Geography, history, climate, etc

Vesterålen comprises six municipalities distributed among four large islands: Andøya, Langøya, Hadseløya, Austvågøya and Norway's largest island – Hinnøya. The combined surface area is 3100 km2. The distance between the northernmost point at Andenes to the southernmost at Melbu, on the threshold to Lofoten, is 150 km.



This archipelago 200 km north of the arctic circle at 68 degrees NL is home to about 32 500 people. The settlement pattern in Vesterålen is scattered. Isolated single dwellings without road communication alternate with small communities and large urban centres. The landscape in the islands is varied: from rugged terrain with craggy peaks to expansive, cultivated shoreline areas with relatively dense populations. This is the land of fjords and sounds, skerries, rivers and lakes, moors, valleys and stretches of flat plains.

HistorySome 6000-8000 traces of human settlement have been found in Vesterålen - scattered remnants of a culture based on hunting, fishing and gathering.  This was a subsistence that made it necessary to migrate from place to place. It was not until the end of the prehistoric era that agriculture became prevalent and people began to settle and farm.During the early Middle Ages, the number of farms reached a maximum.  Generally speaking, all arable land on which it was possible to raise grain and livestock had been cultivated.  During the same period of time came the economical breakthrough in the form of the fishing industry. Organized sale of stockfish in great quantities provided increased opportunities for making a living from fishing. Fish could be bartered for grain and other necessities and thereby provided a more secure subsistence for the individual households.

Stockfish was primarily sent to merchant buyers from Bergen and Trondheim. Eventually the Hanseatic buyers became involved and dominated all the way until the end of the Middle Ages.  The North Norwegian fishermen's economic ties to the Bergen urbanites continued, however, far into the 1800s. By this time, an upper class had emerged in the archipelago: the privileged crown property owners, or «local rural gentry». They gradually assumed the status previously held by the urbanites in relation to the local fishermen.

By the end of the 1800s, Vesterålen made a decisive leap into a new era. Capital from the stockfish bonanza as well as from the lucrative herring fisheries of the time was invested in industry and motorized boats for fishing and cargo freighting. Several shipping companies were founded, including Vesterålen's Steamship Company, which established the first coastal express in 1893.

The new investments led to the growth of larger communities. The building of modern land communications has reinforced this development, and remote farms without road connections to the central areas have become a thing of the past. The region today has broad-based business enterprises. Agriculture, fishing and industry remain important, but new enterprises have emerged, such as aquaculture, tourism and various public services.

Climate Thanks to the warm currents of the Gulf Stream, the climate in the area – and of the entire region – is much milder than in other areas sharing the same latitude, such as for example Greenland and the northern tip of Alaska. And in no other area of Norway does the Gulf Stream caress the coast as it does the seaward side of the Vesterålen islands. The Gulf Stream has created a climatic basis on which coastal culture and businesses have profited and built upon.  Typical for areas with a coastal climate, Vesterålen has relatively mild winters and moderately warm summers. The average temperature in the coldest month, February, is around minus two Celsius, while the average July temperature is 12-14 degrees. The highest temperature was recorded at 31 degrees Celsius - in July, which is the month of least precipitation. On the other hand, October is the month with most precipitation, and autumn is generally the rainiest season. The months with most snow are January-March. In December and parts of January, the sun does not appear above the horizon in Vesterålen. The dark season is fascinating in many ways, and the northern lights and special bluish hues play magically on the snow-covered landscape. Conversely, the sun never dips below the horizon during the period of 23 May – 23 July.

Business Traditionally, fishing has been the backbone of both the economy and settlement in Vesterålen, often in combination with agriculture. Fishing provides the basis for an important food industry. About half of all persons employed in the industry in Vesterålen are associated with one or another form of seafood processing. But mechanical and maritime service centres, as well as the construction industry, hold important positions. By the same token, agriculture has spreading economic effects. The same is true of salmon and char aquaculture. Overall, however, it is the service industries - tourism, trade, communications, public and private services, as well as education - that employ the greater number of workers.

Birds Vesterålen has rich and abundant birdlife. The nutrient-rich waters surrounding the island group normally provide ample food supplies for a number of seabird species. All of the usual species found on the northern latitudes are represented here. Among the rare species is the black-tailed curlew, which nests exclusively on Andøya. The northern fulmar and gannet are two species that are found only in shoreline areas. Puffins, razorbills, guillemots, shags, herons and swans are other fascinating and exclusive features among the ocean fauna.  The white-tailed eagle has multiplied dramatically in recent years. The most familiar bird rocks are located outside of Nykvåg and Hovden in Bø and Bleik in Andøy.Parts of Vesterålen enjoy the annual visits of migrating geese during spring and autumn. Barnacle geese, grey lag geese and pink-footed geese are pilgrims to their permanent grazing areas. Invasions of birds from the east, for example the great spotted woodpecker, the bohemian waxwing and the snow bunting are highly visible in Vesterålen on their annual stopovers here.

FishFish have always been the very basis for existence in Vesterålen, thanks to our proximity to the rich fishing fields off shore. Cod, haddock, coalfish, redfish, wolf fish, salmon, herring, ling, flounder, halibut and prawns are the most important from an economic point of view. Year-round fishing and the annual herring and winter cod fisheries represent great economic resources that are sought after by both local and visiting fishermen.

VegetationVesterålen has many areas with abundant and exotic flora. The mild climate and intermittently chilly summers make the region a «juncture» for thermophilic plants from more southern environments and for arctic plants.The vegetation is not demanding in terms of soil conditions and climate. From the shoreline to the highest mountain peak, we find varied plant life that is both resilient and lush. Cloudberries, a fruit that grows on the moors, have at times enjoyed almost a magical place in people's consciousness for their rich nutritional content, their delicate flavour and their saleability.  The forests of Vesterålen consist primarily of birch, rowan, alder, bird cherry, sallow and various species of willow. On mountainsides, with its sandy and rocky subsoil, the forest vegetation is stunted and gnarled. Among conifers, the planted fields of foreign spruce are dominant, while the germane pine is found only in limited areas on Hinnøy island. The tree line in Vesterålen varies greatly. Northernmost on Hinnøya, the tree line goes up as far as 400 m, whereas along the Sortland sound it stops at 300 m, and it sinks to as low as 200 m on the seaward side facing the open ocean.

Cultural LifeCulture in Vesterålen can be placed in three categories: the public, the voluntary and the private.During the past 25 years, the municipalities have consciously developed culture as an important non-material function of public welfare and for which the intermunicipal organ for cultural cooperation («») has been a propelling agent. Vesterålen Cultural Committee, ever since 1986, has served as a midwife, coordinator and guide to coordinate and develop the area's professional image. Collaborative projects such as the Book Bus in Vesterålen, the film festival LATERNA MAGICA, the Gulf Stream Cultural Boost, Tilbakestrøm [Returning Young Artists], and the Vesterålen Artists' organization can be regarded as successful foster children of the Cultural Committee.  Many Vesterålen residents who broke in their baby shoes in the local cultural environment have gradually grown into much larger shoe in a professional, cultural context. The regional joint development of culture in the municipalities may also be measured in jobs created both locally and nationally within the fields of vocal and instrumental music, literature, theatre, film and revues. Locally this has resulted in roughly 85 workplaces in the field of culture, engaging almost 150 people in music and culture schools, athletics and recreational activities, libraries and museums, theatres and cinemas.  Voluntary activity and private organizations, however, have not fallen in the shadow of public endeavours.  Vesterålen has no «urban culture», but instead it has a living coastal and community culture - in which voluntary organizations are the mainstay of cultural activities. An important platform is represented by the many community halls that serve as local «cultural centres» in the individual municipalities. Each municipality has its own museums. Most of them are publicly operated and are part of a larger network under the umbrella institution Museum Nord. In addition, the municipalities have established cultural arenas that provide space and opportunities for visiting professionals, larger events and itinerant guest artists. Local festivals and community celebrations nonetheless maintain a strong presence in local cultural creativity, interplay between amateurs and professionals. This often takes the form of a joint effort based on voluntary work, public financial <Bilde14>support and private sponsoring. There are 24 major celebrations and festivals per year in the area. In addition, there are some 620 voluntary organizations that are involved in producing culture in Vesterålen/Lødingen, most of them in the fields of sports, music and youth work. The public's acquired taste for professional cultural productions has led to a marked increase in the number of professional cultural workers in Vesterålen. We have developed a culture-based economic base that has contributed in creating local identity and branding. It has resulted in the creation of more local production centres for art and crafts, on both the professional and semi-professional level. Artists, authors and photographers have definitely also contributed to making cultural life in Vesterålen versatile and interesting. If we include information and media services, the professional cultural circles engage about 135 persons in their activities.Altogether our survey shows that almost 300 people spend their professional workdays in culture-related jobs in Vesterålen. This means that one in every one hundred Vesterålen residents is a cultural worker!

Vesterålen Stream of Art and Culture During the years between 2000 and 2005, the municipalities in Vesterålen and the combined region chose the Gulf Stream as a metaphor for a grandiose cultural endeavour, the Gulf Stream Cultural Boost. Local crews of cultural workers were the driving forces for elevating art and culture as agents for growth in their own municipalities. A number of art and cultural projects were completed both locally and regionally during this period. They ranged from nursery school projects on the shoreline and artistic decoration of electrical power transformer sheds to large scale cultural collaboration with selected communities in Mexico, Guatemala and Iceland. The collaboration with Eastern Iceland is part of this international effort. A continuation of the Gulf Stream project has been given the name Vesterålen Stream of Art and Culture. The gentle caress from Mexico along our otherwise chilly coast is used as a continual source of inspiration, connecting us in a global togetherness. The underlying notion now as before is to combine the local with the international, the historic with the modern forms of expression so that culture becomes a bearing element in the development of society. 

Published by Vesterålen Cultural Council  Text: Alf Oxem et al