September 19, 2018
The MS Spitsbergen continued its voyage, cruising steadily to the north: our destination for the day was The North Cape (Nordkapp) on the island of Magerøya. We were taken on a comfortable modern bus from the dock at Honningsvåg, the northernmost city in Norway we were told, along route E69 to a visitor center, The North Cape Hall.
On the way to the visitor center the landscape began to change. Trees disappeared as we made a steep ascent up the mountainous terrain. Free-ranging reindeer appeared every so often, to the left and right, grazing the increasingly arctic vegetation. Every turn opened a vista, calling for digital snapshots through the bus windows of this exotic view and that one. As if we could hope to capture, and never lose, the evanescent experiences literally passing us by.
We stopped about half-way there, to visit a gift shop. These stops—ten minutes or so in length—are a feature of most every organized tour we’ve ever taken. We don’t mind them; they are no doubt negotiated with local businesses and municipalities as an integral part of the local economy. They keep the roads open and the infrastructure healthy; if we visit, we buy. If we buy; it makes it more probable that we, and others like us, can continue to visit. Tourist economies have their own dynamic, and we must take these inauthentic experiences as part of a larger package with the more authentic and memorable.
Off to the side, a Sámi man stood with a reindeer, feeding the animal hay from a sack. He accepted the odd coin from enthralled tourists, who viewed him like an exotic specimen from some ethnographic zoo. Even we, more skeptical than most of these sorts of exhibitions, captured a few images. He seemed to be camped near the gift shop, drawn to the location by access to tourists. His lavvu, or Sámi tipi, looked well used and long inhabited.
Perhaps his reindeer herd was no longer profitable and herding another kind of domestic animal was more sustainable. He looked a little the worse for wear—teetering on the edge of a life he knew well but could barely sustain. So, we used him, and he used us. We continued on, leaving him behind, as we traveled on by coach to North Cape Hall.
Nordkaphallen, as it is called in Norwegian, sits in virtual isolation on a barren plateau whose northern edge is sheared off by a giant one thousand and seven foot cliff dropping dizzily down into the conjoined waters of the Barents and Norwegian Seas. The cliff top is a popular spot for viewing the Northern Lights, but we were there in September, in the afternoon, and, sadly, would not be seeing any lights today. Perhaps, on another trip to Norway, only now germinating in our travel ambitions, we could gaze at the aurora from the rocky, lichen-covered edge of the world. For now, the view is spectacular, desolate, bleak, and wild. The world feels so large, and we so small in it.
This clifftop, marked by a massive steel globe, is promoted as the northernmost point of Europe, although this is a bit of an exaggeration. It is simply the northernmost point that tourists typically get to visit. A nearby point, Knivskjellodden, is actually four thousand, seven hundred and eighty feet further north. Still, it is as far north as we have ever been—or ever expected to be. Can we imagine ourselves traveling to the Svalbard Islands another five hundred miles North, or to the North Pole six hundred and fifty miles further still? In our late sixties, we doubt it; but such imaginings cost us nothing.
There was a running joke on the bus, as we travel to, and return from the Cape. We are traveling the northernmost road, we will have the northernmost coffee, see the northernmost souvenirs, rocks (and reindeer droppings) in all of Europe. We will use the northernmost toilets. These claims might not have all been strictly quite true, but they were true enough for most of our fellow travelers.
The Hall was built in 1988 and is a thoroughly modern building with theatre, restaurant, and gift shop, the latter a ubiquitous constant of modern tourist Norway. Before the modern amenities appeared, there had been a succession of wooden buildings to greet hardy adventurists. Tourist travel dates back only to 1875, when Thomas Cook organized the first brave group of twenty-four to make the visit. After this, the first wooden buildings began to appear, including Stoppenbrink’s Champagne Pavilion, an octagonal wooden structure built between 1891 and 1892. This building played host to the North Cape tradition of commemorating the arctic visit with a flute of champagne, a tradition that seems to be the oldest ritual, dating to the 1840s, associated with the Cape.
We could see no trace of this or any earlier buildings, the Pavilion having been blown away by the wind in 1914, to be replaced by a post office and washrooms in 1928. In 1933 another building was added, and the washrooms moved there, while the existing space became a waiting room. We were offered no champagne, in any case.
Nordkapp, too, was on Casper and Gjertine’s itinerary. In his journal Casper wrote about their precarious journey to the cape. The E69, the road we took to Nordkapp in relative comfort, was built in 1956. Before that, the usual landing site for tourist ships was at Hornviken, the Horn of the North Cape. Visitors climbed up a trail on the side of the North Cape Plateau using a set of steps, one thousand and eight to be exact, to gain access to the plateau and the few amenities located there in those days.
From Casper’s translated journal entry, dated Saturday July 16, 1932: “We… got to North Cape at 5 PM. The weather was fine but the waves were still in motion. We went ashore at 8 PM and climbed on top of the hill. The path was narrow and steep in some places. Ropes were fastened to posts for to hold onto. It took about an hour to get to the top to the first house and then 15 minutes to walk across the top to the Post Office.”
Those one thousand and eight steps remain visible today, although, alas, we did not get a chance to see them. After their ascent to the plateau using the steps, Casper and Gjertine lingered a while at the Post Office to purchase postcards and stamps. They most likely peered out over the cliff northward, towards distant Svalbard.
From reading his journal we know that Casper and Gjertine then sought out the King Oscar monument. “There was a monument of granite with King Oscar’s name on it and the flag was waving on both places. It gave us a pleasant feeling to stand on the northernmost part of the world.”
The King Oscar monument, a modest stone erected in 1873, commemorated Oscar the II’s visit to Nordkapp on July 2, 1873. Our first attempt to locate the monument failed. Did it still exist? Had it been moved? While making our own purchases at the North Cape gift shop, we asked the two women at checkout about the monument. Yes, they said, the monument still stands but has moved, and they directed us to its new location.
We found the small stone obelisk honoring King Oscar II in a spot overlooking the Barents Sea, and Greg snapped a photo while Joan stood in front of the old memorial. Perhaps Casper had photographed Gjertine in front of this monument some eighty-six years earlier. Perhaps it was one of the many photographs documenting that visit that have been lost.
The modern metal globe—the modern, contemporary symbol of the North Cape—displaced the Oscar Monument in 1974. The old monument, maybe not quite large enough, quite impressive enough, not quite meaningful enough for the throngs of non-Norwegian tourists, was shunted off to the side of North Cape Hall, to the West, no longer occupying pride of place on the north-facing promontory.
Today tourists thronged the large iron globe. Posing, posturing, speaking the body language of the tourist—look at me, I am here. Only we, and Andrea and Justin, and a few others, located the older monument, and stood there thoughtfully for a few brief moments, contemplating the past and the swift passage of time, before our bus driver herded us like two-legged reindeer back onto our bus.
Past and present. One does not proceed as directly from the other as we might imagine. Joan had stood, and, simultaneously, not stood, in her great-grandparents’ footsteps. The Oscar monument was at once the same, and yet not the same. It had been displaced, in both place and time. Members of an extended family, removed by four generations, had all voyaged to the North Cape and spent a few memorable hours upon the same plateau.
Joan had never met two of her fellow travelers to the North, great grandparents Casper and Gjertine. The relative brevity of the human life span usually prevents such meetings. Yet here, with the obelisk behind her, she has, nevertheless, joined with them somehow. She, and son Justin, have built, and then crossed, a bridge of common experience and shared emotion to greet them. They stand together and look, as one, out over the gray waters of the endless sea to the uttermost North.