Five years ago, we stood at the Storskog Border Station, just outside Kirkenes, Norway, on the border with Russia, little imagining that this isolated crossing would one day be the last open gateway between Putin’s empire and Europe.
My beloved and I had taken a Hurtigruten small boat cruise from Tromsø, with the ostensible objective of finally viewing the Northern Lights. Eventually we did, but not before sailing from above the Arctic Circle to our turnaround point in the very, very far north, at Kirkenes. In between we visited a dozen little outports to drop off or pick up freight and passengers. Sometimes this was accomplished in less than 15 minutes, with the ship not even casting lines ashore. The ‘fast route’ service was established in 1893 and is the only way to get between most of these isolated fishing communities.
About 225 kilometres west of Murmansk, but only a 15 minute coach ride from the Russian border, the northern Norwegian town of Kirkenes sits in an uneasy truce with its warlike neighbour. For now, the border remains open, the only place in Europe where cars can still freely cross. President Putin, holed up in secure isolation in Moscow more than 2,000 kilometres south, has supporters here, but the Norwegians are taking a much more pragmatic approach to Russian visitors, who cross the border daily.
The port is still open to the Russian fishing fleet and is an important source of income for the locals. Vast quantities of fish and crab arrive weekly. The Russian sailors stroll casually about the town and do not warrant a second glance.
On a more ominous note, untold numbers of young Russians, who did not wish to serve as cannon fodder in Putin’s military adventure in the Ukraine, have escaped through here. Not much is travelling the other way into Russian territory. Apparently, embargoed wealthy Russians wishing to illegally visit their Mediterranean holiday spots, slip away through the airport.
Locals walk or drive across the border without visas and without apparently more than a cursory check, but as we stand and look at Russia from the safety of the Norwegian side of the border post, we are told not to put a foot across an imaginary line. “The border guards are heavily armed and have no sense of humour,” we are warned. Diane takes a joyride on a one-person sled, pushed by our elderly but very active Norwegian guide. As they head to cross the border, at the last minute he pirouettes the sled and laughs happily at the fun. I stand in front of the border sign for a selfie, and that is as close as I get to Russia that day.
In town, we visit a gloomy tunnel burrowed into the bedrock, where locals sheltered during WW II. The Nazis occupied the town, where there was a valuable mine, and the Allies duly bombed the crap out of the Germans. The Norwegians were collateral damage, but at least they had shelter. Our guide shows us a photo taken when the townspeople finally were able to emerge into safety. He’s the blonde young boy holding a Norwegian flag at the front of the crowd. Eighty years later he’s a multi-lingual and multi-talented tour guide. He proudly shows us the king’s signature, engraved in gold on a slab of rock after a royal visit. Of the dormitories and bunks that once made life tolerable underground, nothing remains, but we imagine that in a crisis, it could be very quickly re-equipped.
Ironically, the town’s saviours who forced the German surrender, were Russian soldiers and the townsfolk still have a very warm spot for those who once freed them from Nazi oppression.
Nearby, there’s a spot where two posts mark the invisible border between the two countries. This border is untended and people, including our coachload, cross freely. It’s an eerie feeling, being on a street that starts in Norway, crosses into Russia, and then back again in a few hundred yards. This is clearly commonplace for the locals, for our guide simply says: “Now you are in Russia. Now you are not.” To make sure we all get it, he repeats himself in German, French, Italian, Norwegian … and Russian. I ask him later how many other languages he speaks and he shrugs and adds modestly: “A little Swedish and Finnish.” Finland is only 50 kilometres away by road; Sweden is a bit further, about 500 kilometres southwest.
There’s not much else to see in Kirkenes, at least in March. Various shore activities have been cancelled due to inclement weather in the forecast, and by the time we get back to the ship it is indeed snowing heavily again. But I’m glad to have ventured to the top of the world at Mehamn (71°02′08″N 27°50′57″E) during the voyage.
In Canada, I’ve been fortunate to visit several northern communities, during my documentary making days at CBC and later. Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut (62° 50′ 0″ N, 66° 35′ 0″ W), formerly known as Frobisher Bay, is frozen solid during the long winter. On the other side of the continent, Tuktoyaktuk, NWT (69°27′03″N 133°02′09″W) is another bleak village in winter. Both are considerably further south that the northern Norwegian ports we visited during out trip, gratefully warmed by the Gulf Stream, which keeps them ice free year-round.
IF YOU GO: Hurtigruten (literally ‘fast route’) small ship cruises up and down the Norwegian coast can be taken northbound, southbound or return from several key ports, such as Oslo, Bergen, Tromsø, Honningsvåg and Kirkenes. Packages can include flights from convenient airports in the rest of Europe. Activities include checking out the Northern Lights, dog sledding, visiting reindeer herds, exploring ice domes, snowmobiling, winter kayaking, ice fishing and whale watching, with plenty of Viking stories thrown in for good measure.
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