For six weeks, Sophie Kelk lived on a remote Norwegian island north of the Arctic Circle. This is what she discovered about island life—the good, the bad, and above all, the community spirit.
As my flight begins its descent into Bodø, I catch a glimpse of the coastline. The jagged, teeth-like mountains drop vertically and abruptly—almost rudely—into the ocean, crowned with a shimmering glacier while out to sea is Fleinvær, a collection of grassy low-lying islands, scattered along the shore as if discarded by a petulant child. This archipelago of over 360 islands, an hour off the mainland, is to be my home for the next six weeks.
Soon, I am on a public boat, speeding over the deep blue waters and out to Sørvær, one of the archipelago’s only inhabited islands. The boat service runs almost daily, but I’ll need to call ahead of time if I want it to pick me up, and I’ll rely on it to deliver my food and any necessities during my time here. There are no shops or cafés. I quickly discover that planning is of the essence, and the boat is my lifeline to the mainland.
I am here, along with my boyfriend, to take over as caretaker for The Arctic Hideaway, a series of cabins which bill themselves as a creative retreat where simplicity is luxury. Our job? Keep the place running and welcome guests. Our goal? Find a bit of peace.
The passion-project of local musician and composer Håvard Lund, the nine architecturally-designed buildings of The Arctic Hideaway—all straight lines, timber and glass—are designed to ‘force’ guests to engage with nature.
With such a spectacular backdrop, it’s hard not to. One evening, the vibrant purples and oranges of the midnight sun jolt me awake, driving me out of our cabin for a 2am walk. On still, sunny days, the navy-blue water is like a sheet of glass, while steely gray rains bring menacing sets of waves.
With no light pollution, clear nights offer up a canopy of stars and the Milky Way and I lie on my back in child-like glee, recalling long-forgotten constellations. As the days begin to shorten, we are treated to our own private light show as the northern lights dance their way across the skies.
Despite these regular treats from nature, life on Fleinvær is hard. So much so that of the 40 or so houses on our island, only a couple of hardy islanders remain through the windy, cold and almost entirely dark winter months. Boats are canceled when the winds or waves are too high and the islands become truly isolated from the real world.
Perhaps the remoteness is also what breeds, or attracts, creativity … Most people have a creative outlet; from electronic sound engineering and photography to knitting, landscape architecture and clothes design.
Year-round, many government services don’t reach here. There’s internet and electricity, but no water—so we harvest rainwater and collect it in huge tanks underneath houses, and water usage is kept to a bare minimum. Daily showers are seen as a luxury.
There’s no rubbish or recycling collection. Everyone must take their own to the mainland and many do what they’ve done for decades: Burn it or throw it in the ocean. “Some of us do recycle, and we are trying to educate others,” one islander told me, “but when this is what they’ve always done and there’s no support from the government, it’s an uphill battle.”
Even medical services are dwindling, and although theoretically there is access to both an ambulance and helicopter, budget cuts and centralization mean they’re rarely sent. A few days before we arrived, a little girl suffered third-degree burns and had to be taken to the mainland by a family member in their fishing trawler. Another local told me how she called with asthma and bronchitis, struggling to breathe. “They told me to call back when I’d stopped breathing”.
In spite, or perhaps because of this harsh life, there’s a strong sense of community on Sørvær. We’re welcomed with open arms and as the days go by, a quick walk to the end of the island, usually a 15-minute affair, could take a whole day, as we find ourselves invited in to taste a cake, offered some freshly-picked carrots or potatoes, an update on their latest building work on simply a coffee and a chat.
Perhaps the remoteness is also what breeds, or attracts, creativity such as Are Andreassen, a renowned north Norwegian artist and folk violinist Susanne Lundeng who both call Fleinvær home for some of the year. Most people have a creative outlet; from electronic sound engineering and photography to knitting, landscape architecture and clothes design.
With little government investment into the island, the close-knit community also bands together to raise funds for basic maintenance to their bridges, to build a gravel road and even build a pier for the public boat.
As an outsider, it seems incomprehensible that people still choose to live on these remote slithers of land … But island life has a different quality to it.
Over the summer, Fridays see a hundred or so mainlanders tumble off the boat for the Havrettsbord, a sumptuous buffet of locally fished seafood washed down with plenty of alcohol. With the guests safely sent on their way, we find ourselves drinking into the early mornings with the rest of the volunteers, celebrating the hard work, and the profits this generates.
Seafood here is in abundance, and fishing is part of daily life. Locals know exactly where to catch each type of fish, be it pollock, mackerel, cod, halibut or ocean perch; triangulating off landmarks to a precise spot in the water, and coming back minutes later with a full bucket. We catch crabs and free-dive for scallops straight off our dock. I have never eaten fish so fresh, and likely never will again.
Because of this abundance, industrial fishing poses a threat to Fleinvær. There are plans to blow a huge hole through the middle of a neighboring island to install a land-based fishery. This aquaculture has been incentivized by the Norwegian government, but the locals have concerns about the waste created by such farming, the effect on the nesting birds and wildlife, the fish stock, and the increased marine traffic it will create.
Meanwhile, two brothers, Magne and Odd, both professional fishermen, have set up a working group to have their archipelago recognized as a National Park; a way to protect the area from all future proposals. They will fight tooth and nail to defend their precious way of life and protect the wildlife they believe also has a right to remain here.
As an outsider, it seems incomprehensible that people still choose to live on these remote slithers of land, cut off from many of the services and conveniences that most would consider indispensable, and at the mercy of the weather. But island life has a different quality to it.
This beauty, this peace, this ruggedness; it means something to them and it now does to me. I find myself craving the timelessness, the community, the creativity that the island inspires and it makes me want to fight alongside them for what matters. I fear I’ve fallen under the spell of Fleinvær, and that I too, have become an islander.