Aslak Henrick’s life embodies an old story. A young man follows a small reindeer herd, watching over them through mountain passes and screefields. Sometimes he travels with little more than salt, coffee, a pot and a knife. If he could, he would spend all his life on the trail of the deer. But, with the coming of new industry to the Arctic, his animals will starve, and Aslak is not a rich man. He needs to find a new way to live. He will work for the oil companies.

“We’re herding reindeer right now  —  did you know that?” Aslak smiled over at me from the driver’s seat of his van. We’re on an unpaved road that coils up a mountain in Norway’s Arctic crest, one of his reindeer’s favored reaches here in their summer range in the municipality of Kvalsund, Finnmark County. The land is bare here, and the sky close. Little grows taller than a man. A matter of steps can put you on the wrong side of a ridge and lose you in the rockfields  — unless you know this land as Aslak and his reindeer do.

From these heights, we can see tens of kilometers inland, out to sea, and across the fjord. To the south, the land varies as if it were the surface of a rocky ocean. Few trails order its topography. Along the coast to the north, the valleys between mountains dip in half-pipes. Like hollows left by a boot in wet soil, the valleys suggest that something massive once passed here. The mountain peaks dwarf the tankers, filled with liquefied natural gas and red as mountain berries, that pass beneath them.

But Aslak began to frown. He could not see any of his reindeer. He spotted an eagle and slowed, ducking his head for a better view upslope, to catch the silhouette of an antler. Large birds of prey are one of the reindeer’s few natural predators. But starvation and the summer cold could kill larger numbers of the animals. As the climate changes and the mining and oil extraction industries divvy up their ranges, the reindeer of Kvalsund become more vulnerable. The village is becoming ground zero for the development of all of Arctic Norway’s mineral-rich land. Northward development may challenge more than just a reindeer-herding crisis. The movement of Norway’s oil industry north may put out thousands of small-scale fishermen and hundreds of villages that still face the sea, living off the Arctic cod and salmon that spawn in the nation’s protective fjords.

Kvalsund lies at an epicenter of mining, oil, and natural gas development. Within the next few years the village council hopes to open a new oil terminal, open up copper mining (where now only gravel has been mined), and install more than 100 wind turbines to supply energy to the industrial infrastructure. Thirty kilometers to the north, in the town of Hammerfest, natural gas from a well drilled into the ocean floor 170 kilometers out in the Barents Sea makes landfall in a five-year-old facility. It is the  largest industrial project in Northern Norway to date, exemplifying both the future successes and failures of further Arctic development. As the village just south of the world’s self-proclaimed “northern-most town,” Kvalsund sits nearly on top of Norway’s crown, lying about halfway along the nation’s Arctic coastline. Government-issued charts of the Barents Sea, the Arctic waters that lie between the peak of Norway and the North Pole, and of the inland mountains, are run through with small grids. The Ministry of Petroleum and Energy is distributing the Northern licensing blocks at increasingly rapid rates to mining and fossil fuel extraction companies. This summer the Ministry announced that eighty-six offshore hydrocarbon leases would go to auction, seventy-two of which lie in the Barents Sea. Environmental organizations including governmental research and regulatory bodies denounced the sale of these blocks. The Norwegian Institute for Marine Research made their own announcement: seventy-four of these blocks of sea space should not be opened, they said, due to the potential environmental risk to the Arctic environment.

There is significant noise, both in Norway and internationally, about the potential environmental effects of oil spills in the High North. The following is true: the operational mechanisms of identifying, accessing, and cleaning up Arctic oil spills are currently technologically and infrastructurally beyond any nation. A dramatic increase in the fleets of icebreakers of nations and serious research and development could resolve some of those operational problems within the decade. But the math on how to fix  —  or even see  —  a spill on high, wind-ripped seas when the ocean lies in perpetual darkness (as it does annually for several months during the winter) may be irresolvable for some time. Should a spill or other damaging event take place coastally among the few fjords known to host the spawning of the Atlantic’s salmon and Arctic Cod, the world’s dwindling fisheries may suffer another serious loss. The effect of pollution on the Arctic ecosystems further north, which are commonly thought of as unusually vulnerable, is unknown, largely because these ecosystems are only beginning to receive large amounts of funding for study. Norway’s scientists are at the forefront of this work.

When the electricity lines to fuel Kvalsund’s growing mining industry are installed, and waste from Hammerfest’s natural gas processing facility fills the mountain that Aslak and I stood on, Aslak’s reindeer will be without a range. These installations, while geographically small, will cut the reindeer off from the last of what were originally four distinct calving lands on this edge of the Barents Sea.

“They will go to the mountains, where it is calm but cold and snowy. The calves will freeze to death,” Aslak said. They will not be able access grazing grounds. Food is not easy to find. Metals and hydrocarbons, Aslak pointed out, cannot be eaten.

In Kvalsund light, heat, and food are all relatively limited commodities. For two months of the year, Finnmark County sees no sun. The Gulf Stream warms the land enough to grow low alpine shrubs and mosses, lichens and grasses, and a few dwarf trees, all of which provide for the reindeer. In a land where the wind feels stronger than the sun and shelter is hard to come by, the reindeer have supported men for millennia.

Today’s Arctic is a place of paradox. Seas warmed by the combustion of fossil fuels retain less ice, enabling the further extraction of more fossil fuels (within the next few years Norway is planning exploration of waters previously ice-covered). The summer of 2012 marked the lowest amount of Arctic ice ever recorded, at twenty-four percent coverage. In Norway, this paradox is matched by another: the nation passed its peak oil extraction a decade ago, but a final industry and government push north for its remaining reserves may end the harvest of both reindeer and fish. If nonrenewable resources are prioritized over renewable ones, then the nation also prioritizes the next three decades over all future years. Norway’s oil industry embodies a third paradox: pro-oil corporations and politicians speak the language of fairy tales, promising a happy ending, while quietly discarding any “ever after.”

Traditional Norwegian folk tales are dark. Aslak could be the protagonist of one of those eventyrs, which combine adventure and fairy tale. Many of the tales start with a poor child who has lost his home and any food. Often, it is the wind that carries him away. Norway’s own very-self conscious fairy tale, which began in 1968 with the discovery of oil in the North Sea, is ending. Aslak’s begins. This winter he leaves Finnmark, training to fly the helicopters that carry the oil companies’ employees in and out of their bases. He will go seeking his fortune.

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Once upon a time, a poor ash boy, Halvor, possessing no food and no skills, took passage as a sailor. The wind carried his ship to a strange island, rich with wheat fields and fine with smooth roads. Halvor went ashore and freed a princess. Before he began ruling the island of Soria Moria, the ash lad decided to return home, just once. But when Halvor returned to his home village, he betrayed his betrothed. He was banished, expelled from Soria Moria, and tormented by the memory of the golden island.

Perhaps every child in Norway knows the ash lad’s story. They know also that the golden island of Soria Moria represents greatest happiness, and it is an island of well-being.

Norway’s national Soria Moria also lay offshore. With the discovery in 1968 of vast oil and natural gas reserves, suddenly the nation began its journey to becoming one of the wealthiest in the world. In Norway, the last four decades are commonly referred to as an oil fairy tale. The national oil company, Statoil, give their wells names like “Snow White,” which feeds into the facility at Hammerfest. In 2010, oil and natural gas supplied one-fifth of Norway’s gross domestic product and one-quarter of the state’s revenues. Money from oil exports funds the nation’s comprehensive welfare and also enables the high salaries and low unemployment of Norway’s 5 million citizens.

After almost half a century of extraction, Norway’s most accessible reserves of oil and gas have been tapped. The nation will not run out of energy  — hydropower from infrastructure installed in the early ’60s supplies nearly all of Norway — but a decrease in oil exports will have serious economic ramifications.

In this context, Arctic melting could not come at a better time for Norway. Most of the nation’s untapped oil and natural gas reserves lie north of the Arctic Circle, and energy officials are particularly interested in what lies closest to the hem of the North Pole’s sheet ice. Norway’s current coalition government officially prioritized the development of the nation’s High North in the Soria Moria Declaration of 2005, reached in an agreement in an Oslo conference center named after the island. Since then, Norway has become a global leader both in governance in the High North and in Arctic research and development. Two weeks before my own arrival in the High North, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar visited the small city of Tromso about 300 kilometers southwest of Kvalsund, which is home to the new Secretariat of the Arctic Council. During his stay, Salazar announced the United States’ plan for the development of our American Arctic territory. This same summer, Norwegian research teams began to map the geology of the ocean floor hundreds of kilometers north. If Soria Moria could be found once more in the Arctic, Norway would be saved.

At least, that is what state and industry representatives agreed to tell the Norwegian people, Berit Kristoffersen, sociologist at the University of Tromso, has argued. Beginning in the early 2000s, parliamentary representatives and industry employees coordinated national and commercial interests through formal forums closed to the public. These include Konkraft, an organization established in 2000 to build joint strategies between the government and the oil industry. The group specifically focused on securing funding for Arctic development, a high-risk investment. Konkraft exemplified a single principle produced by living for decades in an oil fairy tale.

“What is good for the oil industry is good for Norway,” government and industry officials have agreed.

A combination of fear of an economic downturn and international competition drives Norway’s development north. Some politicians argue that Norway must establish itself in the Barents before other nations, most particularly Russia, in order to set the best possible standards for both the environment and safety. “Drilling for the environment,” they say, though some sociologists call the argument instead “environmental cooptation.”

Researchers like Kristoffersen are beginning to wonder: “Is the Barents even prospective?” Sheering the land’s rock faces and installing facilities both as massive and technologically complex, and therefore vulnerable, as the processing plant at Hammerfest — whose construction and operation have both been plagued by setbacks and malfunctions — requires enormous investment.

When Snow White’s processing facility began operation in 2007, the project was to be both showcase and test-case of development in the High North. However, the operation is not yet solvent and sometimes stops production. For more than half of July, the facility shut down and toxic benzine was released into the air of Hammerfest. When the operation first opened, some days residents woke up to find cars and houses powdered black with discharge from the smokestacks.

Could more facilities based on this model, like the one discussed for Kvalsund, be lucrative — or safe? There is geopolitical power in having outposts of technology that rest on the Arctic waters like outfitters at the base of a mountain. The development of Norway’s High North may more closely resemble the construction of a stepping-stone than an investment in resources immediately available. Which leads to another question — is it worth doing?

In a campaign to fight the oil industry’s development of the High North, a youth environmental organization printed signs that played on the ending of a traditional Norwegian fairy tale. “Snip snap snute,” they read, in the way all eventyrs end, “now the oil adventure is finished.”

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Aslak slipped his van into park and, leaving the driver’s door hanging, hurried to punch in the combination at the gate to the mining road. We were halfway up the mountain where he hoped to find his reindeer. It’s wonderful, Aslak said, unbuckling his seatbelt, that the reindeer herders and the miners can coordinate the use of this road, despite a strong dislike for each other’s work. But Aslak fumbled at the lock. It had been changed, and now required a key.

The gravel mining operation lay near the mountain’s base, in grey buildings planted like boulders. For an hour, we drove back and forth between offices, a warehouse, and hills of gravel that grew below pebble-sorting rotator belts. None of the employees seemed to know where the key was at first, but we finally claimed it from an office in the nearly empty warehouse and proceeded uphill.

The summit of the mountain was depressed into a blasted rock basin. The pit, which Aslak and I paced out to about 100 square meters in area, held sludge in a cake roughly a meter thick. The natural gas processing facility had begun depositing waste in it. Aslak frowned as he examined the gray cavity. He said he worried that a reindeer might fall in.

Aslak’s steeped-tea colored skin and hair, signs of his Sami heritage, set him apart in much of Norway. Thirty-two years old and raised on the trail with his parents and four brothers as they followed their reindeer, Aslak is a member of the first generation to legally herd the animals, to know no other life before governmental regulation of their animals, to feel their ranges diminish for the sake of industry, and to know no other magic than that which oil brought to Norway.

His home is hundreds of miles long. About halfway between the winter and the summer lands of Aslak’s reindeer, between the burial ground of Aslak’s grandmother and grandfather lies a dark inland lake, stretched in a north-south running valley. There he finds good fishing. It is quiet. Of all the dramatic scenes along the annual migration, which occupies about half his year, Aslak loves this small dell best.

This year, when it came time for Aslak to follow the deer north to the summer land, tracks stacked confusingly upon each other in only a thin skin of snow. Where rock lay bare, Aslak had no prints to follow. The deer pushed hard, rushing north towards vegetation and the warm Arctic breeze. Aslak’s father, his father’s brothers, and his father’s father could have read the wind and weather and known how best to follow the herd, to act as disciple to both elements and animals. With sorrow, Aslak said that he never learned the old expertise. New technology like snowmobiles outdated the old ways. And that knowledge would be useful in this period of erratic weather, of snowless winters where there used to be two meters of precipitation, and of wet, sunless summers. But Aslak has decided that he may not ever need those skills again, not when working for an oil company. He will not be in Finnmark this winter to follow the reindeer tracks back to Kvalsund.

In July, when we met, his animals were patchy, tufted like half-picked cotton burrs. I had seen one with half a rack of antlers, raising a single parenthetical to the sky. In the summer, they surround Hammerfest. Yearlings cross the road between Hammerfest and Kvalsund in perfect step with their mothers. The reindeer range across roads and property lines but avoid all humans and large structures, such as wind turbines.

In 1978 Norway began licensing its reindeer herders. As Aslak explained to me, the new state-authorized system of owning the herds led to fewer individuals owning larger herds. Many were shut out of the system, and larger-scale herders managed their flocks from afar by farming out the actual work. The herds grew too large while the reindeer began to starve from overpopulation.

Yet, Aslak added, the reindeer herders with large herds have no incentive to reduce the size of their herds, and those with smaller herds could not continue to support their work if they had fewer animals. He and his brothers share a smaller herd. He likened the reindeer situation to the tensions between developed and developing nations as they negotiate who reduces carbon emissions.

He had decided, “If we can solve the reindeer-reducing problem, then we can solve climate change.” But fixing problems can mean challenging the status quo — or abandoning a problem utterly.

The state, Aslak realized, was driving his family out of business. With a potential client list of more than a thousand names long, Aslak prepared to launch his own reindeer meat business — and was shut down before the first sale.

“‘You have to be solution-oriented,’ that’s what they say about reindeer herders. You have to cooperate with mining companies, not work against them.” He is not angry; Aslak only explains his life. “We will have nothing if we cooperate.”

He already anticipates having nothing. This winter Aslak will fly fifty degrees south and half the world over to spend a year on hot tarmac, training as a helicopter pilot in the U.S.’s southernmost state. Aslak hopes these months of training will prepare him to taxi oil industry employees between bases. He will cut himself off from the reindeer as surely as the corporations cut them off from their calving grounds.

Of reindeer herding in Kvalsund, Aslak said, “There is not an ending.” He meant that there is not a good ending.

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The wind is powerful in the High North, blunting trees and clearing roads, as it is in the region’s stories. The tales descend from an old, pre-Christian folk culture. They are governed by an inevitable and unpredictable fate. This fate, the wyrd, is as uncontrollable and far-reaching as the Northern winds.

Above the Arctic Circle, the sky seems to thicken like rising smoke. Grey clouds curl around the banks of the seaward mountains, snugging over green curves. Ranges of suspended moisture stretch for tens of kilometers. The clouds build themselves up and then fly apart, responding to pressures tens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of kilometers away.

On July 1, 350 kilometers southwest of Hammerfest, that wind threw summer rain against a marching band’s instruments. “Start spreading the news,” they played. “I’m leaving today. I want to be a part of it, New York …” Andenes, home to fewer than 3,000 people, lies at the northern nose of the Vesteralen island chain just north of the Arctic Circle. A small fishing village, it resembles hundreds of communities along Norway’s northern coast. After the band tucked away their instruments, the mayor officially opened the national tourist road that the players had come to celebrate. A ribbon fell to the gravel, backlit by light reflecting off the sea.

Norway’s new coastal national tourist route draws a line from the south to the north. Presumably, tourism will bring Andenes revenue. Likewise, oil and mining development appeal to northern politicians because they promise southern money. Many proponents of oil and mining in the High North argue that development will be the yoke that pulls Norway’s Arctic into the 21st century, into a global, and globalized, world. Sissel Branaa, a member of a local anti-oil activist organization, held an umbrella over us both and muttered to me that the mayor didn’t understand. The oil activity that he supported would drive away fish, the resource that feeds the community.

Andenes was my first stop along the northern tour of youth activist group Natur og Ungdom (Nature and Youth). For three weeks they travelled Norway’s southern Arctic coastline, speaking with local fishermen, leaders of fishing unions, and town mayors. Many politicians, they told me, wanted to capitalize on any economic boom. Many fishermen, they added, accepted development of their waters by the oil industry as inevitable. The young leaders of Natur og Ungdom were trying to convince the islanders to speak out against the oil industry.

After the ceremony, about ten boats entered the harbor breakwater and motored up to the town pier. A few hulls of blonde wood glowed in the strange light, but most were of solid metal painted red or black. The fishermen, still capped in foul weather gear, slipped the double noose that hung from a crane over plastic trays of fish, each about a half meter long, hoisting them up into the processing factory.

Yngver Larsen’s boat was one of the last to enter. If the national political conflict over the oil drilling rights off the Lofoten, Vesteralen, and Senja islands is the “Battle of the North” that it is sometimes called, then Yngver is a captain in that battle.

The son and grandson of fishermen, Yngver grew up around the wharf, and began fishing twenty-four years ago. He is Andenes’ fishing union leader, and the local leader of Folkeaksjonen (roughly translated as “people-action”) the grassroots group organized to fight drilling off of Andenes and the island chains it punctuates.

Fishermen like Yngver oppose the drilling for more than fear of oil spills in cod-spawning grounds: drilling activity requires seismic imaging of the ocean floor, which scares away the fish.

Perhaps only fish have surpassed reindeers’ importance to the history of Northern Norway. While in recent decades the catches of small-scale fishermen have suffered due to increasing international competition and technological innovation, fishing is still the primary function of villages on the region’s islands, fjords, and coastline. If their waters are drilled, the fishermen, I was told, will find themselves returning to harbor with empty boats. Yngver will be displaced as surely as Aslak will be, and as the ash lad was.

The environmental coalition of Folkeaksjonen, Natur og Ungdom, and Friends of the Earth Norway credits itself with halting the development of the islands in 2010. But now the islands are back up for licensing. When Kristoffersen and I spoke, she suggested that it would be a losing battle against the oil companies.

After dinner (reindeer stew and cod soup) and drinks with Yngver, the leaders of Natur og Ungdom and I walked back to the hotel. At midnight, the sky looked the same as it had that morning at the road-opening ceremony, grey like brushed steel. We turned onto the cobble-lined main street. A block ahead, a moose calf ran across the blacktop and froze by a granite flowerpot, head leveled in our direction, northward. The length of its neck and antlers were both small, and chest to point was much shorter than the length of its legs, which were splayed, ending at hooves as large as one of the paving stones. Then the calf alit again, his legs extending out front and behind his body, almost doubling his length. He was running east to west from the seawall a block over. He didn’t have very far to run before he hit the sea again.

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When Soria Moria appears on the seaward horizon, the ash lad takes to his boat and rows without ceasing. His muscles ache until he cannot feel them, his skin tightens and dries under salt and sun. He cannot close his mouth, nor lick his lips. He shivers without cease. And the light remains, a low, horizontal sheen, like the crack under a door that never draws closer. “He pulled harder on the oars. Up the billow, into the trough …onward … farther onward … nearer and nearer the beautiful castle west in the sea … the castle which lay in the twist of gold … But the Billow rolled so chill … ” So Norwegian-American author Ole Rolvaag wrote in his 1933 novel The Boat of Longing. In the summer, the ash lad sees all blue, pale as a rag. In winter, the darkness may sometimes fall away, in glowing green trails across the sky. Even more rarely, the lowest stretch of sky may glow red, as it has over Kvalsund when the Hammerfest gas flare burned.

Aslak is not the ash lad. He is a man who has tried to support his home, to build a business from the ground up, who enjoys the company of a well-trained dog as well as an online social network. Nor is Yngver. But the men share a story with the ash lad; they share a rowboat.

When Aslak leaves Finnmark, he takes to the sea. He may row after the golden island for a very long time. There is not likely to be much oil in the North.


In the 19th-century version of Soria Moria, Halvor finds his way back to the golden island. The west wind, a crone, and twenty-league boots help him back. Perhaps that fortunate ending justifies a sort of national hope, a cultural conviction that perseverance and magic can win back any island of well-being. But a fairy tale cannot justify constructing a trail of wells out to the pole, fording north until the boats float atop the Russian flag planted in the soil of the North Pole.

In October, Statoil, which operates the Hammerfest facility, cancelled plans to expand Snow White’s processing plant. As Reuters reported, the known reserves of natural gas are not large enough. Instead, they may construct a 1,000-kilometer pipeline, which would contribute little to Finnmark’s economy. However, the gas reserves are also not large enough even for a pipeline, according to an analyst with Arctic Securities. At this point Statoil seems to be betting on expectations. Statoil focuses new effort on diversifying, contracting out technology and consulting to other oil giants including Britain’s ExxonMobile and Russia’s Rosneft. The Arctic and its promised wealth looks smaller by the month. Echoing Kristofferson, I ask, what if the Arctic is empty?

The North will surely be developed — nationalist agendas should account for that — but perhaps for no gain. Even if the highest hopes of oil drilling advocates are fulfilled, the wells would only last for a few decades. Norway and any other Arctic-reliant nations will be adrift. As will Aslak.

Though Norway’s oil and gas fields are drying up, Aslak and his countrymen — as well as our own — still look to them for some trail to the golden island, a replacement for the life they ended. But Aslak has felt the earth changing for decades. He knows that, like the old weather, oil will not last forever. Neither will the fish or the reindeer.