Thursday, June 2, 2011

Among the Vikings...For Real

A few weeks ago, I ran on trails that winded through the woods and around the graves of true Norse Vikings. I may have even “accidentally” climbed on top of one—each is a massive five to fifteen foot high lump of earth that contains the remains of the Viking along with his prized possessions. But although I may now be cursed, or at the very least considered a heretic, it was a unique experience. And it was a very Norwegian one.

Tonje hails from the relatively small town of Steinkjer, Norway. Part of her family lives just outside the town in an area called Egge (pronounced “egg-eh”) which also happens to be the final resting place of numerous Vikings: proceed with the Brett Favre jokes. A two-hour train ride from Trondheim, Steinkjer is now an industrial town. But you can also find unspoiled nature, ancient history and great fishing within minutes in every direction: it’s breathtaking. The people there lead simple lives, but good ones. And in addition to sampling the delicious local cuisine that Tonje’s mom prepared, I also had the opportunity to experience some truly special moments during my most recent visit.

About 30 minutes from the city center, Tonje’s family has a cabin resting atop a rocky outcrop overlooking one of the countless Norwegian fjords. Painted in the traditional red and white colors often associated with the country’s residential and agricultural buildings, it conjures images of simpler times and Norway’s older fishing culture: a culture that I was intent on exploring.

After building a small fire on the rocks and grilling some pølse med lompe (hot dog in a wrap), Tonje and I grabbed some fishing rods and tested our luck from the edge of the fjord. The first two things I caught (after nearly stepping in moose droppings) were myself and the rock I was standing on. Off to a good start, I then spent 30 minutes in a vicious battle with a clump of seaweed: those raggedy weeds were not the trophy I had envisioned after soaking myself in sweat. Clearly, I am no Norman Maclean. But my luck would change…kind of.

Tonje’s stepdad thought we might have better luck if we took a boat out onto the water. Now you may be envisioning a fully-equipped bass-fishing boat, a majestic sailing vessel or even something with a motor. But our little skiff was straight out of The Old Man and the Sea: big enough for two, but you better not stand up in that thing. Charming and rustic as it was, my hesitancy to test the rowboat’s buoyancy grew when Tonje’s stepdad pulled up one of the floorboards and made sure that the contents plugging a hole in the boat’s stern were firmly in place. We then dragged the boat over some 50 feet of large rocks—assuredly dislodging whatever was plugging the hole—and into the fjord.

I had made the novice mistake of responding “kind of” when asked earlier whether or not I had ever rowed a boat. An honest answer, but expectations are clearly higher here in Norway. After 15 seconds at the helm, Tonje was declared Designated Rower for the duration of our stay there and I was demoted to Designated Beer Drinker/Rower Motivator. We checked the crab and fish pots that her stepdad had set a few days before, and with no luck there we positioned ourselves in the boat—in what seemed like the best way to prevent capsizing—and cast our lures into the briny deep.

As it seemed fitting, and since I am frequently obnoxious, I sang the theme song to “Gilligan’s Island” at least twenty times while waiting for a bite. Since Tonje probably hasn’t seen many American sitcoms from the 1960s, she probably just thought I was insane. But apparently the fish gods were big fans because sometime after “…a three-hour tour!” I felt a firm tug on the end of my line. And this guy was fighting. I struggled a bit less with the leviathan than I did with the seaweed and practically flipped the boat in my excitement when I saw him wriggling on the end of my line as I brought him to the surface. Flopping frantically, the kraken flew into the boat, and writhed around like a beast only Melville could conjure up. I then realized that my knowledge of fishing had expired and asked, “What do I do now?” Tonje, very politely, informed me that it was a pollock and this one was far too small to eat and that we needed to throw it back. All visions of a black-and-white photograph of me standing on the dock next to a crane-like scale straining to support my kill vanished into thin air. My depression was short-lived though as I realized that even though I wasn’t going to get the opportunity to “live off the land” like Bear Grylls or Gollum, I still caught a fish damn it. (For you fisherman, this guy was like 12 inches long, so, not “tiny” by my standards).

That night we ate crab that Tonje’s stepdad caught and some smoked salmon that was prepared just down the road. We savored some good wine too. We shot pellet guns and read outside under the light of the midnight sun. But most importantly, we relaxed and enjoyed nature. I didn’t hear the rumble of a car engine or even many human voices for that matter. The houses in the area didn’t have driveways for the most part: they were just there, built into the land and not disturbing much. The trip to Steinkjer and the fjord reminded me of why I like Norway so much. (1) Tonje’s family is incredible. Endlessly generous and kind, they make me feel like I am at home when I physically couldn’t be much further away. And (2) the people here respect the land, they appreciate the good things in life and they intend to keep it that way.

“No phones, no lights, no motor car,
Not a single luxury.
Like Robinson Crusoe,
It’s primitive as can be!”

Sorry, I just had to.

1 comment:

  1. Hah! I just wrote something on Gillian's Island and a supposed 3-hr tour on my blog - I promise before reading yours! Wondering what it is about Norway that reminds us of G.I. and I think you summed it up! Not many luxuries, but still a wonderful play to live ... that and that I am still trying to figure out how I ended up here! :)