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Tales of Growing Up on Magerøya

As I mentioned in my post about Nordkapp yesterday, I was lucky enough to have one of the happiest and most entertaining tour guides of my entire trip on the bus trip there and back. Renald, who introduced himself to me as “Renald, like Ronald Reagan…how in the world did my parents come up with that name?” was a local of Magerøya, an island that seems to define itself with various “northernmost” titles, and he was full of entertaining stories of what it was like to grow up there. Here are a few that I was able to jot down!

On trees: Magerøya literally means “barren island,” which isn’t a surprising name since no trees live on the island. When Renald was growing up, his neighbour had a tree that was the “tallest, most beautiful tree” he had ever seen…because it was the only tree he’d ever seen. His neighbour had to wrap the tree up to protect it from the winter for 7-8 months of the year and as soon as he’d unwrapped it, he had to rewrap it in barbed wire to save it from being eaten by reindeer.

Snowy Magerøya

Not many trees here.

On the island’s main hotel: We passed the island’s main hotel (not including Honningsvåg), which looked a bit shorter than it would in the summer months. According to Renald, it’s only open 3 months a year because the sheer amount of snow stops it from being reachable at any other time of year.

On cod: Just like in the Lofoten Islands, the livelihoods of those on Magerøya depend on fish — specifically, cod in the winter and haddock in the summer. Cod are hung out to dry on giant stockfish drying racks for months at a time during the winter (since they take about 2 months to dry enough to be considered stockfish). Fishermen hung giant nets over these racks to stop the seagulls from gorging themselves on the fish, but these nets were perfect for little kids to climb on. As a result, the fishermen reckoned that they lost more money from kids eating on their fish than they had previously lost on the seagulls…but his parents were reluctant to discipline him since it was a very healthy snack!

Stockfish Racks

Stockfish racks in Svolvær, Lofoten.

On the seagulls: Those seagulls had plenty of food even if they couldn’t get at the fish. Like in New Zealand, birds have no native predators on Magerøya, so birds like the giant black-backed seagull act a bit differently, almost as though they have no cares in the world. Renald swore he’d seen one eat so much that it tried to take off only to crash back to the ground again!

On the island’s one beach: As we passed by a very small stretch of sand that was surprisingly unobscured by snow, Renald pointed out that it was the one and only beach on the island, saying “we like to call this one La Copacabana!” Apparently it’s a very popular place in the summer — and I can imagine that if all 2,500 residents of Honningsvåg tried to fit onto it, it would look very similar to a calm day at Copacabana — but not such a popular place to swim since the water rarely gets to 10C. Renald went swimming there once. On the experience, he said, “I walked in like a boy and walked out like a girl!”

Near La Copacabana.

Near La Copacabana.

On fishing: Fishing is not an easy task in the waters of the Barents Sea. One of the first fjords we passed, Shipfjord, is a mariner’s graveyard, and it’s estimated that, in the past, 20% of the island’s residents could expect to be lost at sea. These days, it’s less dangerous but by no means a safe occupation, but the reward is massive. In the summer, 130 boats bring in 40 million ton of haddock. Interestingly, none of that haddock is sold in the fish shop in Honningsvåg…because there isn’t one. Residents buy directly off the boats.

On snow plows: Magerøya has the highest density of snow clearing equipment of anywhere in Europe. They are incredibly efficient at clearing the snow, even though it can accumulate at ridiculous rates (he said up to 1cm per minute in the worst storms) on the roads. There is one plow for every 10km of road, and their snowblowers are the largest in Europe. “Now, if only Heathrow had had some of that equipment a few years ago…”

Magerøya Snowplow

One of the many snowplows that go back and forth between Skarsvåg and Nordkapp all winter.

On reindeer: The Sami people herd their reindeer on the island from May to October. Even though Magerøya experiences very long winters, the snow still clears there before it does further inland; plus, the herders need to let their winter pastures rest and regrow for the harsh winter months. The reindeer are brought over to the island on boats, but on their return migration, they swim across to the mainland. Reindeer are actually quite good swimmers, partially because their hollow fur acts as a natural floatation jacket.

Reindeer

There's more of these guys than there are people on the island in the summer.

On piracy and the Germans: The last recorded case of piracy on Magerøya was in 1940, when fishermen banded together and stole five German ships, which were then used as mine-clearing vessels. The Germans arrived in force in 1941 and had over 200,000 soldiers in Finnmark. Half of those were there simply to get supplies to the other half, that’s how harsh winters were.

On farming: Farming isn’t easy on the island, but people still tried it anyway when they realised how dependent they were on the mainland. Farming plants wasn’t possible, but they tried to raise their own animals. However, it was difficult because they had to keep the animals inside for eight months of the year — and really, who wants a cow in their living room? Plus, since they had no natural sources of food, they resorted to feeding the animals fish. This meant that everything started tasting like fish — beef, bacon, and even milk. They quickly decided it was worth being dependent to not have fishy milk.

Near North Cape

This looks like the ideal place to raise farm animals.

On the Cold War: Finnmark was an ideal place for NATO to put military radar stations for tracking Russian air traffic. We passed by a few of them, very unused at this point, on the way to Nordkapp. The soldiers there were very busy, so much so that they used to let the kids of the island ride in their tanks. Renald’s favourite memory was of them lending him and his friends their walkie talkies so they had mobile phones long before anyone else did!

On the Christmas of 1974: Sometimes the fishermen on the island could get a bit raucous, especially when there were foreign fishermen to drink with in the pub. Everyone in Honningsvåg remembers the Christmas of 1974, when the morning dawned on the town’s cop car upside down in the middle of the road…with the cop passed out inside!

What’s your favourite Renald fact? And what tour have you been on that was made much better by the stories of a local?

I was regaled by Renald as a guest of Hurtigruten, but all opinions stated here are my own. Hurtigruten runs shore excursions (950kr) to Nordkapp from its northbound services, which dock at 11.45am daily. Bus services are also available on Boreal in the winter; round trip tickets cost 475kr.

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