Vibrant green byways across a cerulean blue sea; white sand beaches and sun that seems to never leave. You’d almost think it was one of a thousand equatorial beach getaways, to hear it. When really, this dazzling land of food, color, fish, and stone is entirely unique, lying 150 km above the arctic circle.
The Lofoten islands are a closely knit chain that extends out from mainland Norway into the Arctic ocean. In May, the midnight sun lays low on the sparkling horizon, peaking through north facing fjords.
From a distance, Lofoten seems inhospitable. It’s a land of rocky islets and jagged reefs of rock, skerries of gneiss and granite that protrude 1,000 meters from the bare ocean. The horizon is saw-toothed and striking. The chill of the air can reach your very center. But bustling through it all is such rich human experience and history, countless lives lived.
At this latitude, 68th north, you’d find Russian reindeer-herding communities or the Yukon, rigid with permafrost. Lofoten’s landscape is by no means gentle. It has bare rocky soil and sheer drops into frigid water. But compared with the harsh cold of the arctic tundra, Lofoten seems kind.
The land’s generosity is entirely thanks to the gulf stream, drawing warm waters up through the north atlantic current. Lofoten reaches out into that stream of invisible life source, where warmth grazes past and creates a more temperate microclimate both above and below the surface of the ocean.
This region has been settled for over 11,000 years, by some estimates. Caves in the island system held scattered bones from stone-age settlements, and 3,000 year old cave drawings that were likely drawn by the light of the midnight sun. Those ancient people ate herring and seal, birds and berries. Most of all, they ate from the massive, swirling multitude of North Atlantic cod.
Every year, cod travel 1,000 kilometers or more from the Barents Sea to spawning grounds along the coast of Norway. Lofoten is the greatest nursery of all, with deep channels, perfect salinity, and warm temperatures from that life-giving current.
Fishermen flock by the thousands to catch the winter stock of cod, as they have done since the viking age. For nearly a millennium, fishermen migrated along with the fish to the Lofoten islands and took shelter in small temporary houses known as rorbu. These brightly colored shore-line fishing cottages are now mostly used as rural boutique vacation stays.
These islands have a rich history. The largest viking house ever discovered, stretching 83 meters end to end, is on one of the eastern isles. The building was first erected in the 500s, predating the Viking age. It housed generations of chieftans, as well as their family and friends, accommodating up to 50 people at one time. One end was also a built-in stable, where chieftain’s horses and cows stayed safe from the harsh winter cold.
Today, you can tour the reconstructed longhouse. Insulated with thick peat walls and ornate wooden carvings, you walk through the space and smell tar and peat smoke. Women weave tapestries as blacksmiths weld, and you can eat the wind-dried cod, as delectable in the 1200s as it is today.
Although the longhouses went out of fashion, life in Lofoten looked relatively similar from the days of vikings up until the 1960’s. Husbands and sons went out to sea to fish, while wives and daughters wrestled the rocky slopes for crops and forage for livestock. By the 1970s, the local economy shifted away from subsistence to more industrial-scale fishing, while women looked for work outside of the home.
In the early 20th century, famed Norwegian author and five-time Nobel Prize nominee Johan Bojer wrote about life in Lofoten in his novel, “The Last of the Vikings.” He describes the desolate beauty of hard work and rugged countryside, as well as a generous but unpredictable sea.
He’s far from the only person to tell tales of the stunning land. Norwegian folklore spins tales of magic fishing grounds and islands of trolls around the westernmost islets. Edgar Allen Poe even wrote of the place, opening with a poor character on the “sheer unobstructed precipice of black shining rock,” looking down into the notorious and deadly Maelstrom current.
Lofoten is full of contradictions. It’s both harsh and beautiful. Fecund beyond measure and arid to the bone on mountain slopes. All things are tempered in this place. On the west sides of the islands, too much good weather will be checked by a dense fog which smothers seaside hamlets. And the dark of winter is tempered by roaring fires and the prancing ribbons of color from the aurora borealis.
Riding on the surface, it’s hard to imagine the scope of life teeming just beneath the shimmering water. Harder yet to imagine the length of human history in this place. How many people, so similar to yourself, looked out into this water, lavender in the summer light? As they waited on their line to tug, their net to fill, their moment when life arose, splashing and glimmering and fighting up to the surface.