You can't go any further north. Polish truckers on the road to Alta, a Norwegian town beyond the Arctic circle.

Alta is in Norway, and in a way literally the farthest place on Earth for us. We say literally, because the northern tip of the world is a mere 235 km further on, in Nordkapp, and beyond that it is just the endless Arctic sea.

Alta Kommune does its best to attract tourists, up to the point of convincing them that you really can enjoy a beach beyond the Arctic circle. One important blessing for this northernmost part of Europe is the Gulf Stream, a warm influx of sea water from the Gulf of Mexico, hence its name. This makes the climate near Alta relatively mild, unlike deeper into Norway. The temperature of the water in Altafjord is often very close to that of the Baltic Sea. Alta has a harbour, an airport, a cinema, a museum, and a library as well. There is also Finnmark University and the northernmost ice hotel. Alta straddles International Road E6, where it runs close to the Russian border from Trelleborg to Kirkenes, and the trip to Oslo is just as convenient as that to Moscow. “It's kinda cosy,” says Sławek Walder, a truck driver with an opinion about Alta. He's been making a living behind the wheel of a truck for 36 years, with 9 long winters beyond the Arctic circle. “No one here is interested how long you have been a truck driver. What matters is how many winters you've been driving up north, and that you make it safe and sound every time.” Sławek is running another shipment to Alta, and the route takes at least three days. He is lucky to share the trip with two colleagues from LKW Transport, Marek Buja and Zygmunt Rompa, who know the road well. It is easier to drive in a convoy of three than to brave the Scandinavian wilderness alone. The shipment is big: three semis full of construction materials from Balex Metal. The Norwegian people have centuries of experience in building in the Arctic; yet they have chosen Polish thermal insulation sandwich panels.

Getting the show on the road

“It's Godspeed, then!” Sławek calls, and fires up his engine. All three trucks roar into life. The route has been carefully planned, since the Norwegians are working strictly to a schedule. They are very specific about the date of delivery and which crane must be rented, and wait for the shipment to arrive. To them, punctuality is sacred. Since time is of essence, this trio of Polish drivers will not be taking the winding Norwegian roads. While brimming with breath-taking views, negotiating them with heavy vehicles is slow, even in summer. Instead the shipment is going through Sweden and Finland. The drivers know the routes inside out, and can make the destination even without a GPS. They recall the waypoints like a poem learned by heart for a school celebration: Ferry to Sweden. Leave Nynäshamn Harbour and take Route 73 to Stockholm. Next, exit to E4 and full throttle along the Gulf of Bothnia to Lulea. Take the E10 to Överkalix, then Route 395 to Pajala, where we cross the Arctic circle. Next stop: Finland and its miles and miles of enchanting mountains, and finally Norway. “The route is fast. You can make 800 km between rest breaks,” Zygmunt says. “Well, it's a civilised country, after all. The Swedes, Finns, and Norwegians, what don't they have up here? There are baths at the gas stations. The roads are good and convenient, and road accidents are few and far between. All this would have been perfect, if not for the sheer distance. You can drive anywhere between 150 and 300 km from one roundabout to the next. You sleep for 6 to 8 hours and drive, then repeat. The sun is in the sky all the time in the summer. Winters are gloomy and dark all day long. The roads get icy or may be closed off if a blizzard hits. The job needs you to be humble about your skills and demands you stay focused all the time.”

The North is unforgiving

“Did you see those roadside stakes in the mountains? A very handy driving aid, especially in winter. They use stakes up to 4 metres high in Norway, to line the roads. There are cats-eyes, the reflectors, on top. You just need to drive beside the stakes, listening to the creak of ice and snow under the tyres.”
“We have 2-metre high stakes lining our road; this means that the winter conditions are not so bad. It's the climate. In the heart of Norway, up in the mountains, the winter stays around until May. You need to be already prepared for snowfall,” Marek explains. One more reason why the three-semi convoy from Bolszewo in Poland passes through the lowlands of Sweden and Finland. You may think that 'Extreme Winter Trucking' is what happens to truckers in Alaska only. If you do, try driving up north, in Norway. The Alaskan-like dangers await there too: torrential rain, freezing weather down to minus 40 centigrade, and inclement weather with absolutely no vision in front of the windshield. “I once drove at minus 42,” Sławek recalls. “I had to take off the winter chains at minus 36. I didn't feel the cold, but when you hear the wolves howl nearby, you get the chills down your spine. And, mind you, you're all alone. The North is unforgiving. Come unprepared, and you've already lost. The only one who can help you on the road here is someone exactly like you. The good reputation of a trucker is what matters up here. You help people, people help you,” says Sławek flatly. And hazards are aplenty. Even a seasoned trucker can get into trouble. Sławek recounts one of his mishaps: “I was driving, minding my own business, and suddenly the semi starts to slow down; next, it's sliding in reverse. Ice! I had one hand on the door handle, ready to jump out before the truck overturned. But I was lucky I didn't have to, and got back on the road.”

Reindeer and the Northern Lights

Would these tales of terror encourage these drivers to leave the north in favour of balmy roads in Italy, Portugal or Spain? No way! It is too hot, too busy and too cramped on the roads down south. The truckers still exchange the traditional friendly hellos up north in Scandinavia. It is a land where a specific breed of trucker goes: passionate adventurers. “This is why no rookie runs cargo in the north,” says Jędrzej Gruba, the owner of LKW Transport. “Even in the summer, Norway is the destination for those truckers who have worked a few winter seasons beyond the Arctic circle. The routes need experienced people to run them. And they are the only ones we send up north. People used to ask me, 'How long will you continue driving north?' and I'd reply: 'Until I get to see the Northern Lights gleaming across the sky',” Sławek says. “I had to drive four years, four long winters, to finally see it. It is stunning. Now I say that it was not the aurora I was dreaming about, the one vibrant with all the colours. The one I saw was green. I want a really glorious one. So here I am, driving up north for my tenth winter. I won't quit. Norway has that charm. It's a developed country, with high tech standards everywhere, right next to natural wilderness. Reindeers are, like, part of the daily agenda. I saw a bear once. He was gorging on berries at the roadside. You can even see whales in the sea, spouting tall jets of water, right from your cab,” Marek says.

Beware of traffic tickets and ... mosquitoes

There are downsides, too. Traffic tickets are a nightmare, with horribly high fines. And the prices are exorbitant. “You can stop at a diner in Sweden along the way, but in Norway, you better come stocked up with food. Otherwise you'll go bust. Or, you can catch a fish, if you like!” Sławek's tips for the thrifty and hungry follow. “I used to do that! I borrowed a fishing rod from one guy and got myself a metre and a half long cod. Unfortunately, you mostly catch empty beer cans and jars.” Another downside are the mosquitoes. “They're so nasty, they want to eat you alive, you really need to watch out,” Sławek laughs and demonstrates the sheer curtain, an essential part of the trucker's gear he's been keeping in the cab for years to use as a bug screen. “I like fresh air, so I roll down the window for the night. I put the curtain over it to keep the pesky bugs out of the cab. I do the same with the sunroof. These little creeps are the worst. The only place you get away from them is by the sea.”

It's so beautiful

The last kilometres of the blacktop stretch down to the bay. The woods give way to meadows, with cows instead of reindeer. A few kilometres more and the journey will end. Yet the work is far from over. The shipment needs to be taken off the semis, and the drivers will then head home. No time for sightseeing. Unless there's a break in the tacho schedule; this is time off on the road, and it's worth spending it on marvelling the beauty of Scandinavia. The land of pure, breath-taking wilderness. “They have a statue, a reconstructed ancient polar bear in Hammerfest. Two and a half metres up to the withers, and it would be as tall as a truck had it stood on its hind legs.” Sławek recalls one of his past stops on the road. “Alta has a museum with cave paintings of ancient people. They're 6200 years old, older than the Pyramids of Giza. When we're in Alta, we always try to visit the local provost, Father Wojciech Egiert. I'm getting him some Polish cookies, which he simply loves.” It's time to catch some sleep, as it's a long way home to Poland. But, before that, the return cargo needs to be loaded. And it's somehow always faster to return from there. And then there comes the time when you finally pull out the chart from the tachograph. “What a sweet time that is. Still, there's one better, when I pull up in front of my home and put my hand on the door handle,” Marek says. If you ask these Arctic truckers whether they would quit, they would have these words for you: Never. The sights, the nature, all of it... It's totally worth it.

 

 

 

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