An Alberta family explores its Nordic roots

Although the mountains of Scandinavia separate Norway and Sweden, the people of these European countries have more than just a geological connection.

The old family farm

The old family farm

Although the mountains of Scandinavia separate Norway and Sweden, the people of these European countries have more than just a geological connection.

Once ruled by ancient Viking kings, Norway and Sweden have been united as one kingdom on at least three occasions in history, the most recent ending in 1905. With such a recent alliance, it is little wonder that many North Americans have ties to both countries.

Last September, Larry and Linda Henderson of Lacombe and Harold and Connie Henderson of Wainwright spent several weeks exploring Norway and Sweden. For Larry and Harold, the journey felt like a homecoming. Although the two brothers were both born in Canada, their mother’s parents came to Canada from Norway, while their father’s parents came from Sweden. Both brothers visited Scandinavia decades before, but on this trip they explored Norway and Sweden more thoroughly and tracked down several long-lost relatives who told them about their family history.

The journey began in London, where the two couples enjoyed a brief stay before continuing on to Oslo, the capital city of Norway.

Founded in the mid-11th century, Oslo has become a sophisticated city with plenty of green space and some of the best museums in northern Europe.

Although they visited several attractions in the capital city, a highlight of their stay in Oslo was a visit to Vikingskiphuset, or Viking Ship Museum. Among the fascinating artifacts on display are several Viking ships dating to the ninth century AD.

“We were fascinated by the ancient Viking ships on display and found our visit to the Viking Ship Museum very worthwhile,” said Larry. “The ships had beautiful carvings, as did the furniture.”

The next stop was a visit to western Norway and the city of Bergen. Situated in the heart of the mountains and fjords, Bergen was once an important trading city for the Vikings.

During a brief stay, the couples enjoyed visits to the Bryggens Museum and Hakon’s Hall. The Bryggens Museum is located on the site of Bergen’s first settlement and contains medieval artifacts that help to illustrate what life was like in the Middle Ages. Hakon’s Hall is the largest secular medieval hall still standing in Europe.

All travellers agreed that the scenic highlight of their Norwegian journey was a Hurtigruten cruise from Bergen to Trondheim, which included a full-day excursion to see some of the stunning mountains and fjords in western Norway.

“Travelling up the coastline was something I will never forget,” explained Connie. “On our shore excursion, we travelled by bus up the most incredibly winding roads. From the top, the view of the fjords was absolutely spectacular. It was a sunny day and the mountains were green and lush and you could see for miles.”

The cruise ended in Trondheim, the third largest city in Norway and the gateway to the northern wilderness regions of Norway. Founded by the Viking King Olaf I Tryggvason in the 10th century, Trondheim served as the country’s capital until the early 11th century.

It is a beautiful city built on the mouth of the Nidelven River and it has a Gothic-style cathedral that dates to the late ninth century.

“Modern Trondheim is a bustling university town and the students give the city a kind of energy and vitality that is almost palpable,” Linda said.

“We enjoyed touring Trondheim and visiting the sites, but one of the best parts of the visit was the opportunity to reconnect with one of Larry’s cousins.”

From Trondheim, they rented a car and travelled to Brekstad, where they met many relatives and visited the site that was once the family farm.

“I learned so much about my family history from the visit to Brekstad,” said Larry. “My mother’s first cousin was an absolute encyclopaedia of information. She explained that Brekstad was one of the first places invaded by the Germans during World War II. At the time, they took over my grandparents’ family farm and made it the site of a prisoner of war camp.”

They also visited Fort Austratt, where the Germans used the prisoners to install huge guns that were capable of shooting a 320-kg shell a distance of 26 km.

They heard many of the war experiences firsthand and found out that their relatives had been involved in the resistance.

They next flew to Stockholm, Sweden, which is often referred to as the pearl of Europe and consists of 14 islands that are best viewed by water on a relaxing boat cruise.

Larry highly recommends a visit to the Vasa Ship Museum, which contains the only almost fully intact 17th century ship that has ever been salvaged. The Vasa ship sunk in the Stockholm harbour in 1628 and the wreck was salvaged in 1961. The reconstructed vessel is 95 per cent original.

The final stop was a visit to Malung, Sweden, to connect with their father’s family members living in the region.

“Malung is a fairly remote area but is popular in the summer for its lakes, fishing and hunting,” explained Larry. “In the winter, skiing and snowmobiling are popular pastimes. Hunting moose, deer and other game is such a part of the locals’ tradition that the school kids get a week off during hunting season.”

Larry said that hockey is a popular sport in this part of Sweden and as a result the Jofa hockey helmet is manufactured in the Malung area. A relative toured them through the plant and in the salesroom, Larry and Harold had their picture taken beside a display of Sidney Crosby’s sweater. Crosby is one of the major ad reps for Jofa helmets.

In Malung, they visited the 150-year-old log home where their great-grandfather was born. “History is important to the family and the house has been preserved,” said Harold. “The community also has a 100-year-old pioneer village and museum with displays of ancient tools and beautiful art work with some buildings more than 300 years old.”

The best part of Malung for all involved was the opportunity to meet and enjoy the company of relatives.

“We had written to a cousin in Malung in 1983 and when we met her, she showed us the letter she had saved for 27 years,” said Connie.

“Meeting the family there was like reconnecting with old friends. They were so gracious and happy to see us. During this trip, we learned so much about the Henderson family history that we hadn’t known before. After researching the family line for years, it cemented things for us. We feel a new connection to the past and to our relatives living in Scandinavia.”

If you go:

• Norway and Sweden are very expensive countries to visit and there are no direct flights from Canada. The Hendersons were able to reduce the cost of airfare by purchasing charter flights to London with Thomas Cook Airlines ( and then purchasing inexpensive connector flights from London to Norway.

• A three-day Hurtigruten cruise ( and a shore excursion to visit the Geiranger fjords was a scenic highlight of their visit to Norway. The couples cruised from Bergen to Trondheim. A three-day cruise costs about $539 per person for an outside cabin with additional discounts available for seniors. Longer cruises are also available. The Geirenger shore excursion took a full day and cost $177 per person, but proved to be one of the absolute highlights of the trip.

• Hotels that they particularly recommend are the Hilton Tower Bridge Hotel in London, To Sostre bed and breakfast in Bergen, and Vardshuset Lugnet bed and breakfast in Malung.

• They purchased a GPS prior to leaving Canada and found it very useful during the journey, particularly when they travelled by car.

• Bank machines work very well in this part of Europe, so it is not necessary to bring a great deal of cash with you.

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.