Covered In Mud And Reeking Of Fish: My Great Scientific Adventure

Patrick McCue
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It was light when we started removing hundreds of fish from our nets. Now it is raining, dark, and cold as we untangle trout and char under the headlights of a Volkswagen. When Eva offers me a piece of chocolate, I look at my hands: Silvery fish scales are caked under my fingernails and my palms are smeared with blood, eggs, and mucous. I figure my next few meals will all taste like fish anyway, so I take the chocolate in my numb fingers, dexterity gone long ago, and slip it into my mouth before dipping my frozen claw of a hand into another bucket of nets.

Ole is practically whistling as he slips fish free of their nets with the ease most people reserve for tying their shoes. The comment he made about me yesterday is beginning to register. “I don’t think he knows what he’s in for,” Ole had said. “The Vietnam War was just a safe haven compared to this.”

I introduced myself to Ole Kristian Berg, a biology professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, a few days ago on a suggestion that he might be doing field research. Set on filling my weekends with adventures I will probably never repeat, I found Ole rummaging through his disheveled office. Shoes littered the floor and a duffel bag sat next to the door. His hands were full of maps, and he breathed out of his nose with concerted effort, as though trying to catch his breath.

Quickly, thinking he might leave at any moment, I introduced myself as a biology student, not one of his, and asked if I could join him this weekend. Ole’s eyes were wide behind his rectangular glasses, and he glanced about, as though searching for someone who could explain why I was standing in his doorway. He stuck his hand between his limp, faded collar and the back of his neck. Of course I could come. He explained he was studying the effects of climate change on competition between trout and char. Basically, it meant we’d be catching a lot of fish. “The weather forecast is great,” he said as I left his office. “It will be a great event.”

Enticed by its placement off the beaten path, I came to Norway for many of the same reasons I moved to Montana two years ago. There was the allure of untouched wilderness and of humbler moments, like standing still listening to the aspen leaves whisper in the wind, on a cool autumn day quickly becoming cold.

In a land of deep, clear fjords and pristine countryside, it is hard to believe, but climate change hits close to home here in Norway, a country that found wealth in oil just 40 years ago. Norway is the third largest oil-exporting country in the world behind Saudia Arabia and Russia, producing three billion barrels every day. Ironically, Norway’s residents get much of their power from hydroelectric, not oil. Yet despite the country's environmentally conscious reputation, the side effects of its oil are not contained within country borders. The climate change cannot be exported.

Montana, The Last Best Place is changing, too. Traditional ranches have become amenity ranches, Bozeman spreads from its place at the foot of the Gallatin Valley, and there are traffic jams in the first national park. In both Norway and Montana, it’s easy to convince myself that the wilderness is untouched. The trees reach so high, the waters flow with such cold clarity, the silence can be so pervasive. It’s hard to believe that environmental threats loom so near.

While casting the nets yesterday, we lost the sun on our second of five lakes. My headlamp was low on batteries, and the ground quivered with each step. For Ole, who has lived in Trondheim since he was 10 years old, the sponge-like terrain in this region is part of this place he knows as home. “Bogs, bogs, bogs everywhere,” he told us. Watching his footing, Ole said, “I was born into freshwater fishing. My father was a freshwater fish officer in Tromsø before we moved to Trondheim. Regulating this”—he held up a bucket of nets.  I stuck close to Bjørn Larsen, a former student of Ole’s, hoping he would pick a correct path through the black.

It turned out I wasn’t following Bjørn close enough—and neither was Ole. We both plunged to our hips in mud. When we finally reached the lake, we waded into the frigid water up to our waists, our eyes fixated on the sky that was four shades of blue above the dark, gentle mountains.

My stubbornness kept me in the water despite my shaking legs that wouldn’t stop shivering no matter how much I concentrated. I gritted my teeth, and Ole flashed a smile as he leaned his shoulders back, his hands stuffed in his jacket pockets. “This is life in Norway, scientific life in Norway. No one knows what anybody is doing,” he said, erupting in laughter.

Tonight, the wind across Snåsa Lake blows soft waves across the shore, just a few meters from where Bjørn and I will fall asleep. Having finally finished retrieving all the fish from our nets, we take a few last breaths of cold, fresh air before we close our eyes. I roll out of bed before I have to the next morning just to have a few more moments along Snåsa Lake. My hands still smell like fish from last night’s efforts under the lights of the Volkswagen. Leaves crunch under my feet as I walk the few steps to the shore to sit and watch the waves build across the long, narrow lake.

Ole has shown me Trøndelag, though for me, it is Montana that holds my passion. Facing so many threats, I cannot help but wonder if either place will stay as it is. If not the warming of Ole’s lakes, it’s the crowding of Yellowstone’s bison. What is the answer? I feel helpless to do much more than lament, but Ole doesn’t waste time wringing his hands. The scientist in him is already formulating the next study, the next question.

Last night, looking at the mountains above our final lake, he said, “The sea used to be at 200 meters.” Simple curiosity drove his eyes to the map: We were at 140. “Next,” he said, his eyes shining in the dark, “we can start looking for marine deposits.” I’m not sure what for, but I hope I get to tag along.



Posted on 2/12/2009 by

James Seifert

James Seifert

Extremely well written. I particularly liked the linkage of Northern Norway and Montana. Shows marvelous wit. Would like to see more of his writing.

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