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Above the Arctic Circle


Fri, Nov 28th, 2003
Posted in Features

"We have nine months of winter and three months of poor skiing conditions"

Back in 1976, when I accepted the invitation to visit the Tromsø family, I had no idea they lived among the indigenous Sami people (formally called Lapps) above the Arctic Circle of Norway. Speaking in Norwegian, I had visited only briefly with my new acquaintances, during a train ride from Sandefjord to Drammen, near Oslo, in southern Norway. Impulsively, I had said yes to their invite, without even asking where Tromsø was.

Meeting me at the Drammen train station was my best friend, Marit Waaler, whom I had met earlier that spring on the steps of the University of Minnesota. Back at her parent’s strawberry and tomato farm at Egge i Lier, I told them about my chat on the train and my upcoming plans to go to Tromsø, wherever that was. Marit and her sister, Bjørg, showed me the map and laughed as they said, “Well then you’ll need a bigger backpack to get there”. It was only with Marit’s and Bjørg’s crash course on traveling alone in Norway and the Norwegian survival words taught to me by their father, Sigmund, that I reached Tromsø.

As the crow flies, it’s a distance of 1,089 miles from southern to northern Norway. Traveling by car, train, bus, ferry, and coastal steamer, I saw some of the most incredible scenery in the world on my way to Tromsø, the “Paris of the North.” I was in the “Land of the Midnight Sun,” as well as the “Northern Lights.” This was only a prelude of what lay ahead, when I ventured still farther north and then inland to Kautokeino, where during the winter months there are 2,500 Sami and 70,000 reindeer.

I was immersed in a unique culture based on the Sami’s close relationship with nature. Their lives had been shaped by the landscape of the Arctic Ocean, fjords, and tundra, a Sami word, where generations made their living from reindeer farming, fishing, hunting, and handicrafts. Located on the inland tundra of northern Norway, Kautokeino is the cultural capital of the Sami people and one of the most important reindeer districts.

Getting to Kautokeino

On August 9, 1976, with my new, bigger backpack, sleeping bag, and handful of maps, I set out on my scenic journey to the north, sightseeing along the way.

Crossing the Hallingskarvet Mountain, I traveled by train from Drammen to Voss (near Bergen). Riding the bus from Voss to Gudvangen, I experienced one of northern Europe’s steepest roads with 13 hairpin bends at Stalheim. By ferry to Kaupanger, I crossed Sognefjord, the longest, deepest fjord in the world. I rode the bus from Kaupanger to Sogndal, and then over the Jotunheimen Mountain to Otta. My favorite location was Sognefjellshytta, at the top of the highest mountain pass in northern Europe. And finally, I was back on the train from Otta to Trondheim. I was then about one-third of the way up Norway.

Clad in my blue and white, stripped busserull (traditional work shirt) with the big Norges Bygdeungdomslad (Norwegian Young Farmers Organization) patch and sporting waist length blond hair, I guess I must have looked as they say, hele norsk (whole Norwegian). Using my Norwegian Youth Hostel card, I stayed economically along the way. From Trondheim, I hitched four rides to Namsos.

Hitchhiking during 1976, in northern Norway, was considered a common way to travel and almost a necessity for students. There were and still are no trains in the northern one-third of the country.

Norway has one of the roughest and longest coastlines in the world. From Namsos, I traveled the short ride by boat to Rørvik and then boarded the Hurtigruten (coastal steamer) “M/S Polarlys.” The 46-hour express ride along the coast crossed over the Arctic Circle just south of Bodø. I was now about two-thirds of the way to the far north. From Bodø, the Hurtigruten crossed over the rough open sea to the Lofoten Islands, renowned for their sheer, jagged mountain peaks and traditional cod fishing. Meandering through the chain of islands, the coastal steamer arrived in Tromsø on August 19, and I was welcomed with open arms by Wilhelm, his wife Aud, and their sons.

My 11-day trip from the strawberry and tomato farm in Drammen to Tromsø had only wet my appetite for adventure. On August 21, Wilhelm and Aud gave me the opportunity go up in the cable car with a National Geographic photographer to film the sun coming up. Some 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the sun never sets in Tromsø from May 21 to July 23, but also never rises from November 25 to January 21.

On August 27, I boarded the tugboat, “Blue Boy,” which belonged to Aud’s brother, to deliver supplies to Fugløykalven fry, the lighthouse on the north side of the island Fugløya, about 70 1/4 º latitude and close to 20º longitude. We had left just after midnight and were only two hours into the trip when an unpredicted, violent storm hit. When we arrived at the lighthouse overlooking the Arctic Ocean at 4:30 a.m.., the waves were spraying over the top of the tugboat, and the crew was unable to hook up the hoses to unload the oil and drinking water. I ended up hitchhiking back to Tromsø on the fishing boat “M/S Garnfisk,” while the “Blue Boy” held out for better weather at Vannvåg, on the island Vanna. I had been seasick enough to last a lifetime.

Prior to hitchhiking 500 miles in three days from Tromsø to Kautokeino, I went to the local museum, where I saw numerous Sami exhibits. I also spent several days reading about Sapmi (Samiland or Lapland) at the public library. Along the coastal route, I toured Hammerfest, which has the distinction of being the northernmost town in the world. Nordcapp (the North Cape) was only a short distance away, but getting there meant crossing the sea again, which was not appealing.

The last hour of my 23-day journey to Kautokeino, I hitched a ride with three Sami men, who spoke their native language and Norwegian, but no English. They were dressed in their traditional colorful attire. Before driving me to the youth hostel, they taught me the local village saying: “We have nine months of winter and three months of poor skiing condition.”

Indigenous People

The Sami people live in an area called Sapmi that stretches through four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. The small, indigenous group is estimated at 100,000 with half of the population living in Norway and most of them living in Finnmark, the northernmost county of Norway. The Sami people are considered indigenous because their ancestors inhabited the area before it was settled or the present borders were drawn. They also have their own distinct social, economic, cultural, and political institutions.

Each Sami group I observed had a slightly different type of costume, with Kautokeino’s Sami having the most colorful of any in Sapmi. Men, women, and children wore bright, blue tunics everyday. The women’s tunics were dress length, and the men’s were shorter. They were decorated over the shoulder, chest, neck, cuffs, and hem with bright red, green, and yellow colored bands. Both the men and women wore ornate leather belts, however, the men slid theirs down around their hips making the upper part of the tunic a storage place for anything they were likely to need. The women also wore a bright silk or woolen scarf over their shoulders.

Knowing the shape, color, and pattern of a Sami’s headgear allows you to identify their native district. Hats worn by Kautokeino’s men and boys were about a foot tall and also decorated with colored bands. The floppy blue fabric in the back of their hats had four points, representing the four winds. Leather boots with turned up toes were used in the summer, whereas reindeer skin moccasins filled with dry grass were worn the rest of the year. During the winter, both sexes wore narrow reindeer skin trousers under their tunics as well as heavy reindeer skin coats.

The Sami winter is renowned for it’s cold, snow, Northern Lights, and the silence of the boundless Finnmark Mountain Plateau. Located on the same latitude as Siberia, Greenland, and Alaska, the coldest temperature on record in Kautokeino was in 1886, when it was minus 60.5ºF. As recent as January 26, 1999, a freezing wind from Siberia was blamed for the almost inhuman temperatures of -58.5ºF in the village. Most of the people in Kautokeino lived in simple wooden structures and were semi-nomadic. The majority still followed the reindeer on the big migrations, but they returned to live in the village in between times.

At the Youth Hostel in Kautokeino, I lived in the same wooden house as the Sami owner, Anna, and her son, Alfred. Anna offered me a job for a few hours each day helping her cut out letters and reindeer from felt, for the Hilsen fra Kautokeino (Hello from Kautokeino) souvenirs she sold. It was a great opportunity to drink black coffee with Anna and listen to her stories about their unique way of life. I learned that the Sami people even walk differently, shifting their bodies from side to side, making long distance travel more efficient. It isn’t very polite to ask a Sami how many reindeer he has, as it is about like asking how much money he has in the bank.

The everyday use of the Sami language is a decisive point in determining one’s right to be classified as a Sami. Unlike Norwegian, which is a Germanic language, the Sami language belongs to the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic family, which is more closely related to Finnish and Hungarian. They have 100 words for snow, some 400 words for reindeer, and about 50 different names for the color of the reindeer coat.

In English, the word “Lapp” has been replaced with “Sami”. Lapp is considered a derogatory term, since it means patch of cloth for mending, suggesting that the Sami are wearing patched clothing.

Staying in Anna’s Youth Hostel, next to the main house, were two French and one German student. The language barrier became almost comical at times with the Frenchman speaking to me in English, and the German student speaking in German, so I could translate into Norwegian for Anna. I’ll never forget the day the German student arrived and asked if Germans were allowed at the Youth Hostel. Anna later explained to me that the Nazi’s during World War II burned to the ground every single building in Kautokeino and nearly every home in the county of Finnmark. Hard feelings still existed amongst her people.

The Sami observe not four but eight seasons a year, with each being a separate phase of reindeer breeding. The different tasks carried out in the different seasons bring a rhythm to their lives, controlled primarily by the movements of the reindeer. To identify ownership of the reindeer, a unique set of notches is cut with a knife in the animal’s ear.

Both the reindeer bulls and cows annually grow antlers during the summer. After rutting and competing to breed the cows in the autumn, the males begin to shed their antlers, which is completed by mid-December. Female reindeer retain their antlers until after calving in the spring to protect their newborn against predators. Santa’s reindeer, every single one of them from Rudolph to Blitzen, most likely were females.

Easter in Kautokeino is a special event with people converging from various parts of Sapmi. Reindeer races are held to celebrate their culture and way of life, as the reindeer herders prepare to follow their herds to the mountains near the sea. The vast majority of the Sami belong to the Lutheran Church. This is more than just a religious holiday. Lively celebrations are held with marriages, Sami music, and theatre performances, using beautiful sets made of snow and taking advantage of the Northern Lights as dramatic backdrop.

During the winter, about 70,000 reindeer return to the Kautokeino area. Of these, about 15,000 were slaughtered annually in the village’s modern slaughterhouse. The reindeer were still in the mountains when I was in Kautokeino. On September 29, I returned to the strawberry and tomato farm far in the south, after my 52-day trip that started on a whim.

The city of Tromsø is applying to host the Olympic winter games in 2014. If their offer is accepted, it would be the first ever games within the arctic region. The event would have a distinct Sami influence promoting Norway as a nation of culture and sports. What a tribute this would be to one of the oldest surviving cultures in the world, the beautiful indigenous Sami people of the Arctic.

Deb Nelson Gourley was raised on the family 150-year-old original homestead farm in Amherst (near Preston, MN) and is writing a book about her Norwegian heritage. You can visit the author’s Norwegian Ancestry Series at www.fillmorecountyjournal.com for all of her stories. She can be contacted at gourleyd@sbtek.net

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