Tourists and cameras are not very common here. The boys are almost as much interested in us as we are in them, though the younger one has his doubts of our friendly disposition. Even away up here within the Arctic Circle, Norway maintains elementary public schools, and boys can grow up with a fair educational equipment, at least enough to serve in practical, everyday affairs, and, living in a place like this, they naturally absorb quantities of miscellaneous information about wind and weather, and all sorts of sea creatures, and about the far-off towns to which relatives and neighbors have made voyages.
Edmund Gosse, the English critic, wrote in his Northern Studies (1879) of a visit to Svolvaer: ____
“It is a fact not over-flattering to our boasted civilization that the education of children in the hamlets of this remote cluster of islands in the Polar Sea is higher than that of towns within a small distance of our capital city, ay, higher even, proportionally, than that of London itself.”
You see the children themselves are dressed just as they might be away down in Bergen, or even in Christiania or Stockholm. There is a church at another village on this same island, where they will pass their examination in the catechism and be confirmed in due time, just like any other little Scandinavians.
Those sailboats belonging to the fishermen are jaegter, much like the ones we saw in Bergen harbor (Position 50), staunchly built, but easily capsized in a heavy gale. Some of them are actually built with attachments to the keel, which can be used as handles by the crew, in case they are thrown overboard and find the hull upside down when they need to cling to it. Though the old tradition of an almost super-natural “Maelstrom” near here has been proven to be only a poetic exaggeration of strong, swirling cur-rents, there are still plenty of genuine and awful perils to be met. In 1845 five hundred fishermen were drowned in a single hurricane which swept over these islands.
Those three-story buildings and many of the smaller structures close to the water are fish warehouses. The neat white cottages tell of thrift and cosy homemaking. There is not a great deal of cultivable land near by, but such as there is suffices for little gardens of barley and potatoes. Norwegians are sure to include coffee among their household supplies ; goats pick up a living by agile industry on the rocky hills, and, of course, fish itself is an omnipresent food.
A good deal of driftwood is available for fires, and a fortunate thing that is for Svolvaer cooks, for, of course, there can be no considerable tree growth so far north, as we are now, 68° 20′. Some of the wood, brought by currents from warmer climes, has come immense distances. Bayard Taylor, when he voyaged through this region, was struck by the poetic significance of it. “Think,” he said, “of Arctic fishers burning upon their hearths the palms of Hayti, the mahogany of Honduras and the precious woods of the Amazon and the Orinoco!”
The summer weather here is much like that of northern Scotland, with shorter “white nights.” If it were not for such mountains as those behind the village, shutting off the view at sea-level, the sun would never be wholly below the horizon from the last of May to the middle of July. As it is, what with the mountains acting like screens, and the frequent rain-clouds acting like thick curtains, the sunlight is practically toned down part of the time into quiet grays, but there is no real darkness for two months out of twelve.
The dark months of midwinter are just past their solstitial climax when the fishing season begins in January, and in stormy weather it is a black world up here when one has no glimpse of sun, moon or stars. In clear weather, however, with all the land snow covered, reflecting moonlight and starlight, and with the splendid flicker and glow of the aurora filling half the sky, they say the beauty of the region is some-thing almost beyond belief.
Though we are well within the Arctic Circle, we have by no means reached the limit of civilization. Look again at Map 1, and on another island, about midway between 69° and 70° latitude, the town of Tromso is set down. There also we are to make a visit.