We went to the land of the ice and snow, with the midnight sun where the hot springs flow……. Hopefully Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song is now stuck firmly in your head for a while. In April I traveled to Tromsø, Norway with a group of colleagues and friends to experience a rugged part of the world, and also dive deep into the subject of sustainability in travel with colleagues in a place that is being impacted notably by climate change.
As the group trickled in, some of us went to Skirri –- a restaurant/bar/fish market where we dined on amazing local fish soup, fried cod and of course local pilsners. The first feeling you get in this very northern place is that it feels like a solid, tried outpost of civilization. It’s tough and beautiful and has just enough civilization to feel just right.
Tromsø has an incredible history and one of the more surprising stories for me, being married to a Brazilian, is that a famous salt cod dish for both Brazil and Portugal, bacalhau, has an origin story of dried, salted cod which for many around Europe (Venice being a salt cod hotspot) originated in this northerly Norwegian town in the 1400 and 1500’s. Turns out it’s easier to create high quality cod in cold dry weather where there are few rodents and flies. After risking their lives on stormy seas, the fishermen would hang their catch on wooden racks to partially desiccate before being graded into 3 different qualities and then shipped off to far off lands. Everything then was so manual and dangerous –- it must have truly been appreciated and expensive.
One of the highlights of our trip was learning about the Sami people, an indigenous group of roughly 80,000 living in Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia, with approximately half based in Norway.
It’s a culture that is often associated with colorful costumes, amazing handicrafts and reindeer herding, all of which still exist, but it’s also a modernized rich culture of arts, music and science and we heard from several spokespeople and professors from the Sami culture about both the beauty and travails of being indigenous in a world that seeks to commoditize and mass market everything of wonder. We were brought to tears by two Sami women demonstrating the art of communicating by singing that sounded similar to throat singing you might hear from Northern Canada, or Tibet.
We were able to listen to sustainability efforts by Hurtigruten, Norway’s original mailship/transportation/supplies/cruise line, with input from a professor from a local university. It was refreshing to hear of a company in that world which does not go into communities who don’t want their ships to come to port, has a ‘fjord to table’ program that eliminated all commercially produced food, and a vacuum that sucks invasive sea urchins out of the kelp beds to be served to customers as a delicacy. And the fact that they are working hard to get to carbon neutral. Definitely a noble outlier in the world of larger ship cruising.
After a few days of sessions, numerous first-rate meals and adventures such as dog sledding, it was time to head even farther north to the archipelago of Svalbard. The population of this set of wildly rugged islands at 78 degrees North is under 3,000 and to call them ‘hardy people’ is an understatement. We had just hit the moment in the year where the sun never really sets and it was remarkable to see people who would normally be tucked into bed by 10 pm still sitting, talking in loud groups, wine glasses in hand, at 2am as that internal clock that screams for wisdom when the sun goes down had been utterly disabled by a happy sun careening around the horizon.
Svalbard is a place I visited in 2007 and when I went to go hiking then, was required to rent a gun for protection from polar bears. The gentleman who rented me the WW2 era wood-stock rifle showed me the mechanics and then said “Please don’t shoot it. Everyone will come running”.
Thankfully there was no need and I experienced a stunning hike high above the town of Longyearbyen in shin-deep snow and utter silence, other than some plodding reindeer, with the rugged cliffs and blue bays abounding in every direction from up on high.
On this trip we were able to go into a stable glacier ice-cave that took us deep under the snow and ice into an ethereal dark maze of ice, ice sheets, crystals and icicles rendering the underworld sparkling in the light of our headlamps. While it was a little frightening for those with any wisp of claustrophobia, the guide’s assurance of stability made for a very memorable tour. We turned off the lights at one point and just sat in the cold, dark silence, making re-emergence into the bitterly cold but blue-skied day glorious.
We learned how the region and city are focused on sustainability and were set to close the local coal mine until Putin’s aggression into Ukraine forced the Norwegians to continue to use coal as energy, until further notice, because of energy shortages. The tourism department is dedicated to marketing and managing the area sustainably and it was an inspiration to see.
Snowmobiling is a big activity in Svalbard, both for tourists and locals out exploring or hunting and we learned that the electric snowmobile was just making a debut there with hopes that eventually it will squeeze out the loud, petrol-driven models.
We were able to tour a now-defunct coal mine and see how hard and dangerous the lives were of those who broke their backs to give millions of people energy and comfort and, interestingly, was the predecessor to the world-famous Global Seed Vault, which has more than 1.2 million seed varieties from nearly every country in the world stored in its minus 18C vaults, to preserve genetic stocks of plants in case of disasters.
Frighteningly, in 2017 soaring temperatures in the Arctic caused ice to melt and water to enter the vault, but thankfully no seed stocks were lost. Even now, in the northernmost spot in the world with reliable flights, climate change threatens man’s best laid plans. It is vital for governments, companies and individuals to make commitments to reducing carbon footprints and to tackle future game changers like carbon removal and storage.
Adventure is never far away in northern Norway and whether it’s observing sea bird colonies, polar bears and reindeer or hiking through unpopulated snowy rugged places, there’s always a warm fireplace or pub to come back to and have a good dish of cod tongues and beer, and reflect on one of the world’s wildest places.
Shannon is CEO of the Adventure Travel Trade Association www.adventure.travel