Way Up North In Alta, Norway

Five days in the midnight sun

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  The midnight sun at Alta - the backlight makes things in the front seem much darker than they really are - in reality it's clear as daylight

They say that "only mad dogs and Englishmen stay out in the midday sun".  Not so when you are north of the Arctic Circle (the Polar Circle) in summer and want to enjoy the all day sun.  To make the most of it, tourists - mainly busloads of Frenchmen, Italians, and a few Germans (they are everywhere) - populate the streets at almost all hours around the clock to witness the strange phenomenon of sunny skies 24 hours a day.

Of course, a little sleep is needed from time to time - the big sleep is from November till May when there's little sun, or no sun at all - but in general people tend to stay more awake because of the constant sun. "We'll sleep when winter comes," they seem to think.

Incidentally, the Latin altus/alta/altum means "high" or "upper", and in Alta we are, indeed, in the high North.  Mountains and geographic altitude (c. 70 degrees north - Alta is about 100 miles from the North Cape) provide the perfect setting for a feeling of being on top of the world, but most of all the midnight sun itself endows the scenery with enchantment.  This simply can't be true.

On top of one of the local minor peaks in Alta

Like Chile, Norway is a l-o-o-ng country with a rocky coast line of several thousand miles and beautiful fjords.  The climate changes from the mild and temperate conditions in the south to bitter cold in the arctic regions of the Finnmark north of Sweden.  But not along the coast.  Due to the tempering influence of the warm Gulf Stream the coast line of Norway is ice free all year round, and in summer the temperatures in coastal towns like Tromsø and Alta rise into the 60s (15-20 centigrades).

The Alta fjord, facing due north

There isn't much to do in Alta. The Finnmark is about the size of Denmark, and of its 75,000 inhabitants about 17,000 live in the greater Alta area.  These are not very conspicuous, however, in part because the town is divided into three sections: the western, originally Norwegian part; the eastern, originally Finnish part; and the middle section which boasts a modern downtown shopping area, complete with a (nearly finished) pedestrian street.  But the many two or three story buildings are placed widely apart leaving an impression not unlike the one in small western settlements in the US.

The new center in Alta

In the Middle Ages only a few trappers populated the Finnmark, but from the 1600s on settlers came in from the west and the east.  But although Alta was a well known trading post for centuries and to which Samis would come twice a year, it wasn't until the 1970s that any greater development began.  Due to the special circumstances after WW2 (see below), reconstruction took an enormous effort from not only the local population, but also from the whole of Norway who saw it as a national responsibility to develop the barren wilderness and rehouse the refugees.
   However, it wasn't until the North Sea oil started flowing toward Norway that new development including asphalt roads, malls, new schools, and kindergartens came to mark the general picture.
   Still, coming from the densely populated Denmark we felt that we had been transported to the end of the planet, to a barren but serene never-never land.  The air was dry and clean, and there was no pollution from any heavy industry.  The largest single "industry" is a local college of 2,000 students (a proof of good will from the Norwegian government), and the only other major industry is an old slate works which produces very fine plates of slate (of world repute we were told).
   On the plane back to Oslo were a number of school children who were going south to visit their grandparents; a bit of a cultural shock if this was their first time out of Alta.
   Although the town is stretched out over several miles along the highway (E6), there's no proper public transport as such.  Instead people drive or ride their bicycles even if the price of gas in this oil producing country is higher than in Denmark (more than $1.10 per liter).  But parking was prohibited outside the designated boxes around the new mall in the new center, and in the boxes the parking fee for one hour was $1.25 - rather absurd in this sparsely populated area where cars are a necessity.  As has become our habit when abroad we walked every day covering several miles.

Old mall in Alta - sign says "buying center"

Perhaps the most puzzling feature was the many hairdressers for a town this size; it seemed as if having a hairdo or haircut very often is a favorite pastime.  The price for a haircut was higher than in Aalborg, but one of the hairdressers advertised "half price" if the customer would allow the apprentice to perform the operation.

Sign says: creative hairdresser -
let our young apprentice do your hair at half price (providing you are a regular)

The food at our hotel was surprisingly good.  A surprise since Norway isn't a agrarian country: neither the general climate nor the predominantly bare and rocky mountains allow any large scale farming or ranching.  As a result food is very expensive, cucumbers are sold by the piece (not whole), and sausages (and meat at all) is a rare sight.  The table at our hotel, however, was well supplied which corresponded to the rather exorbitant price of the room ($110.00 per night for a double room).

Our hotel - an old farm now renovated

Due to the upcoming general elections in the fall of 2001 the newspapers were full of articles on politics, and it turned out that the population of the Finnmark is moving away from the labor politics of "sharing the burden" toward an "every man for himself" attitude which is strange since the recent and still ongoing development in the area could not have taken place without a strong and continuous economic support from the central government in Oslo.

Looking north from hotel, note old store house

Stone Age History - The Rock Carvings in Alta
Besides the climate, the midnight sun, and the salmon fishing in the Alta River the star attraction of Alta is the famous rock carvings that are now on the Unesco list of World Heritage Sites.  Rock carvings are found all over the world, but the ones in Alta are not only very old and very numerous carvings, they also display the development in rock carvings through thousands of years from c. 4,200 B.C. to 500 B.C.

There are some 20-odd sites with carvings like this one - some of them
much larger.  The carvings are painted red for clarity

For Alta turns out to be one of the oldest settlements in the North.  Even as early as 9,000 B.C. there were people here living their stone age lives in temperatures that were generally two degrees higher than today thus providing perfect conditions for hunting and fishing.
   The very fine museum in connection with the findings exhibits the history of the area from the first stone age settlers till WW2.  Upon its opening in 1992 the museum was awarded the prize for the finest museum in the world.

Upon our return we learned that new discoveries of rock carvings were made at Billefjord, also in the Finnmark: a field of more than 100 meters displaying people and reindeer.  It thus seems that in the stone age the area was much more populated than is the case today.

Preparing for lunch among the rock carvings (on stone on the left)

The new history of Alta is more depressing: among the dwellings for the 17,000 strong population there's not a single house older than 1945.  When in 1944 Germany ended the occupation of the Finnmark, every single house in the Alta area was bombed or demolished, and most of the inhabitants in the Finnmark were deported to southern regions of Norway.  The purpose of this policy of "scorched earth" was to leave nothing of value to the invading Russians - only the church in Alta was spared - and after the war the returning refugees had to start rebuilding everything.
   The German interest in the area was first and foremost the nickel mines, but Germany also wanted to stop the allied convoys from entering the ice free harbor of Murmansk (in Russia).  The Norwegian resistance in the area was strong (one of the partisans was the world famous Norwegian writer Nordahl Grieg, who died in 1943), and even after the deportation in the fall of 1944 some thousand people lived on in hiding, in the mountains and in caves, until May 1945.
   Often the refugees felt badly treated by their countrymen where they were sent in exile (the general conditions were such that people were not prepared to share), and most of them returned as soon as possible even if they had to live in tents in the beginning.  Thus the first City Hall in new Alta was but a small on-site hut.
Addendum June 2002:  When the German troops withdrew from Norway in May 1945, they left behind more than 10,000 children of mixed parenthood, some of these to be born after the end of the war. As it happened in every country under German occupation, local girls befriended German soldiers for various reasons, one of them undoubtedly love.  Nowhere was such offspring liked - at most it was tolerated even if the mothers were scorned and abused, also physically - but such was the Norwegian hatred for the German occupant fathers and their treacherous mothers that this hatred was conveyed to their children who were not only persecuted by Norwegians in general (they were mobbed everywhere) but also denyed officially by the Norwegian government: some of these children were put in mental institutions for retarded children and never learned to read or write; others were deported to Sweden through forced adoptions; still others were used in state controlled experiments with LSD in Norway after the war.
   The Norwegian mothers were told that their children had died; the Swedish adoption families were told that the Norwegian mothers had died - the manipulation was total, and - official.  Among the young mothers who chose to flee Norway to avoid disgrace was one Synni Lyngstad whose girl Anni-Frid later became a member of the famous Swedish pop-group ABBA.
   Today the disfranchised children have formed a society to regain some of their lost dignity - after all, being children they were innocent - but the Norwegian state just ruled their claim too old for prosecution. (Source: the Danish newspaper Information, Thursday June 27th, 2002.)

Even though Norway is a long country, a united Norwegian kingdom encompassing both the southern and northern regions was formed in 872, so when Norway came under Danish rule in the early 1400s this meant that the language of the government (and in schools and of writing in general) was Danish all the way from Denmark to the northernmost parts of Norway - a feature well noted today when we had no trouble in understanding the locals or making ourselves understood in Danish.
   In the early 1600s the Danish king Christian IV made a voyage to the easternmost settlement of Vardø east of Alta just to make his presence known to the Russians who were attempting an expansion into Denmark-Norway.
   After the fall of Napoleon in 1814 Denmark lost Norway to the victorious Sweden that wanted a compensation for the loss of Finland, and for almost a century Norway was under Swedish rule (till 1905).  But although Norway used to be a Danish "colony", the emotional bonds between the two countries were so strong that even after the breaking up of the Danish-Norwegian union, Norway wanted to remain in the union and chose for its king the Danish crown prince who would eventually become king of both Norway and Denmark and thus restore the union.  Many famous "Danish" authors and artists are, in fact, Norwegian, but most of them moved to Denmark (especially Copenhagen) during their productive years.
   The dissolution of the union with Denmark made room for a Norwegian constitution as early as 17 May 1814, a day still celebrated with great vigor everywhere in Norway.  The new Swedish king Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte, a former French general under Napoleon, did not oppress the Romantic if not revolutionary spirit of the new Norway, and Norwegians felt that their constitution helped secure their national identity.
   But the long period of first Danish, then Swedish rule turned many Norwegians into chauvinists.  Having been the underdogs in a generally underdeveloped country for several centuries, a great many Norwegians now show their national pride at the slightest opportunity (in sports, music contests, and international affairs).
   This chauvinist attitude is also reflected in the country's politics: although tourists are welcome, new refugee settlers from the burning parts of Europe are sent back or viewed with skepticism.  Perhaps the most revealing information on this attitude is seen in the original §2 of the constitution:
   Whereas §1 declared that "Norway is a free, indivisible, and independent kingdom", the original §2 of the constitution declared that "Jews are excluded from settling in Norway".  This section of the constitution was later modified and eventually stricken, but it may reveal the original sentiments in a truly provincial country.

In a recent book called Norge - en kritikk, Begrepsmakt i Europadebatten , Iver B. Neuman points to the fact that whatever constitutional changes were made in Norway after 1814 were not an implementation of the will of the people, but the ideas of the ruling classes, the establishment in Olso which wanted close diplomatic and cultural ties to Denmark.  But the notion that Norway is something very special was always present, and in 1902 a bill was passed stating that Norwegian land cannot be owned by or sold to anybody who does not speak Norwegian.  As a result the Sami people (see below) were disenfranchised.

A slate works in the Finnmark

The Sami People
North of Sweden, north of Finland and stretching toward Russia, the Finnmark is the home of the Sami (or Saami) people (Finnish Lapps) who through many generations have developed a life style suited to the conditions in the hash inland climate.

Sami country

We took a bus south out of Alta into Sami land and passed a dam that became world famous in the late 1970s when a vigil of national and international protesters blocked the passage of the machines that were necessary to build the dam.  The original plan from the 1960s was to flood a huge area to form a water reservoir for an electric power plant; an inconsiderate plan for both the nomad and the fishermen Samis, but not untypical of the "roaring 60s" when much new development was made without regard to history or culture - these simply weren't relevant issues at that time of blind growth.

Alta Sautso Canyon

The original plan for the Sautso Canyon was never negotiated with the local population, but when the plan was to take effect in the 1970s, public sentiment in favor of the indigenous peoples of the world as well as local self-determination had risen and turned out demonstrators by the thousands.  As a countermeasure the Norwegian police had to post close to a thousand men to curb the activists in the area that otherwise was barely populated at all.
   Eventually, the plan was changed and a much smaller dam was built, so small that "it wasn't really worth the political trouble", said later Norwegian Prime Minister Gro H. Bruntland who was herself a minister in the Norwegian government in these turbulent years.

View of the canyon from the dam

Further south we met a representative of the Sami people who invited us to coffee and dried reindeer meat and told us about Sami ways.  The most interesting part was perhaps that many of the everyday "rituals" and ways of living life the Sami way were very similar to what we'd heard of the indigenous peoples in Greenland or on the American prairie and seen on the Navajo reservation in Arizona-New Mexico: similarities in the construction of their tents and dwellings, their strict routines regarding the division of work between the members of the families, the semi or quasi-religious "sacred" reasons for performing certain everyday rituals, and their music, much of which may be found in the ancient rock carvings if one lets one's imagination interpret the carvings.
   Ironically, the conservative Sami life style is very removed from the general political attitude of the many defenders of the Sami rights that summoned here in the years 1979-82.  General conservatism is also the reason why the Sami people besides their own indigenous language (which resembles Finnish) speak a Norwegian that is easily understood by a Dane.  In the 1700s Swedish and Norwegian "free church" missionaries were the first to bring the gospel to the Samis, and since then many of them have lived "by the book" thus preserving the written Norwegian language of the time (which was close to Danish).

A representative of the Sami people greet us in his (modern) tent

A very special feature of the Sami tent we visited was a curtain called the "love curtain" and which set off a section of the tent to the married parents. Parents, men and women, children and servants work, sit and sleep in designated parts of the tent much like what is seen in the hogans (and kivas) of the Navajo Indians.
   And as it was seen with the native North American Indians there are two major and distinctively different Sami cultures: that of the nomad Samis who graze their herds of reindeer, and that of the fishermen Sami who stay permanently in their settlements fishing salmon in the rivers (the Alta River is known for its plenty of salmon).

During our stay we often spoke of what made life bearable for the locals in this godforsaken part of Norway.  On the one hand side life didn't seem all that different from what it is further south: cars and malls w/ parking meters, cellular phones, huge satellite dishes to catch several channels of TV, and the hairdresser's as a possible public meeting place to exchange the latest gossip.  But all in all it still seemed as if the above were necessary distractions to survive especially the long, dark winter period - they didn't fit in with the natural surroundings and seemed like strange elements of urban civilization forced upon the area.
   However, the Norwegians' genuine love for nature was shown when we mounted the local peak called Komsa together with several Norwegians on their Sunday hike into the wild.  Resorting to the mountains is an old Norwegian tradition, and in the stillness on top of the Komsafjell we experienced the raw beauty of unspoiled and difficult accessible nature with birds of prey hovering over us.  At the top was an old seidi , a heathen offering stone used by the first settlers in the area - a trait also practiced by the Samis (offerings may be deer or other objects from animals - not humans).

On top of Komsafjell

Even though earlier wanderers had laid a track to follow, climbing down presented us with several steep walls of several meters - even if you try to backtrack your steps you never go back the way you came up - a rare challenge for us, used as we are to lowland Denmark.

Looking back at the top of Komasafjell

In the still of the mountain we could hear distinctly the voices of people coming up the mountain miles away; and together with the clean, crisp air and the ever glowing, ever showing midnight sun the scenery made us feel completely at rest spiritually.  That must be one of the things that make people cling to the North.  Unspoiled it isn't (not with the cellular phones and satellite dishes), but it only takes one step off the track to feel exposed to and part of nature; and with the ancient rock carvings as an integrated sign of human existence, history and nature unite in the most fascinating fashion.

At the airport - Komsafjell in the back

July 2001
Erik Moldrup

P.S. If you enjoyed reading the above, you may want to read about Iceland , too.