Eider Ducks!

Trip Start Jul 23, 2010
Trip End Aug 16, 2010

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Flag of Norway  , North Norway,
Friday, August 13, 2010

A gray day – low clouds and fog. But still, a great tour.

We let ourselves sleep in a bit, as there is nothing to see outside … not even the faintest hint of a coastline, which you know is just over there. When we crossed the Arctic Circle, we ran back to the stern, to look off to the starboard side for the island where a globe stands, marking the circle. We almost missed it … partially because of the fog but mostly because it actually was on our port side when we passed it. It was not very exciting, but we didn't mind, as we had been above the Circle for several days; the sense of novelty had worn off.

We did get the green bag back today: Paul went to the Reception desk to enquire after it, and found the bag just sitting out in the hallway. Paul went to the desk, to tell the man behind it that he was taking the bag, but it was quite clear that the man had no idea what Paul was talking about. Oh well; SAS did its job very well, but we were a bit surprised that Hurtigruten was rather indifferent to this strange bag suddenly appearing on its decks.

It was a bit warmer today, so we sat out on the stern and enjoyed the lack of wind. Lunch was served early for those of us going on the Vega Islands excursion. For me, lunch was all about tartar sauce: that’s one way to get me to eat fish.

Our excursion started as soon as we arrived into the Vega Islands region. A group of about twelve of us were hustled onto a waiting boat, where we started through the UNESCO-protected Vega Archipelago. The archipelago consists of thousands of islands, some barely more than rocks, that have been inhabited for thousands of years, although they are barely inhabited now. The islands are, except for the main island, very low, barely rising above the surface of the water. Our guide did say that the sea levels used to be a lot lower relative to the land … but that tympanic rebound after the glaciers have receded have caused land levels to rise, so if one wanted to conduct an archaeological dig for stone age remains, one would go further up into the mountains, which was sea level at the time. This is different from our area, where the Stone Age sea was much lower … and presumably because the land never needed to rebound from the weight of the ice, the Stone Age sites are still under water.

Families who fished and farmed in the area typically owned several islands, and might have used different islands for different things: one for cows, one for sheep, one for collecting driftwood, one for collecting water, one for the house, one for growing grass, etc. They used boats to get from island to island: the sheep would go in the boat but the cows would swim in a group. Fishing is very successful in the archipelago because the shallow water makes it easy for water plants to grow, and the fish come to eat the plants. The fish also bring birds, which add to the benefits to the islanders.

Mostly, however, the Vega Archipelago is known for the cultivation of eider down. The eider ducks have naturally nested on the islands for a long time, and the farmers collected the feathers which the ducks used to build their nests. The farmers found, however, that more ducks came, and, hence, they could collect more feathers, if they built houses for the ducks and protected the eggs from predators. So, starting hundreds of years ago, farmers began to build houses out of stone or wood, to attract the ducks. The female ducks would select a nesting site that appealed to them: some liked to be alone, others liked to be in a large communal site, and would nest there. When the mother duck builds a nest, she pulls out the downy feathers to … er … feather her nest. She may pull out about 16 grams of feathers over the course of the season. She must leave the nest periodically to go to the sea to eat, and, when she does, crows may invade her nest, so the farmers took measures, such as putting glass balls in front of the house when the ducks left, to scare the crows away: the crow sees its reflection in the glass ball and thinks there is a duck inside the house. Minks and otters also prey on the ducks themselves – a special problem because the mink is not native to the area and so has no natural enemies around. Farmers would hunt the minks to try to keep them away from the ducks.

At the end of the season, when the mother duck and the ducklings leave the nest, the farmers would collect the down. It takes down from about 70 ducks to make a duvet – but a duvet today runs about $5000, so farmers found the work worthwhile. Since the farmers helped protect the ducks, the ducks used to come in larger numbers and would return to the same farm. One farmer discovered that the same duck returned to the same house every year for 30 years. But, eider farming must not have been totally worthwhile, because the eider duck farming was abandoned during the last part of the 20th century. As the farmers left, the ducks left, too. One island went from about 1500 ducks to less than 200 ducks. But now people are starting to come back to work on the islands a couple of months out of the year (we’re not sure if they’re volunteers or if they do this for income.) As people have returned, so have the ducks. The island mentioned above now attracts about 600 ducks a year. Still not back to early 20th century numbers, but a major recovery nonetheless.

We took a tour of the eider duck museum, which also displayed the tools that the workers used to clean the down. Best, we got to hold the down from one duck: it was amazingly light, and one could imagine how a whole duvet made of the eider down would be like being engulfed by a fluffy cloud.

After the tour, we climbed a nearby hill, but, with the fog, there was nothing to see. We had a brief conversation with the Dutchman from our tour yesterday: he told us that, during another tour he took, he was told that the barns are red because they were painted with cow’s blood. We failed to see how that would be cheaper … or even protect the walls too much, and the Dutchman did provide the caveat that he only repeated what the guide said. Then, we had coffee and cakes at the café, during which we looked up why barns are red. One site said that wealthy people painted their barns red with cows blood, to show off their status; another site said that the linseed oil which was used to paint barns turned the wood an ochre color … when iron oxide was added, it turned the barns red. The advantages of iron oxide are two-fold: first, it is plentiful in the rest that usually is abundant on farms; second, and most importantly, it acts as a poison against fungus and mold, which often grow on barn walls and destroy the wood. I, personally, think that explanation makes the most sense, but it could be something else entirely. In any case, it doesn’t explain why you wouldn’t use the same process on your house but would paint it white instead. So, I don’t know what to believe. (Another site claims it was a major conspiracy by Sears-Roebuck, but they were not around in the 1700s in Norway, so I doubt that applies.)

We then took the island public transport to the port. The bus was very clean and picked up a few other passengers, but not many (like, two). I did notice that all the roads were one-lane, with periodic pull-offs. There was quite a bit of traffic, but maybe because it is a Friday during summer. It was kind of fun to catch a very small glimpse of village life … the two women who boarded chatted with the bus driver, chatted with each other, and chatted with women we met later on the ferry to town. From the bus, we took the island ferry to Bronnoysund, where we had to board our trebek, as it was about to depart. We said good-bye and thank you to our guide and went on board.

It was foggy again as we left, but the fog kept promising to lift – getting brighter and brighter until it seemed that the sun must break through. We did have a very brief moment of sunlight … but it was around long enough for us to view a famous mountain, with a hole in it. Given the size of the hole, we were very surprised how small the hole appeared when viewed from such a distance.

We had the Captain’s farewell dinner tonight, where we applauded for the kitchen and wait staff. After dinner, we all had coffee in the lounge and watched the fog pass.
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