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Trolls & Strawberries

Clive Gammon
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Norway: Trolls and Strawberries

Clive Gammon

Extract from Castaway by Clive Gammon

Illustrations by John Richardson

The Sunndal troll was no joke. Warty, whiskery, snaggle-toothed, elephant-nosed, six-fingered, 7 foot high, he dominated the bright new shopping centre in Sunndalsora, western Norway. So he’s made of foam rubber, and he’s there to draw attention to the tourist information bureau? It made no difference. The real Sunndal troll, up in the snowy mountain peaks above the town, would make short work of all that prosperous Scandinavian normality with a few well-aimed rocks tossed down in the traditional manner. That image is there to show proper respect and to keep the old fellow sweet.

Moreover, you would think that Herr Heien, chairman of the local fishing club, would have full control of the Driva River down there in the valley, especially since he issues fishing licences. But that intimidating piece of rubber clutches a massive salmon to his breast - a good 55lb, from the look of it - and I’ll bet he didn’t have a licence or a rod, either. The troll was there before the fishing club, and the possessive way he holds that salmon might go some little way to account for what happened to Mike and me on our fishing trip to the Driva.

We had laid our plans in troll-free London, where everything seemed straightforward. We had a good idea of the kind of river the Driva was - huge, icy and turbulent, a wild mountain stream multiplied many times over. There were enormous salmon, a number of 40-pounders caught each season, and the ever-present chance of a 50-, even a 60-pounder. And there were lots of them - an annual average of 20 tons caught on rod and line. The main problem would be transporting the catch home, and in the end we decided that this would be sheer extravagance in terms of the extra air freight. Better perhaps to travel back with just one 20-pounder apiece - we would have them smoked before we left.

We gave some consideration to tackle also. Fighting 40-pounders among those white cascades would call for solid gear. The ancient firm of Hardy’s obliged (a fishing friend of mine once described Rolls-Royce as the Hardy’s of the automobile industry). They sent us down mighty two-handed, steel-centred, split-cane rods that had clearly been built for some red-bearded, 10-foot-tall Highlander in Queen Victoria’s reign, and reels and lines to match. The recommended Driva flies turned out to be monstrous and brightly coloured and mounted on double hooks - Jock Scotts, Silver Doctors and wild confections of jungle cock and hot orange. Spoon baits to be of use were to scale, nothing less than 1 1/2oz. “The nights will be very cold,” said Mike. “Don’t forget: sheepskin coats and long johns.”

So we did have this weight problem at the airport, but that passed over. We also spent some time in the duty-free shop. Norwegians have plenty of salmon, but in another way they are ill-provided for. If they want a drop of the hard stuff, they queue at the Vinmonopolet, the state booze shop, which keeps, roughly speaking, bank hours - steel shutters slam down at closing time. In particular, Scotch is expensive, and even at that it’s ten to one you would never recognise the label. What coloured beads were to the first explorers in Africa, quality-brand Scotch is to the visitor to Norway.

So with a grip full of instant welcome between us, it was as well we missed the Bergen customs. We were late for the local bus-stop plane up-country, so they rushed us across the airport there without formality. At Vigra we landed again and caught the hovercraft up the coast, and this was when we noticed something odd going on. It had become very hot. The Atlantic, instead of being a nice, respectable grey, sparkled with a vivid Mediterranean blue. The hovercraft run ended at the little town of Molde, where Kristian Fahlstrom was waiting for us - and he was tanned.

Subtropical Norway. No one had warned us about this. What about the grey curtains of rain that were supposed to wash the coast between Bergen and Trondheim through the summer months, pausing only to change to snow in the fall? We drove up to Sunndalsora with Kristian, ties loosened, jackets off. We leaned out the window and made no unnecessary movements beyond a slow head swivel when we passed a bunch of the local Valkyries out cycling. How Norwegian girls turn into blonde Tahitians after a couple of days’ sun defeats the imagination. But they do.

We’d come to Norway for salmon, though, and I told Mike to pull himself together. It was no time to fall into the slack, native ways of this sun-soaked coast. I knew Mike. Another couple of hours and he’d be looking round for breadfruit and a suitable beach to enjoy it on. “Straight to the river,” I said.

The Driva was as big and as brutal as we’d been told, but there was no clarity in the water. It ran grey and opaque like soup-kitchen gruel. The reason was not far to find. Every mountainside was laced with streams of white water as the snow melted in the violent sun. Each stream, laden with earth and debris, poured into the river. Significantly, there were no rods out on the salmon pools. No wonder. Salmon heading in from the fjord would take advantage of every extra inch of water to go racing upstream. The only chance then was to drop a big spoon right on the nose of a fish that was taking a ten-minute rest. And to do that you need an intimate knowledge of the river, which we did not have.

From long experience I have learned that in this situation there is only one thing to do - go to the fountainhead, which usually means the local tackle shop. Our guide, Kristian Fahlstrom, was strictly a trout man, of that special kind you meet in England as well as Norway who regard salmon as gross, loutish intruders into waters which should by right be reserved for trout, a fish to be caught only by precise imitation and perfect casting. In comparison, the purists imply, hurling a 5/0 Jock Scott or a 1 1/2oz spoon is a hairy, thick-eared occupation. The only response a salmon fisherman can make here is, ‘Who wants to hunt rabbits when there are tigers about?’ This, of course, is a question that will never be resolved.

But Kristian did take us along to the tackle shop, where we happened to meet Herr Heien, who crisply informed us that at night the snow would stop melting, the river would drop an inch or two and there might be taking fish. Then he sold us some more Silver Doctors and a map of the river.

Night fishing? Not, of course, as difficult as it sounds, in western Norway where at midsummer there is no night, only a kind of twilight around midnight. “Away to the hotel,” I told Mike, “to get the gear ready!” But the mañana spirit of Sunndalsora was getting him already. “First,” he said, “a siesta,” and I could see his point. The sun baked the white road outside the hotel. The river glimmered in the distance, a giant heat reflector. We withdrew in an orderly fashion and booked an early call for 8pm at the hotel desk.

It must have been 9.30am by the time we made the riverbank, and the sun was perceptibly lower in the sky. Here the Driva arched in a great silver sweep, and a heavy run under the far bank was clearly the holding water. Mike, laden with photographic gear, walked behind me, and it was a minute or two before I realised that the clinking noise was not coming from the impact of his nailed boots on the pebbles. Oh, no. Mike had reckoned there would be a long night ahead. Not only had he brought the Highland Cream with him, but he had clearly snitched a couple of glasses from the dining room as well. It is a sad thing to see a life entirely devoted to pleasure.

But we made a resolute start. Mike moved in at the head of the pool, I halfway along. We would fly fish it carefully to begin with, and if that brought no result we’d rake it with the big spoons. Neither did the job. It was a long pool and a lot of water. But an hour or so later we felt it had had the full treatment, and we’d rest it for a little while. After all, in these conditions fresh-run fish could be moving up all the time.

On our arrival we had noticed an oddity which we had simply put down as just another quirk of the indolent, pleasure-seeking natives - a birchwood seat from which you could scan the river and idly wonder if there were any salmon in it. Next to it was erected an unmistakable rod rack. Mike, of course, was the first to take advantage of it. “Time for a Scotch and Driva,” he said. I remonstrated with him when he dipped his glass in the river. You know what the water is like in these tropical countries. I didn’t want to end up with bilharzia or something. I must confess, though, that when pressed I took one with him.

And then several things happened at once. From the shadow of the mountain a satellite appeared, gold in the thickening night, arcing slowly across the sky. From the shadow of the trees a tall figure emerged, a mighty rod - that dwarfed even our monstrosities - on his shoulder. The rod turned out to be whole bamboo, 20 feet of it. The figure, so we were to learn, was Olav.

‘All Norwegians learn English in school,’ say the tourist handouts. But Olav had missed the boat somehow. All we got was a wide grin and an international gesture toward the river, which indicated that he had had as little success as we. Another international gesture from Mike put Scotch and Driva in his hand. A pleasant social hour seemed in prospect, and it might have stayed just at that had not two more bamboo-pole owners appeared on the pebble beach. The Scotch must have been laying a rubby-dubby line right down the river. These boys hadn’t read the tourist literature either. But we had made contact right enough. Gestures, together with various laughs, grunts and sighs that could be used in combination to indicate most human emotions, saw us in agreement on the major issues that faced us. The salmon fishing was lousy. On the other hand, it was a nice, warm evening, the company was good, and there was Scotch and Driva for all. Things could have been worse. It might, for instance, have been raining . . .

If you would like to read the rest of this story and more of Clive Gammon's adventures in Castaway, you can buy a copy here.
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