This summer, I found myself on a farm in the Norwegian Arctic solely in charge of 16 horses, 12 goats, 46 chickens, 2 cats, 1 dog, and, for good measure, 7 German-speaking tourists.
Earlier this summer, I applied through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) to volunteer on a farm in the Norwegian Arctic, about an hour south of Tromsø. I expected five to six hours a day of labor spent feeding animals, repairing fences, and cooking. The rest of the time, I could relax on a quiet fjord, spending the long northern days days reading, writing, and hiking.
Two days after I arrived, the farmer mentioned he would be going away and asked me to make a grocery list. With the nearest supermarket 36 kilometers away, it’s difficult to restock without a car, which I wouldn’t have access to on my own. Without thinking too much, I put a few of life’s necessities on the list: chocolate, biscuits, and tea. The list that wouldn’t look out of place if it were found on an Arctic trading post a century ago.
Yet on the day of his departure, the farmer announced he was actually leaving for a two-week sailing tour around the Lofoten Islands. Since the other volunteer was also leaving that same day, that left me solely in charge of 16 horses, 12 goats, 46 chickens, 2 cats, 1 dog, and, for good measure, 7 German-speaking tourists.
With just two days of training under my belt, miraculously, I successfully managed the menagerie. (It helped that most of the horses, along with the two cows and the dozens of sheep the farmer also keeps, were up in the mountains for the summer.) Despite lacking experience with animals, I quickly learned to wrangle a horse, grab goats by their horns, and tend to chickens. And, once on my own, I discovered that Gjæa, a gorgeous Icelandic horse, regularly liked to run out of the forest and onto a neighbor’s postcard-perfect meadow. I found that goats are adorable but annoying, making the little ones well-deserving of being called kids. Chickens are very sweet and “startlingly” intelligent: they have 24 vocalizations, including distinct calls to warn of whether a predator is approaching by land or by water. I also learned that they also love to eat the leftover shells from the shrimp harvested from the fjord in summer, which I’d toss into fried rice or omelet every now and then.
When I wasn’t washing eggs or tracking down fugitive Icelandic horses, I led a quiet, domestic life collecting cloudberries and baking egg-forward dishes like chocolate soufflé with homemade cloudberry jam or quiche. At other times, I swam in the icy fjord for five minutes at a time and cycled wearing a snowboard helmet – the only semi-appropriate thing I could find besides equestrian helmets – on an old bike with barely-working brakes dozens of kilometers to trailheads to hike up steep, muddy trails to glaciers and mountaintops.
After a few days on my own, another volunteer turned up. The young German lady was rather shocked to be greeted by an American city kid rather than a rugged Norwegian farmer. Her arrival gave me a little bit more time to explore, as we could trade off responsibilities. Once, on a gloriously sunny day, I cycled all the way to the near-mythological village of Nordkjosbotn 36 kilometers away, where it was actually possible to buy things. It being a Sunday, the grocery store was of course closed, but the convenience store was open. Halfway through my 72-kilometer round-trip journey (with a 12-kilometer, 800-m elevation gain hike to a hidden glacier behind Gjømmertinden, or Hiding Peak, thrown in for good measure), I slurped down an iced coffee milkshake in the sun alongside dozens of road-tripping Norwegians enjoying softis (ultra-creamy vanilla soft-serve).
Unearthing the meaning of remoteness
Living on the farm without a car or a boat and only a rusty bicycle, “remoteness” took on a new meaning. Yet there were always reminders of the outside world. Occasionally, when I was cutting down bushes to prepare a new field to which the dozen goats eventually would be moved, the sound of fighter jets pierced through the misty silence. The rumbling through the fjord was a sonic reminder that Arctic geopolitics were back on.
That portentous feeling also seemed to weigh on Norwegians’ minds, even if they tried to make light of it. As the farmer said before leaving on his sailing holiday, “If Russia decided to invade Norway, so long as it did so after 4pm, it would succeed.” He mentioned how at one point, the Norwegian military actually had to investigate the risks of this devotion to work-life balance to national security. True to form, every day at 4:00 pm, the taciturn carpenter employed on the farm would shut off his radio, pack up his tools, and drive off.
In the evening, when the expansive dusk began to settle over the fjord, I could hear motorcycles racing along the opposite side. I wondered what was happening on the farms they passed, whose lights twinkled across the water. I could probably find out in just a few minutes if I were to sail across the two-kilometer-wide Balsfjord. If I were to cycle there, however, it would take five hours of pedaling over 100 kilometers of asphalt. The fjords are close together by sea, but far apart by land.
That is the reality of the geography of northern Scandinavia: Water connects, while land separates. Indeed, around 890 AD, a Viking named Othere reportedly sailed from somewhere near Tromsø across the North Sea to England, where he met with King Alfred. Othere, who told the Saxon monarch that he dwelt “northmost of all the Northmen,” and that he “had not more than twenty horned cattle, and twenty sheep, and twenty swine, and the little that he ploughed he ploughed with horses.” Not so terribly different from farming in north Norway over a thousand years later, then.
After 12 days, the farmer finally returned, a few days early due to an incoming storm. The two volunteers and I ate dinner with him and his friend. She mentioned that as a young child growing up in Harstad, 300 kilometers to the south, her parents divorced. She and her mother moved to Tromsø, so to see her father, she would be sent on a boat back and forth to Harstad twice a month. It seems that more than either of her parents, the fjords had custody.
The fjords carry the strongest reminders of the outside world. Twice a day, I watched the direction of the flow of water change with the tides. Glacier water in, sea water out. Dolphins glided in from Norwegian Sea to the north. On bright and azure days, they’d leap out of the water, sunlight glinting off their smooth, gray bodies. Once in a while, a blue whale that had been hanging out in the fjord would surface, pushing water out of its blowhole. The German tourists had sailed by the cetacean on their motorboat and claimed it was 15 meters long.
Ships would come and go up Balsfjord, too. Sometimes, I would see Eidsvaag Opal, a fishery patrol boat, sail up and down. I’d wave to the vessel, wondering if anyone on board recognized me from a few days earlier. One time, I even raced the ship on my bike (at least in my head, it was a competition) and beat it to the farm.
As my three weeks on the farm wound to a close in late-August, the days in the Arctic were still long, but getting rapidly shorter. When I arrived, the sky barely darkened; sunset was around midnight. (In fact at 1am, it was still light enough that I once took a Zoom call outside, sitting on the wooden dock jutting into the fjord with one of the cats, who’d always pop out of the trees to watch the sunset with me. My colleagues thought the fjord was a virtual background until I rotated my camera around.)
By mid-August, since each passing day was six minutes shorter than the previous, the sun started to set before 10 pm. Caught off guard, the chickens started to fall asleep unawares. One time, on the steps leading down to my basement accommodation, I found a feathery ball disguised amongst the mud-caked shoes and rain boots. I woke the chicken up and she trundled back to her coop, waking up the other 45 hens in the process as she tried to find a place to roost for the night, much to their annoyance.
Combined with the heavy rainclouds that began to squeeze through the fjord more frequently, on my final days on the farm, it felt like autumn was approaching. Yet sometimes, a warm and dry day would appear from nowhere, a bolt of blue turning Balsfjord into an opalescent mirror. On those days, when the animals were all where they should be and the farm was running smoothly, with a cup of dark roast coffee in hand and Trulte, the farm’s 10-year old Bernese mountain dog mix, by my side, life couldn’t get any better.