…Oslo, Northern Lights, Snowmobiling, Ice Hotel and the Atlantic Salmon Conference
I fished Alta for my twenty-fifth season in July of 2015 and have always wanted to visit in the winter. We have talked about it incessantly round the camp fire but reality meant never getting around to making a definitive plan. When I received the invitation from the Alta Board to speak at the Atlantic Salmon Conference in February, I grabbed the chance… finally an opportunity to go in the winter.
The Thief Hotel and Vaaghals Restaurant, Oslo
If you want a great hotel in the centre of Oslo consider the vibrant, modern Thief Hotel. Located between the iconic Astrup Fearnley Museum, the canals of Tjuvholmen and the Oslofjord, with most of the 118 rooms enjoying brilliant views, it is a fabulous place to stay and the organic breakfast was superb. I also had dinner with my old friend and one of my boatmen Per Mikklesen and his wife Elizabeth at their chosen restaurant Vaaghals which offers a wonderful medley of fine Norwegian dishes including skrei cod with peas and bacon, scallop with pear and seaweed, oxtail and halibut. It is all served as a communal meal called a ‘skifte’, or a sharing of the blessings of the table – an old Norwegian tradition where food is presented on a board and passed around the table. I thoroughly recommend it.
I had never seen darkness at Alta which seems extraordinary but nevertheless true, but in late January the sun rises at about 8.30 am and sets at 2.30 pm. So arriving at about 6pm, darkness was a certainty, the sky was clear and the Northern Lights welcomed us to the Vica Hotel where I have always stayed and where I book my room for 29th June on 29th June the year before!
The Northern Lights tried to endure but there was one block of cloud which drifted from the south and ultimately spoiled a really superb display. The local company claims a 90% success rate during the 2014/15 season and Alta is reckoned to be one of the most reliable places in the world to see the Northern Lights. If you want us to arrange a visit, nobody knows the characters better than us! Those that run the various tourism operations have been boatmen over the years so we know them well. The lights appeared the next night too but the opening dinner for the Salmon Conference was taking place with the guest of honour, King Harald of Norway.
Per’s brother Bjorn (my other boatman) and another boatman, Tronde Simensen, another famous Alta name and the Frontiers Fitzgeralds’ boatman, kindly offered to take us into the mountains to see Per and Bjorn’s parents. Having borrowed lots of snowmobiling clothing from Bjorn we drove some of the way towing the snowmobiles and then parked, took the snowmobiles off their trailers, loaded up and headed into the Norwegian wilderness. Bjorn insisted that I drive and off we went rather tentatively. Bjorn leaned over and took the right handle-bar, the one with the heated accelerator and turned hard and off we sped! I did not see a bump in the snow because it was snowing gently and visibility was poor. Consequently, we nearly took off.
It got more exciting because soon we had to leave the track and follow a series of skinny, coloured sticks (like downhill racing sticks) which lead us to the lake where the family catch trout and char in the summer. I thought I would really burn across the lake but it was bumpier than I had anticipated so I had to ease off! Up the hill we went into the hinterland and there, tucked away, was the small cabin where we found Per and Bjorn’s parents (Bjoernulf and Randi) relaxing in their winter hideaway. We enjoyed some tea and chocolate and reminisced about great fishing days and Randi explained how her family had come to have a cabin in such a special place. Back in 1930 Randi’s family was allowed to buy 150 hectares in order to run their cattle in the summer and over 1931 and 1932 they built a cabin which was burned down by the Germans in 1944 as everything was around Alta. The cabin was rebuilt in 1964 and Per and Bjorn’s parents took it over in 1980. The family has continued to come ever since, summer and winter. They have no power except from a generator, there is no phone reception but they have put in a satellite television service. I cannot wait to go back in the summer to try for a trout from the lake.
On the return journey the weather was even worse and as I approached a snow hill I thought we could climb it with the snowmobile but it was actually twice as high as I thought and very steep so we ended up rolling back down a short distance and toppling the snowmobile. The soft snow was at least 24 inches deep so no harm to anyone! As we returned to the cars, the weather began to improve and therefore we were able to go someway up the river. I was able to stand in the middle of the Alta! It was an amazing experience to see the great river frozen solid, bank to bank in most places. In some areas there was a small vein of dark moving water which was very beautiful but looked deadly. In the canyon were blue frozen waterfalls stopped in their tracks from cascading into the river. It was a truly moving experience to see this wilderness I know so well frozen still.
Over the course of the day Bjorn told me stories of the brothers messing about on the river with snowmobiles. One time while Bjorn was ice fishing, Per put the mobile into the Alta and was clinging on to it with one arm lying on the ice. Bjorn actually took his clothes off and got in the river and pushed it out with Per now having a better grip. Together they dragged it home, took it apart and repaired it. The next day they headed all the way to Barilla, a famous pool up in the canyon, to ice-fish. The problem was that they had not quite got all the water out so the machine broke down and they had to drag it back over the frozen ice about 20 km home. Another time they went up river by snowmobile when the ice was breaking up and they were fishing for kelts. They caught fifty in a day!
Dinner at the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel
This was simply stunning, and extraordinary and like nothing I have ever seen. Kjetil Wisloff was one of my boatmen along with Per for the first two years I fished Alta in 1991 and 1992 and what fun we had with Roy Flury. His brother, Hans-Ulrich was my boatman with his cousin Randolf the air traffic controller one August and we caught a 43 lb fish together. Hans-Ulrich was also the boatman for the Fitzgerald family for many years and helped Mike Fitzgerald Sr catch his 40 lbs fish. To this day, every summer when fishing nearby they go to the small hamlet of Wisloff which overlooks the very famous pool Upper Sorrisniva (hence the name of the ice hotel) to have lunch (at midnight in the fishing season) with Hans-Ulrich. Kjetil has retired from being a boatmen except when he takes King Harald for two days in the summer. Hans-Ulrich has also retired but both take day tours up the river in the summer during the day so visitors can see the stunning canyon. What they have created with the Sorrisniva Ice Hotel and the Laksestua Restaurant (one of the best kitchens in town), built like a Sami tee-pee but a very large, stunning, wooden structure, is simply amazing. The big tee-pee is not only a fine restaurant but the support building for the ice hotel with changing rooms, breakfast room and storage for all the sleeping bags and pillows etc for those staying the night. It is also the launch pad for snowmobiling and dog sledding. Kjetil and Hans-Ulrich really have been instrumental in making Alta one of the major go-to destinations for the archetypal Northern Lights winter experience.
The interior temperature of the ice hotel is kept at about 21 degrees F. The pink and blue lighting makes for a fantasy-land atmosphere but the detail (which changes every year) is extraordinary. Beautiful ice sculptures, a church where couples really do get married, complete with reindeer skin pews, a bar and seating areas in the lobby, pictures on the wall, different suites (this year a Valentine’s suite and the Frozen suite) plus 30 other rooms. At 27,000 square feet this is no small structure. The photographs tell the story best.
Soon the tour of the ice hotel was over and the dinner and formal opening of the Atlantic Salmon Conference was the focus for the rest of the evening. Johnny Trasti was the chef (he is the famous chef of the Laksestua Restaurant and won the best chef in Norway award in 2009) and we enjoyed a classic menu of Norwegian highlights including delicious farmed (but in secure pens) smoked salmon served with asparagus and hollandaise, followed by a filet of reindeer and a mousse cake for dessert with cloudberry ice cream, all complemented by a 2012 Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The thiry-two guests included the heads of the Alta Fishing Association, the Mayor of Alta, Monica Nielsen (on my left), my old friend Orri Vigfusson (on my right), Ministers of the Environment, distinguished scientists who would also be lecturing at the conference and other international speakers and delegates. Auden Rikardsen, a Professor in Freshwater and Marine Biology at the University of Tromsø and Scientific Advisor at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, also the scientist who catches all the kelts in the autumn at Alta, gave a fine presentation about what Alta means to him with some stunning photography (underwater or half and half) achieved through techniques he has developed himself.
The Atlantic Salmon Conference (9th and 10th February 2016)
The conference was well attended with over 300 delegates from all over Norway including the Minister of Fisheries Per Sandberg, Climate and Environment Minister Vidar Helgesen, the Sameting (Sami thing) President Aili Keskitalo and Liberal leader Trine Skei Grande. King Harald sat in the front row and clearly listened intently to the numerous 20-minute presentations made across the day by members of the Alta Board, politicians and scientists covering subjects such as the impact of sea-lice, the impact of salmon farm escapees, the state of the wild salmon stocks in Norway today, recreational fishing tourism in Norway etc.
It was heartening to see that so many shared the same concern (including attendees from as far away as British Columbia, Canada) about the reduced stocks of wild salmon not just on the Alta River but other Norwegian rivers as well. Recently retired President of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, client of Frontiers and regular Alta guest Chris Buckley, spoke on behalf of the ASF and summarized the important threats and issues for Norway’s Atlantic salmon. He identifies four main threats:
Open Ocean Mortality Rates: challenges that face the salmon when they leave the river and go to sea – this is perhaps the least understood and an area that scientists are trying to monitor with radio-tags – but it is suspected that global warming and increased ocean temperatures have a role to play as they impact the delicate food chain and availability of the salmon’s principal prey, capelin.
Recreational Angling Mortality: there is substantial scientific evidence that survival rate of Atlantic salmon carefully released in cold water is 90-95%, thus confirming that Catch and Release DOES WORK. In Norway, last year, 81% of multi-sea winter salmon were killed. There is substantial room for improvement.
Commercial Netting of Salmon: in fjords and mouths of the river – this has huge impact on wild Atlantic salmon populations and must be reduced or eliminated.
Effects of aquaculture: this is a newer challenge borne out of the tremendous rise in fish farms that are dotted up and down the coast of Norway. Fish farms are magnets for sea-lice, which damage wild salmon; escapees from the farms enter the rivers and mix with wild stocks (there are some alarming statistics on this), and diseases arise; plus the farm waste such as antibiotics and toxicants in the water. Safer techniques and more accountability are required. This is an of controversy – the fish farming is a billion dollar industry so there is a clash of economics versus environment, but the will for change seemed to be there.
Frontiers were asked to speak on ‘How Norway can remain an attractive recreational fishing destination’. We went through where Norway’s competition lies looking at destinations such as Iceland, Russia, Canada and the UK but also the attractiveness of other, warmer destinations and other perhaps more free-taking species that rely less on conservation and perfect conditions. A recent post on Facebook about huge, silver King salmon in Chile perhaps sums up this threat:
“Forget Atlantics! Anyone want to come and catch fish that are on average MUCH bigger than Alta, in surroundings at least as spectacular as Alta, for around 10% of the price of Alta. In the middle of the Northern Winter? Bring PLENTY of backing!”
As one of the delegates said to me, “is the Atlantic salmon about to lose its crown to Giant trevally, golden dorado, arapaima or King salmon?”
We also laid out what today’s client expects from what is now an expensive fishing trip for Atlantic salmon. Such expectations included single rooms (the days of sharing a room are over), good food, knowledgeable and capable hosts and guides, professional attitude to safety, and most important in Norway, rested water. Guests want to sleep or eat easy in the knowledge that their water is really being rested while they sleep not being pounded by someone else. The message concluded that all this advice is useless without salmon in the rivers in somewhat healthy numbers.
The solutions are not easy and will require compromise, but to quote Chris Buckley, “Norway finds itself at a tipping point and let’s hope they can come together to preserve and conserve this remarkable resource.” I felt that there was great focus on the damage the salmon farms are doing and rightly so, but I did not detect from river owners or Boards a willingness to set the ball rolling and set an example by taking action to release fish (I released my first on Alta in 1992). If less fish are returning to these stunning and historical Norwegian rivers because of issues at sea, salmon farms and complex local netting issues, then surely, the obvious thing for us all to do (foreigners and local folk) is not kill the fish that do make it home and now represent an ever-increasingly valuable asset to these beloved rivers.
Surely, if we want these rivers to survive while we work on the other issues, it is madness to kill the fish that do make it home.