Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Launching Our Love Affair with Travel 

The Mountain Hiking Holidays Creation Myth


In the spring of 1987 my wife Amy and I drove up to Acadia National Park in Maine. We were living in Wilmington, Delaware at the time and had discovered Acadia Park two and a half years earlier in the fall of 1984. We had fallen in love with it then and had vowed to return. On our return trip in 1987 we explored the less-frequented corners of the park including the area surrounding fjord-like Somes Sound and Isle au Haut, an island accessible by mail boat from the village of Stonington.
Amy at Stonington harbor, Maine en route to Isle au Haut in 1987.
With the exception of Isle au Haut and the Schoodic Peninsula, most of Acadia National Park is spread across Mount Desert Island whose principal town is Bar Harbor. While wandering through a shop in Bar Harbor we happened upon a poster that stopped us in our tracks. On the poster was an image of sharp, serrated peaks rising abruptly from the sea with the houses of a small fishing village clustered in the foreground. The landscape depicted in the image seemed almost otherworldly. It looked like a matte painting created for the background of a fantasy motion picture. Beneath the picture was the word, "Norway." That was the only hint about the location depicted in the image; we could find no other information on the poster. We were so entranced by the landscape presented on the poster that we determined to uncover its precise location.

The poster that enchanted us in Bar Harbor, Maine. A framed copy of this poster has hung on the wall of our home for over 30 years.

Fortuitously a few days after we returned home as I was going through the "junk mail" in my work inbox I came across a promotional brochure from a cruise line. Lo and behold! On the cover of the brochure was the same image that we had seen on the poster in Bar Harbor. I opened the brochure and eagerly scanned the copy for a caption or anything that might provide a clue to the location of the village in the photograph. As with the poster, no caption could be found, but there was a line in the brochure copy that read, "Wednesday, July 8: In the remote Lofoten archipelago is some of the most spectacular scenery to be found anywhere in Norway; fairy tale villages by the edge of the sea, with jagged mountain peaks looming in the background..." That passage seemed to describe the image on the brochure cover so I assumed our search could be narrowed to Norway's "Lofoten archipelago."

Since Amy was working on her masters degree in American Material Culture from the Henry Francis DuPont Winterthur Museum and the University of Delaware I accompanied her one weekend to the campus in Newark and sequestered myself in the library. I tracked down every book I could find about the north of Norway and proceeded leafing through the sections about Lofoten. In one of those books, I stumbled on a black and white photograph of a fishing village in the Lofoten islands. The mountains in the photograph looked similar to the peaks depicted on the poster and brochure, but at first glance they did not appear to match. Then I looked more closely, carefully comparing the clefts and gullies etched into the mountains until I realized that the peaks in the book and the peaks on the poster were indeed the same. I realized that the poster image looked more dramatic because it had been vertically exaggerated. Under the black and white photo in the book was a caption which identified the village as "Reine." The mystery was solved!

An image of Reine similar to the one I found in the book. (Photo by John Osaki)

I remember telling Amy some time after we first met in 1983 that I didn't need to travel abroad because I could happily spend my entire life in North America and still not be able to see all the mountains I wanted to see on my home continent. But the magical image of Reine in the Lofoten islands forced me to reconsider that stance. I now realized that the world was full of enchanting landscapes beyond my possible imaginings. And now, they were calling to me. So, in July of 1988, when Amy finished her master's degree, we traveled to Norway on a pilgrimage to Reine. Our objective: To stand in the spot where the photograph that had enchanted us in Bar Harbor had been taken. It was my first time to Europe and Amy's first time to Norway. Amy's great grandmother had left her family's farm in eastern Norway in the late nineteenth century and emigrated to the United States so for Amy it was a bit of a "homecoming." For me, it was also a chance to see the landscapes of a country which had fascinated me since I was a child in Hawaii leafing through the pages of my fourth grade geography book. We flew into Bergen, rented a car and explored the fjord country between Bergen and the city of Ålesund. We chose to poke about in little-known and unfrequented corners—a habit that was to become a hallmark of our travels together.

The mountain farm of Blomberg above the Geirangerfjord as it was in 1988. We had seen postcards of this farm and thought it would be fun to see if we could find it. We found its location on a topographic map, then rented a small boat and motored seven miles down the fjord from Geiranger town to Syltavika and an old fjord-side field  below the Blomberg farm. We spent a long time searching for the remains of the old farmer's path and finally found it. We trudged uphill for about 1,300 vertical feet through brush and over hidden boulders following the trace of the old path. This view was the reward. (Today, Blomberg has been restored and it's now much more easily accessible.)

After tooling about in the fjord country, we flew north to the town of Svolvaer in the Lofoten islands, rented another car, bought a cassette tape of Norwegian country music and set off to find the village of Reine. We had managed to rent a cod fishing cabin from Herr O. Hvedding in the village of Å (also spelled "Aa") at the end of the Lofoten road a few miles beyond Reine village.
Amy and Herr (Mr.) O. Hvedding, our "landlord" during our stay in the village of Å.
The fishing cabin ("rorbu") we had rented was rustic with wooden floors painted battleship gray, a large stainless steel (fish cleaning?) sink, wooden bunks and a toilet with questionable plumbing. It was built on stilts above the water so when the tide was high we could hear the ocean sloshing beneath the floor. We cooked our meals on a primitive stove and enjoyed a seafood dinner after convincing one of the workers at a local fish warehouse with a mountain-sized pile of fresh fish to sell us a single flounder--something he was clearly not used to doing!

The fishing village of Å in 1988. Our "rorbu" is the simple red building at the far left.
In our rorbu in 1988 in the village of  Å i Lofoten.
We explored the trails of the area enjoying the endless summer sunshine. We thrilled to  the sight of alpine wildflowers growing a few feet above seaweed encrusted rocks. We challenged ourselves to a swim in frigid, turquoise waters off the blazing white sands of Ramberg Beach. And we cut short a planned hike after we realized that we had started it after 11:00 PM lulled by the 24-hour light of the midnight sun. And, of course, we found the "place in the poster." We determined that the photograph had been taken from the narrow access road to Reine village. We stood on the road to take the photo you see below. There was no traffic and no one else shared the view with us that day. (Today, a constructed boardwalk separated from the roadway accommodates the large number of visitors and photographers who come to enjoy the view.)

Photograph of Reine taken by John Osaki in July 1988 using Kodachrome slide film.

A mock-up of the poster using the 1988 image by John Osaki above. In the poster view, the image has been "vertically stretched" in the manner of the original poster.

For Amy and me, that 1988 journey to Norway and the Lofoten Islands set the stage for 30+ years of international travel. It reshaped our view of the world and redefined the possibilities that travel offered. Following our Norwegian adventure, independent trips to Guatemala, Yugoslavia, El Salvador and Nicaragua followed in quick succession. All of those early journeys ended up changing our lives and charted the course that led us less than a decade later to found "Walking Softly Adventures" which became "Mountain Hiking Holidays" in the mid-2000s. We have been possessed by the joy of chasing mountains around the world ever since.