awhile. The beauty of untouched terrain and the midnight sun still high on the horizon dazzled the overcome onlookers. The pilot re-positioned the ship and inched back through to repeat the thrill.
Fjord Norway, as this route has been labeled, abounds in nature; mountains, capped with glaciers, wild life, sea animals; so very green, so very gray, rain so fierce, sun so bright, darkness so long, people so few, ugliness and discord so absent. One can’t help but be changed by it. Breathe in the air, understand the history. Put it on your bucket list.
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