13 September 2012

The Telemark Canal

Canals are that forgotten collection of map lines.  For most, an expanse of land is crossed by road or rail, the earthly passage made along firm trails.  The road grid is expanding like fast vines.  By airplane, the points are connected in the abstract, reduced to points in time - flightpaths exist in thin air.  Canals on the other hand - those flat and blue marvels of antique engineering - are relics. They silt in, they're clogged with weeds, they lie disused.  Old buildings line their shores, their purposes as obscure as the mud along the bottom.  It's not really a sad thing.  Unlike a road or a stretch of disused rip-rap, a canal can revert so peacefully to nature.  It's only water.
The Telemark Canal runs sixty five smooth miles between Skien and Dalen, connecting a collection of long lakes and rivers.  The canal is noteworthy for its complex lock system - there are 18 wooden-sided chambers in all, scattered along the length, still in about the same shape as they were in 1861.  Boats still use it; in fact, it's a point of Norwegian pride.
When the Victoria approaches a lock, it's with a proud sashay - the boat glides into the narrow chambers so smoothly that it seems to be on rails.  The boat is beautifully kept, with worn and polished wood and bright green decks.  It's hard to believe that she's over a hundred years old, or that she's been in these Telemark waters since 1882.  Every day, in theory, the boat makes a languorous, ten hour journey - depending on the day, it might be from foothills to seashore or the opposite, from the coast up towards the mountains.  People get on and off with cameras, it's more a tourist operation than transport.
Touristy as it is, the ship's journey is made with all the perfect formality and pageantry that can be afforded a distinguished old dame.  Each lock is taken in stride, with salutes to the men on shore and patient sinking. Watching the ship descend the locks in Ulefoss - there are three chambers, and it takes about forty minutes - is like watching someone regal come slowly down a staircase, attended to on all sides by a busy retinue.  This mechanical process is made very graceful.
The locks are operated by hand, opened and shut by two young men.  First, they close the aft gates.  Then they open the downriver ports, letting all the water drain into the next chamber - this is a loud and frothy happening, accompanied by the slow settling of the boat into the chamber.  Finally, they open the forward gates and the Victoria moves ahead into the next chamber.
The Telemark canal was built in two stages, and - when it was completed in 1982 - was called the "eighth wonder of Europe."  Not only did the waterway service the southern inland, but it also linked east and west Norway, creating a safer and more reliable route between the coasts.  Free from maritime storms and waves, the journey was usually faster than the ocean route.
It's difficult to image now, with Norway's miles of smooth tarmac and whisper-quiet trains, but the canal was a major development in the nineteenth century.  It's not the most mountainous of Norway's regions, but the Telemark landscape is far from flat.  There are also dozens of lakes and rivers.  The water criss-crosses the terrain in long valleys, making overland travel difficult.  Being able to link together these bodies of water was important and arduous.  It took a crew of five hundred men almost five years to blast and dig through the rock, construct the locks and even the falls.
Ulefoss is the last downstream lock stairway before Lake Norsjø, where the going is easy for several miles. The first mate had his jacket off as he stood on the prow, guiding his ship through her descent.  It was raining a little, but the sun was out and it was warm.  He was friendly to us few landlubbers on shore, and even asked one of us to help him secure a line.
After the last gate was opened, the man put his jacket back on - complete with shining epaulets - and gave an exaggerated, stiff-backed salute to the two men who had worked the ratchets and levers.  Once the Victoria was out of sight, these younger men lit cigarettes, got in their cars and zoomed out of the parking lot.
In more peaceful Lunde, about ten minutes drive upriver, the single lock has a tranquil, reedy calm. Much of the Telemark's route is built up with factories, mills and towns.  In Lunde, the canal is nothing but a peaceful waterway.  The water is glass-clear, birds flit along the banks, wooden rowboats are tied up under trees.
Close at hand, with its bottom mired in muck and its steam pipe listing to one side, sits one of Norway's oldest construction machines, the frog-green "Mudder'n'."  The name, almost too predictably, means "muddy."  A steam dredge bought in 1890, the canal's snaggle-toothed workhorse was used for decades to keep the lock channels deep enough and to free up detritus washed in during floods.  It's been fixed up a little, but the deck is littered with leaves and the gears are rusted.  Compared with the canal boats, it has received very little love.
We found nothing in Lunde except a shuttered cafe and a parking lot.  In September, the canal traffic is starting to cool off.  The farms close to the water had tightly wrapped bales of hay and grain combines parked in the fields - a few late season roses bloomed in someone's garden.  We felt alone there, by the banks of the Telemark.  It was funny to imagine the canal's heyday, when it represented progress and new horizons.  We realized, looking at the map, that we'd already crossed over it a few times, without even realizing it.

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