Midnight Sun in the Lofoten Archipelago, Norway—Part 2

3:15 am

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.

9:00 am

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.

IMG_3286

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.

DSCN0766

IMG_3288

On the other side, a lightly-trodden path leads up, surrounding the fjord.

DSCN0731

DSCN0732

IMG_3291

Click for full splendor.

The terrain is arctic tundra: rocks, moss, grass, mud, and sturdy low-growing bushes with gnarled branches. You have to be tough vegetation to survive here. We humans are moderately tough, but only with equipment and supplies. And even then, accidents happen. Just to be safe, I left a note on the table of our cabin, with our names and contact info, the date we left, and direction of our hike.

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.

IMG_3289

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.

IMG_3290

The path rose up the side of that rock protrusion, with spikes and a chain link to help us ascend.

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.

IMG_3296

Another kilometer and we turn the final bend around the water’s edge, spotting the sandy beach we’ve been looking for.

DSCN0739

IMG_3298

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.

DSCN0751

No pics of the polar dip. That’s between us and the Norse gods.

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.

IMG_3300

Freshly anointed by arctic waters.


DSCN0742

Not quite Greece.


DSCN0744

Witness to our shenanigans.

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.

DSCN0749

We are not mountain goats.

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.

IMG_3310

Don’t be fooled, this was taken near the bottom.

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.


DSCN0761DSCN0755 DSCN0756 DSCN0757

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.

IMG_3314

IMG_3318

Goth slug hates the sun anyway.

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.

IMG_3311

Death to false metal.

————

Read Midnight Sun—Part 1.

Midnight Sun in the Lofoten Archipelago, Norway—Part 1

Day 0 – 7:30 a.m.

It has been raining for two months. The sun has barely made an appearance since February, despite the fact that there is light for almost 24 hours now—the hazy grey sky lasts through the night, with no real sunrise or sunset, but only a dimming for about an hour.

I am heading north again—this time by train—to an area recommended in most guidebooks, known for its exceptional beauty of mountains, beaches, and quaint villages. A friend from grad school—“Ess” we’ll call her—will meet me in Bodø, just north of the arctic circle. From there will we travel together to a small fishing village across the water in the Lofoten Archipelago.

The ride is peaceful, and allows views of the Norwegian landscape as the train creeps north over the ten-hour ride. Norway is, in a word, breathtaking. Its lesser landscapes merely spectacular.

IMG_3203

Day 0 – 17:30

Bodø is rainy, and cold. I have five hours to kill before Ess arrives by plane, so I tighten up my backpack straps and close up my rain-gear, heading out to walk around the town, and find something warm to eat. Not much is open. “City” in Norway is always a relative term; if it attracts tourists, it will have restaurants and small museums, and plenty of outdoor activities for the adventurous. It otherwise will have little in terms of Things To Do. No matter: I settle on Thai food, knowing the spice will help with the damp.

Panang curry it is. The dish comes with red curry and chicken in a bowl, and a heart-shaped rice mold with a heart-shaped carrot slice on top. Ten years ago I spent six months in Thailand, eating curry and rice the entire time. Never once did my dishes come with heart-shaped vegetables, but they make an appearance in Thai restaurants worldwide.

It is delicious. Curry and coconut milk; chicken and lemongrass; chili and rice: it is warm and creamy. After eating I reluctantly leave the cozy establishment for the blustery 5 ºC wind and rain. I stop by the grocery store to pick up food supplies for the weekend. Grocery stores and restaurants are limited where we’re headed. I stock up on ibuprofen and anti-motion sickness pills, popping a few as I walk to the ferry terminal.

Day 0.5 – Midnight

Ess arrives at the ferry terminal at midnight. We went to grad school together, learned about theory and method together, felt the highs and lows of funding disappointments and graduate-student life together. Ess—now the winner of a prestigious internationally recognized award for her important research—is in Europe for a brief study period. I—the winner of a somewhat less recognized award for my nefarious research—am delighted to travel with a friend for a change.

We compare spoils. Between the two of us we have two bottles of wine, a block of cheese, mandarin oranges, crackers, chocolate, tomatoes, salami, and bread. The budget traveler cuts costs by supplementing eating out with eating in. The budget traveler also buys their wine at the duty-free when flying in from other countries.

We head out to the dock. The ferry has arrived.

Last summer Ess and I attended the wedding of friends and colleagues in Greece. We had stood on a similar dock in Athens, waiting to be taken to the Island of Milos. The groom described the light as so bright that you think you forgot to wear your sunglasses before realizing they are already on your nose. The heat made me feel like I was breathing through wet wool, my lungs relieved only by an ocean breeze.

It is five minutes past twelve.

The rain cold, the sky grey like an afternoon storm. There is no sunset here in the arctic circle. It is the land of the midnight sun. I stare down at the grate underfoot, the bridge between dock and ferry, waiting in line to pay our fare. Water drips off my hood and tippity-taps on the metal grid. The polar water beneath us surges a little, jostles the bridge, and brings salty freezing mist into our nostrils.

“Definitely not Greece,” I observe.

“Definitely not,” Ess confirms.

Day 1

2:30 a.m.

We sit at the front of the ferry, inside, watching the sea as the ship takes soft rolling rises and falls. The window marked with droplets as the boat pushes through a wall of rain.

Oh, the seasickness. I lay my head back, try to focus on not throwing up. This never works. After an hour or so of trying to keep down my food, I stumble to the bathroom, almost tripping. Pushing open the door I immediately bend my head to the garbage can and vomit. Orange curry and chicken. A few seconds of relief. I stand up and head into the bathroom stall, then vomit again in the toilet. Lemongrass and rice. Finally it is over. I go to the sink and bend to wash out my mouth, spitting and rinsing. Another surge of the ship and I vomit a third time into the sink. Coconut milk and chili.

Shit. That’s $38.00 worth of vomit, right there.

3:30 a.m.

As we are slowly docking, an attendant comes to inform us that there has been a rock slide along the main highway—the only access north to our hotel in Reine. She has no idea when it will be cleared, but they will begin working on it immediately. No big deal, we tell each other, we’ll wait in the terminal until people wake up, and see if we can get more information then. 

Except, when we debark there is no ferry terminal. The other passengers drive out or get picked up. We search the dock for an open refuge, to no avail. There is no town to speak of, but instead a cluster of small houses tucked into the base of the mountains. There is only one road. Since we cannot head north as originally planned, we walk south, hoping to find something—anything—that will provide either information or shelter. What if it takes a week to clear? What if it takes just a few hours? Where do we go until something opens up? 

It is 4:00 a.m.

Walking through stillness. The town is comatose in the midnight sun. Nothing moves but us and the sporadic rain. Finally a shelter.

IMG_3228 It is actually just a shed for mailboxes, but it has three walls and a roof, with two benches inside. The reprieve from the rain helps to focus on our immediate problem. We have a small snack, and add layers of clothing. Decision time. I take out my phone and—data fees be damned!—look on my travel app for hotels near the area. Eureka! There’s a cabin available just 3 km south from here. I book it online, send a cancellation email to our planned reservation (of all the excuses, “rockslide” is a pretty legitimate one) hoping they won’t charge us, and then we head towards Rorbuer & Brygga Restaurant, in the fishing village of Å.

Å is quite literally the end of the road. The winding highway that begins in the north of the archipelago stops in a neat little loop just past this village. After the final twist of street, our destination is within sight.

DSCN0767

Å i Lofoten, Norway

We find our rorbuer, which is the term for most hotels in the area. It designates the type of building—a basic cabin on stilts over the pier—which were built to house migrant fishermen in high season. We try all the doors, wondering about shelter for the next four or five hours (Please, please, please open at six and not eight or nine, we pray to the deities of fireside warmth.). On the dock, wet, chilled, and pitiful. The momentary glee from Having a Plan has turned to weary despair from our Dreadful Conditions. 
DSCN0660

They opened at eight. We had been crouching in a doorway, dozing with the deep arctic cold creeping up through the ground into our flesh, when the reception attendant came to unlock the doors. They do not open until nine, she says, but invites us in for coffee after we explain the rockslide roadblock.

“Oh, that explains what all the people are doing outside,” she says, from her perfectly beautiful Norwegian face.

We weren’t the only ones with nowhere to go but south. But they had cars.

It takes a few hours, but they do let us check in early, around noon. By now we are chilled to shivering, and desperate to feel warm. Ess blasts the heat from the one small heater, as we each take hot showers. We lock the door, shut the curtain, and climb into our respective bunk beds.

IMG_3268

“There are no demonstrable stains on the underside of your mattress,” I tell her, from below.

“That’s a good sign,” she mumbles, before we both fall into deep slumbers.

7:00 p.m.

Wine. That is all.

Day 2

Sunshine! We walk to the “town” of Reine, a downright cosmopolitan city by comparison to Å. The road was cleared last night, but how were we to know? Our cancelled reservation was answered with a tone that can best be described as “snippy”—by and large the exception in Norway—and a request to send my credit card information by email, so that they can bill me for the first day.

Uhm, no.

Ess gushes at Norway’s beauty, and even though I have grown accustomed to it, there is no denying the exceptional landscape.

IMG_3244IMG_3243IMG_3242DSCN0687 DSCN0686

DSCN0701

Our refuge looks different in the sunshine.

DSCN0703 DSCN0704

DSCN0708

DSCN0720 DSCN0726 DSCN0724 DSCN0721

IMG_3266 IMG_3263We return to our cabin in the afternoon, to rest up before dinner. My face feels hot, and not just from the long walk. Grabbing my make-up compact, I look in the mirror.

“Am I…? Is that…? I have a sunburn!”

“You do!” Says Ess. Her skin hasn’t been as affected, but she also has a preexisting tan because she lives in a sunny state. I won’t name it, but it rhymes with “alifornia.”

The sun was not that strong, and never gets high in the sky; it simply continually circles the horizon, dipping and rising in a small undular wave. My sunburn doesn’t seem warranted. But then I realize: my skin has not felt a full day of sunshine since December, in Montreal. And it was minus 20 ºC at the time.

This time it’s beer, hamburgers, and playing cards until the ripe hour of 9:00 p.m. We’re wiped out, sunburnt, a little drunk, and perfectly happy.

*****

Read Midnight Sun—Part 2