Island Of Magero
( Originally Published 1881 )
THE island of Magero forms the most northern land in Europe, and is separated from the main-land by a deep charnel--Magerosound—more than a mile wide. It is an elevated plateau, with very abrupt sides, and indented with well-sheltered bays and fjords, the greatest altitude being about 1700 feet above the sea; North Cape is its northern extremity. In order to see the midnight sun from its summit, one should land either at the fishing-station of Kjelvik, or, what is still better and easier, at Gjæsver (gjoes being the Norwegian word for " geese "), which' belongs to a group of small islands lying near, on the west side of Magero, and with a boat land near the cape, when the weather permits.
On the 21st of July, a little after midnight, in the midst of a pouring rain, accompanied by the American consul, the collector of the port, and Herr F , I made my way in a small boat to the steamer. These gentlemen wished to recommend me specially to the captain, and make some requests in my be-half. The passage was anything but agreeable, the weather being misty and rainy, and the thermometer at 45°.
Four Russian vessels from Archangel were at anchor before Gjæsver, waiting to take in their cargoes of fish; our steamer was obliged to cast anchor ou account of the strong current. Passengers, mails, and merchandise were huddled together in a boat; and the entire population then on shore, numbering in all about twenty souls, awaited our landing, eager to hear the news. This settlement was composed of a few fishermen's houses. The surroundings were anything but attractive ; en-trails of fish, barrels of liver, blood, and filth were all around, and the combined stench was very offensive. Inside the huts there was an appearance of slovenliness which I had not before seen; instead of fireplaces there were stoves, as economy was observed in the use of fuel. A single apartment served for the sleeping-room of the whole family, the beds and coverings being made of the down of the eider-duck, sheets seeming to be unknown articles. There was a merchant on the island, and his house was in pleasant contrast to the others ; cleanliness, comfort, and taste were apparent everywhere ; in one of the parlors was a piano, and newspapers and books were on the table. The hostess, whose husband was in Hammerfest, and to whom I had a letter of introduction, received me with great kindness.
It was a pleasant picture of home—one which a stranger would never dream of meeting in such a place—and many such are found on this most barren coast of glorious old Nor-way. Around the house were the various out-buildings required for storage of wood, fish, and provisions. There were five small cows, measuring only from three feet two inches to three feet four inches in height; there were a few sheep and many goats, the latter thriving on the grass which grows between the rocks ; but, as the pasture was not sufficient, they were fed twice a day on fish! I was amazed when, for the first time, I saw cows, goats, and sheep flock around a tub filled with partly cooked, and often raw pieces of fish, and devour the mess in a most voracious manner. It would be interesting, from a Darwinian point of view, to ascertain whether the feeding of herbivorous creatures on animal substances year after year, for a considerable part of the time, would tend to modify their digestive apparatus—whether the molars would be rendered narrower and sharper, and canines and upper incisors would appear—whether the first three stomachs of the ruminating animal would be less developed, and the fourth become like the digestive stomach of the carnivorous or omziivorous creature—and whether the long intestinal canal be-longing to the ruminant would approximate to the short intestine of the quick-digesting carnivora. During the fishing season great numbers of fish-heads are dried, and kept for the cattle for winter use, and are cooked before being served to them.
Even here magpies, apparently quite tame, were flying around, but swallows were not to be seen ; ducks and gulls were innumerable.
The beautiful weather that had followed me as far as the Alten fjord had now come to an end. The chances of the tourist who comes in such a high latitude to see the midnight sun are often not very great, and rough seas, snow-storms, rains and fogs occur in winter, while in summer there are alternate days of warm sunshine, rain, mists, cold winds, and fogs; as a rule the summer climate is uncertain, the north and north-east winds bringing fog and wet weather. That year, from the 11th to the 23d of July, there were only two dry days, two with alternate sunshine and rain, and the remainder either stormy, foggy, or misty, with often a heavy sea.
The warmest temperature had been at Hammerfest, where the mercury rose to 59°, and that on only one day; the average since had been from 44° to 45°, and at Gjaesver it was several times as low as 41° and 40°, the variation being not more than 5° during the day. I began to fear that after all I should not see the sun at midnight from the North Cape, on account of the cloudy and stormy weather.
On the 20th of July the boat was ready. The morning was charming, and even this bleak landscape appeared smiling in the rays of the sun, which had been hidden for several days ; the sea was of a deep-green color, not very salt, and so clear that the sandy bottom could be seen at a great depth ; the cliffs, which from a distance looked abrupt, now appeared to fall into the sea at an angle of from 30° to 40°. Immense numbers of gulls were flying over our heads, probably taking us for fishermen ; ducks were also numerous, and many of them shy, but the eiders seemed to be aware that no one would molest them, shooting them being forbidden.
The island of Früholmen, 71 5' N., towered above the water as we entered a little fjord on the west of Magero, leaving to the northward another one which lay opposite the entrance; and, when we reached the head of the fjord, there was a remarkable change in the entire aspect of nature. As we landed` I saw thick green grass, dotted with buttercups and dandelions, violets, and forget-me-nots, with stems more than a foot long; :the dwarf birch and willows were abundant, as also -the plantain (Plantago major). I had seen the last-named plant everywhere in my journeyings in Scandinavia, but was surprised to find it so far north; I think there is no other which has a wider range of latitude; I found it common under the equator in Africa`; it was flourishing at 71° north.
Springs and streams seemed to burst from the earth, and the rays of the sun poured warmly down into the narrow dell, which is the greenest little spot to be found anywhere so far north , even a few small birds had found a home there.
The ascent was often so steep that I was obliged to stop several times before gaining the summit, in order to take breath ; the thermometer indicated 48°, and climbing was warm work. From the top I could see our little boat, diminished to a mere speck in the distance; two of the men had remained on board, while the other three accompanied me. There was no path, but the walking was generally good, the soil being hard and stony ; we passed several little streams, and thick patches of snow, the remains of former drifts, and a number of small ponds still covered with floating ice.
After a walk of several miles I stood upon the extreme point of the North Cape, in latitude 71° 10', nine hundred and eighty feet above the sea-level. This bold promontory is a huge mass of mica-schist, rising dark and majestically from the sea.
Before me, as far as the eye could reach, was the deep-blue Arctic Sea, disappearing in the northern horizon; it was as quiet as the wind, which hardly breathed upon it, as if fearful of arousing its wrath, and disturbing one of the rare, bright, and lovely days of that cold North, which once enjoyed a climate as temperate as that of England at the present day. I could not see the sun, for at that time of day its course was at my back, that is, southerly from where I stood.
Far beyond was that unknown region, guarded by a wall of ice, which bars all approach, and has baffled the efforts of all who have tried to unravel its mystery and to reach the north pole; behind me were Europe with its sunny climes, and Africa with its burning deserts and malverdana swamps—on my right was Asia—on my left was America-misnamed the New World.
Wherever I gazed, I beheld nature bleak, dreary, and desolate; grand indeed, but sad. The ground was covered with fragments which had been riven from the rocky strata by the action of frost and time; not a human habitation or tree was in sight ; the immense cliffs all around bewildered me. On the western side of the cape were four large fissures in the rocky walls; beyond, the land formed a cove, the opposite side of which was comparatively low and rounded, sloping gently to the sea; there was a rocky islet, upon which the surf was dashing, and upon its shores lay stranded the trunks of two large trees, which the waves were trying to recapture—perhaps they had grown in the New World, and had been floated hither by the Gulf-stream. Projecting still a little farther northward is Knivskjaelodden, but it lacks the grandeur of the North Cape ; there was also in view a high, indented, and a precipitous line of coast, which appeared to arise abruptly from the sea; while far off, and the last land that could be seen, was Cape Nordkyn, the most northern point on the main-land of Europe. All along the shore the waves were beating incessantly against the rocks which opposed them, and, as they dashed against the base of the cliffs, were broken into a continuous white fringe.
It is only from a distance that the cape itself, like the coast, seems to be vertical ; skirting the shores in a boat the appearance of the promontory is much changed ; the engraving shows, the point falls into the sea with a gradual slope.
A sad repose rested upon the desolate landscape, which has left an indelible impress upon my memory; I would have left then, for a feeling of oppression had seized me, which I tried in vain to shake off ; but I had travelled a long way expressly to see the midnight sun for the last time from the summit of that grand cliff, the terminus of Northern Europe; and for this I had nearly ten hours to wait.
Taking my mineralogist's hammer, I went to the extreme 'point of the cape, which for a distance falls abruptly-lying flat on the ground, to look over the edge of the cliff, and, while one of my guides kept firm hold of me, I succeeded in breaking off a fragment of the solid mica-schist rock, to be preserved as a memento of my journey.*
I thought of the winter season, and how terrific must be the tempests which then sweep over the cliff; how the winds must whistle, how thickly the snow must fall, and how furiously the ocean must beat against the gigantic walls which oppose it, dashing its waves into immense masses of spray.
The weather, even on this beautiful summer day, was cold, although the sun was shining brightly ; the thermometer at 2.30 P.M. stood at 46°. The sun was so pale that it looked al-most white, and the sky was of a hazy bluish tint, shading off into white towards the horizon.
Back of the extreme point of the North Cape, and sloping gently towards it, is a knoll a little higher; then comes a depression crossing the whole' breadth of the promontory from east to west, and connecting with the two coves on each side. The second range of hills is more stony than the first, with a morass, stream, and a pond, and here the grass, being sheltered, was green, and wild flowers grew; the third range is still more rocky than the second, and was covered with patches of snow. On the very end of the Cape a few blades of grass were sprouting.
A little farther inland the dwarf-birch makes its appearance, growing larger when sheltered, but so small at first as to be scarcely visible, in the former case attaining a length of about a foot, with a diameter of from a quarter to a third of an inch, requiring a generation or two to reach those dimensions; it did not raise its top towards the sun, but crouched to the earth, clinging to it like a creeping plant, to escape being torn away by the force of the winds. Many a time since, while crossing mountain ranges, I have observed the same phenomenon.
As I walked to while away the time, south of the cape, I saw a spider, a humblebee, and a small bird; I brought my gun to my shoulder, intending to shoot and preserve it as a memento of the North Cape, but, when the little creature fluttered down, I had not the heart to take its life. It flitted from spot to spot, its shrill cries showing its anxiety; evidently it was not at home. I said to myself, " I will not kill thee; for thou, like me, art a wanderer in these far-off north-ern climes." The thought had hardly passed in my mind when it soared upward, and took its flight towards the south.
I began to grow anxious, for during an hour or more a bank of clouds had been gathering from the east to the south, slowly rising higher and higher; at eleven o'clock a great portion of the sky was overcast, but towards the north it was still clear; and, if the black mass did not advance too quickly in that direction, I could yet see the sun.
Lower and lower the sun sunk, and as the hour of midnight approached, it seemed for awhile to follow slowly the line of the horizon ; and at that hour it shone beautifully over that lonely sea and dreary land. As it disappeared behind the clouds, I exclaimed, from the very brink of the precipice, "Farewell to thee, Midnight Sun !"
I had now seen the midnight sun from mountain-tops and weird plateaus, shining over a barren, desolate, and snow-clad country; I had watched it when ascending or descending picturesque rivers, or crossing lonely lakes; I had beheld many a landscape, luxuriant fields, verdant meadows, grand old forests, dyed by its drowsy light; I had followed it from the Gulf of Bothnia to the Polar Sea, as a boy would chase a will-o'-the-wisp, and I could go no farther.
I now retraced my steps to where we had left our little boat. The men were watching for us; it had begun to rain, and, when we got back to Gjaesver, I was wet and chilly, and my feet were like ice. I was exhausted, for I had passed two-and-twenty hours without sleep, but to this day I have before me those dark, rugged cliffs, that dreary, silent landscape, that rest-less Arctic Sea, and that serene midnight sun shining over all; and I still hear the sad murmur of the waves beating upon the lonely North Cape.
I shall return to these northern regions in winter, to wander with Laplanders and reindeer over snow mountains and along frozen valleys and rivers, to see the coasts lashed by tempestuous seas and enveloped in blinding snow-storms.