Arctic life can be a real beach

Mummy WP HAVE YOU EVER woke up after a couple of drinks feeling a like gang of Ancient Egyptians must’ve broken into the house overnight and mummified you? So it’s not just me then? Seriously, opening my eyes to find myself wrapped tight in a sleeping bag, in a very small attic, of a very small schoolhouse, in a very small abandoned village, on a very small Norwegian island in the Arctic, was exactly like that. I felt like death itself. But not warmed up. It was the Arctic, when all’s said and done. The steep pitch of the roof and dried-out musty odour didn’t help, serving only to add to the overall pyramid flavour of the experience.

I could vaguely recall knockng back endless cans of pilsener during the dance at the pub. And then even more after the boat trip to Måstad. Solely to wet my whistle while nattering to Turid so far into the wee hours we got to the one where early risers get up and they ain’t so wee anymore. But, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember mounting the stairs to the attic and stuffing myself into a sleeping bag fully-clothed. It’s the zips that give you that mummified feeling. Along with the excessive alcohol, which increases the sensation of having been embalmed whilst alive. In my case, half-alive.

Like sardine cans with ring pulls, zips on old-fashioned sleeping bags seem designed to prevent you from getting in when the need is greatest. And once morning comes they prevent you getting out when you’re absolutely desperate. It’s best not to writhe around like Harry Houdini escaping from straitjacket at the end of a rope, as I did. It gets you so hot and bothered your body expands and you panic. Despite the natural urge to rip the thing apart, the trick is to calm down or you’ll never locate the zip opener. I promise I’ll never put a paper bag over a kitten’s head again.

Trying to stand up with your feet still tangled in the thing, while suffering a hangover, in a normal room is hard enough. If you can do it in a dark attic, without bumping your head and falling over, your deserve your own TV show. When people start nailing hulking great bits of timber all over the place it’s nigh impossible. I mean, are so many bits of wood really that necessary to hold up a roof?

The knowledge I’d managed to get some sleeep was no consolation, as I had no memory of enjoying the experience. I might just as well have been dead for the interval, for all the refreshment it provided. Yet I must’ve slept, otherwise I couldn’t have woken up. The romanticism of the location had faded horribly overnight. After all, a dark, old attic is just a dark, old attic once the polish of alcohol wears off. It’s a place where people stumble about, terrified of spiders, knocking their heads and elbows on large bits of wood that shouldn’t be there.

At the same time as feeling like a mummy rising from the dead, I felt extremely unsavoury in a more earthly way. Apart from beery breath and stale sweat, I had that sleeping bag smell clinging to me. The same one a raggedy, old dog’s blanket, which has been left in a small tent on a humid afternoon, gives off.

Once downstairs the wall clock in the kitchen insisted with brutal indifference I must’ve slept. In the reprimanding manner clocks are so good at, its inscrutable face showed several hours had elaspsed since I’d somehow been teleported up to the attic. Quarter to eleven. I had to have slept because it said so; its ticking on more of a ticking off. That’s clocks for you. Never content with just telling the time, they get a vicarious thrill out of the fact you’re late, or have missed your train. Even when it’s clearly their fault, for being wrong in the first place. Which, as everybody with even half a brain knows, they often are, despite the disbelieving stares of teachers, bosses, and judges the world over. As my memory percolated back, I recalled thinking I was sober when I climbed into the sleeping bag. Obviously that was not the case.

The fact it was an old schoolhouse I’d woken into only added to my cloying sensation of guilt. It wouldn’t have surprised me in the least had someone ordered me to stand in a corner. The classroom must’ve witnessed more than it’s fair share of Lutheran, guilt-inducing moralising. And now it was doing some of its own.

Line was already up. A beautiful, sunny, summer, Arctic morning, we went out to enjoy it as best we could, given our states. Anywhere to get away from the accusing stare of the clock. Dumping ourselves down in some chairs set on the terrace, she told me Paal had taken the cruiser into Sørland for supplies. Turid had gone with him to pick up her daughter, who’d spent the night with her grandparents.

A pair of sea eagles wheeled about the cliff tops directly above us. Ever seen one of those Westerns where buzzards wheel above the prairie making that screeing sound? It usually indicates the presence of a corpse or two below. So you can imagine my unease.

Nordland has the largest number of sea eagles in the world. Its great distance from the most densely populated parts of Europe, makes one of the least polluted on the continent.

The sea, or white-tailed, eagle, is the largest eagle in Europe with a wingspan of up to 2.45m. It can live for up to 25 years. Carrion provides a part of its diet. Feeling the need to show them I wasn’t dead yet, I moved about a bit.

Of the boys from the guttetur (lad’s piss-up), Lars was still sleeping somewhere outside. With a bit of luck, if the sea eagles were really hungry, they’d go for him first. Ketil came out of the school with cans of beer instead of my usual morning cup of tea. What the hell,  if that was the local custom, who was I to offend everyone by breaking old traditions? The first slug was like nectar with bubbles rushing straight to my brain. Seeing how it’d felt bit like a dried-up walnut left over from Christmas, ever since I’d made my miraculous escape from the sleeping bag, my mind soon filled with the illusion I was invincible once again.

The houses still standing on Måstad have stonewall gardens. There are also stone foundations where houses must have once stood. By the state of the ruins it appeared all the oldest houses and outhouses had been constructed of stone in times gone by. The ones that remained standing were constructed of wood. They looked to be around a hundred years old. The stone ruins must be centuries older. Most likely, the earliest houses were made of stone because of a lack of trees on the island. Squeezed between mountain and sea, land must have been too valuable for growing trees instead of vegetables. And though much of the mainland is covered by huge forests of fir and pine it was probably far too expensive to bring it by sea to build houses. But rocks and stones lay freely available everywhere. For the most part, Værøy is composed of little else.

Next door to the school stood a clapboard house in a desperate state of disrepair. Line and I observed a man putting a hasp and padlock on an outhouse, which seemed in far greater need of a new roof and a lick or two of paint than a new lock. It was the drunken, angry man in buzzing around in his boat as we anchored in the early hours of the morning.

It was hard to imagine what lay behind the door so precious it needed securing now we were about. Perhaps it was a still. Because of the expense of alcohol in Norway, a lot of older Norwegians distill their own hooch. Believe me, most of it’s so awful you wouldn’t give it to your worst enemy. It’d go a long way to explain his agitation at our early morning arrival. He probably woke abruptly thinking it was a police raid.

As Turid had been a few hours before, Line, proved to be a mine of local information. She told me the angry man didn’t actually own the house, but only made out that he did. None of the actual owners lived on Værøy anymore, from what I could gather. I didn’t catch the full story, as she was telling me in Norwegian, and I was fascinated by the seemingly pointless labour of the angry man.

Paal returned in the guttetur cruiser with Nils and his young paramour, along with a cargo of food, cigarettes, newspapers and yet more beer.

We sat around and ate an informal breakfast, wandering in and out of  the kitchen to help ourselves to cheese, bread and cold meats. And beer, of course, everybody needed beer.

The weather got so warm it was beach time. As luck would have it, just on the other side of the bay lay a small, sandy beach.

Seeming to appear out of nowhere, a boy in a rubber dinghy arrived to ferry us out to the guttetur cabin cruiser anchored in the bay. Climbing aboard, it appeared like one of those cabin cruisers you see on US TV crime movies set in Florida. White and streamlined with plush seating round the open deck, a sophisticated stereo system pumped out loud music. All gave of the whiff of newness, luxury and wealth. I could quite imagine a body in a sack chained to a whopping great anchor being heaved over the side. The motor throbbing into life, we shot off.

Half the islanders seemed to have had the same idea. The bay was crowded with a motley assortment of small craft at anchor, while the beach was packed with mostly very white bodies stretched out to soak up some sun. Small children splashed about at the water’s edge.

The Arctic waters are much warmer than I’d have expected, a lot of young boys were swimming. Paal called another handy boy in a dinghy to take us into shore, as other youngsters climbed aboard the foredeck of the cruiser to use it as a platform for diving. Those boys in dinghies seemed to be everywhere.

We loaded the dinghy with picnic supplies; chicken wings, pølser (Norwegian franfurters), bread rolls and potato cakes. Paal had also brought a disposable, charcoal grill, made from tinfoil. And beer, of course, I mustn’t forget the beer. I can’t, there was far too much to forget.

The boy steered us into the shallows. Wading the last few metres to shore we found a vacant patch of sand. Sheltered from even the slightest breeze by a mountain, the sun was so hot we might have been by the Mediterranean.

Once the tinfoil grill was lit, and the charcoal had almost turned to ashes, we loaded it with chicken wings and pølser. In no time at all, we were ripping into bread rolls and potato cakes filled with half-cooked pølser washed down with beer, while waiting for the chicken wings to cook properly.

After eating, a few of the more hardy got up to play beach volley ball. With not enough players for two teams of six,  Paal roped me in. It wasn’t a very competitive game, the young boys, and one young teenage girl, seeming to take pity on the frail and disorientated. We soon slumped back onto the sand again. A few stray clouds began drifting over the mountains, obscuring the sun and reminding us we were in the Arctic. It became quite chilly. Paal called for the boy with the dinghy to take us back to the cabin cruiser so we could return to the schoolhouse.

To finish off the afternoon, Paal and the others decided to take a walk up the steep winding path to the top of the mountain. Having had little sleep, and too much to drink. I wasn’t so keen, but was persuaded to join them. About half way up, deciding I’d had enough, I plumped myself down on a rock to catch my breath and enjoy the magnificent view of the village and bay below.

In former days, a small community of over a hundred lived in Måstad. Not only was there a school, but also a shop, Line had told me. People had lived on that side of Værøy for thousands of years, there were even cave drawings from the Paleolithic era to prove it.

It wasn’t long before Line came hurrying back down the path. With hardly a pause, she told me in a breathless voice she’d been overcome by a severe attack of vertigo while looking down. Now she was almost in a state of panic trying to get to the bottom of the mountain as quickly as possible. If she wasn’t careful that might be a lot sooner than she anticipated. I followed her, worried she might stumble. But so desperate to get down was she, I couldn’t keep up without risking falling myself. There was nothing I could do but shrug my shoulders and continue to take in the view, instead of ending up a heap of carrion on the rocks below.

I finally caught up with her where the path began to even out, as she slowed down, and we returned to the schoolhouse together.

Our earlier than expected return, caught Nils and his paramour up to no good. We could little else but smile at each other, as the lovers complained of the heat as reason for their exhaustion, without us having to go through all the bother of asking. With that they made a swift exit, saying they were off for a walk to cool down.

Line told me that she had a young son of almost ten years old. She said were a lot of single parents in the area. She told me she lived and worked in Bodø, but didn’t like her job very much. Having been on holiday for a few weeks, she had to go back to Bodø the next day. She was tired of her extended binge. I remembered the first time we met, some weeks before, on the ferry to the island. An early afternoon, she was so hungover she had to retire below decks to the cabin she’d booked for the short voyage. Adding to her alcoholic nightmare, a friend of hers was having a jentetur soon after her return from holiday, and she wasn’t looking forward to that at all. Anita the barmaid from Sweden was going with her.

When two of the guttetur boys returned with Paal, there was much talk of how they felt angry at Nils for not telling them about his plan to meet his young lover. His wife, Gerd, had rang so many times, asking for him, it was becoming obvious they were all in for a rigorous interrogation back in Svolvær. They didn’t feel comfortable being involved in his little conspiracy without having been forewarned. The young girl was the daughter of one of the island’s millionaires. She was barely nineteen, but looked older.

Lars took his sleeping bag out into the fields for another nap. The rest of us settled down for more cans of beers and a drop or two of the hard stuff. By the time everyone returned, it was time to set off back to Sørland. Along the voyage a plan was hatched to finish off the weeekend with a meal at the pub restaurant. It was going to be an expensive weekend for a writer on a budget, but I it didn’t seem right not to join them, after spending so many hours together. Everybody had been so hospitable and friendly.

Line told me Nils, Lars and Ketil had hired the cabin cruiser for the guttetur and would soon have to return  it.

I spotted a seal’s head pop up out of the sea before plunging straight back. A large four-masted sailing ship lay near the horizon, and I wondered if it was the one sailing into Hammerfest next month. Geggen had told me he was to escort it into harbour aboard Crazy Horse (his little boat named after the Neil Young band) along with many othersWe arrived back at the quay. And I hopped on my bike.

The others climbed into the van Paal’s son had waiting by the quayside. Popping in the rorbu briefly, to shower and pick up some cash, back at the restaurant a large round table had been set with a brass candelabra placed in its centre. I lit the candles and we ordered. The boys had fish, Line and Paal had beef and garlic, and I decided to have a steak, on my first meal out since Hammerfest. A couple of bottles of  wine appeared. The steak was good. Line smiled in my direction a couple of times. We’d both enjoyed our little conversations, as I’d enjoyed talking to Turid well into the morning.

Paal ordered coffees and brandies. The guttetur boys were getting drunk again. Meanwhile, Paal’s son began doing a set with one of the other members of the band from the night before. Flowing alcohol was followed by raucous behaviour. From being virtually deserted, the bar filled, and there was dancing again.

The attractive woman from the previous night, who I judged to be the mother of one of the members of the band, was there again. She was sitting at a table with another attractive woman, who could have been her sister. I learned she was Paal’s former wife, and mother to their son who was performing. The evening went on. The guttetur boys were dancing, Lars was dying to dance on the table again. When stopped he tried putting the brass candelabra on his head instead, but it was quickly removed from the table by Anita, the barmaid.

Paal and I chatted during much of the meal. We were getting on well. He even invited me to the guttetur he and the boys were planning to Dublin. A singer with his own band, he got up to sing with his son a couple of times.

And so, another evening got swallowed by the early hours. We were all having a such fine time, nobody wanted to call time on it. But even the best of things must come to an end. To round off, the duo played The Wild Rover. The reception from the assembly reached fever pitch as everybody joined in the chorus, banging on tables, almost in time, with enthusiastic appreciation. An encore was demanded.

A fisherman I’ve had exchanges with by the rorbu approached me for a chat. Paal’s son introduced me to his mother, but I don’t remember him telling me her name. She smiled shyly. As I got onto my bike she was climbing into a car. She gave me a second beautiful smile.

Riding through the ever-present pale grey, light that is night for most of the Arctic summer, the realization dawned I’d finally been accepted by the islanders as part of their small community. They were proving to be a very friendly and generous crowd, who took their own sweet time getting to know people, only when and if they wanted. I’d gone out to a dance for a couple of hours on Friday evening, and somehow I was riding my bike back in the small hours of Sunday morning, feeling popular for the first time in a long time. It felt good.

Copyright © 2014 Bryan Hemming


2 thoughts on “Arctic life can be a real beach

  1. Your stories are always such a pleasant escape, Byran. I know so little about Norwegian culture, so I found all of the little traditions very interesting. Your sleeping bag hijinks were hilarious. I actually felt claustrophobic! Isn’t it wonderful when we are able to penetrate a small, tightly-knit community?


    • Thanks Julie,
      Having a Norwegian heritage, while being born and brought up in England, I can identify with your own mixed background very well. Whenever an appreciative comment pops up on something I posted some time ago, I revisit the piece. This particular epsiode seems to tail of a bit around the middle and needs some serious work. The Arctic island pieces are meant to be edited and linked together at some point in a future that gets a day shorter every day.


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