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.