Follow the Water

Journey to the heart of Norway.

This story appears in the November 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Bird cries seem to claw at the bright summer sky. The birds themselves—puffins, gannets, gulls, guillemots—whirl in a tumult around the bluff islands rising from the water. We have put to sea about as far north as you can put to sea, off the uppermost cape of coastal Norway, high above the Arctic Circle. The boat pitches and heaves in the rockbound channels, and I rediscover an old truth. Seabirds are good at flying and floating, swimming and diving, and almost nothing else. They run across the saltwater until it seems they’ll never get aloft, and they land like heavy raindrops on the foamy spill from a crashing wave.

But while airborne, surveying these waters with cocked heads, they’re the masters of this ragged shore, these broken islands along the northern fringe of Norway, which fits like a skullcap over Sweden and Finland. Here, and eastward toward Russia, Norway meets the ocean bluntly, hills scraped bare, protruding fist-like into the Barents Sea. No one knows the whole of the Norwegian coast, and among its lesser known reaches is the edge of the Varanger Peninsula, which ends at a point farther east than St. Petersburg. It is a low, rimy strand studded with ancient boulders, a world away from Bergen and bathed in copper light among the endless archipelagoes where the fjords run out to sea.

You could, of course, drive from Bergen to Vardø, at the eastern point of the Varanger Peninsula. But a glance at a map or a set of nautical charts makes it clear that a car is just an encumbrance here. For the past 120 years vessels of the famous Hurtigruten (literally, “swift route”) have provided a lifeline linking isolated communities to the larger world. Traveling aboard this coastal express, miles make no difference—and at the height of the midnight sun, hours make no difference either. You tell time by the progression of ports: Bodø, Svolvær, Tromsø.

Taken all in all, south to north, the coast of Norway may be the most complex land edge on the planet. In 2011 Norwegian geographers completed a three-year project to recalculate the length of their coastline. Using new techniques and better maps, they added thousands of islands and islets that had never been included in the total before. In all, Norway’s measured seashore grew by some 11,000 miles. If you hammered Norway’s 63,000 miles of fjords, bays, and island shores into a single line, it would circle the planet two and a half times. All that in a country less than 1,100 miles from south to north. Whether you stand on the terminal heights above Geirangerfjorden, looking down into its yawning blue deep, or in the bow of a small boat besieged by seabirds, it’s hard to say whether the sea is encroaching on the Norwegian landmass, or the land into the body of the sea.

The water may look more continuous than the land, but it is certainly no simpler. To travel the Norwegian coast is to glimpse an endless discontinuity between land and water, the restless inventiveness of eons of ice. Miles inland, in the heart of Norway’s longest fjord, Sognefjorden, the water deepens to 4,000 feet only a few hundred yards from shore. Farther north, cod-drying racks and tight red boathouses look out over water that is hundreds of feet deep. And yet among the outermost islands in the Lofoten chain—a broken tusk of snow-covered peaks thrusting into the Norwegian Sea—the water shoals away slowly, only a few feet deep, as if these islands rose no higher than the back of a blowing whale.

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Maps of the Norwegian Sea show a strong current—an extension of the Gulf Stream—bearing northward along the coast. These are relatively warm waters, the kind that make human life bearable as far as 70° north latitude, well above the Arctic Circle, as far north as the northernmost tip of Alaska. But what looks on the map like a steady current is actually a chaos of meanders and eddies, wandering and interweaving. If you set yourself adrift in a boat, a graceful, traditional færing perhaps, you might be driven onto a strandflat—an etched surface of bedrock barely rising above the waves—or wind endlessly in and out among the skerries near the mouths of the great western fjords. You might careen out to sea only to swirl in again, caught in the eddy revolving below the Lofoten Islands. Catch the right current, and you would spin into the Barents Sea, like a diatom drifting northward and eastward, enriching the island-strewn gannet waters before sinking to the seabed.

From the deck of a working vessel, it looks as though little has changed along the northern coast since a voyager named Ohthere made his way up and into the Barents Sea in the late ninth century. He called the country “weste land”—Old English for “wasteland,” meaning unsettled, though coastal Sami were living there then, as they do today. The land still looks wild and wave battered, as if it were rising rapidly (as it is, in geological terms) and shaking off the sea. Well offshore, you can understand the affinity that Norwegian explorers like Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen felt with the sea. And inshore—watching still water mirror the pilings in Tromsø harbor—you can feel how domestic the sheltering hills are. In this seabooted country, nearly everyone is bilingual, speaking equally the language of earth and ocean.

And so nearly everywhere there is still a certain ceremony in the coming of the Hurtigruten, which is one of the ways time is told in the most remote ports. It may be 3 a.m., but people will be waiting for the ship to dock in the long shadow of the midnight sun. Some have business here in the wharfside warehouses, but some have come just to watch a sight that deserves watching. From high on deck, even in the smallest harbor, you can see a part of the great Norwegian fleet—fishing boats, fast commuter ferries, boats serving the offshore oil fields, sailboats on spring lines against the pier, tankers and container ships, barges with dredging shovels resting amidships, sleek powerboats, restored wooden yachts that catch the water’s gleam. Here and there you might even spot a clinker-built, canoe-ended contraption that looks like a miniature tugboat, too small, too worn-out to take on the Norwegian Sea but going to sea nonetheless—a sentiment that might well be the motto all along this rugged, glorious coast.