The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 14: Long Water Brought Low
Thanks for your patience, another late entry. A joy of spring is flowers. In particular, the little flowers that dare to risk the frost. They are not too fragrant or fancy but they are courageous. Maybe we should all strive to be spring flowers.
New birds: 7, Journey to date: 59
Gulerle (Motacilla flava)
Fjæreplytt (Caldiris maritima)
Stellerand (Polysticta stelleri)
Lunde (Fratercula arctica)
Lomvi (Uria aalge)
Alke (Alea torda)
Polarlomvi (Uria lomvia)
Long Water Brought Low
The Niagara Falls are famous, of course they are. Geology and promotion cooperated to make the sight familiar to every American whether you’ve been there or not. The volume of water is astounding at Niagara. However that is such a nebulous idea that the height of the falls are the most important. How tall? Like a mountain scorecard, the height is the key. There are higher falls. Bridalveil Falls in Yosemite is three times the height of Niagara. Thursday I traversed my tallest water-fall to date in Norway, and you’ve never heard of it. In fact no one has.
Sea level, the great equalizer of the world; the standard. In Alta Norway you are at sea level, 0 M.O.H. in Norway. That is zero Meter Over Havet, “Havet” meaning “the sea.” At almost 0 M.O.H. I unwittingly started my experience with this most tall movement of water. In fact I didn’t realize I surmounted the great height until after my journey.
Alta is connected to the inland town of Kautokeino with the Alta River. It’s a world famous destination for summertime anglers seeking large salmon that are searching for their natal sites. My destination was Kautokeino. It is a Sami-centric town deep into the Finnmark plateau, closer to Finland than the coast. Kautokeino sits at 306 M.O.H. My journey on the road upriver would follow for the most part the intended path of those piscine athletes.
You see, it is a waterfall. The water does fall from the highlands to the sea. But instead of a dramatic crash over some precipice this descent is attenuated, almost unnoticed. If you choose to, then you can notice all sorts of new things.
Finally, after three hours of cooling my heels in the Alta airport, the bus to Kautokeino was away. The estimated time was two hours and 15 minutes, about 185 kilometers, they failed to advertise the elevation. The middle of April in Arctic Norway means there is still snow, plenty of snow. But there is also the sun. The sun now has enough height and strength to melt the drives and raise the temperature. The snow puts up a fight about the temperature, it melts, slowly; it shrouds the land with vapor, a shield against solar missiles. According to the bus monitor, the water closet was open and the external temperature was 0 centigrade.
Like any respectable river the Alta forms a delta where it reaches saltwater. Here, that means the Alta fjord, the roiling waters of the Norwegian Sea wait in the distance. I find the playful bends of a river slowing delightful. Maybe the river is trying to be coy, or play with the ocean. Does water flirt? Thank you Google Maps for indulging my imagination.
It doesn’t take long to leave Alta sentrum, however I wish I got more than a glimp of the spiral-staircase spired church. We are three, two mature men, friends, sitting at the front and me, amidships and port. The surface was Highway 93, but this would be no drive from LaCrosse to Eau Claire. Time was 15:10.
In Arctic Norway there are birch and pine trees in some combination. Of course there are other genera present but your line of sight is dominated by birch and pine; usually Scots pine (pinus sylvestris) and Silver birch (Betula pendula). At 15:25 the bus was paralleling the river, only a few kilometers from the confluence. The surrounding land was covered in trees, pine and birch that reached for the sky, looking like perfectly normal second growth forests.
This highway is a major road, but even in a prosperous land it is but two lanes, today it’s mostly snow covered. The low leaden clouds have been spitting all day, mostly drops but sometimes flakes. There is little hope for photography.
Mountains hulk over road the road, were they sirens for the engineers? Perhaps, Norwegians love their mountains. The road leaves the main river for a branch that winks upstream through cleavages. 15:42, the canyon is tight and twisted, borderline claustrophobic. Icefalls cling to the cliff faces. Many are blue, in bad light they look good, to think what they look like in good light.
The driver and riders are talking freely. Earlier I was sure they were discussing me, the driver and I shared an amiable conversation before the ride. If not their conversation then it’s the hum of the bus or the radio, there is no silence within to match the silence without.
15:49, we are out of the tight canyon and in a defined valley, still with walls but not confining. The trees have changed, the pines have become few to none. Birch covers the land, dull gray limbs on white snow. The birch are curious in that they are short and thin, as if malnourished.
I learned that the birch are indeed malnourished. 16:00, we are in a land of barely rolling hills, the plateau – Finnmarkvidda. Two forces are afoot, conspiring against trees: elevation and distance. The elevation is of minor concern, but when leveraged with distance from the warming water of the coast, then trees struggle to survive. The lack of enough days above 10 centigrad condemns trees, even the hardy birch and aspen yield.
60 kilometer from Alta and about 70 to go. The stunted forest is spread thin as far as the eye can see. Time, 16:15.
The fish migrating this far would have to be strong and committed. They love “the motherland” and are fanatical about their mission to spread their seed. I wonder if the creators of the Netflix show, “The Americans,” liked to fish?
The star of the Norwegians rivers, and the star of the star river, is the Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar). For over one hundred years this muscular beast has enticed anglers to venture north. Connecting with a brute fresh from the sea must make one forget all about the cloud of mosquitoes and gnats that are attracted to the tourists. The Alta River is highly regulated, the Gallatin River is a free for all by comparison.
“Uurr,” that feeling in your gut when a vehicle lurches. The bus caught another pile of slush on the starboard side. The resistance slowed the right tires and made the bus groan.
“Salmon” is a name that invokes wonder. It’s a fish that occurred outside the centers of civilization. A food stuff reserved for the affluent, a sport controlled by the kings. Growing up, the idea of eating salmon was something reserved for the most special of occasions. Plus, I don’t think anybody dared cook it at home. A salmon fillet isn’t something you deep fry.
The men have been silent, 16:20. Perhaps they are tired? Maybe the vastness of the landscape finally caught them? Here one is really alone, there is no need to speak.
The trees are shorter and more narrow, still thinly spread to the horizon. These little birches appear darker. The snow covered landscape is covered by the dark pricks, in the low light it reminds me of an ostrich skin cowboy boot.
The coach leaves the main road to swing through the settlement of Masi. No one waits for the bus. A good number of the homes here have large animal hides tacked to their sheds and small skins hanging on porches or roofs, protected from crows and stray cats by fencing and mesh. Just driving through this land it would be easy to dismiss that much wildlife lived here, clearly the locals have found otherwise. My eyes were peeled to the windows but only crows betrayed their presence. If crows were tasty or had a good skin, then they would be hiding too.
Atlantic Salmon are a curious fish. As a Midwesterner, my idea of salmon was totally formed by childhood lessons and TV shows about the heroic salmon of the West that fought 3,000 kilometers of elevation and thousands of river kilometers only to die. If only Homer knew of this fish. But Atlantic Salmon don’t die! Their bodies change to survive in the freshwater so they can return to the ocean to gorge again. Several years later they can make another run.
The driver broke the silence. I guess he couldn’t take it, the silence from an audience. The three resume their discourse on the all the world’s problems. 17:06, on of the passengers asks if there are always so few riders for such a large bus? Yes, plainly responded the driver. The rider had a follow up question, “Why not a minibus?” This must have been an assault on the obvious and a breach of the cultural norms because the driver gave a verbous and emotional lesson as to why the large coach. He talked so quickly all I made out was something to do with having a toilet onboard.
We dropped off of Highway 93, a one lane road through the outskirts of Kautokeino. 15:13, the men leave, loaded with backpacks they walk up a side road towards some adventure. The driver beckons me to sit up at the front. I oblige, how could I resist?
We wait and watch the men walk away. Then the driver confided in me that they were from the city, he felt obliged to talk to them, to tell them about the area and make them feel at home. Lonely cultures have strong hospitality rituals.
My journey ended at the Thon, I was greeted by a fleet of hotel snowmobiles for rent. I was too tired to be interested. Little did I know I traveled a water-fall of 306 M.O.H. Such a stand alone thing would be famous throughout the world. The Finnmarkvidda in general, and Kautokeino in particular are hard places to get to, harder still to live. Here, so far and so high from the sea, the fish are visitors, the trees are unwelcome, and people do what they must.
Distance and elevation make for water to fall. With a little creativity, you can see the wonders of water-falls most anywhere, even in a place like Iowa. Let’s share stories when I move to America.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.