Okay, that’s a lie. Or at least a besmirched truth. Or, as the fine people of northern Norway might appreciate, an optimistic reality.
But first, to recap:
I’m into my fourth week above the Arctic Circle in Norway. I came because, after wintering in Antarctica, Milwaukee in August was too freakin’ hot, and because I’d found a professional opportunity too enticing not to explore. Week One, wandering around the Lofotens, a place I’ve always wanted to see, was wonderful. Week Two and a Bit, investigating that job lead, was interesting in ways both bad and good but overall lovely and insightful. Week Three was mostly great, with only a few portents of Week Four, which so far has been one of those weeks where I seriously question why I travel.
There will be many more posts about this whole adventure, but for now I want to focus on a Week Three oddity involving superlatives and imaginary polar bears.
(And if you’re a follower of this blog and only this blog of mine, right about now you might be wondering what’s going on and why am I not rambling about my fiction writing. I’m merging my travel and adventure blog Stories That Are True with this one, so expect some posts about writing and more posts about imaginary polar bears, forbidding mountains and my travel nemesis: The Elderly Package Tourist. I’ve been told by a very good, very earnest friend that my travel and adventure writing is “way better” than my fiction, so perhaps you will find this expansion of theme an improvement.)
I spent most of Week Three taking the fabled Hurtigruten ship up and down the Norwegian coast, from Sortland in Vesteraalen to its northern terminus, Kirkenes, and back to Sortland. I’ve wanted to do this trip since I learned about it in the ’80s, so I figured it was about time.
Almost immediately upon boarding (at the ungodly hour of 0300), I noticed a theme. The Hurtigruten, its signage and all its pamphlets, would like you to note that it’s “the Original Coastal Voyage since 1893,” as if no one ever voyaged around a coast before then. I wondered why the Hurtigruten folks felt the need to bill themselves as original about the whole thing. I’d find it impressive enough to say “bringing you closer to Norway’s rocks and water since 1893.”
But, as I said, it was a sign of things to come.
The MS Nordlys took us to and past dozens of charming, scenic Arctic fishing villages and larger settlements, fantastic mountains rearing up near-vertical from the black sea (I do love me some water and rocks), glaciers, cities pummeled into rubble in World War II and a military installation that was almost 200 years old when the Hurtigruten started its whole “original” coastal voyage thing.
But that was not enough for the towns, cities and sites. No, no. We stopped in both the “northernmost city in the world” and the “northernmost town in the world,” though the two places (Honningsvaag and Tromso) argue about each other’s status and also duel with a few towns/cities in Alaska over bragging rights. We cruised by the “northernmost fishing village in the world,” though there were villages north of it with economies built on fishing (but, perhaps, without an ambitious marketing major).
The town of Vardo, not content to be home to the world’s undisputed “northernmost fortress,” also claims the scrap of rock on which its lighthouse sits to be the “easternmost point” in Norway.
The pretty white church outside Harstad, on Norway’s largest island, Hinnoya (not to be confused with Norway’s northernmost island, Svalbard, though I have heard Hinnoya referenced as Norway’s second northernmost large island. Really)…
Wait. Let me start again. There’s a pretty white church outside the city of Harstad that is variously described as “Norway’s oldest medieval stone church in the north” (why they need “oldest” and “medieval” both in there, I’m not sure, but never mind) and “the northernmost medieval stone church in the world” as well as how our Hurtigruten announcer put it, “the oldest northernmost medieval stone church.” In the world or just in Norway, Ms. Hurtigruten? Ah, that part you left out. Clever.
The barrage of northernmostiness made me wonder why we, as humans, constantly need to rank everything. Hollywood’s biggest grossing movie, the fastest man in the world, and so on and so on. It’s a trap I fall into as well, usually at social gatherings when faced with chatting with someone I don’t know well. “So, what’s your favorite book/movie/vacation/inane icebreaker?” It’s easy, I guess, and suspends the need for nuance, which most of us aren’t very good at anyway.
So I applaud the town of Hammerfest for bucking the northernmostiness trend, though I would also like to point out it could easily claim “northernmost site that would be an excellent place for a huge heavy metal festival by virtue of its name alone.”
Instead of positioning itself as the northernmost something, Hammerfest has opted for a delightful alternative reality entirely.
Hammerfest guarantees you will see polar bears there, though there are no polar bears in Hammerfest.
The nearest Ursus maritimus is up in Svalbard, which happens to be Norway’s northernmost large island, if you’re keeping track. That’s hundreds of miles away. It’s 542 miles as the skua flies, actually.
There have never been polar bears in Hammerfest.
They are all over the place in this town.
Back in the 30s, some forward-thinking marketing major-turned-bureaucrat recognized that, at a mere 70 degrees north, no way could Hammerfest compete in the northernmostiness Olympics, and, as heavy metal had not yet been invented, the idea of Hammerfest as the Odin of all metal sites was not even a twinkling in someone’s eye.
So, when creating the city’s symbol, they chose a polar bear, ostensibly to reflect “the city’s proud tradition of Arctic fishing,” much like the bear itself. They could have gone with a cod or an orca or a sea eagle or a wolverine, all animals that actually hang out in Hammerfest’s immediate environs, but no, they had to go for the Big Kahuna, the largest land mammal carnivore on the planet.
And by God, they ran with it.
Polar bears on the city’s coat of arms, in front of its Radhus (local government office), on its buildings and even its park gazebos. Holy Polar Bear, Batman, it’s even on their taxi cabs.
The first thing you see when you get off the Hurtiguten’s original disembarking ramp is the home of The Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society (established 1963). There’s a small museum and a larger gift shop, and the opportunity to join the Society for less than $40, a relative bargain in Norway. For the money, you get your head dunked in a glorified water fountain and a certificate that proves you fell for the world’s northernmost tourist trap.
Okay, maybe I’m being too hard on the RAPBS. After all, they claim that by joining you are helping to save the polar bear, though it was unclear exactly how. The guy at the counter was nice enough, and admitted “this is mostly for the tourists,” though he insisted that some locals had joined as well.
Far more appealing (and free!) was a walk I took up the citizen-made-and-maintained zig-zag path above the city, which is built on a narrow slice of land between fjord and cliff. Hammerfest’s name, in fact, is a combination of “steep mountainside” and “fastening” (as in the place you tie up or anchor a boat) in Old Norse.
Standing at the edge of the cliff, looking out over the water and fantastically rugged mountains in all directions, I couldn’t help but think Hammerfest, baby, listen to me: the polar bears are cute and all, but you don’t need to pretend you’re something you’re not. Just be a neat Arctic city.
If you must, call yourself the Hammerfestiest city in the universe. It would not be a lie.