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Three in Norway

Our October 2003 contribution from Jon Beer

A bloke hands me this book and urges me to read it and one thing leads to another and next thing I know I find myself surrounded by glaciers at four-and-a-half thousand feet and fishing a mountain tarn. Some books should carry a government health warning. "Three in Norway - by Two of Them" is one of them.

It wasn't even a new book. It was 120 years old. Goodness knows what would have happened if I had read it when it was fresh.

Today it is all but forgotten in England but in its own quiet way, Three in Norway, is arguably one of the most influential fishing books ever written. It tells the story of three young men who set off for the wilds of Norway, travelling by foot and canoe into the heart of the Jotunfjeld mountains. They go to stalk the wild reindeer of the region and to fish the trout of the mountain lakes. Within a paragraph you know it is going to be jolly. The description of the three men sets the humorous, disparaging tone which gently mocks themselves and their endeavours. Two of the three adventurers will start the journey, the third will join them en route. "Esau" and the "Skipper" meet at Hull where the Skipper relates his trek across London with a mountain of supplies, rods, guns, tents, blankets and a Canadian canoe - accompanied by the delighted jeers of "boat ahoy!" from the populace.

Does this sound familiar? The similarities between all this and Jerome K. Jerome's classic, Three Men in a Boat, are striking. The tale, the preparations, the journey, the style and tone - even the title - have echoes of English literature's best-loved comic novel. There have been a fair number of imitations Three Men in a Boat: I thought I had just come across another. I was in for a shock. Three in Norway was published in 1882 - seven years before Three Men in a Boat first appeared in print. The imitation was there, all right, but the other way about.

I read on. At the first lake they reached along the journey they got out their fishing rods and launched the canoes. As Esau left the shore he noticed:

"the Skipper's rod in the familiar Norwegian shape of a bow, and found him struggling with two on at the same time, both of which he landed, and found to be over 1lb each".

It was just after reading this that I realised that I would really like to visit to this part of Norway myself.

They carry on into the heart of the Jotunheimen mountains, the highest massif in northern Europe, and set up camp on the only scrap of level ground beside lake Gjende. I will let them describe the place:

"Gjendin is perhaps the most beautiful, certainly the wildest and grandest, lake in Norway....It is eleven miles long; very deep; very blue; and on all sides rising sheer out of the water for from 1000 to 4000 feet are vast black mountains with snow clad summits; for it lies in the very heart of the highest mountains in Norway."

Which is fairly daunting stuff. Since reading this I have seen the place for myself: the description is spot on. For the next two months the Three wander amongst the wilderness of peaks and lakes, fishing for the huge trout that inhabit these remote waters. One day on Rus Vand they catch twenty trout for a bag of 44lb which is a fair average for hill loch fishing and the sort of thing I wished to get amongst myself. And so I set about following in their footsteps. There were three of us as well: Philip, Digby and myself and if you want to know how we got on then you can read the November issue of Trout and Salmon.

The book had one more surprise in store for us. I had no idea if we would be allowed to fish where they had fished: things can change in 120 years and Jotunheimen is now a national park. I phoned the park's tourist information office to ask about fishing in the area where Esau, the Skipper and John had fished. I didn't know if the tourist office would have heard of Three in Norway. It had been written and published in England. I was starting on a rambling explanation when he cut me short:

"Would you like to see their tent?" the man asked.

I was stunned.

Three in Norway by Two of Them, though unpublished in England for a century, is still renowned in Norway where it has hardly been out of print since it was first published. In Norway it is a well-loved classic and its authors are still revered as important figures in the history of Norwegian mountain sports. In 1994 the Norsk Fjellmuseum - Norwegian Mountain Museum - opened in Lom. One of the exhibits in this museum is dedicated to the visit of Esau, the Skipper and John. It includes the tent that had been their home.

This month, a new edition of this classic fishing book will be published in England for the first time in a century by the Flyfishers Classic Library, tel: 01647 441046, fax: 01647 441074 or visit

Jon Beer contributes regularly to publications including Trout & Salmon and The Telegraph. A collection of these can be found in Jon's book 'Gone Fishing - Adventures in pursuit of wild trout'.