Camping Under the Midnight Sun in Narvik

Midnight Sun

Rain sprayed like bullets the night I found myself camping in an abandoned Nazi bunker, deep in the Arctic Circle.      I had driven 3000 miles up Scandinavia in a station wagon, crossing Denmark, Sweden, and north into Norway.   Everyman’s Right is a Scandinavian law that allows anyone to camp anywhere, so long as it’s not invading someone’s home.   I camped beside highways, in mosquito infested forests, on concrete parking lots – but nothing quite as sinister and spooky as the deep, dark tunnels burrowed into the hills surrounding the port town of Narvik.

Having paid quite a bundle for the visa, I was disappointed to read the sign that I had officially entered Norway.   No checkpoints, no guards, no nothing here in the tundra, where vegetation seldom grows beyond knee height and blue ice forms natural sculptures.  We often had to stop the car to allow reindeer herds to cross the highway.   The reindeer jerky I bought at a gas station did have a reddish tint to it, and I thought guiltily of Rudolph.

Oil rich Norway, once a colony of Denmark, is the wealthiest country in Scandinavia, at one point conducting a study as to how it could distribute its vast cash surplus to its 5-million population without the country’s social structures collapsing.   Subsequently, everything is expensive, and Norwegians are only too happy to enjoy poll position on the podium of a historically competitive region.  It also takes gold in the natural beauty marathon – every corner unpeeling the wrapper of some new eye-popping candy. The dramatic, snowcapped mountains and clear glacier lakes contrast Denmark’s flat, prairie feel and Sweden’s never-ending, pine green forests.      It was June, the height of summer and the only month many of these roads were open.     The first glacial lake was so clean you could drink and swim simultaneously, and I did exactly that.   Twelve seconds later I had swum enough, drunk my fill, and almost frozen to death.      As we made our way south after crossing the border from Sweden, the first town we came to was Narvik, scene of an epic WWII battle between the Nazis and British and Polish troops.   A major iron ore producer, Narvik was strategically important to both sides, and the Nazis quickly fortified its position when it occupied the region early in the war.     The town itself did not offer much, although its war museum created a moving sense of history.   Traveling with Troels, a Danish friend, we picked up supplies (salmon, of course) and drove on narrow roads and narrower bridges looking for somewhere to camp.   That’s when we found the muddy turnoff, overgrown with lush, and followed it towards the fjord.    At the bottom, two paths, one towards a house and another towards the sea.   Twenty feet later, I saw the cannon turrets and the entrance to a bunker.    It was already 8pm with the feel of early morning thanks to the Midnight Sun.  Three months without stars, and you can kiss your moon goodbye.   Of course, Arctic Night deprives the region of sun for four months over winter, so unless you’re a vampire, you don’t look for a tan in northern Scandinavia      We did however have torches, and investigated the labyrinth of tunnels that connected the bunkers.   It was damp, cold and muddy, but surprisingly clean of human occupation, as if it had hid itself from Narvik teenagers all these years.   Rusted barbwire increased the Saving Private Ryan illusion, but it was not until I found a bent spoon with a swastika on the handle that I truly got spooked.  Troels said that bunkers like these were common in Denmark, and suggested we camp here for the night that’s really a day.    We faced a gorgeous fjord, surrounded by steep, icing-frosted mountains, and almost certainly well occupied by the ghosts of 400 Nazis.

Troels could speak Norwegian, which differs from Danish and Swedish and is related more to German.    We went to the house to introduce ourselves to the neighbors, a friendly elderly couple offering tea and biscuits.    Through Troels I learnt that 400 Nazi’s had been based in these bunkers, which ran deeper into the hills than we had realized.   They gave us fresh water and we made dinner over a gas stove in one of the larger bunkers.  I decided to pitch a tent rather than sleep inside.  I have clearly watched way too many X Files.    By one in the morning, it was still mid-afternoon light and I couldn’t sleep, thinking about the irony of a Jew receiving shelter from the rain (and bloodthirsty mosquitoes) beside a Nazi relic.      It stirred up a smorgasbord of emotions.  

It was, ironically, the 21st of June, the longest day of the year.  I drove back into Narvik to visit the war museum, unsuccessfully trying to find more information about our bunker.    Back on the highway, driving south, the scenery continued its spectacle – bigger, sharper mountains roped by deep, turquoise fjords.   Every corner brought another “whoa”, and I stopped taking pictures because they could do no justice.   We drove 170 kilometers that day, every mile a postcard.    The Norwegians are also famous for their tunnels, without which the country would be impassable.   Marvels of engineering, some of these tunnels clocked in at over 5km in length, and by the end of the trip we had passed through over 50 of them, relishing the purity of the darkness it afforded.    Ferries were also commonplace, most of them ferrying 95% of their traffic in these two, short summer months.   Heavy traffic came in the form of camper vans baring English, German and French plates.  The winding, narrow roads kept over-taking strictly in the domain of mostly dead thrill seekers.    We spent our last night in the Arctic Circle in a trailer park, splurging on a wooden cabin that smelt like a Viking’s loincloth.      It had been two weeks since I had seen the night, and I would have completely forgotten what it was like, until I closed my eyes.