Hjemkomst Means Homecoming

Fulfilling a Dream

My older sister’s wedding was in 1974.  She and her groom had a friend who was an accomplished photographer, and they asked him to do the wedding photos.  I had met their friend, Roger, on a few occasions prior to the wedding and had found him to be a fascinating person to talk to.  He seemed to be keenly aware of issues in science and culture and could articulately discuss them in ways that I could interpret even at age 13.  He also had long hair and a beard and looked something of a showered hippie.

I ushered at the wedding, which meant I didn’t have to sit through the typically long and boring Catholic wedding ceremony.  The groom’s brother Dale and I were back in the antechamber of the church, guiding in stragglers and prepping to roll out the white carpet runner that the newly sanctified couple were to follow during the recessional.  Roger came back to chat with us occasionally during the ceremony and started telling us about his father’ s project.

Robert Asp

Robert Asp was a teacher in the Moorhead, Minnesota, public schools.  One day, while helping a friend shingle a roof, he fell and injured himself.  He was laid up for several months, and since he couldn’t teach during that period, he needed some activity for his mental refreshment.  In the days before the internet, people studied by using paper devices called “books.”  (You can still find them in museums libraries.)  Robert’s brother found books on their Norwegian heritage and shared them with Bob (Robert).  While reading about the Vikings and their ships, Bob developed the idea that in order to reach out to people and inspire interest in and curiosity about their own heritage, he would build a replica of a Viking ship and sail it from New York City to Bergen, Norway.

Ships, for some reason that I can’t thoroughly explain, inspire romanticism in people.  It may be that the idea of ships being small and vulnerable against the huge elemental seas and oceans are symbolic of man’s inability to tame nature.  Perhaps in placing ourselves at huge risk by venturing out and exploring the world, we are satisfying our native desire to grow as a species while recognizing that individually we are small. We are as a species always seeking to expand our environment.

Did Bob recognize this yearning? Did he believe that building a Viking ship would inspire people to learn about their own history through the hazards experienced by the Scandinavians who landed in North America long before Columbus had his circumnavigation interrupted by Hispaniola?  I don’t know, because I never had the chance to meet Bob Asp.  I did, however, see the Hjemkomst while it was being built.

Two years after my sister’s wedding, I was with another sister and her husband on a mission to buy a woodburning stove.  This other sister and her husband had purchased a small farmstead and were in the process of trying to return to “natural” ways: saving on fossil fuels by seeking alternative energy sources, grinding their own wheat for flour, raising their own chickens and goats and generally trying to commune with nature.  My sister and her husband were trying to discard those aspects of technology they found distasteful while retaining the aspects of modern life that they still enjoyed (such as waterbeds and loud rock music).

They had plenty of fallen wood in their groves, and it was natural that they would want to take advantage of this free fuel to cut down on the amount of oil they fed their furnace.  They cooked and baked with a modern woodburning range, and it made sense that they would also want to heat their house with a woodburning stove that fed warmth through their ductwork.  They found the most efficient would stove they could through their Whole Earth Catalog, then found a dealer in Minnesota who distributed this particular brand.  So they planned a trip to pick it up directly from the dealer rather than have it shipped to them.

I was staying with them during my summer vacation, and they invited me along.  We checked the map, and I saw that Hawley, Minnesota, was well within the route to the dealer’s town.  So, I asked if we could take a small diversion to see the Viking ship that Roger’s dad was building. They had been curious about Bob’s progress and agreed that it was worth the extra five miles to check in with Bob.

Bob was building the ship in his spare time.  He had healed from his injuries, and he was back at work teaching in Moorhead.  It hadn’t occurred to us that Bob might not be at the “Hawley Shipyard,” (Hawley is at least 250 miles from Duluth, the nearest port), so we didn’t bother to call to see if he would be there to let us in.

Hjemkomst Keel
The Hjemkomst Keel
When we arrived in Hawley, we drove around a bit to find the shipyard, which was just a shop that Bob was renting in order to build this ship.  Nobody was there.  We couldn’t get in to see it in progress, but we could see it through the windows.  In order to have the space he needed to build his dream ship, Bob had torn out the main floor and was building it up from the basement floor.  At this stage, we could see that he had progressed from the massive keel and its bow to where he was building the hull, one rib at a time.

We peered through the windows from all angles, talked about how great this all was and then left to continue our journey to buy a wood stove.

In the ensuing years, I lost track of the Hjemkomst and Bob Asp.  I didn’t know Bob had died until I saw a story in the San Francisco Chronicle of a ship leaving New York Harbor for Bergen in 1982. Bob wasn’t on board, but Roger and his brothers and sisters had assembled a crew, including a skipper with experience sailing Viking ships.  The Hjemkomst was outfitted with a few modern safety items, such as two-way radio, but in large part, the journey pitted the crew against the open ocean in much the same way our ancestral Viking explorers had been up against the elements.

Five hundred miles into their journey, they ran up against an Atlantic storm.  It nearly sank them as they discovered a leak that ran horizontally among the strakes. They patched it hastily. They considered turning back toward New York but decided against it after realizing that the prevailing winds meant that the return journey would take as much time as would continuing the journey to Norway.

They arrived in Norway to great fanfare as the citizens of Bergen greeted them with fireboats spraying water fountains, but they couldn’t dock on the day they arrived.  The shipyard was closed on the weekends, and they had pulled in on a Sunday.  On Monday, they secured her to the dock and kissed the ground of their ancestors.  Bergen welcomed them home.

The Hjemkomst was transported back to Minnesota following this journey and now sits in Moorhead, protected from the elements in the Hjemkomst Heritage Interpretative Center.  I took my kids to visit the Interpretative Center a few years ago and told them about Roger and Bob.  They were mildly interested but more disappointed that they couldn’t climb aboard the ship.

The Interpretative Center is now part of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. Wherever you live in Minnesota, it is well worth the trip to learn about the Scandinavian history of settlement Minnesota and the Dakotas.  If you aren’t Scandinavian, perhaps it will inspire you to learn more about how your family came here.

You can learn more about the center at Minnpost.com.

The Beagle

I can’t pass up this opportunity to share with you the dream of another group of people who wish to use the romance and allure of the sea to share their passion for science and learning.  The Beagle Project, of which I am an enthusiastic supporter, is the dream of some dear friends of mine to build a replica of the barque that carried Charles Darwin on a five-year journey that led to his formulation of the theory of natural selection.

I invite you to follow their efforts to build this ship by tracking the Beagle Project Blog and to contribute to their efforts. Bob Asp proved that this can be done, but he relied on financial help through many sources.  The Beagle Project relies on us, as well.

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5 Responses to “Hjemkomst Means Homecoming”

  1. March 2nd, 2009 at 9:01 pm

    a daughter's mother says:

    It’s a lovely, romantic, and inspiring story, and I’m happy for them that they followed through on their father’s dream. Having grown up on the water – that is, a central Minnesota lake resort – I’ve always loved boats and traveling in them, but on a small scale. Crossing the Atlantic in one (OK, this makes it a ship, not a boat) is truly an adventure, which translates into dangerous, uncomfortable, no privacy, no alone time, boring food, too much sun for fair skin, and too long a line for too little bathroom. Especially after you factor in seasickness. This is why I love reading about SOMEBODY ELSE having the adventure. Sail on!

  2. March 2nd, 2009 at 9:17 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    It isn’t fair, I guess that men have the largest bathroom in the world while women in modesty must wait for the head.

  3. March 3rd, 2009 at 7:12 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I am also better at reading sea stories myself.

  4. March 4th, 2009 at 9:43 am

    Trish Lewis says:

    Great post, Mike. VERY cool you got to see ship being built!! (love the photo) So, is your sister that went back to simpler times living still doing it? How’s it working out? I am interested in doing that myself…

  5. March 6th, 2009 at 5:13 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    My sister is now living in the Big City of San Francisco. While she still does many thing naturally and watches her carbon footprint; she is no longer going “back to nature” as people did in the 1970′s. Her ex-husband, not named in this story but a part of it, is doing a fantastic job of developing efficiencies and alternative energy even still. He studies how to cut the hell out of any electrical usage in any way that he can find.

    I’d like to do a story on him, someday.

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