The North Cape
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The increased coldness of the air at night indicated our approach to the Arctic Circle. I was surprised at the amount of business done at the little stations where we touched. Few of these contained a dozen houses, yet the quantity of passengers and freight which we discharged and took on board, at each, could only be explained by the fact that these stations are, generally outlets for a tolerably large population, hidden in the valleys and fjords behind, which the steamer does not visit. Bleak and desolate as the coast appears, the back country has its fertile districts—its pasture-ground, its corn-land and forests, of which the voyager sees nothing, and thus might be led to form very erroneous conclusions.
My friend aroused me at five in the morning to see the Seven Sisters—seven maiestic peaks, 4,000 feet high, and seated closely side by side, with their feet in the sea. They all wore nightcaps of gray fog, and had a sullen and sleepy air. I imagined they snored, but it was a damp wind driving over the rocks. They were northern beauties, hard-featured and large-boned, and I would not give a graceful southern hill, like Monte Albano or the Paphian Olympus, for the whole of them. So I turned in again, and did not awake until the sun had dried the decks, and the split, twisted and contorted forms of the islands gave promise of those remarkable figures which mark the position of the Arctic Circle. There was already a wonderful change in the scenery. The islands were high and broken, rising like towers and pyramids from the water, and grouped together in the most fantastic confusion. Between their jagged pinnacles, and through their sheer walls of naked rock, we could trace the same formation among the hills of the mainland, while in the rear, white against the sky, stretched the snowy table-land which forms a common summit for all. One is bewildered in the attempt to describe such scenery. There is no central figure, no prevailing character, no sharp contrasts, which may serve as a guide whereby to reach the imagination of the reader. All is confused, disordered, chaotic. One begins to understand the old Norse myth of these stones being thrown by the devil in a vain attempt to prevent the Lord from finishing the world.
A voyage of four hours across the West Fjord brought us to the little village of Balstad, at the southern end of West Vaagöe. The few red, sod-roofed houses were built upon a rocky point, behind which were some patches of bright green pasture, starred with buttercups, over-hung by a splendid peak of dark red rock, two thousand feet in height. It was a fine frontispiece to the Lofoden scenery which now opened before us. Running along the coast of West and East Vaagöe, we had a continual succession of the wildest and grandest pictures—thousandfeet precipices, with turrets and needles of rock piercing the sky, dazzling snow-fields, leaking away in cataracts which filled the ravines with foam, and mazes of bald, sea-worn rocks, which seem to have been thrown down from the scarred peaks in some terrible convulsion of nature. Here and there were hollows, affording stony pasturage for a few sheep and cows, and little wooden fisher-huts stood on the shore in the arms of sheltered coves.
We sailed, in the lovely nocturnal sunshine, through the long, river-like channel—the Rasksund, I believe, it is called—between the islands of East-Vaagöe and Hindöe, the largest of the Lofodens. For a distance of fifteen miles the strait was in no place more than a mile in breadth, while it was frequently less than a quarter. The smooth water was a perfect mirror, reflecting on one side the giant cliffs, with their gorges choked with snow, their arrowy pinnacles and white lines of falling water-on the other, hills turfed to the summit with cmerald velvet, sprinkled with pale groves of birch and alder, and dotted, along their bases, with the dwellings of the fishermen. It was impossible to believe that we were floating on an arm of the Atlantic—it was some unknown river, or a lake high up among the Alpine peaks. The silence of these shores added to the impression. Now and then a white sea-gull fluttered about the cliffs, or an eider duck paddled across some glassy cove, but no sound was heard; there was no sail on the water, no human being on the shore.
On issuing from the strait, we turned southward into the great Porsanger Fjord, which stretches nearly a hundred miles into the heart of Lapland, dividing Western from Eastern Finmark. Its shores are high, monotonous hills, half covered with snow, and barren of vegetation, except patches of grass and moss. If once wooded, like the hills of the Alten Fjord, the trees have long since disappeared, and now nothing can be more bleak and desolate. The wind blew violently from the east, gradually lifting a veil of gray clouds from the cold, pale sky, and our slow little steamer with jib and fore-topsail set, made somewhat better progress. Toward evening (if there is such a time in the arctic summer), we reached Kistrand, the principal settlement on the fjord. It has eight or nine houses, scattered along a gentle slope a mile in length, and a little, red church, but neither gardens, fields, nor potato patches. A strip of grazing ground before the principal house was yellow with dandelions, the slope behind showed patches of browning-green grass, and above this melancholy attempt at summer stretched the cold, gray, snow-streaked ridge of the hill. Two boats, manned by sea-Lapps, with square blue caps, and long, ragged locks of yellow hair fluttering in the wind, brought off the only passenger and the mails, and we put about for the mouth of the fjord.
It was now eleven o'clock, and Svaerholt glowed in fiery bronze luster as we rounded it, the eddies of returning birds gleaming golden in the nocturnal sun, like drifts of beech leaves in the October air. Far to the north, the sun lay in a bed of saffron light over the clear horizon of the Arc-tic Ocean. A few bars of dazzling orange cloud floated above him, and still higher in the sky, where the saffron melted through delicate rose-color into blue, hung light wreaths of vapor, touched with pearly, opaline flushes of pink and golden gray.
The sea now showed itself a web of pale slate-color, shot through and through with threads of orange and saffron, from the dance of a myriad shifting and twinkling ripples. The air was filled and permeated with the soft, mysterious glow, and even the very azure of the southern sky seemed to shine through a net of golden gauze. The headlands of this deeply indented coast—the capes of the Laxe and Porsanger Fjords, and of Mageröe--Iay around us, in different degrees of distance, but all with foreheads touched with supernatural glory. Far to the northeast was Nordkyn, the most northern point of the main-land of Europe, gleaming rosily and faint in the full beams of the sun, and just as our watches denoted midnight the North Cape appeared to the westward—a long line of purple bluff, presenting a vertical front of nine hundred feet in height to the Polar Sea. Midway between those two magnificent headlands stood the Midnight Sun, shining on us with subdued fires, and with the gorgeous coloring of an hour for which we have no name, since it is neither sunset nor sun-rise, but the blended loveliness of both—but shining at the same moment, in the heat and splendor of noonday, on the Pacific Isles. This was the midnight sun as I had dreamed it—as I had hoped to see it.