The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 25: The Sun Always Rises; or, When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
New birds:1, Journey to date: 74, and a correction
Svarthvit fluesnapper (Ficedula hypoleuca)
The Uke 23 entry noted the Varsler, I was mistaken. I did my due diligence uncovered the true identity, the habitat and warning call were the keys to the mystery.
Møller (Sylvia curruca)
Varsler (Lanius excubitor)
The Sun Always Rises; or, When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
As I held out my hand a tiny gray flake alighted. Even for Oslo, a snowflake in June is a rarity. Ah, but this was no snowflake. This was Sankthansaften – Saint John the Baptist’s Eve.
My time in Norway was getting shorter, just like the nights. Sunset at this latitude and month is so slow, the angle so oblique, that the transition from direct sun to twilight is unnoticeable. The light of the just hiding sun lingers, as if the sun feels there is too much living to be done. I go to bed late, with visible light and wake to a sun that has been up for many hours. The analogy to my time in Norway has been obvious.
I have no personal tradition of celebrating Sankthansaften. My Midwestern summers accepted earlier and complete darkness in comparison to the high latitudes, perhaps in exchange for unrelenting heat. But when in Norway…
Sankthansaften also marks the end of the school and anticipation of summer holiday, the 5-6 weeks in Norway when EVERYBODY is on vacation, preferably at a coastal or mountain cabin. Side trips to America are allowed. For Scandinavians, the evening is properly observed with sea-side bonfires, maybe a speech, and revelry. I went fishing.
My catch in Norway has been zero although my satisfaction has been great. Remember, it’s called fishing and not catching for a reason. Tonight seemed like a fitting reason to whet a line – it’s nice to invent a special reason – and give it one last go.
The species of interest now in Norway is Atlantic Salmon. The mighty swimmers are coursing from near shore feasts to natal rivers. Their transformation from saltwater creatures to freshwater fish is nothing short of amazing. Their transition back to saltwater following the spawn squares the wonder.
I would not be fishing for salmon. To fish for salmon would require a car and a special fishing license, and probably a trespass fee. I fished the sea, a free right to all in Norway.
I expected nothing in terms of a piscine catch based on previous attempts, this was no different. Contemporary fishing is about the effort, the experience; I was really trying to catch a future memory. For that that there is no daily quota.
There is nothing odd about riding the bus in Oslo with fishing gear. I like Oslo. My ride on the trusty #32 Kværnerbyen dropped me adjacent to Lysaker Brygge, it was a short walk.
Merrymakers were visible in their preparation throughout the day. I saw an unusual abundance of shopping bags marked with the distinct logo of the state liquor store, the night demanded provisions. Others disembarked the bus with me, much better dressed and destined for an overtly social occasion. I headed for the docks.
Brethren with rods in action preceded me. Long rods were their symbols of legitimacy and purpose. My kit revealed my status as an interloper, but also as no threat to their efforts.
These anglers favored floats and live bait. They seemed to me like non-native Norwegians and truly interested in catching supper. A family left with a bag of fish. I found a solitary spot and cast.
Two days earlier was the Summer Solstice. I marked the low sun of the evening with a last photoshoot of the new US Embassy and birdwalk along Lysaker River. The meteorological differences between the Iowa home and Oslo were more striking than simple statistics suggested.
Daylight in Linn County was 15 hours, 15 minutes; Oslo logged 18:50.
Sunrise CR, 5: 31 am Sunset CR, 8:46 pm
Sunrise Oslo, 3:54 am Sunset Oslo, 10:45 pm
But the truer measure went beyond the gross metrix of sunrise and sunset. Dawn awakened at 2:10 AM in Oslo and dusk at 12:29 AM. If there were stars over Røa, then I missed them.
With the abundant light it was difficult to make out all the fires that I knew ringed the fjord. The ubiquitous smell of smoke confirmed to my nose what I eyes couldn’t see. Clearly, Ola Nordmann across the bay from me was no master of a healthy flame. That “bonfire” finally smoked me out and caused my retreat.
A new location, closer to the hungry anglers and a couple of last casts for good measure. A man hauled in mackerel, scrappy and lean they were soon brained and in the bucket. I took down my pole and pit stopped at the corner market on my way to the bus. Instead of fish, I would be headed home with mineral water and candy. I was sure Meghan would be happy with my catch.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
Meghan’s keen eyes found this week’s new bird. This guy has a really neat look. This is when I covet a big lens and a tripod.
New birds: 1, Journey to date: 66
Horndykker (Podiceps auritus)
Afraid, alone, and easily killed, a recipe for a life of horrors. If it was natural, then I could chalk it up to the vagaries of nature. But if such a life wasn’t natural, instead invented, then I would have to recheck my moral compass. Because if I played a part in that terror, then I would need a new direction. The life I speak of is real; my compass is spinning.
I have been experimenting with the creative setting on my digital SLR. We have owned the camera for years, at least seven, but I have never taken a class: hubris. The standard setting has been good enough but since I’m finally interested in upping my game I have started to play with aperture and shutter speeds. Thank goodness this is a game of one because I don’t know the rules very well. I feel that a 6-year-old with little experience would beat me soundly.
Photographs of flowing water that make the movement look so silky are just cool. Every image I have ever captured of waterfalls or rivers has frozen the action, not cool. Point-and-shoot cameras are like automatic transmission cars. Real enthusiasts need to jam the gears.
My devotion to rivers is well documented. Aldo Leopold said that he loved trees but that he was in love with pines. I love water but I think I am in love with rivers. My photographic volume of river images is evidence enough, maybe I need counseling?
I live a stone’s throw from a river. A short walk from the apartment brings me to the water’s edge, an even shorter walk puts me in earshot of the rushing water.
The Lysaker River is cold, swift, and short; a typical Norwegian river. The river starts at Bogstad Lake, a lovely park area and then courses to the fjord. It divides Oslo county from Akershus. The river was formerly dammed and worked along its 8 kilometer journey. Today, only remnants of its industrial life remain.
Lysaker River’s job today is to be a refuge for people, plants, and animals. It has certainly fulfilled that role for me and my family. That everyone should have a river to walk on a regular basis, the world would be a kinder place.
Atlantic Salmon seek refuge in the river, a refuge for their progeny. Salmon hold a special place in the culture here. They are a beloved animal, a symbol of the wilds, and a revered food. And they are just cool!
From the fjord the salmon hit their first dam on the Lysaker within 500 meters. The muscular fish have no chance against the vertical concrete cascade. To atone for the barrier, years ago the people installed a fish ladder. Alas, I will be gone by the time the salmon give it a go.
Wild salmon can climb the ladder. Nature invested millions of years of evolution in the gymnastic talents of this anadromous fish. Mankind has invested millions of dollars to unwittingly destroy it.
Farmed salmon are big business in Norway. I have written about the negative consequences of the caged fish, such as water pollution, and disease transmission. Regretfully I have learned about another dysfunction: genetic pollution.
Cage salmon escaped, some prisoners in every confinement do. The escapees however are not like their wild relatives, they are almost like a different and invasive species. Their genes and subsequent fitness have been comprised by industrial propagation. Fugitive survivors spawn with free-born fish. The amount of truly free-born fish are diminished and the hybrids lack the vigor to succeed as adults. The spread of this pollution threatens to infect all the rivers of Norway to the point of no return.
In the postmodern world philosophers hold that no one is fully guilty or innocent, all are products of the environment and the time, all are connected to and influenced by a myriad of others. The diversity of the connections are unknowable. The criminals are also victims; the saints are also sinners…
The farmed salmon may be monsters to the wild salmon, but they also live in a tortured state not of their making. Recent research discovered that propagated salmon are mostly deaf. Something in the captive raising process impedes the development of an ear bone and hearing. Their key sense for survival is absent, denied.
The report made me wonder about hatchery raised fish in America. In Iowa, the DNR raises trout as well as walleye in prodigious quantities to augment the deplorable natural reproduction. Are they releasing millions of Frankenstein’s monsters every year? If this is true, is there an obligation to stop?
In Norway I have enjoyed the easy accessibility of seafood. But now I have to rethink again my consumption of salmon. I assume the salmon in stores are farmed. On top of considering the environmental impacts of eating easy salmon, now I have to think about the tortured lives of the fish. Swimming frantically, probably panicked due to their inexplicable handicapped state; I think about that when I see the packages in the refrigerated section.
Aristotle is supposed to have said that, “The unimagined life is not worth living.” That is, we have a duty to examine our life and how we live. How is it that we impact others? That is a heavy burden.
Will I still eat store-bought salmon? Yes, but I will also do it less because I cannot ignore the responsibility. Caged, diseased, and now deafened, I never realized that farmed salmon were such exceptional fish.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
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.