Klitmøller is an odd little place, one of countless fishing-villages dotting the northwestern coast of Denmark. The houses are low and oblong, with thatched or tiled roofs, and with the exception of some newer glassy boxes, are largely white, yellow, or unpainted brick. During the summer, its population swells three- or fourfold; during winter, it is besieged by bitter offshore winds and becomes almost a ghost town, inhabited only by the sturdiest and most obstinate of north shore Danes. It is the sort of place where you might see fish hung out to dry on a line next to kitchen towels or the all-weather onesies necessary for anyone, child or adult, to tolerate the colder months.
Unless you’re a cold-water surfer, a German summer tourist, or a native, you might never hear of Klitmøller. The name means “mills in the dunes” and refers to three mills that used to stand near the sea and mill grain for export to Norway back in the 1600s. Back then it was a town of fishermen and fishwives, like so many other towns on the sea. A few colorful boats still operate out of Klitmøller, the last stubborn, independent remnants of pre-industrial fishing.
During the 1990s, Klitmøller surprised everyone by becoming a surf-town. A quirk of geography blessed the place with the best surfable waves in Europe. And it wasn’t long before wave fanatics from all over the world gave Klitmøller a nickname – “Cold Hawaii.” The most apt part of this nickname, for me, may be the “cold” part.
But the weather gods allow pleasant days, too. One languid afternoon last summer in Klitmøller, no one was fishing and no one was surfing. I was settling in to house-sit for a friend. I’d just fed her cats and stashed my film (Kodak Tri-X 400, some Ilford HP5+, and a couple Kodak Golds) into her fridge when the sea fog came in. When this occurs (in Danish, the term is havgus) it feels as if someone somewhere has pulled a cosmic lever and you’ve been removed to a distant planet.
Danish summer daylight is bright, powerful, and long-lasting, still lingering at half past eleven at night; but it vanishes like a snuffed candle with the advent of the sea fog. The fog is thick, heavy, damp, grey, and all-encompassing. The temperature at once drops several degrees. Houses become mysterious half-hidden geometries. Sound alters too – cheery voices disappear from backyards, the leaves cease rustling among the branches of the trees, and birds retreat silently into scrubby local evergreens. Roads which led to ice cream shops moments before now appear to run off the edge of the world.
I snatched up my Pentax ME Super already loaded with my go-to walk around film Kodak Tri-X, and struck out into the grey. This Pentax, my first film camera, is the one I always gravitate back to despite several delightful other camera purchases since. It goes with me everywhere, every day; it’s the one I reach for the way I reach for wallet and keys. Although I own more technically advanced cameras, the Pentax just ticks all the right boxes for me: it’s small enough to be comfortable in my small hands, light enough to hang over my shoulder all day without a second thought, capable and fast enough to handle just about any shooting situation I might stumble across. If I carried a purse or bag, it would easily fit into even a small one. But I don’t. I like to be light on my feet. Wallet. Keys. Extra film in my pocket. The Pentax.
Klitmøller is on my home turf, very close to where I grew up, and I’ve spent a lot of time there. Nonetheless, as I took to the spidery footpaths meandering through the dune heath, I wondered if I would in fact find the water’s edge or end up somewhere else. Visibility shifted as the sea fog coalesced around me; it breathes as it travels, a ghostly beast. Once, some years earlier, I happened to be atop a hill as it came in on a golden afternoon and watched in astonishment as the vast hungry cloud swallowed the entire landscape.
I arrived at the shoreline by following the sound of tiny waves washing over wet pebbles. Here, though I was right next to it, the sea fog hid the town completely. The world belonged to me, a liminal space of water, rock, and sky. My footsteps, the wash of the surf, and the click of my Pentax’s shutter were all that I could hear, until two shadows loomed ahead in the mist. Presently they formed into two young Danes who, it turned out, had just arrived in town to surf and were wandering about in search of lodging. With my hair in a scramble from the briny damp, an old camera hanging off my neck, and bits of seaweed, shells, and ocean pebbles filling my hands, I cannot have seemed a source of reliable information, and they seemed hesitant to ask. As it was, I didn’t know much about local lodging anyway. We exchanged a few words, then drifted apart. A squat form appeared in the distance, resolved itself into a fishing boat as I approached, then disappeared back into the havgus.
I sat for a while and watched the water break over a collection of rocks just off the shore. The Pentax and I kept working, each image coming and going like a dream. Eventually the damp cold worked a little too far into my bones. With the strange world of havgus stored away in my camera’s mechanical belly, I walked in solitude back through town toward the warmth of house, cat, and kettle, past rows of fishing hut windows and mysterious roads that may or may not have had an ice cream shop at the end.
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