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Friluftsliv: the Norwegian Immigrant Experience in Canada

“Jack Rabbit” Johansen credited with introducing cross-country skiing to Canada (photo Canadian Museum of Nature)

What does it mean to be Norwegian? The answer will depend of course on who you ask. It may be one thing to a Norwegian resident and another to a Canadian who was born in Norway, and to still another to someone born in Canada of Norwegian descent. It all comes down to the stories we tell each other and ourselves, according to Professor Ingrid Urberg, our February speaker, who has studied this question in depth. Stories have the power to shape our collective imaginations, she told us, and the story of Norwegians, both inside and outside of Norway, has become over time the story of friluftsliv.

According to Dr. Urberg, this friluftsliv concept of actively seeking to be in and enjoying the outdoors is central to the Norwegian story and actually has at least some of its roots in Canada. The Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad’s 1931 book “Pelsjegerliv” (translated into English in 1933 under the title “The Land of Feast and Famine” and once again in print) was immensely influential in Norway. It depicts his years spent living as a fur trapper in the Great Slave Lake area; sometimes alone, sometimes with other trappers, and sometimes among the Inuit. It was a harsh, dangerous life but Ingstad portrayed it as full of adventure and as an experience that fostered his self-development. “Only in the wilderness I felt I was free,” he wrote. The book had an enormous impact on the Norwegian imagination, which continues to this day. (My own Norwegian cousin visited Canada as a young man in the 1970’s and embarked on a long, solo canoe trip through northern British Columbia! I must ask him whether he had read Ingstad’s book!)

Ingstad seems to have influenced a later Norwegian adventurer and journalist, Lars Monsen, who documented a nearly three-year trip through northern Canada on skis, and by dogsled and canoe. By extraordinary coincidence, on March 29, 2001, the day of Ingstad’s death, Monsen was camped by Ingstad Creek in the Northwest Territories.

There are other examples of adventurous Norwegians who became known for their stamina ability to adapt to the Canadian wilderness, including “Jack Rabbit” Johansen, credited with introducing cross-country skiing to Canada, Kristoffer Clausen and Einar Odd Mortensen, who wrote about fur trapping in the North.

Dr. Urberg also drew on many first hand accounts from immigrants to Canada in studying the concept of friluftsliv. Their descriptions of life in their new country were less romanticized than the adventurers’ accounts, but echoed their concept of living an isolated life in beautiful natural surroundings. It was a life that required inner strength and stamina but the reward was the pleasure of enjoying nature and a strong sense of self-development.

Dr. Urberg is a professor at the Augustana campus of the University of Alberta. Founded in 1910 by Norwegian settlers as a Lutheran College, it offers a B.A. in Scandinavian Studies. In the early 20th century, Alberta was the heartland of Norwegian immigration, including many “Minnesota Norwegians” who had moved to Canada from the United States. The influence of these Norwegians lingers on in other museums and cultural activities, including the Laft Hus Museum in Red Deer, and the Camrose Ski Club and Lefse House. In 2007, the Scandinavian Trade and Cultural Society in Edmonton published a book called “Scandinavian Connections: A Guide to Sites in Alberta.

The Camrose and District Museum contains a replica of a 10 x 15 foot cabin, constructed of poplar logs with a sod roof, that was built by Ole Bakken, who was the first settler in New Norway, Alberta (about 160 km from Leslieville, where Samuel Sande established his farm in the 1910’s (

Norwegian immigrants brought to Canada an enjoyment in simply being outside and a philosophy of doing whatever can be done, outdoors. And once in Canada, this idea was

reinforced and sent back to Norway, amplifying this concept of Norwegians in Norway and abroad as people who love the outdoors. “The world is made up of stories, not atoms,” was Dr. Urberg’s closing remark. We learn the stories of ourselves, our communities, and our people and the stories influence our lives, which lead to new stories and on and on it goes. As Dr. Urberg pointed out, the story of friluftsliv is an inclusive and accessible one that enriches our lives and those of our communities. We could certainly do worse!.

Thank you to Dr. Urberg for a really fascinating talk, and for sending along this list of suggested reading on the topic:

Suggested Titles


Across the Deep Blue Sea: The Saga of Early Norwegian Immigrants (From Norway to America through the Canadian Gateway) – Odd S. Lovoll (Minnesota Historical Society, 2015)

From Fjord to Frontier: A History of Norwegians in Canada – Gulbrand Loken (McClelland and Stewart, 1988)

Pioneer Days in Bardo, Alberta: Including Sketches of Early Surrounding Settlements – Ragna Steen with Magda Hendrickson (The Historical Society of Beaver Hills Lake, Tofield Alberta, 1944)


The Fur Trader: From Oslo to Oxford House – Einar Odd Mortensen with Gerd Kjustad Mortensen, Edited by Ingrid Urberg and Daniel Sims (U of Alberta Press, 2022) [original title: Pelshandleren, Gyldendal

Looking for Country: A Norwegian Immigrant’s Alberta Memoir – Ellenor Ranghild Merriken, Intro by Janice Dickin (U of Calgary Press, 1999)

Johan Schrøder’s Travels in Canada, 1863 – Ed. By Orm Øverland (McGill-Queen’s UP, 1989)Pelsjegerliv – Helge Ingstad (Gyldendal, 1931)


Nature First: Outdoor Life the Friluftsliv Way – Edited by Bob Henderson & Nils Vikander (Natural Heritage Books, 2007) ( One of the chapters is “Friluftsliv Transplanted: The Norwegian Immigrant Experience in Canada” – Ingrid Urberg)

Helge Ingstad: Inspiration for a Life of Adventure in the Land of Feast and Famine” – Ingrid Urberg, in Pike’s Portage: Stories of a Distinguished Place, Edited by Morten Asfeldt and Bob Henderson (Natural Heritage Books, 2010) (pp. 192-204)

(She also mentioned the recent fiction works by Edvard Hoem, including the now translated Haymaker in Heaven)

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