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Stories from Norway

It’s an extreme place to live. If you’re a human.

You do not tame nature on the Norwegian coast. You don’t let nature overwhelm you. You adapt, you toughen up and you fish.

It’s an extreme place to live. If you’re a human.

“I guess it was kind of stupid.”

As a wave smashed through the pilothouse window, waking him from his slumber, Mikal Solhaug realised that perhaps he had taken his fishing boat a touch too far beyond its limits.

He was fishing along the North Bank, 71 degrees north—and a bit too far out for this particular boat. With the storm raging all around him, Mikal headed for land.

Like other professional fishermen working in the Arctic, Mikal is no stranger to bad weather. He will often take advantage of rough seas, turning his boat against high waves and harsh winds, leaving his fishing lines to drag behind the boat. He has been a fisherman since he was 14, and captained his first vessel at 23. All fishermen up here learn to know and respect their limits, reducing risk to a minimum. Still, this situation was deadly serious.

Fishing can be extreme

More water flooded the pilothouse with every crashing wave. Mikal's crewmate grabbed a wooden cutting board that more or less fitted the window, stuffing a duvet from one of their sleeping bunks around it like a makeshift gasket. This took the edge off the bite of the ocean, but the storm had by now knocked out all their instruments. In Mikal’s words: It was a dead ship.

“We were left with the steering wheel and a running engine,” he says.

Mikal took the helm, the wind his only tool for navigation. It was blowing south when the wave hit. He found himself riding the waves and zigzagging his way to shield the boat, minimizing the impact of the sea on the broken window. The ordeal lasted 15 hours. Finally, despite the conditions, Mikal succeeded in getting back to land, thanks to decades of experience on the open seas. Relieved, he sailed into his home port in the town of Båtsfjord in East Finnmark  in the far north of Norway.

Polar nights, northern lights

Welcome to Båtsfjord, a place where the extreme is so commonplace it is almost mundane. People up here learn to adapt, rather than trying to tame nature or succumb to it. Instead of fighting the elements, they let elements leave their mark on everything and everyone.

One of the defining characteristics of the coastal towns in Finnmark is how, at times, you see nothing. The polar night falls and sunlight fades until daytime is only marked by a faint blueness, while blizzards grow so thick and wild that you cannot even see your hand. Clear nights would be pitch black were it not for the ethereal greens and pinks and blues of the Northern lights dancing across the sky, with a stunning beauty that could burst your heart if only you look up.

While fish thrive, people strive

It's a wonderful place—for polar expeditions. But for a home? Add to that the fact that Finnmark is a county the size of Denmark, with a population of only 75,000. Winters are long, and the sun doesn't show its face for months on end.

Why, you might ask, are there people up here at all? The reason is simple: while fish thrive, people strive. Along the Norwegian coast, the warm Gulf Stream meets the icy cold waters of the Arctic, creating the perfect conditions for life beneath the waves.

This marine ecosystem has provided the basis of existence for people up here ever since the end of the last ice age. Thousands of miles to the north of the ancient civilisations you read about in history books, there were already settlements here, owing their existence to the bounty of the ocean.

Norway got the second longest coastline in the world, and all along the coast you'll find important cities and trading hubs.

Extreme distances

Norway’s coastline, if you include the numerous islands, is the second longest in the world. The total length of Norwegian landmass touching the sea, including Svalbard, is a whopping 130,000 kilometres, equalling to more than twice the circumference of the Earth. Once upon a time, fishermen settled all along this coast so they could be close neighbours with the shoals of fish beneath the waves. To this day you’ll find houses on the remotest of islands, belonging more to the sea than to the mainland.

Our major cities are situated on the coast of Norway. Many of them developed as trading hubs for exporting fish to the European continent. At the southernmost tip of Norway, you’re about as far from where Mikal Solhaug arrived after that Arctic storm as you are from Rome.

To live in the extreme north of Norway is to be close to nature. To watch flocks of rare birds nesting in sharp cliff edges as the boat brings home the day’s catch. Fishermen like Mikal supply the essential commodities to the docks and fish factories, enabling work and life to go on in this impossible place.