In the upstairs room of a repurposed wooden boatshed – the only one in the row not painted unoxygenated blood red – a young woman wearing a knitted blue and white jumper holds up a grey woolly-looking ball the size of a fisherman's fist and instructs me to shut my eyes and put out my hand. "Let us know when you can feel it," she says, but I eventually have to be told to open my eyes, and when I do I find all the onlookers are smiling and the big clump of eiderdown is already in my palm.
This E-huset, or Eider House Museum, sits at the water's edge in the small fishing settlement of Nes on the north coast of Vega – the main island of a Norwegian archipelago of the same name. Vega is a spattering of about 6500 islands just south of the Arctic Circle. It was one of the first ice-free areas following the last Ice Age and is believed to be where people initially settled Norway; hunting and fishing gear and building remains from the Stone Age have been discovered there.
I'm travelling Norway's fiordic coastline aboard a working Hurtigruten ship, which services 34 local ports and strongly encourages passengers to get out and experience the country's natural environment and culture along this historic route. From the port of Sandnessjoen, it takes us about an hour and a half to reach Nes by power boat.
The geology of Vega's north is low-lying strandflat where the soil is rich but trees are few. Some of the houses on the tiny unwooded islands we pass between Sandnessjoen and Nes have been built entirely from timber salvaged from the sea. Under the virtually endless daylight hours of midsummer, grass grows long and strong from their sod roofs.
For certain communities of this spare landscape and extreme climate, the trading and selling of eider duck eggs and eiderdown – the lightest and warmest of any down – has, in the past at least, been utterly necessary for survival. Legend has it that people here have even killed their own brothers in order to inherit the family business.
The common eider is the world's largest sea-duck with the ability to fly up to 113 kilometres per hour. Over the last 1500 years or more, people of Vega have annually coerced these wild birds to be their temporary pets by creating nesting spaces and actively guarding them from predators and never putting one on the dinner table. Eider ducks naturally nest in the open so housing keeps the birds safer from mink and otter attacks and protects the ducklings and eggs from crows and gulls. Upturned timber dinghies, inverted wooden crates and disused drawers, and rough driftwood structures lined with clumps of dried seaweed are the shacks, flats, mansions and palaces of an eider village.
By April, the eider duck breeding pairs have waddled ashore and agreed on a place for the female to settle into and lay about five eggs, which incubate for 28 days. During that time, males go far out to sea to moult and re-plume while farm life revolves around female ducks not being disturbed. So-called eider wives make regular rounds – sometimes up to eight times a day – to check on their safety.
While the female nests, she pulls the down from her own body to warm her eggs. Eiderdown has tiny barbs and these hook into one another to create an incredibly light substance that also retains a lot of heat.
In June, after ducklings follow their mother down to the shore and swim off to sea, humans swoop in and get to work harvesting this delicate discarded down. Poop, stones, dust, grass and dirt must all be removed from it, which in the past was done manually using a down harp. Although electric machines now exist, the traditional and far more labour-intensive method is still practised on Vega.
In 2004, Vega archipelago's cultural landscape was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The significant contribution of women to the unique practice of eiderdown harvesting, which they continue to actively and passionately preserve, is acknowledged.
A doona from Vega costs over AUD6000 but lasts up to 100 years, only needs washing every 15 years and the investment supports an environmentally low-impact and sustainable industry. A great example of buying less by buying better.
Emirates flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Oslo (via Dubai). See emirates.com/au.
Scandinavian Airlines connects you to domestic Norwegian airports in Kirkenes and Bergen. See flysas.com.
A visit to Vega, available southbound from early June to early September, is at the soft end of Hurtigruten's range of adventurous excursions offered on the Norwegian coastal route. Take a look at their website for trip details and book through. See bentours.com.au
Elspeth Callender was a guest of Hurtigruten.