the long water

stef penney


In Nordland* (pronounced “Noor-lan”), in the north of Norway, there is first of all the sea. The county is the longest, thinnest segment of a long, thin country, its coast fretted like a saw blade, teeth bared to the chilly ocean, which is so thickly sprinkled with islands it looks like the aftermath of some gigantic shipwreck. North of the Arctic Circle, life thrives along the coast, because the deep waters and clashing currents gives rise to an abundance of nutritious silver treasure. Also along the coast, there are pockets and strips of flat, fertile land: at the feet of mountains, at the end of fjords, sheltered from icy storms. The largest towns are on the coast, because why would you want to live anywhere else? Even in the depths of winter, the Norwegian Sea never freezes, whereas inland, temperatures are several degrees colder, and the lakes become fields of ice.

From the city on the coast, a crooked finger of sea pokes into the slender waist of Norway, as though trying to nip the country in two. The fjord is so squeezed between mountains and islands that it produces one of the strongest currents in the world – Saltstraumen: a boil of raging waters and whirlpools. The inner fjord – the one the sea is in such a hurry to get into, before it changes its mind and can’t wait to leave – is the first of a chain of lakes and rivers. They are flung across the map like a necklace of misshapen pearls: Nervatnet, Øvervatnet, the sinuous ribbon of a river known as Langvasselva – the river of the Long Water – and then the lakes Langvatnet, Lomivatnet and Muorkkejávrre. The names of the outer lakes are prosaic: Nervatnet means the Lower Lake; Øvervatnet, the Upper Lake; Langvatnet – can you guess? – is the Long Lake. There is no road beyond the Long Lake. If you want to go further into the mountains, you have to walk, or hire a helicopter. By the time you’ve trudged all the way up to the small, peaceful lake called Muorkkejavrre, which butts right up against the border with Sweden, the language of the coast has given up its right to name things. The last name is Sámi, and it means the lake where you can drag your boat over the land, from when that was the only way to get around.

This far inland, the mountains are quite unlike the mountains that guard the coast. Those island mountains – you’ll know them: they’re the ones on the cover of those enticing cruise brochures – rise out of the sea like teeth; a landscape from the brain of a Romantic painter with tertiary syphilis: fanged, sheer and improbable. Cruise liners creep along at their feet, nose into the narrowest fjords, tourists lining the decks to film their grandeur. The island mountains are awe-inspiring: giants that block out the sun; walls of a prison of silver light. But there are also cute villages that hide luxury hotels; restaurants with amazing dishes; galleries where you can buy expensive souvenirs, erstwhile fishing stations that are retreats for artists, as well as whales and eagles and plenty of akvavit to take the edge off all that sublimity. Those mountains are much photographed and justly famous.

Inland, the mountains shun such attention. They seem older than the mountains of the coast – smoothed and worn down as they are by the grinding of ancient ice, traces of which remain, although they are not older, they’re just more patient and quiet. They do not seek fame. Their lower slopes are furred with birch and willow, and in summer the ground is boggy, tangled with mosses and ferns and braided with waterfalls that stain the bare rocks red. In winter, the constant sound of water vanishes; everything is hushed and stilled by snow.

Some way inland, then, much nearer Sweden than the coast, on the northern shore of the Long Lake, at the foot of the modest mountains, sits the little town of Sulitjelma, known to all and sundry as Sulis. There is a narrow strip of land along the shore where the houses congregate; and the road, the hotel, the supermarket, the middle school, the white, spired church – everything you need, really, as long as you’re not too demanding. You certainly can’t complain about the quality of the air, which is clean and bracing, although it was not always so.

Before 1975, there wasn’t even a road. It was too remote and useless a place for anyone to have reason to go there. For many centuries the place was known only to Sámi herders who took their reindeer to breed in the sheltered valley. Things changed when a Sámi farmer, who had for years noticed veins of rust in the mountains and around the waterfalls, found a chunk of yellow, glittering mineral. He took it to a merchant in the town down on the fjord, who determined that it was not gold, but iron ore. Still valuable. Still worth a bit of effort, but nothing happened fast; it was the middle of the 19th century, and this was the remote Arctic, so it was decades before someone bought the mineral rights and built a railroad to link the new mine to a landing stage on the fjord. It was the first in northern Norway and Norway wasn’t even an independent country, still being united with Sweden. The mining company followed the seams of ore further into the mountains, and people flocked there to work. They dug out iron, sulphur, and copper, even silver and gold, and by the end of the century, Sulis had become something of a boom town.

But, like everything else that comes from the earth, a mine has a lifespan. There were the good decades, when the population of the valley topped three thousand. Production from the Sulis mines reached a grisly zenith during the Second World War, when the occupying German army squeezed iron from the mountains, and used prisoners of war to build the roads and railways which were to supply the troops on the northern front. Did you know that Hitler intended to move his new Reich’s capital to Norway after the war? Trondheim, to be precise. Fortunately, they ran out of time before this grand, mad vision was carried out, but not before thousands of prisoners had died. The stretch of the E6 north of Rognan is still called the Blood Road.

In the 1950s, to shorten the journey to the coast, tunnels were blasted through the mountains. In the early 70s, when the ore became too awkward and expensive to pursue further, the railroad was torn up and replaced with a road. The mountains were insulted with yet more dynamite as the tunnels were rebuilt, or re-blasted – whatever it is that they do to tunnels to make them more. . . modern. God knows what they were like before, because even today the tunnels are wormholes: narrow and low, no bigger than they need be, with rough, rock-hewn walls. From outside, they look like small, surprised mouths in the mountainside. I hasten to add that there is nothing at all unusual about these tunnels.

Despite these improvements, the mines of Sulis were increasingly unprofitable. From the late 1960s there were decades of closures as one after another the mines were abandoned and the last one was put out of its misery in the 1990s. The inland mountains could at last go back to being patient and quiet – or at least, so the mountains might have been forgiven for thinking. In fact, the old workings were turned into a museum, and the derelict buildings marketed as a tourist attraction – what else could you do with them? Well, doing nothing is always an option, isn’t it? But nothing was not good enough. The miners’ houses on the mountain were picturesque, and, painted in Nordic primary colours: ochre yellow, rust red – you know the sort of thing – they have become a resort for hikers and skiers. Remoteness, beauty, snow: it turned out these could be sold, just as the fish and the ore had been.

So: get on with it, you’re probably thinking: why are we here, of all places?

I shall tell you.

One night in May when, already it hardly grows dark, four senior pupils at the high school in Fauske, went on some sort of expedition in the mountains near Sulis. They had been going to look for something – maybe gold. There have always been rumours that there is still gold up there, waiting to be unearthed. Or they were going to climb a summit to enjoy the view and hold a vigil through the soft twilight of a spring night, to get drunk and hold their childhoods once more in their hands before they buckled down to final exams, and then span off in various directions to national service and university degrees and live their separate lives. Accounts of their purpose and even of their whereabouts on the night differed, but one thing was certain: only three of them came back.