I wake up for a bathroom break, foggy from too much wine.
Ess is standing in the middle of the room, squinting out the window. Bright sunshine beams dusty rays of light over the table and onto the floor at her feet.
“It’s three o’clock in the morning,” she says sleepily, incredulous. “The freaking birds are chirping.”
Midnight Sun in the arctic circle is a twilight zone of confusion. Night is day and day is day, as the sun simply circles around above you. Your body battles between natural fatigue and stimulation from the sun. How do you know you’re tired if the sun never sets?
We go back to our bunks, shutting out the light with headbands around our eyes. In the morning we hike around a fjord.
Last day in Lofoten. We have mapped out a hike by a fjord to the south, with an optional leg over a small mountain into the valley of another fjord. We pack a lunch and water, lather sunscreen, and gear up.
We walk to the edge of town. As we approach the small entrance to the fjord, we search for the path leading to our trail. All that’s before us are dozens of posts of drying fish hanging on beams, the pungent stench of decay filling our lungs.
“No way to go but through,” Ess says. “Breathe through your mouth.” And she steps forward into the path shaded by decomposing carcasses.
On the other side, a lightly-trodden path leads up, surrounding the fjord.
After the first cairn, the path leads down to surround the water’s edge. To our right is a rocky shore and arctic water, to our left is the steeply rising mountain. The “path” has been walked before, but it is not smooth nor flat: protruding rocks and roots; rises, dips, and twists; streaming water from the peak cuts across our way; thick mud; and then there’s the sections that require repelling.
It is not that repelling is terribly dangerous, and it is certainly not that we are afraid, but it is that we are not entirely prepared to scale steep rockface while hoping the chains hold. The first one we joked about, the second one we executed carefully, and the third one…well, the third one rose directly up from the water’s edge, and if we slipped and fell we’d bash our heads on the rocks before tumbling into arctic water. And neither one of us are prepared to lose our research grants.After staring at it for several minutes, Ess takes the initiative to head up through the bushes, circling the crevasse, to then emerge along the top.
It seemed like a sensible idea.
And it was, sensible. It just wasn’t easy. Neither was it graceful.
We scrambled up through trees and bush. Pushing and crawling up, grabbing each branch by the base before hoisting ourselves up. Thankful for tundra plants and their wind-weathered sturdiness. Here, if we slip and fall, the bush will catch us.
The twigs claw at my backpack, my knees stained with grass and dirt.
“Rodent shit,” Ess frowns, looking down at her smeared hand after scampering through the underbrush.
“At least it’s not bear shit,” I offer. And for a moment I wonder if any large animals had been introduced to these islands. Unlikely, I decide. Hopefully.
When we reach the top we are indeed above the steep rockface, and entirely covered in mud.
“I don’t know if we made it easier or harder on ourselves, but that was fun,” I say, giddy with accomplishment.
We have been hiking for an hour in about fourteen degrees Celsius weather—sunny, and perfect for extraneous climb-hikes. We look at the map, and are shocked and amused to realize we have only come about two kilometers. That’s what happens when two academics go bushwacking; we get delayed by bright ideas.
Another kilometer and we turn the final bend around the water’s edge, spotting the sandy beach we’ve been looking for.
The last section in the lowland area is almost entirely wet mud. My feet are soaked through. Ess’ shoes have fared much better, but we are both looking forward to rest and a picnic.
But first, we have a ritual to perform. We rush the beach, throw down our backpacks, and quickly strip off all our clothes, running into the arctic water, with whoops and hollers.It is cold. We run to about waist depth and dunk to our shoulders. Once. Twice. When we stand the second time we notice hikers on the hill, advancing on the path we just came from. We giggle as we rush back to dry off and get dressed. The hikers are polite enough to wait for our redress before continuing towards us.
It is a couple. They nod hello as they pass us.
“Care for a swim?” I ask, gesturing towards the water.
They laugh. “That’s six centigrade water,” he informs, with a French (Belgian?) accent.
“Oh? Just perfect, then,” I respond.
As they pass us and head onwards to the next bend, we prepare our picnic of bread, cheese, salami, and mandarins. Halfway through our meal, we look across the fjord, and notice that the man has taken off his clothes and waded up to his knees, splashing water on this face.
“It doesn’t count if you don’t get your junk in,” judges Ess.
After lunch, we look up in the direction of our next leg. The plan was to ascend the steep incline, and then descend to the next fjord, but there is no demonstrable path. There is also a change in weather, with a wall of mist and snow blowing over the top, coming towards us. Weather can change so drastically. We nix the plan, and instead decide to head back while we still have sunshine.
The return is easier, though when we reach the steep rockface we previously circumvented, we decide that descending doesn’t look as scary as ascending. We have gravity on our side, and a quickly approaching mass of arctic weather behind us.
How to describe two moderately active yet decidedly not expert climbers trying to navigate down sheer ninety degree rock with only man-maid chains and small naturally occurring protruding foot rests? Ess’ approach was to talk her way through it. One leg here, then maybe grab this here, and slide my body down this way…she mutters to herself, grunting. I wanted to laugh, but then had an image of it disrupting her, causing her to slip and fall, bashing those wonderfully smart brains against the rocks.
So I STFU, as the kids say.We do this section by section. When it is my turn, I pass her my backpack first, sliding my body down, easing my foot unto one rest, then another, holding the chain. At one point I have grip the chain, knees bent, and repel backward down the rock. I wonder if my arms are strong enough to hold my own weight, thinking that letting go at this position means almost certain death—the rocks and fjord are twenty feet below. I decide to lie on my belly instead, and ease my body down along the rock, scratching my clothes and abdomen. I somehow feel more secure, and I have never been more grateful for my long legs.
But we do make it unscathed.
Much later—after we’d showered and eaten, had a few beers, were playing cards well into the evening, and drinking more wine—we joked about our inferior repelling skills. A giggle that turned into a laugh that turned into a breathless howl of nervous guffawing. “This is relief for NOT DYING on a rock,” she cackles.
Nearing the mouth of the fjord again, we climb up to take pictures and soak in the views.
Finally we return to the cabin. Tomorrow morning at 5:00 am we walk the three km to the terminal, then take the ferry back to Bodø. Ess will leave on a plane to another European city, and I’ll hop on a ten hour train ride to Trondheim.
But first, we sit on our porch and talk, watching the fog come in and mingle with the sunshine.
It is bittersweet, that feeling of having a great time, then knowing it’s over. We declared the weekend a success and made vague plans for hiking in Scotland in 2017. Before we left, though, we made an entry in the guestbook. It is a very special message, first from myself and then from Ess. Unsigned, written on a blank spot somewhere well before 2015. We will never reveal what’s written, but if someone finds it and reckons it’s from us, shoot me a line here and I will send you a small prize.
Lofoten, you did us right. Norway never disappoints. Until the next adventure, here’s a panorama worth viewing large.————
Read Midnight Sun—Part 1.