During every winter in Tromsø (the largest city of Northern Norway), the small rivers on the spring and summer heath in the neighboring county of Finnmark have flowed in and out of my dreams. With whirling snow and arctic wind outside my apartment, my nose has yearned for the smell of the green shrubbery, moors and wetlands of the heath. And my hands have ached for swinging my fly rod over whirling waters and feeling the strike from a large grayling whose fillets will be sizzling in the frying pan in the evening. And my feet have itched for the feel of soggy bogs and firm moraine ridges and stone under my boot soles. And my eyes have craved to see the migrant birds that have returned to the biotopes in which they were hatched, and to note all the plants that lend life and color to the heath.
When the snow was gone on Tromsø island, the landscape around the lake of Iešjávri started beckoning me. The call grew louder and louder. Almost every year – sometimes already in the spring, sometimes in the summer, sometimes not before the autumn – I have succumbed to the call and driven to Finnmark. And hiked on the heath for one or two weeks with a large backpack, burdened down with sleeping bag and tent and ground pad and rain gear and spare clothes and fishing equipment and dry foods. And almost every evening, after pitching my tent, I have savored the feel of standing on the bank of some river or brook or inlet with my fly rod in order to catch me some dinner:
The hiking trip through the living landscape of the Finnmark heath that I will be describing in my upcoming blog posts took place in spring after the snow had melted in the mountains and the terrain had come back to life.
At 8a.m. in the morning of June 24, I sat down behind the wheel of my car and drove the seven hours from Tromsø, by way of Skibotn, Nordreisa and Kvænangen, to Alta, and then up through the valley along the Tverrelva River to the Joatka lakes at the threshold of the Iešjávri heath. It was the day after Midsummer Eve, three days after summer solstice – the brightest time of the year.
The summer was already going full blast in Tromsø, as is normal in the last week of June. Up on the mountain plateaus of Finnmark, however, spring was still unfolding, even on June 24. In terms of climate zones, Tromsø is two weeks or more ahead of the Iešjávri heath. This has nothing do do with latitudes. Both the Iešjávri lake and Tromsø are situated at 69 degrees north. They are located more or less equally far north, but the heath lies about 1300 feet higher than Tromsø. In northernmost Norway thirteen hundred feet represent a dramatic difference – a difference between forest and bare mountainous terrain, for instance. When I left Tromsø the foliage was in full splendor, and the forest floor abounded with the leaves of wood cranesbill (woodland geranium) and globeflowers:
On the heath of Iešjávri, on the other hand, the leaves on the mountain birch had barely unfolded, and the earliest spring plants had barely managed to burst through the crust of the soil.
To travel back in time is easy – when it comes to time of year, I mean. It is just to take a little trip into the mountains.
The last stretch of my drive took me from Alta and up unto the mountain plateau. Halfway on this last lap I drove past the old shale quarry at the place called Stilla, which in Norwegian means a “still” or “placid” place, for instance in a river. There was nothing quiet about it here; the waterfall in the Tverrelva River came crashing, rain- and melt-water-heavy, into the pool below.
It was here at Stilla that the large demonstrations against the damming of the great Alta River took place towards the end of the 1970s. Now, more than thirty years later, it feels unbelievable that I failed to make the trip from Tromsø to participate in the demonstrations at the time. But Alta had seemed so far away from Tromsø, I did not own a car, collective action was not really my thing, and I was furthermore new in my Tromsø job and struggled to keep up with my work. Dubious excuses, all of them. The truth was instead that I had not been committed enough at that time. A stay-at-home environmentalist is what I was.
No wonder the waterfall at Stilla thundered by me. In pure rage and contempt, no doubt.
By refraining to travel to Stilla I also missed events of historic portent in Norway. The damming of the Alta River affected first and foremost Sami land. The protests and demonstrations, not least by the Sami themselves, caused the final damming of the river to be less extensive than originally planned, although the Norwegian Government bulldozed the matter through. But the great historic importance of the Alta conflict springs expecially from the fact that the Alta controversy sparked the Sami’s active struggle over the last thirty-five years for their rights as an indigenous people, a struggle that did not only lead to legal recognition, but contributed so a stronger cultural identity among the Sami in general and an increasing respect and acknowledgement from society at large after centuries of discrimination. (This does not mean, of course, that all disputes and conflicts of interest are automatically solved.)
I thus witnessed these demonstrations from a distance, on TV from my living room couch. And the irony over all ironies of fate: The road that took me the rest of the way to the Joatka lakes – paved with asphalt, even – was the construction road leading to the enormous dam in the Alta River at Sautso. The distance from the shale quarry in Stilla to the place where I was going to park my car would have required, in the good old days, a hike of close to ten miles. Due to the asphalt road that led to the dam I drove all the way to my end stop, which was the parking lot above a short rivulet that connects the largest Joatka lake (Stuorajávri) to the intermediate lake (Gaskajávri).
From this spot there were less than three miles to the Joatkajávri lodge (see photograph below), the destination for my short evening hike of less than two hours. A piece of cake. And from the lodge I could hike the following day onto the heath around Lake Iešjávri, glimpsed in the far horizon in the photo:
It felt a little embarrassing (but alas, also wonderfully undemanding) to be driving on a construction road whose construction I had not even been present to protest against. (But it was also a road, after all, that the residents of Joatkajávri Lodge and Øvre [“Upper”] Stilla benefit greatly from.)
Around half past six I parked, full of anticipation, in the parking lot. The short rivulet linking the two lakes flowed below the lot itself, and on the upper side of the road was a crag called Tutteberget (“Tutte’s Crag”). I have been told that the name dates back to the time when the construction road to the Alta dam was built. The road curves narrowly under an overhang in the crag that the blaster at that time, a man called Tutte, allegedly refused to dynamite. The crag has long been part of the regular habitat of a pair of rough-egged buzzards.
From here on I had to use my legs to reach the Joatkajávri lodge.
I have no idea how many blog posts this week-long hike on the heath will require. Surely some forty–fifty, who knows. I have a lot to talk about, for instance small curiosities concerning the various plants and animals (mostly birds and fishes) that I encounter on the way. At times a single blog post may be devoted wholly to a particular plant or animal. Sometimes I would also like to mention my fly-fishing in the evenings. And a paragraph or two may also be spent, from time to time, on my personal reflections on nature.
But most of the time I simply want to express my enjoyment of the vibrant life that is everywhere on the heath in springtime.