They used to call it “a very large Hell.” Back when nickel was found in these hills and the mining outfit moved in and built a blast furnace and hydroelectric dam, boated in the help, changed the conversation from redfish and halibut to tailings and waste rock, Hamn went to seed. What had been a quiet fishing village with Bronze Age amenities – a few families tucked away in a remote fjord – was recast in the 1850s as an industrial badlands with 700 new roustabout citizens of considerably rougher hew. Frontier justice prevailed; lawbreakers were plopped on a remote island to get some perspective. Most eventually made it off, reformed or with newly sharpened hatreds. It’s said today that Senja’s coastal people are a bit coarser than the inland folks, unsophisticated sorts born with a fishing rod in one hand and an ancient grudge in the other.
It’s also said that Hamn is hogging all the views. From its docks you can see the entire edge of an Arctic borderland, mountains plunging down to the sea, twisted in thick crenelated folds; a hammerhead peninsula tilting towards a western cable of scrub islands; the rough water, rolling and annealed in its southerly drift. There are black guillemots and red-necked grebes, a pair of white-tailed eagles, gray seals. Orcas and fin whales and humpbacks are said to chase herring into the harbor. The nickel mine is gone, and the population has settled back down to about ten.
Hamn is on the far northwest coast of Senja, an island off the far northwest coast of Norway. Latitudinally, it’s about parallel with Norilsk in Siberia, the coldest city in the world with winter lows in the -60s Fahrenheit. Hamn is cold, but not unbearably cold: its air is warmed by the Gulf Stream, as is the water, somewhat (though even in summer it’s bone chilling). In fact, Senja is sometimes called the “Caribbean of Norway” for its bottle-blue seas and archipelago of white-sand islands. There are roughly 100 of them scattered around, chubby and barren, ringed in white and sapphire.
In the midst of this harmonic connection between sea and land sits Hamn i Senja. Its pitched-roof lodge and cottages, sauna, a hot tub made out of an old fishing cruiser, docks and moorings, and a single-road in-and-out form the sole defensive line against raw nature. It is a dazzling bounty. Summer mornings mean something different here than they do back home: From May to July, the sun stares you in the face for nearly 24 hours a day. From November to January, polar night descends, days of darkness, trolls, solitude, and magical living.
To be sure, Hamn i Senja falls on the cabin-porn continuum: a comfortable lodge with a stocked bar and seasonal menu, and a row of modernist cottages with an IKEA-showroom vibe flanking all this intimate, show-stopping scenery. But it doesn’t smack of preciousness or exclusivity. Instead, it’s like a spa run by very respectable Vikings.
One afternoon I hiked to the lighthouse across the fjord. The snow was mid-calf, and Arctic hare droppings lined the path like breadcrumbs. The sea tossed under a deep blue sky. A small flotilla of black guillemots, distant cousins of the puffin, called to one another in high-pitched whistles. At the path’s end was a miniature lighthouse, maybe eight feet tall, like a troll’s watchtower. It stood in stark contrast to the general wildness of the place, its double-hinged steel door padlocked tight, a reminder of the violent and unpredictable Arctic weather.
I clomped back to the lodge, the slush sucking at my boots, dwarf birch branches scraping my polyurethane clothes. Far off to the south, a white-tailed eagle dipped in the winter sky. It was a small but remarkable sight. Once threatened with extinction, white-tailed eagles thrive here in the black sea cliffs, their numbers approaching pre-industrial halcyon days. At the lodge I kicked off my boots and sat warming myself with a glass of Aquavit, making a silent farewell toast to Hamn i Senja, a double farewell to the northern landscape, while plotting my return.