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ruth-naked-dry-brush-600x882IN 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 first, allow me 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. 

A high camp in Norway at 1:30AM.

A high camp in Norway at 1:30AM.

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 my bird list from Denmark, Sweden and Norway

Mute Swan
Greylag Goose
Barnacle Goose
Common Teal
Tufted Duck
Common Eider
Common Goldeneye
Red-breasted Merganser
Willow Ptarmigan
Rock Ptarmigan
Arctic Loon
Little Grebe
Great Crested Grebe
Northern Fulmar
Sooty Shearwater
Storm Petrel
Northern Gannet
Great Cormorant
Grey Heron
White-tailed Eagle
Red Kite
Common Buzzard
Honey Buzzard
Common Crane
Eurasian Oystercatcher
Ringed Plover
European Golden Plover
Wood Sandpiper
Common Sandpiper
Common Redshank
Eurasian Curlew
Snipe sp.
Great Skua
Parasitc Jaeger (Arctic Skua)
Black-headed Gull
Common Gull
Herring Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Black-legged Kittiwake
Common Tern
Arctic Tern
Atlantic Puffin
Black Guillemot
Common Murre (Guillemot)
Rock Dove
Wood Pigeon
Common Swift
Black Woodpecker
Green Woodpecker sp.
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Barn Swallow
House Martin
Meadow Pipit
Tree Pipit
White Wagtail
Yellow Wagtail
Grey Wagtail
White-throated Dipper
Thrush Nightingale
Ring Ouzel
Willow Warbler
Spotted Flycatcher
Pied Flycatcher
Great Tit
Blue Tit
Crested Tit
Willow Tit
Great Grey Shrike
Eurasian Jay
Siberian Jay
Hooded Crow
Common Raven
House Sparrow
Common Redpoll
European Goldfinch
Reed Bunting

  1. Lindsey says:


  2. lindawurm says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your northern adventure. The sod roofed hut invited me to come visit – the cackle of that rock ptarmigan made me answer in kind. What a call to travel!

  3. Joan Thompson says:

    Thanks for the slide show. It’s not the camera, it’s the fellow behind it!

  4. Sue Swindell says:

    Love the Dipper and the Twinflower! Beautiful shots…looks like you and Ruth had a magical trip!

  5. claudia says:

    Lovely essay. Thank you for sharing perspective of another place, (Europe, the light at night, everything), and for doing it so well. With it being light so much of the day, did your schedule shift much? For example, did you find yourselves still hiking at 10 PM, dinner at 11PM or 2AM? Or did you stick to our usual day?

  6. Kathy Hudson says:

    Reminds me of Alaska; but better. Thanks for the vicarious pleasure. K

  7. marion dobbs says:

    Thanks, Bryan. As delicious as your Scandinavian breakfasts.

  8. Sue Cloutier says:

    A wonderful experience you will remember for the rest of your lives. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Lovely essay. I’m cursed by the same affliction when I travel in Europe. Indeed I lost my best American friend to the continent because they do so many things right…amazing breakfasts just the tip of the iceberg. Preservation of architecture and history, which nurtures a multi-dimensional sense of place, is close second. I think one of the reasons I travel is so that I can learn to live in place.

    • Bryan says:

      Thanks, Laura. Also obvious was the village settlement patterns — small clusters of homes and merchants surrounded by farmland — as we flew over France. Yeah, there’s sprawl in Europe, but nothing like ours.

  10. Janet says:

    Lovely. Thank you.

  11. Rita Pitkin says:

    Thank you for this. Wonderful story and sentiment

  12. David Dobbs says:

    Fabulous. So glad you’re having such a great trip. And second on the benefits of health care and transport as public goods ensured by public investments.

  13. Patricia Ryan says:

    What a pleasure to imagine this trip through your exquisite photos and writing! Thanks for this.

  14. What a totally remarkable piece, and place. Thank you so much for giving me a little vacation of the mind…

  15. Thanks for sharing ! What a wonderful trip and quite surprised you both decided to come back! Love the Rock Ptarmigan on a rock! You look like some kind of GPS surveyor or critter transmitter searcher with that fancy net sticking out of your pack!

    • Bryan says:

      Yeah, now that we’re back — what’s with all the darkness at night?! I look like one of those GPS folks — or a nerd. Thanks, John and Sue!

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