Into the wild, in search of game

Hunting above the clouds in Norway

Photo: Nils Wanberg

Photo: Nils Wanberg

Erik Wanberg
Marin County, Calif.

The excitement of hunting in the high mountains of Norway and the anticipation of hunting on the trails where our grandfather and great-grandfather hunted makes me like a child waiting for Christmas morning.

Since the early 1990s I have hunted in Voss nearly every second year, and in the alternate years my relatives from Norway come to the U.S. to hunt in Nevada, Iowa, and even last year in Alaska. Over the years, our common interest in hunting and the outdoors has been a strong bond for getting together for a week every year and maintaining the traditions of our family that go back generations.

I was introduced to ptarmigan (tar-mi-gan) hunting when I turned 18 while in Norway on a gap year (1977/78). On weekends I would go out with my uncles and cousins to hunt high above timberline and enjoy the spectacular beauty of the snow-covered mountains surrounding Voss, followed by cozy evenings in small cabins with great meals, relaxation, and storytelling. After college and many years raising a young family, I missed the Norwegian hunting experience and now it is a tradition, which I’ve highlighted in my “hunter’s journal.”

Photo: Nils Wanberg Erik with his shotgun.

Photo: Nils Wanberg
Erik with his shotgun.

Travel Day: I arrived in Bergen on Saturday, October 4, and headed straight to Voss to buy my hunting license and shotgun shells before they closed for the weekend. To make it easy to travel, I borrowed a shotgun on this trip, but usually I take my own with me even though there is a bit of paperwork in Customs each way.

Our tradition is to hunt ptarmigan, an alpine member of the grouse family notable in that they change colors, becoming completely white in the winter. There are two subspecies, larger Willow Ptarmigan in the short birch trees just below the tree line and slightly smaller Rock Ptarmigan that live in the high mountains in, well, the rocks. We’ll hunt both as we go up and over the granite outcroppings and rounded peaks of the high mountain plateaus.

Photo: Nils Wanberg Grins are the norm in this hunting party, despite grim weather.

Photo: Nils Wanberg
Grins are the norm in this hunting party, despite grim weather.

Day One: Early Sunday morning, we left Voss and drove half an hour to Myrkdalen and hunted in the mountains above the local ski area. It takes over an hour to hike into the terrain where the birds are likely. We got to the top of the high plateau and a mountain fog moved in, making it very difficult to see very far, and more importantly, know which direction we were hiking. We needed to rely on map and compass. We hunted for several hours, but the fog made it difficult to see anything.

My nephew Nils from California and I met at pre-set coordinates with my Norwegian cousin and his son, and we all took a break for coffee and a sandwich. After 10 minutes of talking, suddenly five ptarmigan flew up not five yards from us. I was lucky and dropped one that flew my direction.

Photo: Nils Wanberg The hunters rest on a rocky hillside, as fog swirls behind.

Photo: Nils Wanberg
The hunters rest on a rocky hillside, as fog swirls behind.

Day Two: The next day we returned to the same mountain above the ski area, but a strong wind was blowing. We could see a small waterfall on the mountain that the wind turned to a fine mist and actually blew up the mountainside. We debated about even attempting to make the climb up the mountain, but figured we had come a long way and might as well give it a try. We split up and I went up the east side of the mountain. Half way up, I flushed out a white snowshoe hare and got stew for dinner.

Continuing up the mountain, the wind became fierce. Once on top, the wind was unbearable; I’m guessing it was 60-70 mph. Gusts were higher. It was pretty difficult to hike in this weather, and more importantly, it meant that the ptarmigan had sought shelter, and they were nowhere to be found. We soon gave up on the weather and went down the mountain again. So goes it in hunting.

My cousin had brought a camping trailer and we drove up to Vikafjellet, another half hour drive north. The windstorm continued and we waited it out in the trailer all afternoon. This closeness brings out a stream of stories. After a sleepless night in the howling wind, we heard the forecast for continued high wind all day, so we returned to Voss for some shopping and errands. We had lost two days to weather, but as a consolation prize, my uncle invited us to his cozy home for a traditional Fårikål dinner.

Day Three: Wednesday afternoon, we were driven by 4-wheel drive up to Lønahorgi mountain (site of extreme sports and “hang gliding”) to a very special isolated cabin high on the mountain. We enjoyed a meal of hunter’s stew with a spectacular view over the valley far below and the Hardangervidda in the distance. These are the moments that conjure up stories of our ancestors and their times on these trails. We breathe the same air, smell the same moss, look down on the same valleys, and walk in the footsteps where our ancestors trekked.

Day Four: We packed up and hiked north over Lønahorgi and hit snow and fog. We divided our group in the search. My cousin and I took the high course over the cold, rocky peak, while his son’s party went lower around the mountain. We heard them shooting in the distance and complained to ourselves for choosing the wrong route.

As we continued, we split up again and hiked alone up and over the terrain. These reflective moments of solitude in beautiful mountains make the adventure more valued than what ends up in the game bag. Drinking water straight from brooks and streams is a most refreshing experience while on a grueling hike. We came together again over the next small mountain. The others had seen over a hundred ptarmigan but could only get close enough to get one of these wary birds.

We were soaking wet when we arrived at Tvinnestølen, a Norwegian Trekking Association cabin open for communal use by anyone who passes by. There we found two ladies from Alaska staying at the cabin. We shared dinner and the world seemed smaller on this mountaintop, since we all had been in Alaska hunting ptarmigan last year.

Day Five: On Friday, we made our final push up the mountain and saw many birds, but they were flushing far out of range. My cousin and his son got one more each. We were in a constant drizzle and when the fog moved in again, we began our trek down to the valley. As we entered the woods, the rain began to pour and we hastened down to Afdal where my uncle was waiting to pick us up. We went down to Voss for hot showers and our final evening together.

My cousin made a traditional holiday dinner with pinnekjøtt, smoked sausages, mashed rutabagas, and home brew with akevitt. Other friends and relatives came over and we had a great evening of festive stories and making plans for next year.

What I realized is that chasing an elusive quarry in the mountains is a journey without end. The weather isn’t always in your favor, nor the quarry. What’s most important is the common interest we have in being in the mountains—hunting, hiking, and skiing—that is our bond. Hunting keeps us in touch with each other and brings us together every year. Without it, we would likely put off travel plans to next year or the year after, maybe until a wedding, reunion, or other event. Enjoying our passion for the mountains allows us to have the evenings by the fire in the cabins or in the cozy homes of relatives. It is this fellowship that is our bond. As our cousins and their grandchildren take on the same traditions and form the same bonds for the future, I am sure our ancestors would be happy to see us follow in their footsteps in the mountains of Norway.

Day Six: Travel Day. Looking down at the clouds from the aircraft window seat, I replayed the stories of my two great grandfathers in Norway. My grandfather’s father, Peder Lahlum, was the chief civil engineer in constructing the Flåm railway that circles inside a mountain tunnel and crosses over an underground river “without a bridge.” My grandmother’s father Olav Ullestad was a businessman and adventurer. He once skied from Voss for a week to the Holmenkollen ski event in Oslo, found out that the event was cancelled due to bad weather, so he skied right back through the mountains to Voss. So the story goes.

I was feeling refreshed, like my batteries had been recharged by communing with the nature of my ancestors, and I began dreaming about next year.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 17, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.