The Secret Island

Nordland Church

THERE IS A SECRET island far beyond the Arctic Circle where people don’t lock their doors at night for there is no fear and there are no thieves. An island where small children play on homemade rafts in sparkling waters on summer days that last forever…

AND SO BEGINS chapter eight of Pedersen’s Last Dream. Oddly enough, though you may never have heard of them, the tiny Norwegian islands of Røst and Værøy are known to gourmets and meteorologists throughout the world. Despite that, it’s improbable most have ever set foot on them.

Yet, as unlikely as it may seem, the root of this renown is the same for both groups. Somewhat isolated at the southernmost tip of the Lofotens, and separated by an hour and a half’s journey by ferry, the two islands lie just north of the Arctic Circle. Despite that, temperatures rarely drop below freezing. For meteorologists this makes them the most northern locations in the world never to experience what qualify as meteorological winters. For gourmets the climatic anomaly creates perfect conditions for producing the best bacalao, or stockfish, in the world. Added to that, though previous decades of overfishing took an immense toll, seas in the north of Norway have recovered enough to have some of the most productive cod fishing grounds left on the planet. But self-satisfied complacency still isn’t an option.

Though the origins of the name bacalao for stockfish are shrouded in history, by the 16th century Portuguese maps were depicting a phantom island they knew as Bacallao. Whether this has anything to do with the Norwegian islands doesn’t appear to have been established.

In modern day Spain and Portugal the word bacalao has come signify both fresh and cured codfish, including salted cod. True stockfish is cured by drying cod outdoors without salt. The very name stockfish derives from the Middle English stokfysshe – or the Middle Dutch stokvisch – and translates literally as stick fish. Rows of wooden poles, or sticks, still stand at convergent angles on Røst and Værøy to support other lateral poles from which split cod are hung out to dry in the almost constant wind. If the fish were to freeze for any length of time, as soon as temperatures began to rise, they would become waterlogged and start to rot.

The ferry I’d boarded in Røst docked at Værøy late one Saturday afternoon in mid-July. By the quay stood a man with a Kombi van. Agnar Mathisen was there to pick up the few passengers, who occasionally disembark to stay on the island, and drive them to his hostel on the other side of the harbour. I clambered in with my rucksack and we waited in vain. I was to be  his only catch that day. Despite it being the height of the holiday season, he seemed resigned to the lamentable state of affairs. The hostel wasn’t more than five minute’s drive away. Five minutes of silence can seem uncomfortably long at times. As I was later to learn, in common with many island inhabitants, my driver wasn’t given to idle conversation.

Even though it was high summer and the poles for hanging cod were empty, the stink of fish abounded. Much of the cod is now dried in warehouses designed to replicate winter conditions. This turned out to be very handy, as the constant smell meant few tourists stayed for more than a couple of days. The last place I wanted to be was one where everyone else did.

His hostel was a typical, Norwegian clapperboard house painted white. I was alloted a pleasant, but sparsely furnished room. There were six other visitors when I arrived. A German family with three teenage children, and a jolly Swedish woman called Ann-Ulrika, sat chatting in the large communal kitchen.

Within minutes of our meeting the German father had introduced himself as a judge. It was almost as though he felt anxious for a pecking order to be established, the summit of which stood he. Feeling the pronouncement obliged me to explain the reason for my existence on the planet I told him I did a bit of travel writing. Seeming to believe my simple statement warranted a clever answer, he immediately suggested I should try catching whales. It was hard to know whether to titter or challenge his presumptuousness, as I couldn’t make out if he was actually being serious, or if it was intended as a poor joke meant to provoke. Whatever, why so many judges and lawyers think part of their mission in life is to entertain, or belittle, is beyond me. Especially considering they nearly always fail miserably at either, particularly when beyond the hallowed realms of the courtroom. He must  be such a joy for his family to live with. His wife told me she was a teacher in a manner that led me to think time had taught her to be as pleasant as possible to compensate for her boorish spouse. At that the judge felt the urgent need to add he painted watercolours, to show me his creative side. It was almost like listening to the boastings of a five-year-old, and I hardly knew how to react, other than to say I couldn’t wait to see them. I would’ve answered the same to any small child.

Leaning against the house outside was a collection of rusty, old bicycles, which Ann-Ulrika told me were for hostellers to get about the island. Most more than a little the worst for wear, I selected one that seemed more servicable than the others.

Vaeroy WP

Click on map to enlarge

Værøy covers just over seven square miles. A narrow road links the small village of Sørland to the even smaller village of Nordland and the abandoned airport on the north end of the island.

The two main thoroughfares of Sørland encircle the harbour as a horseshoe. Most buildings and warehouses concerned with the fishing industry stand at either end. As the entire island has a population of just under  750, the majority of whom live in Sørland, most of the rest of the village consists of a few streets lined with pleasant wooden houses and gardens. A school and a home for the elderly lie in the middle of the main residential area. Like much of Norway, even the largest buildings are dwarfed by splendid mountains.

In no time at all I’d pedalled my way round all of Sørland. I’d seen the white-painted church, the small supermarket with a coffee shop, the bank and the souvenir and sweetshop. There wasn’t too much else to see.  All were closed, and there was hardly a soul about, except for a few youngsters waiting for the sweetshop to open. I supposed Saturdays were still half-day closing in this part of the world.

At least the only pub on the island was open when rode down a little later in the evening. However, if the atmosphere of Værøy could support much human life I’d seen very little evidence. But there were two fine examples at the bar. A barmaid and her girl friend were engaged in such deep conversation I felt like an alien intruder. Undaunted, I took up a bar stool, far enough away not to appear like an eavesdropper, and signalled for a beer. Once the friend departed I began pumping the barmaid for information, with the height of diplomacy, of course. She was only too happy to oblige with a fairly concise synopsis of her entire life. An attractive woman somewhere in her twenties, Anita originally hailed from Bodø. She and her family had moved to Sweden some years before and she lived and worked in Stockholm most of the year. Summers had her returning north, having grown weary of life in Sweden. Torn between family and the old country, Væroy provided the sort of simple summer entertainment she preferred. As darkness never falls during midsummer, northern people always feel like doing something before the eternal night of winter begins once more. Especially, over the weekends. Even if it’s just whiling away the time chatting and drinking with friends long into the early hours. She lived in one of a few newly-built cabins for tourists behind the pub. So far, the others had yet to be occupied. Rounding off with the most up-to-date information, she told me she finished work at ten. Though I’d liked to have thought it was an invitation, I was sure enough it wasn’t.

Gradually, she found less time to chat as the pub filled with thirsty villagers emerging from wherever they’d been hiding all day. As it turned out, there was more than enough atmosphere to support life on the island. And I was about to find out just how much. Like Saturday nights in bars the world over, as it filled with drinkers, the drinkers filled with drink.

Though the atmosphere increased in volume by the minute, the Sørlanders kept themselves to themselves for the most part. Almost to the point where I might just as well have been invisible. That suited me; I was there as an observer. I learned from the barmaid most islanders don’t care too much for tourists. Not that I needed to be told. As few ever stay on the island much more than a night or two, and most never stray into the pub, they are as uninterested in the tourists, as most tourists are in the islanders.

While the men stuck mainly to beer and spirit chasers, young working girls from the fish factories ordered brightly-coloured cocktails of varying hues, two or three at a time. There were moments when some had up to four different cocktails lined up in rainbow formation before them. Each with its own tiny, paper parasol and cocktail stick. Seeing them sip from one to the other at random, it crossed my mind there might be an awful lot of rainbow-coloured vomit about the village soon after closing.

While most customers focused their attention on the serious business of drinking, I noticed one man come in for an evening meal. Anita whispered across the bar that he was her boss. He ordered steak and chips with a beer and cognac chaser. That was followed by a nip of something in his coffee. She paid him special attention.

Portrait (me) A-U

Sketch of author
by Ann-Ulrika Östgård

Meanwhile, a young man took up the stool next to mine that everyone else seemed to be avoiding. We fell into conversation. Another short life story followed. In his early twenties, he was another local back for the summer. The offer of a job had led him down south to Drammen, not far from Oslo. Many years before I’d once spent a night in Drammen, after a girl I’d met in a bar invited me back to sleep at her house. To my surprise, her father was at home watching telly. He asked me what I did. As his daughter tried  to explain I was an art student, something got lost in translation, and he ended up with the impression I was an ‘artiste’, who performed at a circus. Once we’d reached that far it became too difficult to step back. Anyhow, I quite liked the idea.

As he knocked back beer after beer with whisky chasers, the young man from Drammen began to open up even more. He told me, though he quite liked his job and the life he led in Drammen, he didn’t like all the drug-taking that went on.  Though I’ve stayed with my family in Oslo on many occcasions over the years, and even lived there for a while, I can’t say I noticed it so much, though I know it goes on.

The reluctance of the drinkers to leave kept Anitaworking way after ten. After the drink-up bell sounded, she joined her boss at his table till it was time for everyone to leave. I was just about to get on my bike when she came over to tell me everyone was heading for a dance at the school hall. She invited me to share the island taxi her boss had ordered for a few friends. In the event there wasn’t enough room. Anyway, I had the bike. Besides, nothing is much more than five minute’s cycle ride away in Sørland. The school was even nearer. I arrived at the same moment as the taxi.

There was an admission charge of one hundred kroner. Once inside, it seemed as though the whole population of the island had turned up. Grandmas, grandpas, parents, teenagers and even some children. At a makeshift bar I ordered a plastic beaker of wine. A band of two sang Country and Western, mingled with a couple of pop music classics, to guitars. Dancers, young and old, took to the floor. They were having a whale of a time. Still, each time I tried to start a conversation I was met with a short, but polite, answer. I felt about as welcome as blubber sandwich at a Greenpeace picnic. Since meeting the German judge, and following too many beers, whales were starting to become bit of a theme with me. I was the whale in the room, so to speak, spouting to anyone who’d listen. The perverse side of me began to enjoy it. I’d come to the island for solitude, and it seemed I’d get as much as I wanted with more than an extra dollop for good measure.

I tried to join in the dancing by shuffling around, flapping my fins, but might’ve been a killer whale amongst dolphins for the distance I was shown. Giving up on that I tried to bottlenose in on two peroxide-enhanced beehive blondes, sitting at one of the tables arrranged around the sides of the dance floor. They were with a man who told me he came from Bodø. And that was all he told me. The beehive blondes managed a couple more words apiece before they also fell silent. I know when I’m not wanted.

Gradually, things began to wind down. Anita had left without her boss. It was time to give up, mount my trusty steed and cycle back to the hostel. I was just about sober enough hold on to the handlebars, and keep it in a straightish sort of line. That there was no traffic on the roads meant I had some leeway for a bit of wobbling. Mind you, despite the distinct lack of them, it still took me a while to find the right road. That’s the beauty of small mountainous islands, you can’t get lost. The worst you can do is end up falling off a mountain, or into the sea, whichever direction you travel. Either way, you sober you up real quick. If you don’t die in the process, that is.

It was still light as day when I arrived back at the hostel at some instantly forgotten time in the early hours of the morning. As I climbed into bed I couldn’t help thinking: “I’m going to like it here.”

Copyright © 2014 Bryan Hemming

Edgar Allen Poe’s short story A Descent into the Maelstrøm written in 1841 was set on Værøy, which he refers to as “Vurrgh”. The tale is regarded as one of Poe’s early forms of science fiction. I have climbed the very mountain Poe’s protagonist decribes in his story. I couldn’t bear to approach the edge either. Overcome by an extreme attack of vertigo, I fell to the ground as he did.

The infamous Moskenstraumen maelstrom lies to the north of Værøy between it and the small island of Mosken pictured at the top of the page behind the oldest church still in use in the Lofotens known as Værøy gamle kirke (Old Værøy Church) in the village of Nordland. Though apparently white in the photo, the church is now ox-blood red. The island’s new church in Sørland was built in 1939. Photo by Rolf Kristensen

The following two videos of the story, directed by Scott Strosahl, feature Steve Rimpici and Greg Kilberger.

Part One

Part Two

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