I had been looking forward to my tour to the North Cape. Normally not a fan of cold weather, I was willing to endure Norway’s extreme conditions, if only to be able to say that I had stood on the northernmost tip of Europe. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. A couple of hours prior to departure the public address system on the MS Richard With, one of Hurtigruten’s fleet of ships that combine passenger voyages with delivery of mail and supplies to the remote northern regions of the country, delivered the bad news. “We regret to inform you that our North Cape tour has been cancelled due to inclement weather conditions.”
Later that week, when Captain Tommy Eliassen invited our small group of travel writers to visit the bridge, I learned that he shared our disappointment. We took turns sitting in his captain’s chair and marveling over the tiny joystick that maneuvered the big ship into snug ports of call while firing off a barrage of questions. Asked if he ever became concerned about sailing through Arctic storms like the one we had experienced on our second night at sea, he shook his head without hesitation.
“This ship is rated to sail through a force ten hurricane. Of course, we wouldn’t do that; there is no reason to make our passengers so uncomfortable. My biggest stress is when we have to cancel activities like your trip to the Cape, but it was out of our hands.”
Eliassen explained that the snow plow drivers who keep the roads clear in this remote area had made the final decision. Over the previous two days, roaring 50 mile per hour winds had created whiteout conditions and swept high drifts across the road. These famous drivers are known for their fearlessness and tenacity during storms; their orders to close roads are inviolable. (To watch a documentary about the lives of these snow plow operators, click here. Although it is in Norwegian, the images are self-explanatory and show how tour buses to the North Cape often have to follow closely behind one of these giant plows).
Fortunately, my disappointment over the cancelled tour had dissipated the moment I stepped off the ship in Honningsvag, a tiny town at the top of the world where boats bobbed on ultramarine waters and bejeweled houses relieved the white-on-white landscape like daffodils poking through spring snow. A dusting of the powdery stuff overlaid thick ice that varnished every inch of pavement. I slipped and slid in the direction of town, my determination to photograph the harbor overriding my fear of falling. Gingerly I made my way along piers jutting out into the bay, delighting in the rugged fishing boats tied up end-to-end.
Eyes peered out from a few of the cabins, no doubt wondering what this obvious landlubber was doing on their dock. On the third pier I found two middle-aged men tying up a small vessel.
“God ettermiddag,” I said, greeting them in one of the few Norwegian phrases I had learned. I pointed to my camera and then back at them. “Photo?” The tall one was camera shy but the shorter one with the ruddy cheeks broke out into a broad smile.
“Alfred,” he said, holding out his hand. “Barbara,” I replied, shaking his hand. Alfred invited me inside a small workshop on the dock next to his moored boat, pointing to a small skiff turned upside-down on the floor. The old surfer in me instantly recognized the acrid odor of fiberglass and I noted the fresh patch on the bottom.
“You fix?” I asked, pointing at the repair and then at him.
“Ja,” he replied, thrusting out his chest like a proud peacock. Further inside he stood before a yellowed newspaper clipping taped to the wall. The words were gibberish but a photo showed him standing next to a fish strung up on a pulley. It was nearly twice his height.
Astonished by the size of the monster I asked, “You catch?”
He nodded emphatically. “You England?”
“No,” I laughed.”America.”
His grin grew even wider. “Many my family live America!”
I took an educated guess. “Minnesota? Little Norway?”
“Ja! Little Norway! Sorry speak little English.”
“Sorry, no Norwegian. Spanish…Espanol?”
“No.” he said, shaking his head. “Deutsch?” he asked hopefully.
“Ja! Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutch.” My rudimentary German allowed us to exchange a few broken sentences before he turned and walked a few steps to the back of his shop. When he faced me again it was with a knife in one hand…and a juicy chunk of fresh smoked salmon in the other.
I popped it in my mouth and closed my eyes, chewing slowly to savor every last morsel. “Incredible! ” I exclaimed, forgetting my German. “You can’t buy Salmon like this in America.”
“Ist von Himmel,” he replied, pointing up. That I understood. It definitely was a gift from Heaven. And considering I never would have met Alfred or sampled his fresh smoked salmon if I’d gone on the North Cape tour, so were the high winds that had closed the roads.
Disclosure: I was a guest of Hurtigruten UK during my Arctic voyage around the northern tip of Norway. However, the receipt and acceptance of complimentary items or services will never influence the content, topics, or posts in this blog. I write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.