Lofoten: The Sun Never Sets

Jon and I spent the night in a cabin. Not a very big cabin I’ll admit but it had real beds and access to a pay per use but thankfully hot shower. This night was our last planned accomodation until we arrived back in Bodo. From here on in we were free. I twitched the curtains occasionally to check if it was still raining. After several days of rain I was concerned the water may never stop falling from the sky. In the brief trips to and from the shower block, I could see other curtains flicking. Unsure if other people were watching the weather, or watching me.

In the morning we hit the road. Jon pulled up a list of what I could only assume were popular Norwegian baby names. Ingrid, Gerd, Wenche. Really Norway? Wenche. We had to name the car. I settled for Astrid, because we were driving a hybrid and it rhymes. I’ve been on a few good road trips with friends, this was the first time I’d ever named a car. The journeys tend to follow the same format. Drive until you see something that looks good. Stop. Look at the thing that looks good. Confirm with each other that it does in fact look good. Drive on until you see something else that looks good. The problem with doing this in Lofoten is that it all looks good. I was worried we might not get any of the actual driving done. We were pulling in at lay-bys and car parks to scope the view, to look at mountains. To see all the things.

The rain had stopped. The clouds had floated away. Jon and I decided to hike near Lofoten’s regional capital; Svolvær. It seemed like a popular spot, lots of car, plenty of tourists. The route started almost vertically and continued straight up for the first kilometre. We passed a French family who looked ill-equipped for a scramble. We never saw them again. After a tough initial climb things levelled out but only in comparison to the beginning. Hiking in Norway is unlike anything I’d done before. Outside of my comfort zone, pushing myself a little bit harder. Climbing a little higher. On the way we passed local families out for a weekend stroll, young couples walking their dog. We passed fields of ice and clambered onto the ridge. The view was insane. The sun had come out. The sea was sparkling below. Black and white smudged on the horizon marked the mainland. Rocky islands littered the water. The ocean teased blues and greens, looking inviting after a hard climb. The drop down was near vertical. I realised I wasn’t feeling too great. How do you balance? What are legs how do they work.? I took a step back from the edge. We made our way back down and set out to find a place for the night. I had read that the north coast would be the best place to witness the midnight sun, but also that we should try to avoid the main beaches. We drove away from the E10 and out beyond the towns until we found a few sheep on a flat stretch of land between the car and the sea. Perfect. All we needed was some fresh water and we were set. In the last town we drove back and forth, trying to spot the stream that definitely should have been there. I dropped off the road into a shallow ditch and found the mountain stream trickling under the road. The light had faded, the sun remained. Daylight at 10pm. I was ready for bed but I also wanted to see the sun at midnight. I pulled on my eye mask, plugged my ears and set my alarm. Two hours later, the light had barely changed. The sun hovered above the horizon. Bells jangled on the sheep. Jon and I wondered if they knew it was midnight. When did the animals sleep? Like us perhaps, whenever they tried.

I woke up at 1am, 3am, 5am. The only way I knew the difference was by checking the time. It might be time to get up. Often it wasn’t. I looked at the water on the tent. A few hours from now I hoped it might be dry.We woke up to drizzle. There was a break in the rain long enough to get the tents down and everything in to the car as dry as possible. We headed back to Svolvaer to stock up and escape the weather. The local shopping centre kept us dry for a while. I suggested a fika stop, Jon reminded me we were in Norway. These Scandinavian countries, they’re all the same. We grabbed a coffee and a blueberry muffin. Only inside the muffin was creme patissiere. These were the most ridiculous, delicious muffins. Jon and I decided to spend the afternoon getting some culture, and shelter, in the Viking museum, which was set almost entirely outside. Inside the longhouse I decided the Viking life might be for me. The smell of woodsmoke, fresh food over the fire. There had to be some mead somewhere. If I closed one of my eyes I believed I had a strong resemblance to one of the statues of Odin. Come evening we were driving away from civilisation, searching for flat ground and fresh water. Somewhere to spend the night. I realised that without a set plan, I was anxious. There were no recommended places to pitch a tent, you could do it anywhere. We found a small rise on the saddle of a valley. We were far enough away from buildings and we weren’t on a farm. We used the car as a windbreak and set up for the night.

I woke up to the wind whistling through the tent. The exposed areas of my face were freezing. I adjusted my eye mask, pulled my hat on and fell back asleep. When I woke again, I could feel the warmth of the sun. We set out towards some of the northern beaches. The view never stopped giving. Mountains stacked like scales. Pointing out the peakiest of summits to one another. The light between clouds. The textures in the granite. We stopped at Unstad, where we might have learned to surf. Boulders formed the beach. Those carrying boards entered on a single stretch of white sand. The waves looked small. Inside the Arctic Circle might have been a good spot for a first lesson. We had some less intense water sports to attend to. We drove further north to Eggum. There was a sign pointing down the the small harbour with Northern Explorer written on it. I assumed we’d find a hut or somewhere to get changed in town. There was nothing. We went back to the harbour and ate our standard lunch of sandwiches, carrots and crisps. Jon and I waited for someone to turn up who looked like the might be in charge of a sea-kayaking trip. I had wandered down to the beach and found the boats and paddles but nothing else. The most minimal of set-ups. Our guide Mati arrived and we spent a while waiting to see if the another group on the booking would show up. They didn’t. Jon and I had scored a private trip.
Having set us up in a tandem kayak and pushed us out, Mati took us out into the channels and islands beyond the harbour walls. Leaning over the side I could see all the way down. White sand on the sea floor, thick mats of kelp, discarded crab shells in the shallows, jellyfish pulsing by. Being on the water has a calming effect on me. Paddling gently into coves. Watching the glass-like surface slide beneath. Mati directed us into a landing and served up coffee and biscuits. He was incredibly generous with his time, happy to tell us stories about pirates and vikings. We had no idea if he was telling the truth or making it up as he went along. It didn’t matter. Some of the science we knew. Lofoten is warmer than mainland Norway because of the Gulf Stream. There are two types of mountain peaks here; the polished round summits that were under glacier ice, and the jagged dagger points that were above. Mati recommended that we lie down on the moss and close our eyes. If being in the boat had given rise to a relaxing sensation, this was even stronger. On our way back to the harbour Mati asked what our plans were for the rest of the day. The day being a concept without end. The sun never sets. I had come here with the intention of having a swim in the Arctic Ocean and this seemed as good an opportunity I was likely to get. What I didn’t expect was for Jon to join me. Mati said he’d stick around and watch two mad Englishmen get wet. We pulled the boats back on to the beach, changed into our shorts and waded out. The azure blue waters and the white sands were reminiscent of the Florida Keys. The temperature was not. I dived as soon as I felt it was deep enough. Crashing through the icy water. Cold shock hit me fast. Knowing that meters away on shore were the warmest clothes I own I managed to enjoy the cold for little over two minutes. We raced back to the beach to Mati’s applause.

We spent the night in the boarding rooms of a school. A hot shower was on the top of our wish list. We were heading back to more beaches. Under bright blue skies we decided to try and get another hike in. There are two options for walking in the mountains, you can go around, or you can go up. Around usually takes longer, up is definitely harder but the pay-off is usually better. We went up. The soil on top of the rock was like cake batter. In places its underdone and gooey, others its overcooked and crumbling under foot. Neither are ideal. There isn’t a sound that accompanies my foot sliding on the mud. Only the thud as it comes to a stop on a rock, followed by my own relieved laughter that I haven’t tumbled down the mountainside. We can see people across the valley on the more popular trail, there are cars parked along all the beaches. We don’t pass a single person on our trail. At the summit we’re called crazy for the second time in two days by the only other person who decided to step off the beaten path. Mountains spread out like the ocean. Rippled with waves. Irregular peaks and symmetrical pyramids. Then there was the ocean, reaching from here to the North Pole making the mountains feel small. We were back down again and on our routine search for a place to rest. We’re in town, we’re out of town. We’re close to a church. There’s a single tent with a family of three. The baby can’t even be a year old. We move on. Not much further, we find flat ground and nobody around. We make dinner on a tidal beach and go to bed in bright sunshine. Everything is fine. We wake up to a cruise ship in the bay. Common as it must be, this also doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t look right. Little yellow boats taxi people to the shore. Do they spend any money? Are they contributing to the community, or are the on the first boat back to the cruise ship?

We had one last thing to do, to actually hike out and camp. Another beach of course. This would be the first time we would be on the well marked tourist trail. The internet had advised the parking area was small and often full so we arrived early and snagged the last space. We could see people coming off the trail, returning from their previous night’s adventure. We were going the wrong way. The sky was grey, the mountains green. We had seen so many shades of grey. I started to confuse blue for one of them, until I saw it again and realised how different, how obvious. Jon and I climbed into the valley, following wooden walkways over the boggy ground. From the crest we could see a few tents being packed away. We would have first pick of the night’s pitches. The weather showed no signs of improving. In a brief break, we cracked a beer and walked the beach. Watching the low mean clouds chase one another into the next bay. The mountains shrouded. The heights hidden. The atmosphere was menacing. People came and went, the old tents left and new ones arrived. Already reminiscing over what we had seen, what we had done. What then, might we do next?

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