To understand life at the top of the world, you only need to meet the Norwegians who live along the E69, the world’s northernmost freeway.
Shortly after Ingunn Utsi created a new set of footprints for her hut, snow began to fall on top of the world. It covered her car with a soft layer of white and erased the faint traces that connect her beach house outside Repvåg in northern Finnmark to E69, a frozen strip of asphalt gravel that lies at the end of the earth.
As the light fades, the 69-year-old Sami artist gazes out the window and sees her connection to the outside world disappear.
There was a time when I was growing up when there were no roads here. Only boats. Life moved much slower then,” Utsi said.
The E69, which runs 129 kilometers north from the Fjord of Oder to Nordkap, a small strip of land at the top of the Norwegian Arctic, is the world’s northernmost freeway, an engineering marvel along the coast of Western Europe’s northernmost peninsula. First proposed back in 1908 by Landslaget for Reiselivet i Norge, the country’s feathery national tourist association, but not completed until 1999, the road is a wonderful paradox, connecting a handful of remote and vulnerable fishing communities that have long since proven their ability to live without the outside world. For many, wooden boats continue to meet their needs.
Today’s drive up the road is a glimpse into Norway’s most pristine wilderness. Obsidian-black cliffs tower over narrow estuaries; mountains slope over windshields before giving way to vast plateaus pitted by dwarf birch trees; and the mighty Barents Sea often kicks up fierce storms. In winter, the last stretch of road to Nordkapp and the steep cliffs of Knivskjellodden, Europe’s fabled northernmost point, become nearly impassable and open only to convoy traffic. Without the highway, first-time visitors could easily assume that the villages along the way would be on the verge of disappearing.
The creation of E69 emerged in the 1930s in response to the downturn in the fishing industry that was brewing on the horizon after Nordkapp fishermen lost control of their exclusive concessions. A new source of income had to be found for the fishermen, and in 1934 a mass meeting was held in Honningsvåg, Nordkapp’s most populous village, where the port bosses asked the city council to prioritize the construction of a national highway to solve the problem.
The theory was that the locals could earn more net tourists than the Barents Sea. An almost impossible road is the answer to their problem. Or so they hope.
In Utsi’s garden, on long summer days when the sun never sets, the artist sometimes goes back in an instant to the days of her youth, when the prospect of this path was just a dream.
“Was it an isolated community back then? It depends on what you think a community should be,” she says. “Nordkapp is isolated from the world compared to the big cities, but humans are great adapters and can adapt to anything. For me, it’s completely normal.”
Living in this far north has many benefits, especially for visual artists, explains Utsi, who returned from Oslo to her birthplace in Repvåg in 1982 and has been working as a sculptor ever since, inspired by Nordkapp’s extreme fields of weather and light. She has worked with dwarf birch wood and turned driftwood into the famous Sami art, but her current project is more ambitious. Using plexiglass, she tries to recreate the wind. “You can’t touch it, but you can feel it in every aspect of life here,” she says. “With the water, it permeates everything we do.”
The forces of ice, wind and sea have not always made life easy – and visitors may forget how recently modernity arrived in this frozen wilderness. For example, the last 14-kilometer stretch to Nordkapp was built in 1956. Although it was envisioned as a summer excursion road for tourists arriving by cruise ship, it is now used year-round, although the whimsical outpost of weather and days sees only one lone visitor. Meanwhile, the deep-sea tunnel connecting Magerøya Island to the Porsanger Peninsula was one of the last extensions, opened only in 1999.
While the evolution of the road has brought opportunities, the traditional fishing industry, on which many people depend, has taken a different path. According to locals, the international fleet has faded over the past decade, partly in response to government demands to rejuvenate fish stocks. At the same time, automation has increased, crews have been reduced, and the fish processing industry has moved to China. Today, freshly landed catches are chilled and shipped fresh to Asia.
Nevertheless, the fishery is still growing rapidly – the annual harvest of king crab is the largest in Northern Europe, according to local fishermen – and today the harbor is packed with one-to-one trawlers and trawlers.
As long as your line is baited, there is always hope,” says a local proverb.
While fishing continues to shape life on the coast, art on the peninsula is surprisingly thriving. In the compact fishing village of Kamøyvær (population 58, six dogs, five cats), 63 kilometers north of Repvåg, German artist Eva Schmutterer runs the Sun East Gallery. Like Utsi, she acquires her materials in a rather unusual way.
“It’s impossible to buy supplies here,” she says as she finishes her latest Northern Lights collage. “I use old magazines and unwanted pamphlets that the whole community collects and donates. It helps with recycling efforts and the winters are long, so I have plenty of time to find the right color or shade.”
Despite the limited availability of artwork, drinks and almost everything else, for that matter, Schmutterer believes the lack of options leads to self-reliance. She explains that people live every day as they did more than a century ago and learn to cope with what they have. “The road is our lifeline, a gateway to another world,” she says. “But if you depend on it, you won’t survive. It’s not a limitation. It’s a freedom.”
Weather dictates life along the E69. You can only do things here when nature lets you,” Schmutterer said.
Nature is often on the minds of those who live in Honningsvåg, the main fishing port of E69, which is often referred to (although it’s easy to argue) as the world’s northernmost town. Standing in the center, all the usual Norwegian props are in place: red, yellow and blue bulkhead huts; giant king crab fishing boats; a steel-gray harbor with trawlers. A flock of restless gulls and seagulls hover overhead.
But this provides only a window into life here. For Honingsvog, the same attention is paid not only to cod in winter, wild salmon in spring, coalfish (known as pollock) in summer and haddock in autumn, but also to art and film. If there is a reason to come this far north, for many it is to seek inspiration.
Norwegian feature film director Knut Erik Jensen’s imagination was sparked by seeing the trawlers of Honningsvåg at anchor when he was a child.
“I used to say that I was the only Norwegian idiot who stayed so far north for his entire career,” he says. “All my films are shot in Nordkapp, and I always draw inspiration from the sailors who come and go, whether they’re from Portugal, Spain or further afield. If you’re from Honningsvåg, then you’ve seen a lot of the world without leaving.”
Sometimes I think people who live in a big town are far more isolated than I am,” Knut Erik Jensen said.
Beyond the pine trees, beyond the trawlers, even beyond the reindeer that gather every summer, is the end of Nordkapp and E69. The road finally gives way to the sea, where long winters mix like watercolors with all the dark shadows, while in summer the sun lasts for months. At its top is Nordkapphallen at 71°10′ 21, with a visitor center, an underground church and a museum dedicated to King Rama V, then sovereign ruler of Siam, who curiously visited by boat in 1907.
Outside, the wind-blown plateau seems nerve-wracking to some, sitting 307 meters above the swirling black waters of the Barents Sea, but that’s what has drawn people here for centuries. In the past, the massive cliffs marked the end of the world for explorers. But today, Nordkapp shows visitors the value of something beyond most people’s grasp: the unpredictability of nature – especially in winter, when the land is barren and the white autumn embodies the ideals of this far northern road that inspires so many.