Norway’s roads less traveled: Running & midnight sunning in Harstad
Christine Foster Meloni
In this continuing series, we ask ordinary travelers about their favorite lesser-known corners of Norway.
The author of this article is Lynn Juhl from Arlington, Virginia, who writes about his unique visit to Harstad above the Arctic Circle:
We boarded the MS Richard With in Bergen. This ship belongs to Hurtigruten, the popular Norwegian cruise line company that operates voyages on Norway’s western and northern coast between Bergen and Kirkenes. It was named after the founder of the cruise line.
It was late June and our destination was Harstad. The first thing that we saw upon arrival in the harbor of Harstad was the sign: “68° North.”
“My!” I thought. “We are somewhere, aren’t we?”
This parallel is 68 degrees north of the equator, above the Arctic Circle. At this latitude there is sunlight for 24 hours a day from May 22 to July 18. It was amazing—the sun never set! It seemed to skirt around the horizon to come up again on the other side. Wondrous! I then understood the heavy blackout curtains in our hotel room. They allowed us to catch some shuteye without the 24-7 sun.
Harstad is in the middle of the zone of the Northern Lights. We heard that they can often be seen on clear nights, but they cannot be seen in the summer because of the continuous daylight. We unfortunately missed our chance to observe this phenomenon! But we found the Midnight Sun incredible.
Harstad is located in Tromsø County, which has common borders with Nordland County to the south and with Finnmark County to the east. It also borders both Sweden and Finland.
We had gone to Harstad to meet a bunch of slackards (a term of endearment) for a running club event that was to take place in and around the town. The InterScandi Running Club had accommodations for our group at a not-quite-abandoned army barracks outside of town. Rustic it was! This didn’t matter, however; we were all there for the camaraderie, trail running, and beer (after the aquavit, of course).
We had arrived a day or so before our event was to take place so we had time to explore the charming town, which had a population just over 20,000 according to the 2013 census.
We found a nice drinking establishment. A good place to unwind, we thought. It was nearly empty in the middle of the afternoon. While there we witnessed an interesting interaction. A customer who had had too much to drink became rather unruly. The bartender intervened. He spoke gently to the man, gave him his money back, and helped him out the door. “Wow!” I thought. “That’s not how it works in the States!” This was to be the beginning of many interesting experiences.
We then discovered that a music festival was going on in town. A music festival seemed to me to be very out of place here, way above the Arctic Circle. “But why not?” I asked myself. “The temperatures are in the balmy 60s and even warmer in the sun.”
We learned that this was a very popular annual event. Every June since 1965, Harstad has hosted the Festspillene i Nord-Norge, the Festival of North Norway. It lasts one week and includes music, theater, and art performances.
We then continued our wandering and found a nice little art shop. I fell in love with one of the prints and offered a little less than the stated price. The shopkeeper gave me a very quizzical expression. “Hmm,” I said to myself, “I guess we don’t bargain here.”
Later we were off for a run. But I was puzzled. “Why are we leaving so late? It is 10:00 p.m.” It then occurred to me that, of course, it was still light at this hour.
We found the location of our run on a trail that ended up on a beach. Exploring the area we discovered large circular turrets and cement bunkers, which were all overgrown, and remnants of WWII big guns pointing out to the sea.
These remarkable guns, called Adolf’s Guns, are a major tourist attraction. They were naval guns that were originally supposed to be mounted on two enormous battleships of the Third Reich. Hitler, however, decided to place them instead on the shore to form part of the coastal fortifications of the Atlantic Wall.
Later we had a run in the mountains. At every stop, out came the aquavit, and it was not polite to refuse. These Norwegians don’t let you refuse!
Norwegians are also very outdoorsy. We saw many families happily trekking miles out from anywhere, and they did not seem at all lost.
All too soon the few days went by and it was time to go. We loved our time in Harstad. We had all sorts of unique experiences. We will go back one day, and maybe we will encounter even more of the people of this nice town the next time.
Lynn Juhl has Norwegian roots and is active in the Washington DC lodge of the Sons of Norway. He is a charter member of the lodge’s dynamic Reading Circle, where his participation guarantees lively discussions. He taught high school mathematics for many years and is a member of the Hash House Harriers, an international social running club.
Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.
This article originally appeared in the June 30, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.