A writer journeys to Norway's far-flung Lånan in search of the eiderdown that fills the island's legendary duvets.
The boat slows as we enter a channel marked by slender wooden posts. Just ahead is our destination—Lånan, an island so low and treeless that its half-dozen or so blocky houses, some painted white, some a strong Norwegian red, appear to be suspended above the silver sea. We ease our way past grass-covered skerries fringed with beds of bladderwrack seaweed, and steer around dark, submerged rocks. Finally we head into an inlet, and Erik Nordum, the captain and my host, cuts the engine and lets the boat drift into a dock. Close to shore, a mottled brown eider duck and three ducklings bob in our small wake. Those birds—and the pillows of down they've likely left behind in their abandoned nest—are the reason I have traveled to this remote blip of an island some 20 miles of Norway's northwestern coast.
My romance with down started years ago, with a stint as a cashier at an Eddie Bauer store—the reversible vests, the diamond-quilted bathrobes, the mummy bags, the fill power, the loft—who could resist? A ski trip to Austria introduced me to the joy of sleeping under only a duvet, and made obvious the redundancy of top sheets and blankets. And one day, while enjoying a nice meandering Google search through luxury bedding Web sites, I happened on the holy grail of down: Lånan Island, where every spring an extended family of former year-round residents returns to build rustic shelters for migrating eider ducks and then collect the down once the speckled, pale green eggs have hatched.
This cycle of sustainability earned Lånan and the Vega archipelago, of which it is a part, a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 2004. Everyone benefits: The birds get protection from predators, and the bird-keepers get the precious down, which because of the unique hooked construction of its individual plumules is the lightest, warmest—and, alas, most expensive—of fills. The islanders make only eight to 10 duvets per year, and sell them for between $3,500 and $7,000 each. They regularly sell out.
I'm not the only one to covet the stuff. Viking Age tax collectors accepted it as payment, and medieval aristocrats asked to be buried with it. In 1631, King Christian IV had Norwegian eider colonies protected by royal decree, in part so he would never be without a personal supply. Eiderdown duvets graced beds in Buckingham Palace and in first-class suites on the Titanic.
I studied the Lånan Web site. For a $35 donation, I could officially sponsor a mother duck. My name would be painted on a sign above the entrance to her temporary home, and I would be e-mailed photos of her as she sat on her nest. Of course, this was a must-do. Then I spotted this: "Would you like to experience the life of an eider keeper? Sleep under a genuine eiderdown duvet? Now is your chance!" It didn't take long to hatch my plan. I would adopt a duck, and then pay her a personal visit. All I had to do was fly from Boston to Oslo, Oslo to Trondheim, Trondheim to Brønnøysund, and then hop a ferry to Vega Island and look for a little boat called the Lånan II, which would be waiting for me at the end of a long pier.
Hildegunn, Erik's wife, is on the dock to greet me. With cropped white-blonde hair and glacial-blue eyes, she has the glowing good looks of someone who has never missed a day of omega-3 consumption. After she shows me to the guest room in their farmhouse, she says, "Do you want to see your duck?" and we set of on a sandy trail across the island. We pass dozens of little stone houses and A-frame wooden coops—all housing occupied or recently vacated nests—before Hildegunn stops and points to a shelter. "There," she says.
I see the "Meg" sign and crouch down to peer in at my duck, sitting placidly on a seaweed nest. She looks pleased with her accommodations, a corner room overlooking the clear, shallow waters of an inlet. I consider introducing myself as her benefactor, but decide to take the high road and remain anonymous.
I spend the next few days trailing Hildegunn as she checks on the more than 600 eider houses she shares with her cousins. We traverse plank bridges, hop over wet rocks, and row across coves to get to the shelters. Hildegunn quietly coos something at every nesting duck we find. I ask for a translation. "I say to them, 'How are you today? You are so pretty. I'm just taking a peek.'"
Between daily rounds, I eat heart-shaped waffles, pickled herring, and nut-brown cheese. I am offered aquavit at every meal, even breakfast. I check out the old tools and faded photos in Lånan's eider museum, housed in a barn. One afternoon, Erik takes me in his boat to the open sea and, fishing with a simple hand line, I pull up a big cod. We have the fish and boiled potatoes for dinner at a picnic table next to a white pole topped with a fluttering Norwegian flag. Then I help Hildegunn and her family clean down.
It is a lovely thing to sit in the late-evening Arctic sun, picking bits of seaweed and shell out of a lap full of eiderdown. The fluff plumps like rising dough and radiates warmth across my thighs. The gulls cry, the ducks sit, the tide turns. In the morning, after I have slept one last time beneath an exquisite eiderdown cloud, I will head home. But first, I will walk to the little tin-roofed shelter that bears my name to tell my duck goodbye. And she, too, will be gone—leaving only her imprint on a puff of perfect down.
Fly Widerøe Airlines (wideroe.no/en) from Oslo or Trondheim into Brønnøysund. Passenger ferries leave for Vega from Brønnøysund, and car ferries depart from nearby Horn; visitvega.no. From April to August, when the birds are nesting, overnight visitors to Lånan are limited. Inquire directly with Hildegunn and Erik Nordum about accommodations; lanan.no.
Plan to spend at least one night on Vega Island en route to Lånan. Stay and eat at the tranquil, sod-roofed, 21-room Vega Havhotell, owned by renowned chef Jon Aga, who serves memorable cuisine using local produce, fish, meat, and wild game. Rates start at $170 per night and include breakfast.
Explore the islands' history and culture at the E-huset Museum and "Little Lånan," an exhibition that includes demonstrations and talks by Lånan bird keepers. To purchase a Lånan duvet, visit lanan.no.
Photos: Altrendo Travel/Getty Images, Meg Lukens Noonan, Arne Naevra