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The Outer Islands of Sognefjord
Vikings and "Dugnad" in Secret Norway
by David Yeadon

"This is not the best salmon you have ever tasted, yes?" Gunnar was not one to wait for confirmation. "My mother. She taught me this way. She was very good with the salmon."

He chomped down on his piece of near-white fish with gluttonous glee as his cabin cruiser rocked happily in a light evening swell. My stomach rocked with it far less happily, my mouth close to rebellion as I tried to chew the tougher-than-leather slab of bleached and violated salmon on my plate.

"Well — I've certainly never eaten it cooked this way before," I spluttered, trying to put a brave face on a culinary fiasco that had necessitated Gunnar's boiling at full blast those succulent slices, picked straight from a salmon farm we'd sailed past earlier in the day. For twenty five minutes they roiled around inside an enormous cauldron before being removed like steaming rocks and the wonderful juice-filled stock being flung over the side of the boat into the dark ocean.

Gunnar took my ambiguous response as a compliment and smilingly passed me a bowl of "special sauce" — in actuality a few scoops of rather old sour cream served in a blue plastic bowl. "And the potatoes too — you must have lots of the potatoes," said Steinar, Gunnar's shipmate companion pushing five crumbling forms with skin dangling like strips of dead flesh onto my plate.

"This is way we eat in Norway!" said Gunnar proudly. I nodded. Sadly he was right. My experience of "like momma makes" Norwegian cuisine - overcooked salmon, grey sinewy slabs of meat, and endless piles of soggy potatoes laced with sour cream and acrid margarine — confirmed his observation.

Boat breakfasts, in contrast, were a surprising treat — tongue-tantalizing tingles of flavors in the form of cold cuts, salamis, herring in delicious sauces, golden-smoked mackerel, black lumpfish caviar, proscuitto-like slices of dried lamb and venison, cheeses, pates, a delicious variety of breads and pure fruit jams all washed down with strong (if over-boiled) coffee plus, on Gunnar's boat, generous doses of vodka and aquavit. ("My wife, she is not here now, so it's okay!")

Breakfasts had become my main meal of the day on board the cozy craft. Dinners I usually faced with dread, except for those just-caught crabs . . .but that's a tale for later.

"So," said Gunnar, helping himself to a third slab of inedible salmon, "How is your trip so far?"

"Incredible!" I gushed. At least this time I could be honest with my two new friends. "These islands . . .I had no idea such wonderful places existed."

That of course called for yet another round of aquavit toasts washed down with chilled Hansa beer. "To the secrets of Norway!" shouted Gunnar, "To the secrets of Norway!" we intoned enthusiastically.

Gunnar and Steinar, both spritely middle-agers, had given a week of their precious vacation time to take me as their guest on a meandering odyssey around the outer islands off Norway's great 120 mile long Sognefjord — "King of all the World's Fjords." Even Steinar, a ferryboat captain for most of the year, had to agree that this had been the most amazing voyage of serendipitous exploration. "I thought I had knew these places", he told me "but I see so many new things. So much . . .beautifuls!" He clapped his huge fisherman's hands together and made instant thunder.

It all began on one of those crystalline, Maine-like mornings in Floro a compact town of 7000, the largest in the Sogn og Fjordane region, clustered in white, squeaky-clean clapboard and stucco meticulousness at the western tip of Nordalsfjord, about 70 gull-flying miles north of Bergen. The three of us had met as arranged at a little cafe overlooking the harbor and celebrated the beginning of our journey with strong coffee, cold rolled waffles (vaffel), limp pancakes (pannekake), crisp cornets of krumkake and other pastried peculiarities. The light was ice-bright, bouncing off bobbing boats and haloing the breast feathers of strutting seagulls.

"We will be seeing many lovely things," said Gunnar smiling with boyish enthusiasm. Steiner nodded affirmation. He was a huge, wild-haired giant of few — but invariably wise — words.

We left the prim little town in a surge of power, heading for misty islands out in Hellefjorden and Froysjoen. Behind us the burly bare mountains of the mainland rose up ever higher, surging whorls of striated peaks and glacier-gouged precipices. An early morning haze slowly melted in the warming sun. The ocean began to tantalize me with possibilities; I felt like a 10th century Viking setting out to explore new worlds with a little pillage and plunder thrown in for occasional diversion. To the southwest lay Britain, once the recipient of regular Viking raids and subsequent settlement. We were only a mere 250 miles east of the Shetland isles of Scotland.

"During World War II many of our fishermen made that crossing to the Shetlands to help our country's resistance against the Nazis," Gunnar told me, "They took wounded peoples and English pilots who had been shot down and brought back weapons and more fighters. It was a very hard but a very proud time for us."

As a boy I'd heard the tale of Norway's fierce resistance to German occupation.

We could meet one of these men if you like," offered Gunnar.

"OK — When?"

"Now," he said (Gunnar is an impulsive man) swirling the boat in a spectacular arc of spray and foam. "It's a good time for more coffee."

So — more boiled coffee it was (served in a teapot) and more endless platters of limp waffles and pancakes and jam and caramel colored goat cheese served by an 80 year old resistance fighter and his plump, smiling wife, Wibeke, at his small farm nestled at the end of a cove below the soaring white crags of Botnane.

The resistance fighter, Nils, was a wiry slow-speaking man of the land who was rather reticent at first about his wartime experiences.

"So many of my friends were killed, murdered, by the Nazis . . . ." I felt uncomfortable encouraging him to revive obviously painful memories. "It is not always good to think about those times too much. A lot of hurt and anger. When you have gestapo knocking at your door it is not pleasant. They were animals — not soldiers. When they came for me I climbed out of the kitchen window and went to live in the earth for many weeks — in the mountains where they could never find me . . . ."

"It must have been a very hard time," was all I could think to say. Nils nodded but smiled — his first real smile. "Ah, but you must remember there are still Vikings left in these places. Vikings are used to such hard things . . . ."

His wife laughed. Sunlight filled the little house and sparked on its polished cedar walls simply adorned with family photographs. The mood lightened and then became distinctly uplifted in a haze of aquavit toasts to the durability of Norway and its people.

"Nils was right," glowed Gunnar, once again at the helm and surging through the still, eye-blue waters of Froysjoen "We are still Vikings!" Steinar nodded, his long silver hair streaming in the wind. He pointed to a vast mountain precipice that tumbled more than 3,000' straight into the fjord. "The highest sea cliff in all of Europe," he said proudly but softly. Norwegians tend to be rather reticent in their boastfulness.

Approaching the large island of Bremanger, a place proud of its Viking heritage and ancient rock carvings, Gunnar eased the boat gently between glacier-rounded rocks and seaweed strewn clefts into the tiny, sheltered harbor of Smorhamn. Two old wooden fish houses — buas-painted in the traditional red with white trim were perched on high pilings beside the water. An old man, Sigfried Vadoy, sat on a bench outside one of the buas making elegant round crab pots ("Mine last 20 years. I do them right."); inside the elegantly simple clapboard exterior was a structure of durable enormity, vast beams and floor timbers supported by burly ship's "knees" and dusty dark spaces piled high with nets, pots, green glass buoys, old boats and ropes. A thick layer of salt had settled over the years on the thick rafters making them velvet to the touch.

Gunnar beckoned in the shadows. "Come see this." I tripped and stumbled between the piles of fishing paraphernalia to discover what appeared to be an original Viking longboat with shallow draught, soaring end timbers and graceful sweeping sides. Its bold cobwebbed shape spoke of speed and timeless durability. I could picture its broad keel filled with warlike bearded Vikings in horned helmets surging through the furious North Sea surf to invade the pastoral enclaves of eastern England and even Ireland in the 10th and 11th centuries.

"It's not really . . . ." I wondered aloud.

"No" laughed Gunnar. "Perhaps only a hundred years old but they kept the same shape. It is a good shape. Each fjord makes them a little different - but still the same look". We stroked its meticulous curved shape together. I could sense its power and the confident pride of its vertical prow that in Viking days would have been carved into a ferocious demonic head breathing fire and flame.

We saw similar craft in the clustered fish houses of nearby Kalvag, a brightly painted island village still known for its salted and smoked herring and mackerel. Ansgar Vamrak showed me round the salting rooms stacked with wooden barrels and pointed out the stencils he used for labeling the destinations of his fish. "All over the world," he said, "Our fish is so good. Everybody wants it. America too." When I wondered about the depleted herring shoals plaguing Norwegian fishermen his old face became more lined. "Yes — it has not been so good in the last years. Young people cannot find work now. But maybe . . .in a little while . . . ." The old processing plant felt more like a museum than a factory. Outside a group of old men sat smoking together by the harbor slowly deliberating on worldly matters. "Too many old men now," said Ansgar sadly. "Like me . . . ."

"Oh it's not so bad," said Dagfinn Vaero on the nearby treeless isle of Vaero, a place of pool-table smooth sheep pastures laced between abrupt uplifts of granite strata. He and his parents were the only inhabitants and claimed they could make a decent living with their two sturdy tug-like fishing boats. "The big fishing is gone — but for us, its okay. We live good."

The sun's arc was beginning its slow descent over this tiny island. The light had a golden iridescent quality. Fat sheep munched on the short grass, their fleeces gilded. The small family house sat in a rocky hollow sheltered from the wind, smoke curled from a single chimney in the last afternoon silence. "I could be happy here," I thought as I've thought so many times in my years of travel. Dagfinn caught my mood, smiled and nodded.

"And now — crabs!" yelled Gunnar, ever anxious to be on the move. He was most content when at the wheel of his boat. Land sojourns seemed to make him restless.

"What crabs?" I asked.

"Let's go. You will see."

So off again, spuming across a purpling ocean with the burly island of Hoyden on our left. "Strange people on that place. Very strange," murmured Steinar and said no more.

Dusk breezes made the boat bounce on the darkening chop. Far to the south rose a 1,500' towering pyramid of barren rock, its sides etched with shadowy gullys and screes. "Batalden. We sleep there tonight," said Gunnar. He was scanning the ocean meticulously for something humming some off-key Norwegian folk tune and, naturally, nursing an evening glass of aquavit. "Aha!" he cried suddenly and flung the boat into reverse, sending Steinar and me rolling across the cab. "Come, come." We all clambered on deck. It was almost night now. I had no idea what we were supposed to be doing until Gunnar yelled for the boat hook, plunged it down the side of the boat, and began hoisting a barnacle-encrusted rope topped by a bright red cork buoy.

"Good dinner coming," mumbled Steinar helping with the hauling. Yards and yards and more yards of crusted rope . . .and then the crabpot, a thrashing tumult of enraged bubble-blowing, clacking crabs, each a good nine inches across, flailing their claws like broadswords. I counted 16 of them plus a few other squirming things and a luminous jellyfish that Gunnar threw back with distaste into the swell. "How do you know where to find the pot in all this ocean?" asked the novice sailor (me). Gunnar smiled a mysterious smile and said nothing.

Dinner was splendid. Maybe the best I've had on board a boat anywhere. Same cooking method as the salmon (big pot, lots of boiling brine, etc.) but this time it came out right — a steaming pile of scarlet crustaceans, heated to tender perfection, smashed open with the wooden mallets, and gorged fingerstyle with potatoes (naturally), thick slices of bread and butter, and frothy mugs of ice cold beer. After the fourth crab I collapsed in a happy heap and dozed as Gunnar took us the last few miles across a still sea to a sheltered jetty below the bulk of Batalden peak, stroked by moonlight.

"I thought you may not come." A gentle girlish voice came out of the darkness. Gunnar smiled dismissively as he flung out the ropes to tie us to the dock. The woman knelt, long hair in the silver moon glow, and whirled the rope around the capstan with sinewed arms. Steinar kept to the shadows. He seemed shy of new company — either that or he'd already been beguiled by the silvered tresses of the woman who stood, exchanged pleasantries with Gunnar in Norwegian, and stretched out her hand to me. "Hello, I am Gunhild Bjelland and I welcome you to Batalden Havbu, my little hotel." Her accent was deliciously Oxford mingled with the singsong rhythms of Scandinavia. Steinar came forward slowly mumbling something incomprehensible, and we all descended to the stolidity of the stone jetty where my legs immediately went limp as my body tried to renew its acquaintance with immobile surfaces.

I liked Gunhild immediately — her honest eyes, firm handshake and lovely laughter that tinkled in the night air. I also admired the determination of this part-time teacher who had almost single-handedly restored the remnants of a 19th century herring station into a delightful small island hostellery with polished cedar walls, a warm fire and cozy bunkstyle bedrooms. "I sometimes had the help of a very patient carpenter who would create with me. It was very difficult though. There were no squares in any of the rooms. Everything was a different angle. But . . .it worked." A second older building set back in a cocoon of windblasted trees she had recreated as an art gallery and art course center. "I had just finished a third building up higher on the hill but it was blown away on New Year's Eve of 1991 by a hurricane."

"The whole building?" I asked

"Oh yes. Everything. Except the old cow stalls underneath." She dismissed the event lightheartedly as merely one of life's little misfortunes, a typical Norwegian trait.

"You would like some food now?"

We described our crab bacchanal and reluctantly declined.

"Oh what a shame. They say I am not so bad as a cook."

Gunnar nodded. "She is very good."

I bet she is. Gunhild looked the kind of individual who could turn her mind and talent to just about anything and make it special.


Dawn came early — cracking the black claw of night and prying open the horizon with knifeblade slices of lemon and mauve. I rose too, eager to see the island before Gunnar got restless for the ocean once again.

I strolled up a rocky path to a vantage point where Gunhild's third restored building had once been. Bits of smashed roof and wall still lay scattered across the wiry tussocks of bleached grass. A breeze blew chill and fresh. Out across the pink ocean I could see the brittle silhouettes of other islands all around me. Looming above was the eroded pyramid of Batalden peak, its deep gullies in purple shadows. Maybe I'd have time to climb to the summit before we left . . . .

Then a head popped up between the tussocks, "Aha. I thought you are here. You are missing the breakfast . . .then we go." It was Gunnar of course, impatient as ever.

Within the hour, Batalden was far behind us to the north and we were edging into the narrow stone dock of Kinn, an island noted for its remarkable cleft mountain (a 800' hill known as Kinnaklova split neatly in two as if by some giant axe) and its annual July theatrical celebration of local history that attracts hundreds of visitors to this remote and beautiful place.

It was another perfect blue-sky morning. Butterflies trilled among the lumpy land at the base of granite crags, couched in silence. A special kind of silence — airy and infinite — an island silence in which you sense the thrill of isolation, aloneness. Just you and your spirit on a patch of land set in an everlasting ocean. A feeling to treasure — it doesn't come too often in our familiar overcrowded haunts. You have to seek it out and hold it and let it work its magic on you. "That's where they have the play — the Kinnaspelet." Steinar pointed to a natural grassy amphitheater below the crags where his fellow countrymen flock in summer to celebrate a part of their ancient culture, a culture that seems so vital an element of even the most urbane Norwegian — a part of the daily fabric of their lives and perceptions, not frilly fairy tales to be smiled at but tales that give foundation to their heritage and themselves. Steinar tried to explain the convoluted Celtic plot — all about an Irish Princess, Sunniva, pursued among the islands by early Vikings and her ultimate death in a cave in which her sainted remains were later found and worshipped for generations . . . . I listened hard but barely caught the fabric of the tale; suffice to say it is a crucial element of Norwegian folklore. The nearby 12th century church still stands as a shrine to the early Irish hermits who often made their home on such remote islets and slowly christianized the fjord populations. The structure is simple and Romanesque in style but the richly intricate carvings of the rood screen, altar niches and reredos possess a religious fervor and conviction similar in spirit to the mysterious stave churches of Norway with their elegant spired roofs and cave-like interiors. I was moved by the silence and power of this tiny place. Even Gunnar for once sat quietly in one of the pews gazing like a child at the ornate baroque-styled figures writhing on the ornate pulpit canopy. This time there was no urgency to move on. We all sensed the magic of the place and let it do its work on our spirits, slowly and softly.

In contrast to the bare and bold majesty of most of the outer isles, Svanoy is a green, fir-forested oasis set low and inviting in the ocean against a distant mist haze of fjord cliffs and mountains.

No sooner had we nudged against the dock than the normally reticent Steinar did a furious jig of welcome for a group of friends who had come to greet him. "This is a surprise — for you," he growled at me in his gruff voice, "I tell them I have man who likes Vikings and good foods. So they come to show you both things."

None of his friends could speak much English but it made not the slightest difference as we all piled into a creaking jeep and careened off through dense pine forests littered with little lakes on tracks that would have smashed the axles of lesser vehicles. "First — Viking — Erik the Bloodaxe. One of our best Vikings." said Steinar. I had no idea where we were going until we suddenly swirled to a halt in front of one of the most ancient and unique barns I've ever seen, hidden away in the pine forest among small rocky pastures. This was a barn that only giants could have built supported by huge tree trunk trees with a roof of five inch thick stone slabs, each one weighing at least two tons.

"This is Erikstadt," said Steinar proudly. "This is where the Viking chief Erik learned to do the sword and the axe. 800 years ago. He was a great fighter." His friends smiled and nodded respectfully. It was obviously a shrine of sorts to him. One of them pointed out the small, muscular horses in the pasture with long blonde coats of matted hair, "Fjording," he said, "Special Norway horses, very strong!" "Like Viking," chipped in another friend and they all nodded and smiled again. They almost laughed. (This would be considered your everyday kind of Norwegian joke and worthy of something approaching a guffaw.) "This seems the perfect place for them," I said not quite knowing what I meant but they thought that was some kind of a joke too and started the nodding and sniggering again.

Close by we were shown into some equally sturdy outbuildings adjoining a traditional 17th century farmhouse. These had been converted into a rather dark and dusty folk museum by the family who lived here and a young shy girl (a true Norwegian with bright red cheeks, blue eyes and gold plaited hair) tried to explain in hesitant English the use of the cobweb-strewn implements, cooking utensils, weaving equipment and primitive distilling contraptions (lots of guffaws over these last items). "Well — so." said Gunnar, a little impatient with museums, no matter how hidden and rustic. "Eating now."

So — eating it was — once again. Off to a gargantuan lunch of thick, chocolate-brown venison stew, sweet brussel sprouts, boiled potatoes and a dessert of Lupse (a rich cake of layered pancakes separated by thick fillings of butter, cognac and cream), all washed down with endless tumblers of aquavit in a setting fit for a king. In fact the Svanoy Foundation Conference Center, in which we were regally entertained, was indeed once a baronial farmstead, over 300 years old, and preserved as a furnished museum to the times when the church and powerful Danish landowners managed vast agrarian estates in western Norway. The foundation still continues research here into forestry, wild animal husbandry and aquaculture and welcomes occasional visitors.

Leaving the others to digest their lunch over more aquavit and endless cigarettes I wandered around the beautiful estate perched on a hill overlooking the forested bays of the tiny island. Fat sheep browsed in the daisied meadows. The sun was warm and the air sherried with the rich aromas of fall. A young worker on the estate, Stig, showed me the barn in which he smoked the local salmon for export and insisted I taste his special gravlax creation of salmon marinated for three days in dill, juniper and salt. I must have enthused a little too heartily for when we finally returned to the boat a package was waiting for me there, all neatly boxed with the Svanoy Smokehouse label — four pounds of delicious gravlax for our supper!

It was these little kindnesses that carried me — buoyed me — through the days that followed. Days of slow meandering among the islands, each one distinct and unique in character. At Vaerlandet — a bleak and broken fragmentation of scoured conglomerate-rock islets and inlets all interlinked by tiny bridges — we were offered free accommodation at a dockside guest house. "It's out of season anyway. And I don't charge for people I like," said our boisterous, buxom hostess and only agreed to dine with us on board if we agreed to accept breakfast at her home the following morning. When I thanked her for her kindness she seemed surprised. "It's only dugnad," she said dismissively, "it's our spirit of community here — our sharing. It's the only way we can live in a place like this."

The following morning, she took me up to the roof of her house, a high vantage point from which I could see across the broken treeless terrain of these strange remote fragments of land, with neat clapboard cottages clustered like old friends in seaweed-strewn creeks. "You understand what I mean about dugnad?" she asked. I nodded and gave her an impromptu hug (and got an even bigger one back). I was beginning to understand all too well now the strange Norwegian blending of privacy and isolation with strong and durable community ties. "We are far from Oslo and the big government. We are often forgotten here. It took us 25 years just to get our little bridges so that we could move about without ????


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