Taking Risks, Finding Joy
Scanning the news from Norway the past week, I found a short article from the Telemark county news service Varden.no, warning bathers that this month it would be very dangerous to swim at Ilekleiv’s jettegryter – the natural geological “potholes” that have become a favorite swim site – near Haugjåsund, Nissedal.
You realize you know a country pretty well when you find yourself seizing on these tidbits. You’ve been to this place, and you wonder why it won’t be open, and you are half-prepared to be indignant, lest some American-minded hyper-protectionist has decided that creating a fuss about more child-safety warnings makes for a great way to pass the summer.
Then you stop and realize – you’re American.
The strong caution in this case is reasonable, since Agder Energi’s maintenance in the area will introduce a flood over the three weeks of work. When 10,000 liters per second or more of water come rushing through an area like this, it’s not to be brushed off. So I share summer bathers’ unhappiness – especially as the rain seems to have slacked for the time being – but I have to second the energy company.
Remembering my visit to Nissedal’s jettegryter last August, though, I suspect that, were it located in this mid-Atlantic region of the United States, the area would always be barred to the public over safety and liability concerns.
That, I wouldn’t like at all.
Jettegrytene (I can’t bring myself to call them potholes; in Philadelphia those denote entirely different, axle- and ankle-breaking entities) in river areas develop from eddying of the water, pressing stones and gravel against underlying granite and gneiss, over thousands of years. The activity has created in the granite patterns, depressions, and even deep shafts – in some cases, as in Lucerne, Switzerland, extending downward as far as 30 meters.
In some regions, especially when the formations can be found away from a known tributary, they constitute a reminder of the end of the Ice Age. As parts of a glacier would melt, the run-off would pick up debris and carry it into crevasses in the rock bed underneath. This constant process generated a similar “carving” activity on the underlying landscape, leaving curvatures and pipes in the stone after the glacier had fully melted. The dry Archbald Pothole in Lackawanna County, northeastern Pennsylvania, is of this variety.
Because the stones swirled by river water are as hard or harder than the underlying rock, and the action is constant, they polish its surface. Afterward, where water continues to cascade over the stone or fills the holes, the surfaces of the formations become quite slick. Jettegrytene at Ilekleiv (“steep-coursing spring,” in English) in Nissedal follow such a pattern, creating a natural water slide and many pools for swimmers.
Algae deposits may cause these surfaces to become very slippery indeed – as I can attest from having spent at least five minutes trying to stand up after coasting down into a shallow depression. I felt like an all-too-familiar Med Alert commercial.
To an American, the natural water slide seems one heck of a risk, even when accompanied by experienced swimmers. (Two in our party actually had trained in water rescue, among other safety measures. Neither of them helped me up.) The first pothole I slipped down into was deep – how deep, I couldn’t tell you, but the literal translation of jettegryte, “giant’s cauldron,” struck me as quite appropriate. I paddled along close to the edge of the nearest stone, certain the only way out was over into the shallower flow of the slightly chilly water.
Once into that flow, the current competed with the slippery surface to keep me on the slide. (When you commit to letting the river carry you over jettegrytene, you don’t get many chances to change your mind.) Sometimes fast and deep, sometimes slick and shallow, the trip bobbled me over the formations toward the larger stream and pond at the end. Before coasting completely over, I slid into a depression the size and depth of a bathtub, where I enjoyed the embarrassing experience of repeatedly trying to gain solid footing and step out of calf-deep water.
Not an adventure for egotists, perhaps – but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
According to NRK, Nissedal’s jettegryter lay hidden before Agder Energi began to regulate the water flow from the Fyresåna River in its hydroelectricity generation. After the rock formations surfaced, they stayed a local secret until the newspaper Aftenposten alerted the country to their presence in 1999. With their natural slides, pools both deep and shallow, and long stretches of rock catching the summer sun, the area earned itself that year’s acclamation as the best bathing place in three counties. Within six years, they were attracting as many as 10,000 visitors per summer.
Thus far, Norwegians have had a different attitude toward their natural treasures than Americans often demonstrate. The municipality has made no effort to build up the area as a tourist zone; there are no snack stands, vast dining areas, or organized athletic activities. No lifeguard oversees the swimmers, no rangers round people up, and no changing rooms are available (as Varden’s article on hidden swimming spots retorts on the issue of “facilities,” “Here nature is enough in itself, and you can change behind a bush”).
Perhaps this even helps a tiny bit in keeping Nissedal’s jettegryter a nice place to visit. Though state officials believed marketing the site better would help counter the deterioration of Pennsylvania’s Archbald Pothole – not widely known – the park suffers from “littering and lewd behavior.” It isn’t clear that marketing has a positive effect – nor that measures to cater to the public while protecting it from “natural” harms do not encourage a certain number of people to create other problems, once responsibility seems out of the hands of the individual.
I think a large part of keeping such sites enjoyable has at its roots the teaching practice of adults who enjoy the area actively with young people, and without the “helicopter parenting” that demands youngsters always be guarded by fences and authorities. Responsibility and consequences are learned in the bumps and bruises of experience, and are modeled by the adults who themselves take on challenges, clean up when they leave and require children to do so, and allow youngsters the freedom of making mistakes – and learning from them.
Whatever combination of cultural values, effort, and good fortune has maintained Nissedal’s jettegryter, I hope for its continued resilience. Tremendous joy lies in the freedom of coming out into natural areas and interacting with them respectfully – knowing the risks and accepting them as part of the experience of the environment. To see young Norwegian adults sharing their happiness in such places, through their writing and photography, is heartening and, I think, important in conveying the value of such locations.
Maybe jettegrytene in Telemark really are protected by nisser – those dwarf-like household spirits with the tassled hats who have to be appeased with porridge. After all, it is their valley (dal).
Feed them well. But keep charging that $10 or so toll on the road.
At the least, it might deter the Americans.