We are going on a boat trip to the large bird cliffs at Røst. There we will encounter mighty nature, majestic eagles, colourful puffins and some peculiar artwork.
Where are we and where are we going?
We find Røst as an archipelago at the end of Lofoten in Northern Norway, it is indeed very far out in the ocean. The largest island is called Røstlandet and has in modern times been tied to the nearby islands with landfills. This is where the scarce population of 600 people continues an over 3,000 years old history of subsisting on the abundant fish resources in the sea. During the annual Lofot fisheries in winter life is buzzing. In the previous article from Røst we saw what it was like to come here in July to empty fish racks used for hanging up the fresh cod to dry.
The Italians buy most of the fish landed on Røst, and it is Italians who have delivered one of the most fascinating stories about life on Røst in the old days. The key word is Querini.
We will now seek out the magnificent island of Vedøya, we’re going past Storfjellet, Ellevsnyken until the characteristic Trenyken. Then we continue past Hernyken before we turn around the island of Skomvær with its lighthouse and return to Røstlandet. The islands are referred to as the beads they are on a string onwards, which is not necessarily consistent with how the boat trip was made. As described under the heading Practical at the bottom of the article, this was a guided tour.
This is where we are going, towards the island of Vedøya in the south
Isola de Sandrigo
What, an Italian name on Røst? Yes, there may be reason to wonder what this is. We are in fact just off Røstlandet, i.e. where people live. Here is a small skerry which on a Norwegian map is called Trettskjæret.
The story goes that stockfish is among the Italians’ dearest food ingredients (not just pasta and pizza in other words), and the small town of Sandrigo a few miles inland from Venice holds an annual stockfish festival. Most stockfish exports from Røst goes to Italy. What was more natural than to donate Trettskjæret to Sandrigo? Thus, it was renamed Sandrigo Island and in Sandrigo we similarly find Røst Square, a piazza.
The sculpture “Spranget” (The leap) on Trettskjæret (Sandrigo island)
On the skerry we observe the artwork called “Spranget”, made by Øystein Bernhard Mobråten. It is a bronze sculpture of a porpoise with a baby and was a gift from Sandrigo in Italy. The purpose is to wish seafaring guests a welcome to Røst. The unveiling took place in 1998.
This is not the only artwork by human hands we shall discover on our voyage south. The second comes up already on the next island.
Island of Vedøya
The first big island we encounter is the island of Vedøya. With its peak at 207 metres it towers far above Røstlandet to the north with its paltry 11 metres above sea level. Vedøya is a powerful sight.
The sculpture “El Nido” is barely seen at the lowest corner to the left. Nature is far more dominant.
On the western side of the island of Vedøya we find a rare piece of art. The sculpture El Nido (= nest) is not easy to spot even though we are approaching close to land. It sits on a ridge up the dark mountain side. The artist is an Italian named Luciano Fabro. It is in practical terms in two gear-like shapes (85 cm diameter) and three eggs (diameter 25 cm) carved in light marble.
On a symbolical level this is not a monument to human beings. It is dedicated to all the nesting birds for they are after all a lot more numerous here than humans. The birds have their monument close up, while we have to go out on a long journey to seek it out. The monument was unveiled in 1994 somewhere else in Røst, but after great conflict it was moved here. The sculpture is Røst municipality’s contribution to Artscape Nordland.
We go further to the south. Here we find an even higher peak, 257 metres above sea level. Below are the remains of a big farm from the 1200s. It is said to have housed 32 people in a farmhouse with a large hall and four smaller cabins outside. Three barns were placed farther away.
Storfjellet translates to Big mountain
Here at Sandøya we find several cabins, holiday homes, along the north side of the island. Moreover, we see on a ridge a monument rising up. It was set up in 1932 to commemorate that Querini and his crew in 1432, some five centuries earlier, drifted ashore on the island. Querini was a trader, nobleman and captain aboard a merchant vessel from Venice who wrecked west of Ireland and drifted northward with the Gulf Stream before they stranded at Røst. They were well taken care of by the people and has left some fabulous descriptions of the accident and their stay here in the north. Read about Pietro Querini’s amazing journey.
Sea eagle on the move
Scholars dispute whether it was actually here at Sandøya they wrecked, but the monument stands here anyway and then the rest is of purely academic interest.
We will continue to Nykan, and the three islands bearing the names of Ellevsnyken, Trenyken and Hernyken.
Moving fast forward towards Trenyken
The island is with its three peaks one of the most peculiar in Lofoten. The highest peak is 143 metres. Over the centuries it has come to symbolise the Holy Trinity, but also invoking other philosophical thoughts. Per Fugelli writes that “there live three spirits in Trenyken: eternity, peace and security.”
The very name “nyk” is derived from the old Norse word of “knjúkr” meaning high, rounded hill. The exciting thing is that if one gets religious feelings about the island, it is also accompanied by the antithesis of the divine. On Trenyken we find the entrance to Hell.
How much hell actually exists there, this author does not know. However, I firmly believe that they have found Bronze Age paintings on the walls of the cave system uncovered inside the cave with this peculiar name. Trenyken functioned as a place to live more than 3,000 years ago. Read about the paintings and cave (in Norwegian for the most part).
Due to bird protection we not come ashore during the breeding season, and it brings us into the story of the dramatic decline in bird populations on Røst over the past three decades.
Hernyken and improved knowledge about birds
The next of our bird cliffs is Hernyken with its 96 metre high peak. On the south side of the island there is a research station. Here, scientists work for answers to what happens to all the seabirds that previously nested in vast numbers on the mountains at Røst. Hernyken also houses sheep grazing, about the only four-legged fauna we found during our visit at Røst.
But what is happening to the birds?
A lone puffin scouting for herring
We are talking about an assorted variety of seabirds like puffins, kittiwakes, razorbills, guillemots and cormorants, but also storm petrels and ducks. In addition the white-tailed sea eagles are flying highest of all.
It is especially puffins which came out bad. The newspaper Nationen wrote in 2015 that Røst for many years had the largest colony of puffins. In 1979 there were 1.5 million puffin couples nesting. In 2015, the stock had dropped to 289,000. Many couples choose to drop nesting or cancel the process. The hatched chicks do not live up, and has scarcely done so since 2006. The reason is the lack of nutritious food. The rise in sea temperature allows mackerel to move north and feed on the herring that the puffins used to live off before.
The problem affects not only Røst. Norway’s total population of this sea parrot is reduced to a third of what it was 30 years ago. The life of a puffin is normally 25 years, they only lay one egg a year, they are reasonably stationary – and all this has over time the consequence that the population at Røst could die out. On the other hand, we read that the puffin population on the coast of Finnmark further north has received a major boost in the past.
During our visit, it was still far from few puffins we spotted on the islands of Røst, they flew like arrows very close to the waves when we came sweeping in our boat. Or they stood in alignment on the cliffs when we slowly moved closer to land. It was equally fascinating to see sea eagles, whether they hovered around the top of the mountains, were sitting high up on the mountain walls, or on shelves closer to the sea.
“Skomvær” by Theodor Kittelsen (1891) (Source: Wikiart)
The entire island swims in a ring of sea foam and breakers. There is a roar and a crash, screams and thunder of a thousand demons, and the froth covers snowy white every islet and every skerry. Yes, even the massive lighthouse, iron from top to bottom, shivers and trembles, while submitting its sixteen rays ghostly into the darkness (Th. Kittelsen, my translation)
At the far end of the Røst archipelago we find Skomvær, a windswept, but also green island. Here rises a 32 metre high lighthouse in iron on a shelf of rock. Around are several other buildings belonging to the lighthouse. The lighthouse was constructed in 1887 and was manned until 1978.
During his tenure the lighthouse keeper and his assistants would be accompanied by up to four families and thirty people – in addition to livestock. In the winter storms nobody could dock or leave the island. It is not a big island and one would need to be pretty tough to endure a life out here.
This has fascinated artists for a long time. Perhaps the most famous was the painter Theodor Kittelsen who lived here a few years, just after the opening, accompanying his sister and her family. His brother-in-law had been appointed keeper assistant.
Skomvær is like the other islands to the south of Røstlandet part of a conservation area, and the buildings also forms a protected cultural heritage site. We did not come ashore here either, but went around the island on our boat trip through the archipelago of Røst. During our visit the sea was flat as a pancake.
Skomvær without waves
The sea is volatile and terrible up here, for months it can block all dealings with others. The island is not big. It is covered by a layer of turf with thin, hard grass. Around the edges there are jagged cracks and crevices. It is the abode of the fish otter and cormorants that in the evening gather in large flocks. But even so the people from Røst believe that Skomvær is the grandest of the islands. Nice and green, they say. (Th. Kittelsen, my translation)
This summer saw three artists dwelling here. Who they were? We did not know – but it had to do something with sounds. We will now embark on a virtual journey, even farther out to sea. We are going to the legendary realm of Utrøst.
We have all heard of Atlantis, the island that disappeared in the Mediterranean or the Atlantic. Have you heard about Utrøst island that also sank into the ocean many thousands of years ago? Utrøst is a land of elves with nymphs and fantasy characters, not to mention beautiful, blond, blue-eyed people who lived on a fertile green island. The following is the beginning of the fairy-tale called “The Cormorants of Utrøst” by Asbjørnsen and Moe:
It is not unusual for northern ﬁshermen to ﬁnd straw fastened to their rudders, or grains of barley in a ﬁsh’s stomach. They say they have sailed over Utrøst, or another of the enchanted islands of which there are legends in the northern lands. These islands show themselves only to the pious, to those with second sight, or to those in trouble at sea; and they appear where otherwise there is no land. The enchanted folk who live in these places live from the farming of crops and livestock, and from ﬁshing and jekt transport, like anyone else; however, the sun shines on greener meadows and pastures richer than anywhere else in the northern lands. Happy is he who lands at, or even catches a glimpse of one of these sunny islands: “he is saved,” says the northerner. (Source)
The fairy-tale is about three cormorants who were transformed human sons. The cormorants are depicted on Røst’s municipal coat of arms. If the origin is old fiction, that at least is tangible.
This is my video from this boat trip.
Few people come out to the seabird colonies on Røst on their own. From Røst Bryggehotell one can join MS Inger Helen on a full day trip (5-6 hours) with disembarkation at Skomvær. We chose the faster (two hours) RIB boat leaving from the same place. We would not land anywhere but take the round trip that is plotted on the map below, and with the experiences described in the text above.
Map of the boat trip to Skomvær in the southwest from Røstlandet in the northeast. Click to enlarge.
We were given thermal suits and life jackets. The RIB boat held a moderate speed, and we sat astride leather cushions clasping the back of the seat ahead. It should go fine for most. The guide is pleasant and knowledgeable, and gives us the story in both English and Norwegian. It was a very good program.