• Chris Mongeau

The Fish That Built Lofoten

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Without realising it, I landed in Lofoten at the exact time necessary for me to see the islands in the way I’d always imagined them – during the peak fishing season. I was immediately drawn to the details of these villages of the far north centered around the sea.

Words and Photography by Chris Mongeau

TAKEN WITH A LEICA M6 CAMERA, 40MM SUMMICRON LENS, AND KODAK 160 FILM

I have a running list of places I want to visit in the next year, three years, and five years. Norway has been on the list since I was a kid daydreaming about the fjords and small fishing villages high up in the Arctic. My time in the Lofoten Islands shortly preceded Lofotfiske – literally meaning Lofoten fishing – the fishing season. Winter is spawning season for the Northern Atlantic Cod – the fish that built Lofoten. Lofotfiske isn’t something you’d hear about outside of Norway, but the tradition presents itself as soon as you arrive in Lofoten.

During Lofotfiske, there’s a boom in fishing activity, which creates a need for space to dry all of the fish. Wooden pyramid-shaped racks called hjell are scattered across the landscape, built on rock formations along the shore, on islands, and along the beaches. These racks are used to hang the cod during the drying process, which relies on the cold Arctic wind.

Chris Mongeau

“Dehydrated stockfish has been exported around the world since the days of the Vikings because the absence of water weight makes it a much lighter and more stable product to transport”

Lofoten is most famous for its export of Tørrfisk – stockfish. Stockfish is Norway’s oldest export, dating back to the Viking era, and the process itself remains largely unchanged. The Lofoten Islands are one of the world’s most prolific sources of stockfish because between February and May, the climate is perfect for the drying process. With the ambient temperature hovering around 0 degrees Celsius, the cool, dry air keeps the fish safe from spoiling as it would in warmer climates and evaporates 80% of the moisture content in the fish. Any colder temperatures for a sustained amount of time would cause the fish to freeze.

Dehydrated stockfish has been exported around the world since the days of the Vikings because the absence of water weight makes it a much lighter and more stable product to transport as opposed to fresh or frozen fish. Now, most of Lofoten’s stockfish is sent to Italy, where it’s considered a delicacy. Along with its popularity in Mediterranean cuisine, it’s also popular in Nigeria for soups.

Without realizing it, I landed in Lofoten at the exact time necessary for me to see the islands in the way I’d always imagined them. Falling snow covered red and yellow fishing boats in the fjord each morning. Hammers and drills echoed as fishermen worked on docks and piers, preparing the village for another season’s catch. I woke early each morning and walked the road between Hamnøy and Reine, finding new vantage points or perspectives on these fishing villages beneath the soft light of the Arctic’s winter sunrise. I was immediately drawn to the details of these villages that are centered around the sea. Ropes of various colors and sizes speckled with barnacles, freshly cut lumber stacked meticulously ready to be used for new drying racks, colorful dinghies pulled into shore, crates of codfish heads waiting to be hung. And of course, the famous fish in nearly every direction I looked – clusters of heads, whole fillets, and entire fish dangling in the sun. Because of the cold, dry air, there is almost no smell in the winter months – I was assured summer is a different story altogether. Before going to Norway, I knew fishing was an important part of life in the Lofoten Islands, but seeing these details captured me from the moment I arrived and showed me how fishing was everything.

Chris Mongeau

“Like other places close to the poles, it was a reminder that there is no such thing as bad weather, only badly prepared people”

A few of the days were total whiteout conditions with gale force winds and avalanche warnings. Every day had moments when it either snowed or rained in a freezing way unlike anywhere else I’ve experienced. But the sun always won out, if only for a brief moment. Like other places close to the poles, it was a reminder that there is no such thing as bad weather, only badly prepared people. Through all of these extreme conditions, the fishing people carried on without skipping a beat. In Svolvaer, I spotted a handful of fishermen climbing up the pyramid-shaped drying racks to hang fish during a gale force wind warning while snow obscured all visibility. One rainy morning in Hamnøy, I decided to walk around the village with little intent other than to just appreciate my surroundings. As the rain picked up, I ducked into one of the fish processing buildings on the pier to take shelter. Through one of the sliding doors left open, I stood out of the rain and watched an older man cleaning his lines and gear indifferent to the torrential rain.

Chris Mongeau
Chris MongeauChris Mongeau
Chris MongeauChris Mongeau
Chris MongeauChris Mongeau

This kind of perseverance through such extreme conditions and short, dark days amazed me. As a photographer I want to be in the right place at the right time. Before planning this trip, I worried that the winter might not be the best time to go for a first visit since daylight is so short and there was so much to see. I usually struggle to slow down when I travel. While it was definitely not the time to go for long days of trekking through the mountains, the short winter days encouraged a slower pace and taught me to stop and appreciate what was in front of me in every moment. Slowing down opened my eyes to the traditions forged by generations spent by the sea in the far north and rekindled my love for experiencing different ways of life that exist in our world. Lofoten helped me understand that sometimes the best thing to do is sit in silence without even lifting a camera to my eye while absorbing my surroundings and the moment with my own eyes.

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Chris Mongeau