I. Here’s What Happened
The first agreement is to be impeccable with your word. And, much like their affinity for tacos, Norwegians appear to take this bit of Mexican wisdom (well, Toltec) very seriously. Because, up north in Scandinavia, where those three nordic spoons — Norway, Sweden, Finland — all meet, is Mount Halti. A fell (from old Norse fjall; “mountain”) that wonkily straddles Norway and Finland, rising 4,478 feet above sea level. While many around the world probably scoff at this altitude, that’s as high as you can get in Suomi. Halti, short for Haltiatunturi, is its greatest elevation.
Scratch that — actually, the highest you can get in Finland is only 4,357 feet. The last 120-or-so — the peak, the summit, the top — of Halti is about 66 feet (20 meters) north of an imaginary line across the southern slope. A line where the Republic of Finland ends, and the Kingdom of Norway begins.
In other words, the tallest part of Finland isn’t in Finland at all. It’s in Norway.
• • •
Countries sharing mountains isn’t all that uncommon. China especially, has a reputation of sticky fingers in this arena. The most famous of course, being the joint custody of Everest it has with Nepal. But in addition, China claims half of all of these neighbors’ highest elevations as well: Bhutan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Myanmar, (Nepal), Pakistan and, arguably, North Korea. And those are just the highest peaks — don’t think Laos, Tajikistan, and Vietnam got off scot free. They’re just lucky enough to have their highest points squarely in their interiors. Mounts on their respective borders with China, rest assured, have been split. But, even with all this sharing going on, all the mountains in question are divided evenly. Down the middle, at the peak. While Halti isn’t unique in its asymmetry (I’m sure), its the asymmetry as a concept in itself, that’s unusual.
• • •
The modern border up here dates back to 1751, when it served as not the dividing line between Finland and Norway, but the Kingdom of Sweden, and Crown of Denmark, respectively. While a fell like Halti would probably have been of no consequence to Oslo or Helsinki (well, Turku), it certainly wasn’t of much consequence to Copenhagen and Stockholm. A treaty signed in Strömstad, Sweden decided the border, from what I can tell, based on two things: parishes, and water.
That’s: What church parishes were the area’s Christians members of? To which country did said parishes belong? But, primarily, water lines won they day. A miniature continental divide in the Scandinavian Mountains that sends precipitation north to the Arctic Ocean — Norway’s territory — or south to the Gulf of Bothnia — Finland’s.
Also, then and now the zenith of Fennoscandia — what you get when you combine conventional Scandinavia with its Finnish and Russian, broadly, neighbors — is of most day-to-day importance to our colorful, reindeer-herding friends, the Sami. But, the very same treaty signed in Stömstad, granted them the right to cross all the borders up here freely; unceremoniously. So really, who cares?
And if nothing else, no disrespect, but physically speaking Halti is a big mound of mossy scree. While I’ve never been, and am no reindeer expert, I don’t picture such terrain being the preferred dining experience of Santa’s horsepower. But that’s just my unqualified opinion.
• • •
As opposed to Sweden and Denmark, Norway and Finland have not enjoyed an exclusively independent past. Some recap, but both have been under Sweden’s dominion at various points (with various degrees of willingness); Norway has been under the Crown of Denmark; and while both countries border Russia — an attribute that rarely gives the neighbor peace of mind — Finland seems to have had a much rougher go of the whole situation. The Grand Duchy of [Finland], did wriggle from Russian rule during those infamous 1917 Revolutions during WWI, but turbulent decades followed. The Soviet Union gave its all to adding an F.S.S.R. to its collection in the WWII offshoot Winter War, but were put down. Thanks in large part to one of history’s greatest badasses, Simo Häyhä or, beyala smert’ to the Red Army: the “White Death.” An epithet Häyhä earned for his (at least) 500 confirmed kills of Red Soldiers — namely snipes with an iron sight rifle during the Karelian winter. Oh — and that Winter War lasted only three months, by the way.
By 1917 both countries were independent, and by 1945 both were comfortably so. Norway’s most recent union with Sweden underwent an amicable break-up in 1905, and victory in the Continuation War (continuation of the Winter War) finally put out the threat of Soviet annexation for Finland.
And through everything, the Finno-Norwegian border stayed the same. As far as we’re concerned, at least.
All this is to say, and many (almost all) countries around the world will be familiar with this, that independence is perhaps most appreciated when it’s not there. And earning it, violently or not, is probably the single most significant thing a nation can experience — but we all understand this. Countries celebrate their anniversaries of independence every year. And what do friends do for each other on, we’ll call them, birthdays…?
• • •
By the way: there is one more, possible, explanation for why the border lies where it does, for why it doesn’t saddle Halti so neatly. Finland is growing. No, not by population, though it is in that respect, but physically it’s getting larger.
Like all realms occupying the Arctic Circle, during the last Ice Age (or Pleistocene, for you highbrows) Finland was the bed for glaciers of mind-boggling immensity. Such immensity, that the land of modern-day Finland, especially on the Gulf of Bothnia, was crushed some 1,600 feet down into Earth’s crust. Now that the antediluvian glacier is gone, Finland and its arctic contemporaries are puffing up again.
Glacial Rebound, as they say, is resurrecting land sunken in Earth’s crust at a rate of approximately half a kilometer per year, bringing it flush with the rest of the Eurasian Plate. Primarily, the land comes as new islets in Bothnia, or turns existing islands to peninsulas (“almost island” in latin, incidentally). In North America, our hot spot for this is Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago, where Juneau is.
So to me — who is by no means an authority to seriously suggest this — it’s perfectly reasonable to think that in 1751 the border did straddle Halti’s peak right down the center. But, because Finland is rising like bread dough, and undoing an entire epoch’s worth of Existence, Concave Style™, Halti’s peak has been displaced that pesky 20 meters north into Norway over the last two-and-a-half centuries. Just a thought.
• • •
Enter the twenty-first century.
Now, the Nordics are known for their harmonious, neighborly relationship with one and other. Something that is, unfortunately, so rare with comparable peoples in close proximity. And, what’s more a token of friendship than a big, meaningful gift for a friend’s big milestone? Again, like say, a birthday?
Enter Bjørn Geirr Harrson.
The Norsk geophysicist discovered Halti’s discrepancy back in 1972, actually. Before then, Finland’s highest point was always assumed — less than that, even — to be, well, in Finland. Not a terribly hot take, it isn’t unusual for a country’s highest peak to be wholly within its own territory (ahem, China), but while conducting research along the border, Bjørn learned what was up. And, again to Bjørn’s credit, he’s been trying to drum up support for changing the border here for as long as he’s known of the mismatch. But it never got much attention. That is, until 2015 — when Finland’s centennial of independence from Russia began to appear on the horizon. When Bjørn decided to have another go at things. To have his country deliver a most unique gift to a friend…
A facebook page created by Harrson in 2016, that still exists today, Halti som jubileumsgave (“Halti as an anniversary gift”), gained over 17,000 likes and support from both Nordmenns and Suoumalaiset alike. In particular, I enjoy the ‘About’ of the section, whose synopsis:
I 2017 feirer Finland 100-årsjubileum, og Norge kan gi dem en stor gave. La oss ta Finland til nye høyder!
(In 2017 Finland celebrates its 100th anniversary, and Norway can give them a great gift. Let’s take Finland to new heights!)
I find is a perfect kind of Nordic camaraderie. It goes on: “…on its centenary, [Finland] can change both its history and geography books to reflect a new high point.”
Yes, the grand gift Bjørn and Norway thought up for the Republic of Finland’s centenary, was Mount Halti. Comma, the peak of.
• • •
Tangent: The only more more innocuous border disagreement I can think of is between Canada and Denmark, over Hans Island. A rock in the Nares Strait between Ellesmere Island and Greenland, whose contest some call the “Whisky War.” Named of course, for the matériel of Canadian Whisky and Danish Snaps deployed by the belligerents; pint-sized soldiers that invariably meet the swift, grisly fate of death by ingestion.
• • •
But the cheekiness would end there. Come 2017, Halti in the end wasn’t presented to dear Finland as a birthday present, despite the practically unanimous support. Support that even included Erna Solberg, Norway’s Prime Minister who still serves today. She is, however, also the one responsible for closing the case on the matter.
By sticking to the First Agreement. By being impeccable with her country’s word. Prime Minister Solberg rejected the action of giving Finland an invisible blip on the map, on the basis of Norway’s constitution. The first sentence of it, actually:
The Kingdom of Norway is a free, independent, indivisible, and inalienable Realm.