When I started hiking on the Finnmark Heath in the summertime some thirty-five years ago, I rarely ran into people. At the Joatkajávri Lodge there were very few overnight visitors in the middle of the summer in the 1980s and 90s. At that time the Norwegian Trekking Association still arranged one week’s hike across the summer heath, but even this initiative ceased. The transport by boat over Iešjávri ended, and the solitary cabin betwen Joatka and Mollisjok was vandalized and wrecked and had to be dismantled. The solitary cabin had been situated on a small hill at the southwestern end of Lake Iešjávri and had functioned as an ideal place for staying overnight for hikers, close to midway on the thirty-five kilometer’s hike (32 miles) between the Joatka and Mollisjok lodges. I have stayed there myself at the beginning of the 1980s. A spring night’s drunken bout among snow-scooter drivers, perhaps, spelled the end of this much-needed refuge from bad weather and aching legs.
In the course of the second half of the 20th century, most of the Norwegian State’s lodges in Finnmark – the ones accessible by public roads – had passed into private hands. Only the three overnight locations further inland on the roadless heath itself – the Joatkajávri Lodge, the Mollisjok Lodge, and the Ravnastua Lodge – were still owned by the Norwegian State. And Joatka had, as mentioned, functioned as the very hearth of my rambles on the heath.
According to the agreement between the lodges and the State, the latter was responsible for the upkeep of the buildings of the place, whereas the lodge manager was to keep whatever he or she could earn from the running of it. This was an arrangement premised on the assumption that the lodges were extensively used by people walking on the heath. But in the course of the last half of the 20th century, people’s leisure time pursuits were changing. This was true also of what Norwegians call friluftsliv – outdoor life. This made the arrangement with the State less profitable, something which had become quite evident for the Joatka Lodge already in the 1980s.
As the manager Helge Romsdal said to me at the beginning of the 1990s: If you check the old guest registers some twenty-to-thirty years ago, you will see that up to twenty-five cross-country skiers stayed overnight almost every night in the best skiing season. In the 1980s and 90s the number of skiers had gone down, while snow-scooter traffic had increased. But it was particularly in the summer that the tourists on foot had radically dwindled. Some heath hikers from abroad stumbled upon the Lodge, but Norwegians were a different matter. No, Helge said and pointed teasingly at me, Norwegians on the heath in July have grown so rare that they are almost worthy of preservation! I felt antiquated but at the same time special standing there – a museum piece, though alive and kicking.
No, Helge said several times to me, it was the mice that saved the Joatkajávri Lodge.
At the beginning of the 1980s some researchers from the University of Umeå in Northern Sweden came to Nedre Mollisjok in Finnmark, they were looking for the kind of mountain slope that stretched from the bare mountain down into the birch forest, the ideal location for the research they wanted to do on mice. The people at Nedre Mollisjok suggested Joatka as a site with the ideal natural conditions for this. Helge was eternally grateful for the advice given by Nedre Mollisjok.
The researchers on the project, led by Professor Lauri Oksanen, ended up settling in Joatka and its Lodge in 1984 and carried out extensive investigations of the ecological interplay between rodents and the environment. On the mountain slope northeast of the Joatka cabins is a partly fenced-in area that can be seen a long way off, and that is also entrenched in the ground to prevent the mice from coming into or out of the area. On the
low moraine ridges below with their scattered birch vegetation one can also still find small fenced-in lots that are part of the project. In addition research was carried out on a couple of the small islands in Lake Iešjávri – also places well suited for doing surveys and experiments under monitored conditions. Over the years the research in the Joatka area laid the groundwork for a good many doctoral dissertations. And the studies that were carried out did not only focus on mice, but dealt also with the extended interplay between different herbivores and plants and carnivores around Joatka and Iešjávri. Which in due course also led to discussions of the effects of climate change on the ecological diversity of the heath.
As long as the researchers needed help housing and help, Joatka had after all a regular income, year after year. In a conversation I had with Helge in 1993, he mentioned that there were eight-to-ten researchers on the project, but that it was uncertain how long Umeå University would continue to finance this research. In the course of the first one-and-a-half decades of the 21st century, the enterprise has been steadily reduced; now basic information is only collected each fall and spring to ensure that the regular collection of data over so many years should not be randomly cut off, if some scholar should want to administer and continue this research project.)
Although the research on mice helped “save” Joatka, it was not its main objective, of course. At the same time Joatka may, however, be argued to have served as a tiny piece in the puzzle of world-wide ecological research projects that can help us understand more of the extremely complicated interplay that exists between all living creatures and plants in our natural environments.
Without such an understanding we will be unable to impose limits to the combination of greed, egotism and ignorance that (almost literally) fuels a behavior on our part that increasingly impoverishes and destroys our earth and impairs our atmosphere.