Svartisdal, for Bob Cranwell, imbued a sense of place.
I was so lucky to learn this little part of history at a time when so much of it was still open to my enquiry. I was on my first trip of many driving a 10 metre bus on camping tours in Scandinavia. I’d started in Oslo, driven North through Sweden and a limb of Finland into Norway’s Finnmark.
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I and all my punters were amazed at the coastal and mountain scenery laid before us, even though we had all seen photos and maybe film of the area, the breathtaking grandeur of the scenes unfolding were really awe-inspiring, in the 19th Century meaning of the word. The sense of space was palpable, and underlined by the belief common among Same (Lapps) that their personal space extended beyond the horizon. If you were to travel East from the Finnmark plateau, you could travel almost to the Sea of Japan without encountering much of human provenance.
Our route then traveled South from Tromsø through Norway, visiting the Lofoten Islands and coming down to the Arctic Circle just north of Mo I Rana. I had no directions as to where to set a camp, but the trip dossier mentioned a trip to see the Svartisen glacier so I set up camp on a large grassy area at the turn-off to Svartisdal.
The next day, I ferried my group along what was then a track of grey dirt up to the end of the road where a small kiosk sold tickets for the boat which would take them to the end of the lake, from where they could walk to an upper lake with direct views of the blue glacier tumbling down into it. This promised a stunning day out for my group, and I went along so I could accurately gauge any safety problems that might arise during such an excursion.
All went well, and as I had good knowledge of glaciation, I was able to enlighten those interested in the processes they could see with their own eyes. On the way from the jetty office back down the track, I stopped at a house I had seen set back from the road, which appeared to have a couple of small cabins nearby, and a large open area nearby. I enquired at the house about the possibility of camping there and I met for the first time a remarkable character, Anton Svartisdal.
At the time, Anton was, I think, 89, and he was a striking, tall man. He had opened the door as I approached and had a big smile on his face, wearing what used to be called long johns, and had his rifle propped against the wall just inside the door, whence a blast of hot air from the woodstove escaped. He greeted me in slightly ornate English with a North American hint in his accent.
This was not so unusual, as at the time although virtually everyone I had met in Scandinavia spoke some English, they had most often learned the speech from American films and TV with subtitles. The rifle he kept for frequent target practice, he told me, pointing out a piece of white card some 200 metres away. He was a good shot, and had bagged the odd moose from his doorstep over the years. Anton’s accent was for real, as I found later, he had been part of a generation which saw many Norwegians emigrate to Canada and the U.S. for a better life. I asked Anton about camping there and he was only too pleased to have a camping group, the next time I came around, in 3 weeks time.
I subsequently took many groups to the site which was brilliant in every way. It was close enough to the ferry landing for groups to walk there at the start of a day out, so that allowed me a day off driving, which was required as a rest day. Facilities amounted to a tap of numbingly cold water that came in a hosepipe from the waterfall, and a two seater turf-roofed earth closet with calendar pictures of elk (moose) standing in the shallows of a lake, munching on dripping vegetation. On each occasion that first year and subsequent ones, every group found Anton’s field to be their favourite place.
It was in the midst of powerfully absorbing wild scenery and offered a lot of chances to explore, besides the obvious draw of the glacier, and I went off often to find out more and more about the area. Rising behind the flat area we camped on was a hanging valley at right angles to the main valley, that produced a prodigious waterfall, and a faint track led alongside the falls to reveal a wide expanse of fairly flat valley bottom with a number of small streams feeding a single river that was punctuated by still, deep but clear pools.
At either side of this valley, rose steep rocky hillsides and at the far end a wall that showed it was the back of a corrie where ice had accumulated over aeons and left a large, still lake at its base. I loved it, and went there regularly over the years.
Anton, over my next visits, filled me in on some of the history of the area, which was a microcosm of Norway’s early history; Norway had only become an independent country shortly before the First World War He had been born further down the valley he now lived in, but as a young man, found few prospects for him there, with only meagre rewards from hard labour.
The lure of high wages and new opportunities saw him embark to Canada where he worked in timber harvesting, something which came as second nature for him, as wood cutting was a necessary chore in Norway if you wanted to survive the winters. He enjoyed the work and travelled around a fair bit, landing finally in Minnesota at the house of a woman called Larsen, an older widow who needed a lot of help in homesteading for her children. The woman came from near to Anton’s home, a remote valley called Blakkådalen, and he was pleased to work for her.
Some years later, Anton had accumulated a decent amount of savings, enabling him to return to his homeland and to buy some land which he had heard was on the market at the time, and here he built his house, part way along the Svartsidal valley on the land where we now camped. There was a large barn on this land, too, with huge space for wood storage, as well as stacks of cut birch logs laid bark up to dry outside over each summer.
The barn had a turf roof, covering a waterproof layer of birch bark which is very slow to rot, and with plentiful supplies nearby for repairs. A treasure I still have at home comes from that barn, – it’s a wooden box, with dovetailed corners and printed with the logo of Alfred Nobel, used for storing ‘gummidynamit’, something you don’t really find these days !
We had plenty of space to park the bus, site all the tents with room for snorers, and to fashion a campfire area we used a lot. We found old wire from fencing and fashioned it into a griddle mesh to use for barbeques, a great treat for us all. The most dramatic reward on this site only came toward the end of our tours in Norway, in late August or the start of September. By then the midnight sun was long gone, dark nights and cold air dropping from the ice-sheet would keep us cosily toasting around the campfire.
On every one of the final trips of the summer we had the utter delight of the Northern Lights, shimmering green and red curtains of fluorescence across the horizon. At the first sight, someone would shout out and alert anyone else around, then people would emerge from tents, half clad, to join the night owls whooping and tripping down the field for an unobscured view. The cries of amazement were stilled as quickly as they arrived, as everyone held a silent, self absorbed vigil with creation and the universe. Nowhere have I ever seen this spectacle so clearly and protracted as in Svartisdal, and it planted a seed in my soul that grows to this day.
On one of my many excursions from the farmstead to the hanging valley I found a few trail markers, tied tape on branches, but little sign of a path, leading steeply up to the long ridge which led to the top part of the Svartisen glacier. I often used to slog it up the shoulder of the two ridges – the only practical way to reach the heights, as each ridge was of very steep, wet and slippery rock except for this part. Some of the little used trail was around boggy areas bursting with cloudberries, in the drier areas, crowberries and bilberries.
The trail was surrounded by extensive birch thickets, slowly reducing in size with altitude until at the ridge you would be walking on top of the woodland, dwarf willow and birches no more than 6 inches high, spreading low over the ground to escape the ravages of winter winds which could scour away the heavy snowfalls.
What I didn’t know was that the trail was almost never used on foot, as it marked a route that would more often be followed in wintertime on snow-scooters – something I could not have envisaged. However, I used to re-mark this vital route off the heights each year so that any adventurous customers that were fit and able could walk the ridge back from where they had climbed alongside the glacier to the camp, and easily find a safe way down. More of that anon; Svartisdal 2.
Most often I elected to meander up the valley floor, sometimes enjoying a bracing dip in the crystal waters of quiet pools, usually making a small rock-rimmed fire to grill a piece of chicken or fish I had carried with me. The colours of moss, lichen and leaves changed every three weeks, the glistening mica in the rocks decorating the hillsides like tinsel flakes, it was ever an elemental enchanting scene for me.
I walked right to the end of the valley a couple of times, finding odd traces of human presence in trodden ground – plants and soil take a long time to recover in these regions – even here and there a robust log across a narrow part of the river churning in a rock-bound channel. The logs were silvered with age and not perhaps to be trusted fully, but linked the valley to a human past I only slowly discovered.
One year I took a detour at a time early in the season because the lower areas were still quite boggy after the spring thaw of the snowfalls which stoked the glacier beyond. I came across a large boulder which was an ideal place to shelter and to survey the valley. In the lands where the Same, (Lapps), were abundant still, I had found out about what they held as ‘significant’ rocks with some sort of spiritual connotation. The Same would travel, sometimes with great difficulty, to these places, and place offerings for good fortune.
In the past, tiny intricate models of birds or reindeer made from twigs, feathers and fur, might be left to propitiate the spirits here, but more often nowadays you might find a 500 kroner note folded and stuffed in a crevice. Some of these stones are of a clearly different origin than the surrounding geology, and were probably ‘erratics’, rocks carried and dropped there by glaciers, or possibly fallen from higher strata. Also, they can often be taken to resemble a person standing in a landscape.
My rock in that valley was indeed significant, but for a different reason. As I sat against it I noticed the vestiges of a small hearth, so others had crept into the lee of this boulder. Rounding to face the stone, I discerned scratches which gradually came into focus to reveal two letters, ‘K L’ and numbers, (as I remember) 1889. What did they mean ? People have carved memoria in all sorts of places, from rock shelters I have visited in the Tassili plateau in Algeria, or the vainglorious etchings of 19th century squaddies on Egyptian antiquities, but this was another sort of record of passing.
The stone marks the place, I found, where Kristen Larsen had sheltered in an unexpected snowstorm that year. It was approaching Christmas and he had been travelling from a local market back to his home, I imagine. He was likely carrying gifts, treats, and necessary supplies for the winter, but he never made it home that year, as the stone marks the place where he succumbed to the cold and lay until his body was discovered the following spring.
In the meantime, his children and wife were in a tiny cabin which lay beyond the steep corrie wall at the end of the valley. A thin track led over the pass into the valley of Blakkådalen. The same track that KL’s bereaved family would follow back to the outside world, as they could not survive alone in their remote homestead, and had to find a new life. They migrated in steerage, no doubt, to the New World where a new life beckoned to the poor, the huddled masses, of Europe.
This link will take you to the site of the hut in Blakkådalen
You still have to walk there, and you can still die trying
Catch yer later
Bob Cranwell, Amateur Emigrant