Northern Lights over the Alta RiverI didn’t pause for even a nano-second to accept the invitation extended to me last November to speak at Villaksen I Nord, a conference dedicated to examining the challenges facing wild Atlantic salmon, to be held in Alta, Norway, February 9-10. I have fished the legendary Alta River for each of the past 21 summers and developed a deep-seated love for the place, its people, and the mighty fish who call this river home. I’d often fantasized around the campfire with my boatmen about visiting Alta in the winter with tales of snowmobiling to distant cabins, skies lit by Northern Lights and an overnight in an ice hotel…talk about ticking things off a bucket list… this speaking engagement was just the impetus to realize my dream.

And thus, the winter gear I’d just used in Bavaria a month earlier was re-purposed for my “arctic adventure.” Fleece layers, furs, flashlights, hand-warmers and serious “mukluk-style” boots were laid out with care. I flew through London and met up with my friend, colleague, and co-presenter, Tarquin, and we spent the first night in Oslo at the new 116-room design-hotel, called The Thief. In spite of flying through Oslo annually, I admit I’ve not spent any appreciable amount of time there in 20+ years so was looking forward to this. The access to the hotel, which is situated in the Tjuvholmen arts district, a pedestrian-only zone, is via an underground parking lot with installation art – most unusual, but a cool arrival. I stayed in room #814, a deluxe room with step out balcony overlooking the sea; it was contemporary but cozy! The view in the waning afternoon light (which I think is called “gloaming”) was amazing and I learned that this whole new part of Oslo was built on land reclaimed from the sea. The oh-so-hip-and-trendy-lobby-bar felt more like a cocktail party in the swanky living room of a private home—very inviting and it was clearly popular with local people — a place to see and be seen!

We joined friends for dinner at Vaaghals, which specialize in Norwegian cuisine with farm-to-table local specialties. It featured an open kitchen (which I always love) and each table had a raised plank upon which dishes were served in an old Norwegian tradition called “a skifte,” which is a communal sharing of the blessings of the table – what we would call family style. We started with a selection of dried meats and cheeses, followed by a fabulous cod served with bacon, peas, and pink shallots, which I later learned was one of the chef’s signature garnishes… I would go back again in a heartbeat.

Jet lagged, I slept until 9:30 AM, perhaps a new personal best record for me, and it was a grey dreary day in this Scandic capital. We returned to the airport, vowing to spend more time in this cosmopolitan city on future visits to Norway, and I would certainly recommend this hotel highly. Get out your maps and check out just how far north Alta is at 70 degrees north – well above the Arctic Circle — and a two hour non-stop flight due north from Oslo. Known as The Land of the Midnight Sun, this part of the world has 24/7 daylight in summer when I usually visit, and total darkness from mid-November until the sun makes its first appearance as it did this year on January 24th. We enjoyed about six hours of daylight during our stay – from 8:35 AM-2:38 PM.

A dark, snow covered town glistened and we set off for the Thon Vica Motel, a simple but hospitable 23-room property whose best rooms (like #221 where I stayed) overlook the Alta Fjord. Like an old friend, it is full of local charm and character with gnomes in the lobby and almost a log-cabin kind of feel to it. As if on queue, the Northern Lights appeared as we were driving, and we noticed people taking photographs on the side of the road (although I DOUBT they turned out as you need a tripod and PATIENCE for at least 90- to 120- second exposures….) we could hardly wait to drop off bags, get checked in, set up cameras and drive off into the crisp clear night, away from the town’s lights, to try and capture this northern wintry phenomena which is in no way a sure thing! I have a client, who shall remain nameless, on a lifetime quest to see the Northern Lights and Mother Nature has not cooperated, so I felt blessed and sent him a quick text!

After navigating the labyrinth of scary choices on the Vica’s menu like heart of reindeer and seal steak, I opted for fried Arctic char and scalloped potatoes for dinner– both delicious. We made plans with our boatmen, Bjorn and Trond for a snow-mobile expedition the next morning and could not resist one more late night outing in the car to check for Northern Lights.

The next day was akin to an Arctic iron-man competition: snowmobiling, beholding the frozen banks of the Alta River, dinner with King Harald V of Norway and the piece de resistence, an overnight in an Ice Hotel!! Bjorn & Trond were right on time and collected us in the bluish morning light. We stopped by Bjorn’s house to don insulated boots, ski pants, helmets and goggles and set off to the starting point with great anticipation. I realized that it’s been several years since I was last on a snowmobile and suddenly filled with a bit of apprehension…I’d forgotten just how fast you go and add to that fierce winds and blowing snow that resulted in practically zero visibility…needless to say, I held onto Trond for dear life as he deftly maneuvered us across the frozen tundra at breakneck speed. The only signs of life we passed were two teams of sled dogs practicing for an upcoming race.

Our destination was Bjorn’s parents’ weekend cabin tucked up in the mountains and ONLY accessible by this unique means of conveyance. The smiling faces of Randi & Bjornoff were a welcome sight as was the warmth of their cabin! A bucket of snow was melted to make water for tea and we feasted on enormous bars of milk chocolate. Girded with kilocalories, it was back on the “Arctic Cat” and we headed for the river.   Considered the mightiest of all salmon rivers, the Alta River is a Shangri-La for fly fishermen and known for its exceptionally large average sized fish. Charles Ritz called it “simply unique. There are no mountains like the Himalayas, no oceans like the Pacific, no fish like Atlantic salmon – and only one Alta.” Here we were standing on hallowed ground on beats well known to us, utterly transformed by the stark wintry ice and snow. In most places the river was frozen solid, although in a few areas there were open patches and water gushing by. I quivered to think of what would happen if one fell in and immediately pushed all such unsavory thoughts from my mind! We were, after all, with our trusty guides whom we revere like demi-gods of the river.

It was an exhilarating but exhausting day—I think I used up a lot of energy just holding on, but happy to advise I did not fall off and no casualties. We retreated to the Vica to review the three pages of instructions on “how to prepare for your Ice hotel overnight” and to dress for our special dinner which would officially kick off the salmon conference with His Majesty in attendance. The intimate dinner for 36 guests, was taking place at Sorrisniva, a fitting venue as it also the name and location of one of the most famous beats on the river and a personal favorite of my late father. Many memorable summer evenings have been spent around the campfire here and we’d heard tales of The Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel, the genius invention of my friend, Hans Ulrich Wisloff, who was one of Dad’s first boatmen on the river. Hans Ulrich was there to welcome us and we made a bee line for a tour of the ice hotel which is AMAZING to say the least.

It is over 27,000 square feet and both the interior and exterior are made entirely of snow and ice including the rooms, beds, arm chairs, even the glasses in the bar. With 30 rooms and suites, a giant bar, a gallery with ice sculptures, and a wedding chapel complete with reindeer- skin-covered pews, it was beyond my wildest dreams. Pink and blue spotlights create evocative lighting. The interior temperature is kept at about 21 degrees F. Next door is the “service building” with changing rooms, bathrooms, places to store luggage and a staging ground for a myriad of winter activities. It also houses the “Laksestua” Restaurant, one of the best kitchens in town and situated in an attractive large wooden structure built to resemble a Sami tee-pee. We were ushered into the restaurant to meet one another over a glass of champagne and to review protocol for HRH’s imminent arrival.

We were seated at three tables of twelve and I was beyond flattered to discover that I was placed directly opposite the King and would have the privilege of being his dinner partner.  Other guests included the heads of the Alta fishing association, the mayor of Alta, Ministers of the environment, distinguished scientists who would also be lecturing at the conference and other international speakers and delegates. Knowing that the King is a keen fisherman and also fishes the Alta, the subject of fishing was an easy ice breaker and I found him to be a charming and witty man with perfect English and an enjoyable evening was had by all. We tucked into delicious 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.

And then, almost as if in a Cinderella moment, at an appointed hour, we all rose to our feet, the King departed, and my royal encounter had ended. It was a heady night to remember and a few of us remained for a nightcap by the fire to recount the details. But the ice hotel beckoned and Hans Ulrich issued sleeping bags and escorted me to the “Frozen Suite” which was comprised of a bed of ice laden with reindeer skins and two ice chairs! I was surprised at how warm it was inside the sleeping bag. The king’s parting words to me had been: “I hope you don’t turn into an ice cube overnight…” We lasted until about 3 AM and then decided to head back to the hotel, knowing we had a big day ahead of us with our speech looming on the horizon.

The salmon conference was well attended with over 300 delegates from all over Norway and it was affirming to know that so many shared our concern about the reduced stocks of wild salmon not just on the Alta River but other Norwegian rivers as well. One of the analogies cited was that “wild salmon is Norway’s panda,” (with the pandas so endangered in China). My friend and Frontiers client, Chris Buckley, spoke on behalf of the Atlantic Salmon Federation and synthesized the important threats and issues very succinctly in his excellent presentation which I summarize below:

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 this impacts the delicate food chain and availability of salmons’ 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 here.

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, and diseases arise; plus the farm waste such as antibiotics and toxicants in the water. Safer techniques with more accountability are required, no doubt. This is a big topic of controversy – the fish farming is a billion dollar industry so thus a clash of economics vs the environment.

We had over a dozen thought-provoking presentations through the day from many different perspectives including fishery biologists, politicians, a sea lice specialist, and the tourism board. Our Frontiers presentation was “How can Norway remain an attractive fishing destination” and was well received; we went through where Norway‘s competition lies and what today’s affluent client expects. King Harald was in the first row and paid close attention to all. His very presence there leant great credence to the issues at hand. The solutions are not easy and will require compromise, but to again 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.

It was a pleasure to participate and the memories of my winter Alta weekend will burn brightly for months to come.

By: Mollie Fitzgerald