Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Hjemkomst - One Man's Dream

It was through friends that we learned about Kathryn, North Dakota. Once visited we were ready to see it again.

The first trip was made on the strength of photos this active couple showed us of the little white Lutheran Church and the beautiful surrounding bluffs of the Sheyenne River Valley. The twisting roads through a quiet and timeless land of hills and vistas make this scenic stretch a real getaway.

We spent the next day in Fargo. We intended to do some sightseeing. The sunshine which made the drive along the Sheyenne River the day before so pleasant was gone. Rain started the day and it never let up or not by much.

Between rain and wind it wasn't going to suited for outside activities. We needed to pick our choices carefully. The more time inside at our places of interest the better.

Don't ever underestimate word of mouth to make something known. As with Kathryn, the visit to the Hjemkomst Center was a direct result of another recommendation. A friend had been there, enjoyed it and happened to mention it as we visited.

The Hjemkomst Center is on the Moorhead side of the Red River. That puts it in Minnesota. In this flat agricultural valley of the Red River, prone to flooding, recent springs have been tense. Residents on both sides of the swollen Red swing into action preparing millions of sandbags to save their towns in what has become their annual rite of spring.

They were spared this year because weeks of chilly temperatures allowed snowpack to melt gradually. During the time we spent in this metropolitan area along the Red we thought about what it takes to live where you're up against nature year after year.

As we drove the leafy residential streets of Fargo, admiring blocks of venerable architecture, we sometimes caught glimpses of two white peaks cresting the treetops on the northeast horizon. The white double peaks stood out in luminous comparison to the drab grayness of the day.

More than once, as they came into view, they reminded me of the outline of the Brooklyn Bridge. Did they build a bridge here that duplicates the Brooklyn Bridge I asked myself, even as I knew I was seeing the waterproof canvas that protects the full-scale Viking ship we were headed to see.
The Hjemkomst, which is its name, has become a Moorhead drawing card.

The high tent-like cover indeed gives a sense of a bridge floating high above the city or even the mast of a ship sailing the prairie. The imagery to the landscape that his ship gives would have tickled Robert Asp.

Robert Asp was the man who built the Viking replica ship the Hjemkomst. He was the one with a dream. A Moorhead teacher and guidance counselor, he came up with the idea forty years ago to construct by hand the ship of his Norse forefathers.

From its beginnings the Hjemkomst was a labor of love. Oak trees from along the Red River were carefully selected. An old potato warehouse in nearby Hawley was found as a place to put the ship together. The warehouse became known as the Hawley shipyards.

The local potato and sugar beet farmers, many of them descendants of Norwegian immigrants as was Robert Asp , as well as many other supporters in the Fargo-Moorhead area, took pride and interest in the work underway.

In that sea of grass, and those chessboard-flat fields of the Red River Valley, it wasn't difficult to believe that a ship could rise from Robert Asp's dreams and sail away.

Robert Asp was diagnosed with leukemia at the onset of construction. it didn't deter his dreams or distract from progress on the construction of the ship. His family and friends entered the dream with him.

It was christened the Hjemkomst, which means Homecoming, upon completion. Now it was ready for its sea test.

TV coverage recorded the momentous journey as the Hjemkomst was transported to Duluth. The ship was launched in Duluth harbor. It was an exhilerating maiden voyage on Lake Superior for Asp and his crew. For the ailing Asp, the honorary captain, it was his shining hour.

The builder of the Hjemkomst died four months later. He had worked nine years on the project. To fulfill his dream to sail it to Norway the project took on an even more earnest tone. Family, friends and the community rallied to fulfill his dream.

New vision and the help of experienced Norwegian sailors steered the way. Eric Rudstrom, one of two Norwegians added to the crew, was named skipper. In May 1982 the Hjemkomst crew felt sufficiently trained to make the Atlantic sailing to Norway. It was time to let the Hjemkomst return to the land of Asp's heritage.

The ship left Duluth in May 1982. There was a 28-day voyage across the Great Lakes. Cheering crowds and welcoming dignitaries met the ship at stops at Detroit and Rochester, New York. At Albany, New York, the Hjemkomst sailed down the Hudson River to New York City.

There was no turning back now (except for one crew member who, realizing the dangers in the Atlantic undertaking, chose to leave after they arrived in New York).

Three days out to sea a terrific storm had the crew scrambling. The ship, sturdily built as it was, was pitched heavily about by gales and waves. The crew had another thirty days at sea before the ship came into Bergen harbor, arriving on a Saturday in the middle of July.

The smell of land greeting them, while still not within sight of land, raised their spirits tremendously. They had done it. They had sailed the Hjemkomst across the Atlantic back to Norway.

At the Hjemkomst Center we joined the tour group a minute or two late. We were, as my dad would say, the cow's tail to the little bunch being shepherded around by a volunteer. He was taking the group to
the replica Norwegian stave church, also part of the Hjemkomst Center, when we caught up with them.

The stave church, built in the late 1990s, is a replica of a basilica church from southern Norway from the 1100s (by which time the Catholic religion prevailed in the land of the Vikings).
The smell of the wood and the sturdy construction makes you think of the endurance of things - of faith for one thing, but of all the things in life we put our hopes in, and our hands to, as important to us.

At the end of the tour Al and I went back to see the short video on the Hjemkomst which is shown. Late for the tour we had missed the earlier film showing. But first we simply walked around the ship, as did others. We gazed high into the mast with the tent above it between ship and open sky.

You can't help but be in awe of the spirit of the Vikings and the spirit of the man, Robert Asp, who had a dream.

One of the volunteers pointed out the dragon head which was a feature of Viking ships. The sea monster, or dragon head, at the front of the ship (there's a nautical term for the front and I think it's prow) literally put the fear of the Lord into the populaces that the Vikings raided when their ships sailed their coasts.

"A little boy, here on a field trip, asked why the dragon's ear is missing," the volunteer said. My eye went to the missing ear. I hadn't noticed its absence before she called attention to it.

The young, with their alert curiosity, don't miss a trick. The schoolboy, pointing out the missing ear, made this volunteer realize it could be part of the education on the Hjemkomst. "The ear came off in the storm," she explained. "You'll see the storm in the movie."

As we filed into the theater room, and the movie was about to begin, she told us, "I've seen this five times and I still don't see it with dry eyes."

I could see what she means. You get misty-eyed. A dream achieved inevitably brings tears of happiness. Incredibly sad moments bring tears too. This little film has footage to cover both the high and low points but it's the high points, like the ship's high canvas tent seen over the treetops, that remain as the central message of the video.

Robert Asp was a man with a dream. He was fortunate enough to have ones who loved him who stepped into his dream to make it his. And theirs as well.

Ro Giencke - June 4, 2011

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