Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 27

THE VARANGER FJORD.--ARCTIC LIFE.


When we awoke, after six hours' sleep, with curtains drawn to keep out the daylight, our steamer was deep in the Tana Fjord, which receives the waters of the Tana River, the largest Lapland stream flowing into the Arctic Ocean. The greater part of the day was consumed in calling at two settlements of three houses each, and receiving and delivering mails of one letter, or less. The shores of this fjord are steep hills of bare rock, covered with patches of snow to the water's edge. The riven walls of cliff, with their wonderful configuration and marvellous colouring, were left behind us, and there was nothing of the grand or picturesque to redeem the savage desolation of the scenery. The chill wind, blowing direct from Nova Zembla, made us shiver, and even the cabin saloon was uncomfortable without a fire. After passing the most northern point of Europe, the coast falls away to the south-east, so that on the second night we were again in the latitude of Hammerfest, but still within the sphere of perpetual sunshine. Our second night of sun was not so rich in colouring as the first, yet we remained on deck long enough to see the orb rise again from his lowest dip, and change evening into morning by the same incomprehensible process. There was no golden transfiguration of the dreadful shore; a wan lustre played over the rocks--pictures of eternal death--like a settled pallor of despair on Nature's stony face.

One of the stations on this coast, named Makur, consisted of a few fishermen's huts, at the bottom of a dismal rocky bight. There was no grass to be seen, except some tufts springing from the earth with which the roofs were covered, and it was even difficult to see where so much earth had been scraped together. The background was a hopelessly barren hill, more than half enveloped in snow. And this was midsummer--and human beings passed their lives here! "Those people surely deserve to enter Paradise when they die," I remarked to my friend, "for they live in hell while upon earth." "Not for that," he answered, "but because it is impossible for them to commit sin. They cannot injure their neighbours, for they have none. They cannot steal, for there is nothing to tempt them. They cannot murder, for there are none of the usual incentives to hate and revenge. They have so hard a struggle merely to live, that they cannot fall into the indulgences of sense; so that if there is nothing recorded in their favour, there is also nothing against them, and they commence the next life with blank books."

"But what a life!" I exclaimed. "Men may be happy in poverty, in misfortune, under persecution, in life-long disease even, so that they are not wholly deprived of the genial influences of society and Nature--but what is there here?" "They know no other world," said he, "and this ignorance keeps them from being miserable. They do no more thinking than is necessary to make nets and boats, catch fish and cook them, and build their log-houses. Nature provides for their marrying and bringing up their children, and the pastor, whom they see once in a long time, gives them their religion ready made." God keep them ignorant, then! was my involuntary prayer. May they never lose their blessed stupidity, while they are chained to these rocks and icy seas! May no dreams of summer and verdure, no vision of happier social conditions, or of any higher sphere of thought and action, flash a painful light on the dumb-darkness of their lives!

The next day, we were in the Varanger Fjord, having passed the fortress of Vardöhuus and landed our military committee. The Norwegian shore was now low and tame, but no vegetation, except a little brown grass, was to be seen. The Russian shore, opposite, and some twenty-five or thirty miles distant, consisted of high, bold hills, which, through a glass, appeared to be partially wooded. The Varanger Fjord, to which so important a political interest has attached within the last few years, is about seventy miles in depth, with a general direction towards the south-west. The boundary-line between Norwegian and Russian Finmark strikes it upon the southern side, about half-way from the mouth, so that three-fourths, or more, of the waters of the fjord belong to Norway. There is, however, a wonderful boundary-line, in addition, drawn by Nature between the alien waters. That last wave of the Gulf Stream which washes the North Cape and keeps the fjords of Finmark open and unfrozen the whole year through, sweeps eastward along the coast, until it reaches the head of Varanger Fjord. Here its power is at last spent, and from this point commences that belt of solid ice which locks up the harbours of the northern coast of Russia for six months in the year. The change from open water to ice is no less abrupt than permanent. Pastor Hvoslef informed me that in crossing from Vadsö, on the northern coast, to Pasvik, the last Norwegian settlement, close upon the Russian frontier, as late as the end of May, he got out of his boat upon the ice, and drove three or four miles over the frozen sea, to reach his destination.

The little fort of Vardöhuus, on an island at the northern entrance of the fjord, is not a recent defence, meant to check Russian plans in this quarter. It was established by Christian IV. nearly two and a half centuries ago. The king himself made a voyage hither, and no doubt at that time foresaw the necessity of establishing, by military occupation, the claims of Denmark to this part of the coast. The little fortress has actually done this service; and though a single frigate might easily batter it to pieces, its existence has kept Russia from the ownership of the Varanger Fjord and the creation (as is diplomatically supposed,) of an immense naval station, which, though within the Arctic waters, would at all times of the year be ready for service. It is well known that Russia has endeavoured to obtain possession of the northern side of the fjord, as well as of the Lyngen Fjord, near Tromsöe, towards which her Lapland territory stretches out a long arm. England is particularly suspicious of these attempts, and the treaty recently concluded between the Allied Powers and Sweden had a special reference thereto. The importance of such an acquisition to Russia is too obvious to be pointed out, and the jealous watchfulness of England is, therefore, easy to understand. But it is a singular thing that the conflicting forces of Europe find a fulcrum on a little corner of this dead, desolate, God-forsaken shore.

About ten o'clock we reached Vadsö, the limit of the steamer's route. Here we had intended taking a boat, continuing our voyage to Nyborg, at the head of the fjord, crossing thence to the Tana, and descending that river in season to meet the steamer in the Tana Fjord on her return. We were behind time, however, and the wind was light; the people informed us that we could scarcely carry out the project; so we reluctantly gave it up, and went ashore to spend the day. Vadsö is a town of about 800 inhabitants, with a secure though shallow harbour, which was crowded with fishing vessels and Russian traders from the White Sea. It lies on the bleak hill-side, without a tree or bush, or a patch of grass large enough to be seen without close inspection, and its only summer perfume is that of dried fish. I saw in gardens attached to one or two houses a few courageous radishes and some fool-hardy potatoes, which had ventured above ground without the least chance of living long enough to blossom. The snow had been four feet deep in the streets in the beginning of June, and in six weeks it would begin to fall again. A few forlorn cows were hunting pasture over the hills, now and then looking with melancholy resignation at the strings of codfish heads hanging up to dry, on the broth of which they are fed during the winter. I took a walk and made a sketch during the afternoon, but the wind was so chill that I was glad to come back shivering to our quarters.

We obtained lodgings at the house of a baker, named Aas, who had learned the art of charging, and was therefore competent to conduct a hotel. In order to reach our room, we were obliged to pass successively through the family dwelling-room, kitchen, and a carpenter's workshop, but our windows commanded a full view of a grogshop across the way, where drunken Lapps were turned out with astonishing rapidity. It was the marriage month of the Lapps, and the town was full of young couples who had come down to be joined, with their relatives and friends, all in their gayest costumes. Through the intervention of the postmaster, I procured two women and a child, as subjects for a sketch. They were dressed in their best, and it was impossible not to copy the leer of gratified vanity lurking in the corners of their broad mouths. The summer dress consisted of a loose gown of bright green cloth, trimmed on the neck and sleeves with bands of scarlet and yellow, and a peculiar head-dress, shaped like a helmet, but with a broader and flatter crest, rounded in front. This, also, was covered with scarlet cloth, and trimmed with yellow and blue. They were greatly gratified with the distinction, and all the other Lapps, as in Kautokeino, would have willingly offered themselves. I found the same physical characteristics here as there--a fresh, ruddy complexion, inclining to tawny; bright blue eyes, brown hair, high cheek-bones, and mouths of enormous width. They are not strikingly below the average size, Heine says, in one of his mad songs:

"In Lapland the people are dirty, Flat-headed, and broad-mouthed, and small They squat round the fire while roasting Their fishes, and chatter and squall;"

which is as good a description of them as can be packed into a stanza. On the present occasion they were all drunk, in addition. One of them lay for a long time at the door, with his legs doubled under him as he fell, the others stepping over his body as they went in and out. These poor creatures were openly and shamelessly allowed to drug themselves, as long as their money lasted. No wonder the race is becoming extinct, when the means of destruction is so freely offered.

Vadsö, although only forty miles from Vardö, at the mouth of the fjord, has a much drier and more agreeable climate, and the inhabitants are therefore loud in praise of their place. "We have no such fogs as at Vardö," say they; "our fish dry much better, and some years we can raise potatoes." For the last four or five years, however, the winters have been getting more and more severe, and now it is impossible to procure hay enough to keep their few cattle through the winter. We had on board a German who had been living there five years, and who appeared well satisfied with his lot. "I have married here," said he; "I make a good living with less trouble than in Germany, and have no wish to return." Singularly enough, there were also two Italian organ grinders on board, whom I accosted in their native language; but they seemed neither surprised nor particularly pleased. They dropped hints of having been engaged in some political conspiracy; and one of them said, with a curious mixture of Italian and Norsk words "Jeg voglio ikke ritornare." I said the same thing ("I shall not return") as I left Vadsö.

We sailed early the next morning, and in the afternoon reached Vardö, where we lay three hours. Here we took on board the three officers, who had in the meantime made their inspection. Vardöhuus is a single star-shaped fort, with six guns and a garrison of twenty-seven men. During the recent war, the garrison was increased to three hundred--an unnecessary precaution, if there was really any danger of an attack to be apprehended, so long as the defences of the place were not strengthened. One of the officers, who had gone out fishing the night previous, caught eighty-three splendid cod in the space of two hours. It was idle sport, however, for no one would take his fish as a gift, and they were thrown on the shore to rot. The difficulty is not in catching but in curing them. Owing to the dampness of the climate they cannot be hung up on poles to dry slowly, like the stock-fish of the Lofodens, but must be first salted and then laid on the rocks to dry, whence the term klip (cliff) fish, by which they are known in trade.

At the mouth of the Tana we picked up four Englishmen, who had been salmon fishing on the river. They were sunburnt, spotted with mosquito bites, and had had little luck, the river being full of nets and the fjord of seals, between which the best of the salmon are either caught or devoured; but they spoke of their experience with true English relish. "Oh, it was very jolly!" said one: "we were so awfully bitten by mosquitoes. Then our interpreter always lost everything just before we wanted it--think of his losing our frying-pan, so that we had to fry in the lids of our kettles; He had a habit of falling overboard and getting nearly drowned before we could pull him in. We had a rough time of it, but it was very jolly, I assure you!" The young fellows meant what they said; they were all the better for their roughing, and I wish the spindle-shanked youths who polk and flirt at Newport and Saratoga had manliness enough for such undertakings.

We reached Hammerfest on the last day of July, and re-occupied our old quarters. That night the sun went below the horizon for the first time in eight days, but his depth was too slight to make any darkness visible. I was quite tired of the unending daylight, and would willingly have exchanged the pomp of the arctic midnight for the starlit darkness of home. We were confused by the loss of night; we lost the perception of time. One is never sleepy, but simply tired, and after a sleep of eight hours by sunshine, wakes up as tired as ever. His sleep at last is broken and irregular; he substitutes a number of short naps, distributed through the twenty-four hours, for the one natural repose, and finally gets into a state of general uneasiness and discomfort. A Hammerfest merchant, who has made frequent voyages to Spitzbergen, told me that in the latitude of 80° he never knew certainly whether it was day or night, and the cook was the only person on board who could tell him.

At first the nocturnal sunshine strikes you as being wonderfully convenient. You lose nothing of the scenery; you can read and write as usual; you never need be in a hurry, because there is time enough for everything. It is not necessary to do your day's work in the daytime, for no night cometh. You are never belated, and somewhat of the stress of life is lifted from your shoulders; but, after a time, you would be glad of an excuse to stop seeing, and observing, and thinking, and even enjoying. There is no compulsive rest such as darkness brings--no sweet isolation, which is the best refreshment of sleep. You lie down in the broad day, and the summons, "Arise!" attends on every reopening of your eyes. I never went below and saw my fellow-passengers all asleep around me without a sudden feeling that something was wrong: they were drugged, or under some unnatural influence, that they thus slept so fast while the sunshine streamed in through the port-holes.

There are some advantages of this northern summer which have presented themselves to me in rather a grotesque light. Think what an aid and shelter is removed from crime--how many vices which can only flourish in the deceptive atmosphere of night, must be checked by the sober reality of daylight! No assassin can dog the steps of his victim; no burglar can work in sunshine; no guilty lover can hold stolen interviews by moonlight--all concealment is removed, for the sun, like the eye of God, sees everything, and the secret vices of the earth must be bold indeed, if they can bear his gaze. Morally, as well as physically, there is safety in light and danger in darkness; and yet give me the darkness and the danger! Let the patrolling sun go off his beat for awhile, and show a little confidence in my ability to behave properly, rather than worry me with his sleepless vigilance.

I have described the smells of Hammerfest, which are its principal characteristic. It seemed to me the dreariest place in the world on first landing, a week previous; but, by contrast with what we had in the meantime seen, it became rather cheerful and comfortable. I was visiting a merchant after our return, and noticed with pleasure a stunted ash about eight feet high, in an adjoining garden. "Oh!" said he, in a tone of irritated pride, "we have plenty of trees here; there is quite a forest up the valley." This forest, after some search, I found. The trees were about six feet high, and some of them might have been as thick as my wrist. In the square before the merchant's house lay a crowd of drunken Lapps, who were supplied with as much bad brandy as they wanted by a licensed grogshop. The Russian sailors made use of the same privilege, and we frequently heard them singing and wrangling on board their White Sea junks. They were unapproachably picturesque, especially after the day's work was over, when they generally engaged in hunting in the extensive forests of their beards, and exercised the law of retaliation on all the game they caught.

A long street of turf-roofed houses, whose inhabitants may be said to be under the sod even before they die, leads along the shore of the bay to a range of flakes redolent of drying codfish. Beyond this you clamber over rocks and shingles to a low grassy headland, whereon stands a pillar commemorating the measurement of a meridian line of 25° 20', from the Danube to the Polar Sea, which was accomplished by the Governments of Austria, Russia, and Sweden, between the years 1816 and 1852. The pillar marks the northern terminus of the line, and stands in lat. 70° 40' 11.3". It is a plain shaft of polished red granite, standing on a base of grey granite, and surmounted by a bronze globe, on which a map of the earth is roughly outlined.


Bayard Taylor