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Back Roads Beat

Refugees find harmony on Norway's northern edge at Varangerfestivalen 2007

By Published: February 5, 2008
The traditional structure this far north in Alaska is the igloo. In Vadso the round mounds dotting the landscape are hay.

Vadso is at 70°04 degrees north, roughly equal to Alaska's northernmost community of Barrow, 1,300 miles from the North Pole. Barrow is a frozen desert, with five inches of average annual precipitation and below- freezing temperatures year-round. In Vadso locals spent much of the first day of Varangerfestivalen working up a sweat on miles of green farmland and flocking to the beach to cool off in the Arctic Ocean.

Full disclose: this isn't an everyday thing.

"This is the nicest beach in the world when the weather's nice," Williams said. How often is that? "I've been there maybe 20 times in 17 years."

But the Norwegian community, whose name means "the island with drinking water," is lush for being far north of the Arctic Circle. Green hills strewn liberally with flowers and short rocky peaks run along the coast instead of the glacier-crusted fjords to the south. Eider ducks and other birds dot the shores liberally. The farms are a startling contrast to barren permafrost and ice of Alaska's North Slope, where it often costs more than $5 for a loaf of white bread or a half gallon of milk, forcing locals to live primarily on subsistence hunts of whale and caribou.

"This is basically an area where people have survived," Williams said. "You would have a couple of sheep and cows and a wife on land, and then be at sea. This is the time of gathering."

The Gulf Stream and mountains shielding the town from Arctic winds moderate temperatures. Summers are cooler and damper than the country's interior, keeping gardeners from planting much until June, but winters are more likely to be 10 degrees Fahrenheit than the minus 30 degrees ice fogs of Barrow. Snow and harsh conditions can keep flights from getting in, but Williams said Vadso has never been cut off entirely for a significant period of time during his 17 years here.

"I would say we've definitely noticed global warming," he added. "There's less snow and there's more warm weather."

Modern-day Vadso is an administrative and commercial hub for the surrounding Finnmark region, with farming and fishing relegated to secondary roles. Tourism is also significant, although less so than better- known nearby communities such as Kirkenes, the endpoint for Norway's highly popular Hurtigruten coastal ferry (Vadso is the second-to-last stop, but only on the northbound trip at 6 a.m. and only for the few minutes necessary to load/unload a few transiting passengers).

Among Vadso's claims to fame is serving as the airstrip Umberto Nobile and Roald Amundsen used for their historic flight to the North Pole in 1926. The city center was heavily damaged by World War II bombing attacks in 1944 but, according to a regional government narrative, "many of the buildings remained standing, and today Vadsø has more preserved and renovated buildings than any other place in Finnmark."

Poverty was rampant in the suburbs and surrounding area until the 1950s, when oil and post-war development brought dramatic change, Williams said.

"There's been a huge development of wealth in Norway in the course of one generation," he said.

A fledgling investor at the beginning of the 1990s helped turn Vadso into a "starting point for refugees," Williams said. He said the Norwegian government was desperate for space to use as a hostel for refugees from Kosovo and the man had purchased an abandoned hospital without succeeding in efforts to develop it into something else.

"They were all over the country looking for places these refugees could stay," he said. "This guy basically went into the refugee business...then the wars started in Bosnia."

There's a small amount of debate about the assistance refugees receive indefinitely if they cannot find work, but most Norwegians accept the situation, William said. But he said refugees may acclimate better in places where there are limits such as the United States.

Being a regional hub means other quirks in the population's makeup ("the number of lawyers who work here is unbelievable," Williams said) and also more cultural activity than typical for a town of this size.

"The first year I was here I went to more concerts, theaters and plays than in seven years in Oslo," Williams said.

Yoiks And Away!

Finnmark's ancient music is the yoik—short, rhythmic melodic phrases by individuals or casual groups—performed by the region's aboriginal Samis for more than 2,000 years (listen to extensive free MP3 collections by traditional and modern artists). It was frequently banned or suppressed, according to an article by Chris Campion in the British newspaper The Observer.

"Yoik became the devil's music," Campion writes. "Wherever Christianity met indigenous brought not only the Holy Trinity but an unholy one too: the bottle, the cross and the axe (the rule of law)."

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