“Why are you here?” It’s not a question I am often asked during family vacations. But perhaps the Norwegian cod fisherman had a point. It had taken my wife, 9-year-old daughter and me three flights over a 24-hour period, plus two days and nights aboard a Hurtigruten mail boat, plus a long drive in a rental car to stand before him in the small town of Å in Norway’s Lofoten Islands. Why were we here?
Our travel plans were simple: a wintertime trip to these far-flung islands to see the aurora borealis at its peak. A rather big peak, thought to be part of an 11-year cycle when the northern lights are exceptionally spectacular. This was to be a special year.
But going to the Lofoten Islands in March is like going to Cape Cod in February. It’s not something people do. The temperature outside is 14 degrees. The islands themselves look like the snow-covered Rockies jutting out of the inky, frigid waters of the Norwegian Sea. Colorful fishing villages hug coasts lined with brightly painted cod-fishing boats, each seemingly no bigger than a bathtub. Cathedral-like frames of weathered wood hung with drying cod are spread throughout every town, creating an eerie beauty.
The village of Å is no exception to this rugged scene, and is so small it was once a farm. The fisherman quizzing us happily shares news of thriving cod populations, perhaps due to rising water temperatures. The discussion turns to the sustainability of the cod stocks in years to come. Norway’s slogan “Powered by Nature” is fitting for a place full of natural beauty, fossil fuels and maritime industry. But questions loom about what the future holds for this country in a climate-changing world.
That’s another reason we’re here. We want to experience the arctic. There’s an urgency to see these islands now, on the brink of change. A change that Norway itself is challenging — reinvesting its petro wealth into sustainable energy production, tourism and forest protection in places like the Amazon to mitigate climate change. It’s fascinating, and inspiring.
That night we eat dinner at a local inn. We’re the only out-of-town patrons. The maître d’ is our busboy and chef. Our dinner is a slab of fresh cod in a rich sauce so thick and abundant that’s almost a stew. As we emerge, stuffed, from the cozy inn out into the Arctic night our daughter looks up and exclaims: “The aurora!”
The sky is filled with undulating lights. We walk back to our cabin, lie on our backs in the snow and watch the night sky for hours. Bands of green, violet, red and orange surge across the sky. My daughter and I eventually head off to bed. My wife stays out past 2 in the morning, not stepping away for a bathroom break, a drink or a chance to get warm for fear of missing even a moment.
The Lofoten Islands are stark, inviting, naturally stunning and architecturally beautiful, modern and old. It is all powered by nature. And all the while the aurora rages overhead. Now we are asking ourselves, “When can we go back?”
*Bill Ulfelder is the Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy’s New York program. *