I can’t remember exactly which year it was when I first hit on the idea of a paddling trip to the Lofoten Islands in Arctic Norway, and it might actually be embarrassing to sit down and work it out, but by the end of 2004 the urge to get over there became irresistible and the jagged islands were propelled to the top of my travel list. So, as the New Year dawned it was time to fire off a few e-mails to some paddling pals, form a team and go see what the archipelago had to offer the sea paddler.
The Norwegian coast is renowned for its beauty and wildness, and has a natural attraction to paddlers, but there is something special about a group of islands, and something enticing about the Arctic Circle. Add all these factors to the picture book image of Lofoten Mountains rising straight out of the sea and you have one of the world’s most exciting sea kayaking destinations. That image had been implanted in my dreams for years and it was time to make the trip I’d promised myself for so long a reality.
With a team of four in place by mid-February it was time to commit and start the logistical planning. A key decision was taken to use our own kayaks, which meant taking a couple of vehicles over to Norway on the Newcastle to Bergen ferry. So, ferry bookings were made online and six months of anticipation began.
Maps were bought and websites browsed, but the temptation to pre-plan a route was firmly resisted. Quite rightly, because we wanted part of the fun of the trip to be gained from picking up local information, making our own weather judgements and taking our decisions once we were actually over there. None of us had any previous experience of paddling in Lofoten and we were determined to make up as interesting and adventurous a route as we could put together at the time, given the conditions and our confidence with the seas around the islands.
Once in Norway the drive from Bergen to Bodø is 850 miles, which at a maximum speed of 50 mph requires some good CDs and a laid-back attitude of let’s take in the scenery and just grind out the miles. We alternated drivers every 150 miles or so and just kept moving. With a brief car park bivvy nearTrondheim and pause at the Arctic Circle Visitor Centre the journey north was knocked out in a fraction under 24 hours driving time.
After a night’s sleep in Bodø the aim for the next day was to park the cars and get our boats and ourselves onto a ferry to Lofoten. From Bodø it is possible to cross to three different ports on the south side of the islands. Working from west to east the potential destinations are Moskenes, Stamsund and Svolvær. All three looked to be good launching points for a paddling trip, but given the “not bad but not brilliant” weather forecast, our decision to opt for Stamsund was more based on a convenient ferry time than with a particular route in mind. Whilst the Moskenes ferry is a cheap and simple local service, the ferry to Stamsund and onwards to Svolvær is on the Hurtigruten service that plies the Norwegian coast from Bergen to Kirkenes. Despite being expensive for a one stop journey (about £40 from Bodø to Stamsund) it is well worth the outlay just to experience this comfortable way of seeing the Norwegian coast. The Hurtigruten is world famous and the moment you step on board you realise why. They don’t compromise on luxuries!
Stamsund turned out to be an excellent starting point. A friendly youth hostel is about a one-mile paddle from the ferry terminal and an ideal place to make final preparations. It is also a bit of a cross roads for the paddler with options of heading off in three different directions. With a not too brilliant forecast and a general rule of “it gets wetter as you travel west” we decided to begin with an open crossing to the next major island to the east, Austvågøya, and to head along the south coast towards Svolvær, the main town on the Lofoten Islands.
“With the exception of the Himalaya, these were the most impressive mountains I’d ever seen, and yet we were on a sea trip! Lofoten is like a hundred Skye Cuillin ridges all jumbled together. The place is quite simply awesome.”
The wildness of Lofoten was apparent within the first mile of leaving Stamsund as we witnessed the antics of three sea eagles; but right from the first paddle stroke the overriding attraction was the stunning landscape. The sight of jagged peaks rising from the ocean fringe and piercing the mist that clung to the snow clad mountain sides was an amazing backdrop for a spectacular sea trip. This was the image of Lofoten that had attracted me for so many years, and finally, after the months of planning and hours of driving we were actually out on the water amongst Europe’s finest scenery. With the exception of the Himalaya, these were the most impressive mountains I’d ever seen, and yet we were on a sea trip! Lofoten is like a hundred Skye Cuillin ridges all jumbled together. The place is quite simply awesome.
The open crossing to the south west corner of Austvågøya brought us under the bridge to Henningsvær, the most important fishing village in Lofoten, which sits below the impressive rock face known as the Priest, which forms the main rock climbing venue in the islands. Lunch was taken on a small island in warm sunshine and fears of constant rain and unbearable mosquitoes began to recede to some extent. Likewise the evening at the first camp was dry, insect free and well placed for taking a walk to explore the area. However, the next morning was wet. Extremely wet. There was no wind though, so the sea was smooth bar for the splashes from each raindrop.
By the time we reached Svolvær we began to think the rain was set in for the rest of the trip. This was Norwegian rain at its most incessant, and feeling depressingly sodden we saw the main town in Lofoten in its greyest mood. It seemed that back on the water was the best place in the rain so we pushed on for the afternoon and were pleasantly surprised when the clouds peeled back to reveal a stunning late afternoon and evening. This weather pattern of half a day good – half a day bad soon became the standard that we learned to expect. At least part of everyday turned out to have some really clear weather and the Arctic mosquitoes that we had dreaded never appeared.
The circumnavigation of Austvågøya included the sheltered narrow channels on the east and west sides of the island, as well as the remote and exposed north side of the island. The speed of the tides in the north and south going channels was phenomenal and made for gaining some good distance. Wild campsites were fairly easy to find and four excellent spots were used as we made our way around the largest of Lofoten’s five main islands. On the fifth paddling day the circumnavigation was completed with a short hop back to Stamsund. What began as a simple paddle before lunch turned into a battle against steep waves and a force 6 headwind. The last three headlands kicked up some nasty waves and progress was painfully slow, but the team eventually pulled into Stamsund and back into the shelter of the youth hostel where we let the storm blow itself out over the course of the rest of the day and night.
“Saving the best bit until last the complex of fjords behind the village of Reine provided the highlight of the trip. If there is one place in Lofoten that does landscape at its absolute world class best, then this is it.”
Better weather was forecast and our confidence was up after 90 miles of paddling, so we decided to head west towards the outer end of the archipelago. We decided to follow the more sheltered south side of the islands of Vestvågøy, Flakstadøya and Moskenesøya. The scenery changed dramatically as we paddled from Vestvågøy to Flakstadøya. The feeling of remoteness and exposure confirmed that we were now well out into the North Atlantic and approaching the end of the chain of islands. Saving the best bit until last the complex of fjords behind the village of Reine provided the highlight of the trip. If there is one place in Lofoten that does landscape at its absolute world class best, then this is it. As you might expect the postcard and calendar manufacturers are well aware of this. Despite arriving in a blinding squall we found a good camp spot for two nights and spent a full day exploring the fjords on foot as well as in our boats; but a whole week could be spent in this area alone as there is so much to explore.
Our Lofoten adventure ended with a short paddle west to Moskenes and the first official campsite of the trip. From there we walked to the amusingly named village of Å, which is actually pronounced “O” and into the mountains behind the village. Some of the finest views from this area are across the treacherous waters off the end of Moskenesøya towards the westernmost islands of Værøya and Røst. Ah, there’s just so much to see and so much to do – I can feel another trip to Lofoten coming on already. The place is incredible and I’m still dreaming about it.
After the manic drive north we decided to take an extra day over the journey south and to slip in a paddle on Geirangerfjord. Having left the Arctic Circle way behind and broken the back of the journey to Bergen an evening paddle on Geirangerfjord was the perfect end to our trip to Norway. It was also a completely different type of paddling, with the more typical steep sided walls and waterfalls tumbling down to the sea that typify Norwegian fjords. One particular waterfall provided the subject for some of our best photographs on the trip. Geirangerfjord was definitely worth the detour and Lofoten was definitely worth the long journey north.
The team of paddlers that went to Lofoten in August 2005 comprised Andrea Tyrer, Ewan Gillespie, Dave Robertson and Mike Dales.
The photographs by Mike Dales and Ewan Gillespie were all taken on their Pentax Optio WP waterproof digital cameras.
Paddling in Norway? – Beware!
A fish parasite called Gyrodactylus salaris (Gs) has devastated fish stocks in many Norwegian rivers and strong efforts are being made to ensure it is not brought into the UK. Anyone travelling to Scandinavia and coming into contact with fresh water is a potential carrier of the Gs parasite, so it is worth making an effort to find out about the disease before you go to Scandinavia. The advice is more relevant to river paddlers than sea kayakers, but anyone going to Scandinavia should take some time to find out the precautions they need to take. For full details check out the Scottish Canoe Association advice on biosecurity.
This article was published in Paddles, June 2006.