IN THE ARCTIC life wanders close to earth. Birch and juniper, barely recognizable as trees, creep like vines across the endless tundra. Mountain Fritillary butterflies flash orange and float over an ankle-high orchard of slaty crowberries, red lingonberries and orange cloudberries. Rock Ptarmigans, marked like lichen and granite, strut and display on a bedrock stage.
In the Arctic there are no hiding places. Ruth and I are giants walking among these low plants and northern animals. Only taller than us are the reindeer and mountains. We step over chubby, chestnut-and-black Norway Lemmings. We drink straight from rivers beside nesting White-fronted Dippers. We find some of the northernmost dragonflies on Earth. And none of us escapes the daylight. Always exposed on this hike, and during a heat wave, we swim naked in crystalline waters with Arctic Loons.
In the Arctic, Ruth and I also find confirmation – proof that the sun indeed will never set; that Willow Ptarmigans utter the craziest song I’ve heard in nature; that a cloudberry, which looks like a corpulent orange raspberry, tastes like an apricot-mango smoothie; that the planet is warming; and that unspeakable beauty and biological diversity lie so far north of the Equator.
But before you see it for yourself in my 90-second slideshow from our trip to Norway, much of it above the Arctic Circle, allow me first a bit of America-bashing.
Here are two things I foolishly packed for this trip: a headlamp and water treatment. Wait, make that three things: I packed extra batteries for the headlamp. Back home now, everyone asks if it was hard to sleep outside in the 24-hour light. Never. In the tent or even outside it, we slept like college kids home for the weekend. Walking all day does that for you. That and being away — far away — from the routine. Away from the littered landscape of the glowing screen there is comfort in the glowing night.
We never treated the drinking water we ladled from lakes and rivers. No one does that in Norway. Most everyone does it here in the US. What a luxury to hike in a place with pure water. And what a contrast to home. Imagine the outrage, Ruth says, if we had to treat the air we breathed. Why not the same over our water?
And on this trip were the constant reminders of America’s failings by comparison to many places in Europe. Trains and buses took us wherever we wanted to go, including (thanks to a kind bus driver) to the trailhead to one of our hikes. (Internet alone on the trains in Sweden was faster than what I often find here at home.) Health care? The Europeans offer condolences. Our breakfast at a hotel in Bodø, Norway (north of the Arctic Circle) – sliced meats and seedy breads, eggs and sausage, fresh fruit and elegant cheeses, even caviar – reminded me of how we’ve ruined and cheapened breakfast here in the US. Hell, I’d move to Scandinavia alone for its diversity of yogurt-like dairy products and its mustards and other assorted cool foods available in toothpaste tubes.
The woman who set out breakfast at the hotel talked with us of geopolitics rather than the latest demagoguery from Fox “News.” And after one hike we discussed politics and Norway’s strategic position during the Cold War with the working guy who gave us a lift in his battered Toyota (most people in Norway seem to drive Volvo station wagons).
Norway’s economy today features highly progressive income taxes, a generous welfare state, and abundant prosperity. (Food prices in Norway are off the charts – we ate lots of peanut butter, cheese, salami, crackers and oatmeal; we saved our money to splurge on smoked salmon.) Much of Norway’s prosperity, of course, comes from North Sea petroleum reserves.
“You know,” I warned the guy in the Toyota, “American politicians like to invade countries for oil.”
We laughed. But it got me thinking: Forget the Mideast and its dusty, corrupt petro-kingdoms. Let’s invade someplace with cloudberries, Willow Ptarmigans, fjords and the best water you’ve ever tasted. Let’s invade Norway. We’d get an official outpost for watching Putin during this new Cold War. And we’d even get salmon – lots of salmon.
No bombs in this invasion, however. Just boots on the ground – boots on the ground but no guns. Actually, on second thought, let’s not invade. We would trash the place. We’d start by wrecking breakfast.
Here’s your slideshow:
And here’s my bird list from Denmark, Sweden and Norway
Great Crested Grebe
European Golden Plover
Parasitc Jaeger (Arctic Skua)
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Common Murre (Guillemot)
Green Woodpecker sp.
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Great Grey Shrike