Shelter from the storm

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Three hours or so up a track into the forest and I found a tiny wooden cabin, like in a Jack London story. It can’t have been more than six foot by eight foot, half-buried in the snow, with a narrow metal chimney pipe sticking out of the roof. I was tired, and my feet were damp where I’d gone deep into the snow on a couple of occasions through a lack of skis or snowshoes. The door was only about half my height, but I cleared the snow away from it, dragged it open, and crawled inside.

It was dark, with light coming through one small, half snow-covered window. There were two benches, a table, and an ancient, rusty stove in one corner, with an axe and a stack of wood piled up next to it. I opened up the plate and it was filled with dry chips. On the table sat two old-fashioned candle-holders, an empty tin of beer, two rather alien bottles of Smirnoff Ice, one drunk by a label-peeler, and a cheap ring-bound notebook with a pencil jammed in the spine. A discarded plastic bottle of cognac lay on top of the wood pile.

All around the walls were scored with the marks of penknives. Names and dates, some going back to the early 60s. I’d been told about these little open huts dotted through the woods, ostensibly for shelter in storms, but also used as hunting and fishing lodges. The book on the table was a sort of logbook, and about 10 or 15 groups had written in it since 2004. One was a family, with scrawled, childish entries a sentence long, then the measured writing of a grownup. It had been in February of 2006, and the adult recorded a temperature of -20. The intrepid Norwegians and their obsession with the outdoors. My friend in Kirkenes had told me that when babies there wouldn’t sleep, some mothers took them for a walk outside, wrapped in blankets and with a cloth loosely covering their face, and after a minute or two in the icy, soothing air, they’d be fast asleep. The rule was that babies of one month could take -1, those of two months, -2, and so on. Cold-blooded northerners.

And the cabin wasn’t abandoned, by any means. It hadn’t been visited recently, judging by the age of the bottles and the last entry in the book, but lighter wood round the window, and some planks nailed round the door where the snow had been getting in, showed that it had been repaired in the last few years. The benches, really just planks resting on rough rounds of birch, were relatively recent. And who had stocked it with wood? Obviously whoever was there last had set the stove ready for the next person, but someone not so long ago had spent an afternoon chopping logs to stack down the side wall, so that strangers coming in from the cold could get warm. Someone kept this place. Maybe loved it a little.

I asked a guy who gave me a lift into town the next day and he told me that a lot of households take responsibility for a hut or two, keeping them in reasonable repair and filling it with fuel at the end of the summer. Tumbledown outposts of kindness in the wilds. The one I’d found was looked after by the parents of Trine, whose cabin I was staying in, though they hadn’t been up there in a while.

I didn’t stay long, but sat on one of the uncomfortable benches, eating a couple of biscuits and looking round at the names on the walls and the spent matches and rollup stubs under the table, monuments in their own miniature way to the casual adventurers who’d passed through. These were the sorts of places that I thought belonged firmly in the imagination of small boys, yet here they were, larger or smaller than life.

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