The Bird Guardians of Vega
There is ancient magic in this archipelago, where locals live in harmony with some very fluffy wildlife.
WORDS YVONNE GORDON
We've followed the path up to an opening in the mountainside. As we walk down the steps into the huge hole, I feel tiny. The gaping space, around 20 metres wide and 35 metres high, threads through the mountain from front to back. It's a strange feeling, stepping down into the darkness while also being more than 90 metres above the sea.
Torghatten Mountain’s famous hole can make you feel miniscule. Photo: Andrea Klaussner
This is Torghatten, a mountain on the Helgeland Coast, about halfway along Norway's coastline, and near the small town of Brønnøysund, just below the Arctic Circle. While on a voyage with the Hurtigruten Norwegian Coastal Express, I've joined a couple of optional excursions to further explore the region, including a guided hike up to Torghatten's famous hole. Legend has it that Torghatten was created when a bitter horseman fired an arrow at the Maiden of Leka who had spurned his advances. To save her, the Sømna Troll King threw his hat in the arrow’s path. At that moment, the Sun rose, transforming all of the land's giants and trolls – and the pierced hat – to stone, forming the many mountains of the Helgeland Coast.
Torghatten was likely to have been created during the last Ice Age, when a hole was carved by the sea. Photo: Dr. Verena Meraldi
Nature's own granite cathedral. Photo: Andrea Klaussner
The more scientific, albeit less fanciful, explanation is that the hole was carved by the sea during the last Ice Age. While some might certainly prefer the tale about the trolls, there's still something powerful and poignant about walking through an ancient sea tunnel, halfway up a mountain. We walk over pebbles and rocks, take in the weathered and cracked grey stone along the huge walls and look up to the rocky ceiling, way overhead. It's like being in an enormous granite cathedral, carved by nature herself. As we reach the opening on the other side of Torghatten, the most incredible scene comes into view – a myriad of tiny grass and moss-covered islands, islets and skerries in the sea below, like emeralds studded in a sheet of blue silk.
The Vega Archipelago boasts an extraordinary variety of landscape.
These are some of the 6,500 islands and islets that make up the Vega Archipelago. Adding to their beauty and charm are the ancient traditions of fishing and farming that continue to this day. The local eider down farms foster a special harmony between the eider ducks and their human minders. The ducks return here each summer to breed, and the guardians who look after them are rewarded with exquisite, highly prized eider down. Thanks to these traditions, the archipelago has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. On a crisp, clear morning, I take a boat out to the islands. Now seeing them from water level, most of them are long and low; strips of green grass along a blue sea and sky. Every so often there's a yellow wooden house on the shoreline, or a red fishing cabin set on stilts over the water. Some of the buildings have grass roofs. What catches my eye are tiny wooden boxes on some of the islands – the eider duck houses, with their miniature duck-sized doorways. They’re spaced apart, some on a hill, others closer to the shore. The boat brings me to the village of Nes, on the archipelago's main island. Ramshackle fishing boats sit alongside upmarket yachts. There are old wooden houses, and rows of newer red buildings along the waterfront, paired with perfect reflections under the blue sky. Nearby, the Vega World Heritage Centre is set on a grassy outcrop on the water. There’s a daily guided tour here and information panels tell the history of the islands and the eider ducks.
A shy eider duck. Photo: Cyril Ruoso
Eider ducks are the surprising rulers of the Vega Archipelago Photo: Cyril Ruoso
An adult female Common Eider duck can be distinguished by darker feathers. Photo: Cyril Ruoso
There are 6,500 islands in the Vega Archipelago. Photo: Ina Andreassen.
A local guide at the centre tells me that the eider ducks rule these islands and during nesting season, everything is geared around them. Of the islands with nests, Lånan is the largest, serviced by shuttle boats that run to and from Nes.
The islanders who look after the birds move to Lånan between April and July. Their first task is to repair huts which are damaged by winter storms and prepare the nests for the arrival of the ducks. The bird keepers also dry seaweed and put it in the duck houses as a base for the nest. Seaweed is used as it keeps the down clean. When the ducks arrive, they choose a nest that they like and fill it with down feathers, both to hide their eggs and to keep them warm. Once the ducks lay their eggs, the bird keepers go on guard duty, patrolling for predators like mink, otters and crows, who might want to steal the precious eggs. The hatchlings appear during June, and the females and ducklings leave a few weeks later.
Eider duck huts, a safe place for a nest.
“The eider ducks mean a lot to us – it’s a cultural heritage. We are proud to be able to continue the tradition.”
— Hildegunn Nordum
Eider down has long been sought after for its warmth.
It’s then harvest time for the islanders who carefully remove the precious down and clean it – a process which takes most of July and August. Traditionally, this was done by women while the men were away fishing, and there is evidence of the practice as far back as the 9th Century. "The eider ducks mean a lot to us – it’s a cultural heritage. We are proud to be able to continue the tradition," says Lånan bird guardian Hildegunn Nordum. "The ducks trust that we will take care of them during their breeding period. We live in harmony with nature, it is a mutual love." Eider down is said to be the most exclusive in the world. As the ‘gold of the islanders', it was once used to barter for food and even jewellery. One reason why eider down is so sought after is its versatility. Each strand of feather features tiny hooks invisible to the naked eye which work like zippers to attach to other feathers. This structure not only efficiently absorbs and retains heat in cold temperatures it also means the down can expand to allow cool air in come the summer months. It takes around 60 to 70 nests to make enough for a single duvet.
Eider down is harvested for pillows, quilts and more. Photo: Cyril Ruoso
A female eider. Photo: Cyril Ruoso
Apart from feeding a fascination about eider down farming, the islands also draw in visitors for scenic kayaking. The waters are still and shallow, and you can pull your kayak ashore to hike quiet hills for uninterrupted views. For example, the Vegatrappa – Vega Staircase – goes up 2,000 steps to Ravenfloget, over 300 metres above sea level and with views over to Søla Island.
An ideal spot for outdoor adventures, kayaking, swimming, diving, riding, hiking and more is possible.
Snorkellers coming up for a breather.
A picturesque sunset isn't uncommon in the archipelago.
At Vega Havhotell back on the main island, there are binoculars instead of televisions in the rooms, along with a menu of locally-grown ingredients and fresh fish. The hotel is the perfect stopover to hike, relax, explore, sample local food and even swim in the icy water. When the time comes, I board the ship with a new understanding of the mythical Helgeland Coast, and anticipate more secret island adventures ahead.