Below are stories from our current travels through the land of the midnight sun. Since arriving in Norway, we have yet to see darkness as the sun simply circles the sky!
“You can’t travel the back roads very long without discovering a multitude of gentle people doing good for others with no expectation of gain or recognition. The everyday kindness of the back roads more than makes up for the acts of greed in the headlines. Some people out there spend their whole lives selflessly.” – Charles Kuralt
“Norwegians do life right, man” Tom sighed with a sense of awe as we paddled up to another small village community, welcomed with kindness and curiosity at the harbor. Indeed, there is a sense of calm amongst everyone here unlike any place we’ve ever been… even the fish navigating seaweed in the water below our kayak exude an inexplicable air of serenity. Norway has far exceeded our expectations of majestic beauty, yet navigating by kayak this Arctic region’s oceans has challenged us to push ourselves far beyond our general comforts of foot or bicycle travel.
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in the San Francisco Bay, we departed Oakland for a direct flight (quite a treat!) to Stockholm, Sweden on Norwegian air. Upon arriving in Stockholm we navigated the airport, via the support of their well run tourist information desk, and boarded an electric train for downtown. Toting our extremely heavy kayak and gear by hand, backpack, and multiple dry bags while wearing our personal floatations devices, we slowly, with sweat dripping down our faces, found our way to our couch surfing host Hampus, a four-time Sweden National Champion Pokémon card player. Couch surfing is a free way to connect and stay in a city most places in the world and learn about the culture from a kind host – we are hosts for travelers to California. Hampus was most hospitable and gave us his patio sunroom to call home for the next two nights.
We purchased a three-day city bike card which allowed us to easily rent bikes parked through Stockholm and explore the city’s GORGEOUS nature trails. Melissa’s colleague, Sandy, connected us with her friend David from high school who lives in Stockholm. David bought a one-way ticket to Europe in 1995 and has never looked back as he embraced his European life. He showed us around Stockholm and we ate at a lovely vegan restaurant buffet with magnificent vistas of the city.
The following day, with a better sense of footing for the transportation systems in Stockholm, we made our way to central station to board a 24 hour scenic train ride to Narvik, Norway in the Arctic Circle. As we heaved our gear to the train’s platform, we were thrilled to embrace our dear British friends Sophie and Tom who we met cycle touring in Canada in 2015.
The train journey was so beautiful as we wound through the high Arctic tundra, very similar to the Alaska Canada highway through British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. We arrived in Narvik around 6 PM the following day after a final decent to a fjord from the snow-covered frozen lakes of the mountains above.
A common theme in Europe is that everything is closed on Sundays, which happened to be our arrival day. Tom and Justin managed to find a gas station that was open, and the jovial, young attendant told us of a beach where many people camp when in town. Just as we grabbed all of our bags and began to walk the kilometer and a half down to the beach, a gentleman beeped his car horn and offered to shuttle our stuff. The timing was ideal as it began to rain almost immediately after Justin pulled away in the car with the helpful man and the rest of us walked in the rain quickly down the road, relieved to not being shlepping our bricks of gear. The campsite was tucked in a small bay near where many battles occurred and sunken battleships rest in the depths of the fjord. We prepared dinner and got some rest with butterflies in our stomachs for the adventure with many unknowns ahead of us.
We awoke to overcast weather and excitement for our journey to begin. After building our boats on the grassy shore, we walked over to a diving platform that was built at the edge of the water that had three heights, the lowest being 12 to 15 feet above the water. Justin was very tempted to jump in but the Arctic chill was already strong enough with the breeze and covered sunshine (Justin has said repeatedly how hardcore Norwegians are!). Just as we set out and pushed off the shore the wind begin to strengthen, battering the sea and pummeling rain in our faces. Melissa had eyed the weather prior and she did warn us of the predicted down turn, however our excitement was overwhelming and we just wanted a little movement after sitting for 24 hours on the train. We paddled about 30 minutes and turned into a small bay with a sandy beach where we sat and ate lunch and watched the water conditions. We went on a small walk around a rocky headland and it appeared that conditions were getting better, so we decided to set out once again. This time we made it about the same, 30 minutes before the waves and wind were too strong and we turned back into a small harbor to have a think for an hour or so. It was a bit of a rocky start for sure.
When conditions looked safe again in the late afternoon, we headed back out and paddled into the evening, enjoying our first day on the water. We camped on a small rocky point and were awestruck by the snow capped craggy mountains that surrounded the fjord. Little did we know we would be seeing many more incredible peaks that all accentuate the beauty of northern Norway.
Our second day we paddled into a small town of Ballangen for some groceries and a cup of coffee for Melissa. Justin went to a outdoor gear shop to ask about where the nearest gas station was, to the store clerk, for us to get a small amount of fuel for our whisper lite stove. As the clerk explained it was about 2 km outside of town, a gentleman overheard us and offered to give Justin a ride. They struck up a conversation and it turned out John, pronounced “Yahn,” was a retired science teacher from the area. After lots of chatting, John returned Justin to the dock in his car, and returned shortly after picking up Melissa who was making her way back to the pier! John encouraged us to paddle around the point to the bay to his small town, Kjeldebotn, population 300. He excitedly told us, “I will be watching for you!”
We paddled and battled a brutal headwind as well as soul defeating “false summits” as we called the jutted out rocky points that led to views of long stretches of more land to navigate down before his town’s inlet. We arrived in his town around 9:30 and were greeted by John and other locals who offered for us to stay on the dock in a small, community-owned and voluntarily run boathouse. It was heated and had a table and chairs as well as a bathroom with a shower a short distance away.
After we got feeling back in our limbs and cooked up dinner, John offered to take us for a drive to see the mountains and vistas around his home.
“It’s not too late?” Melissa asked, acknowledging it was half past ten already, to which John replied, “Why no, the sun never sets here!” Great point. 😜
Before retiring, John had been the principal of the local school and was very well known and respected. Apparently he is famous for doing stuff like greeting travelers and showing off his town. We drove up a steep mountain and got an awesome view of the ocean below and the mountains in the distance. He also took us to a beautiful waterfall and shared stories of raising his children in this dreamy land.
The next day the winds were much stronger and we had a long crossing with tricky currents so John offered to shuttle us safely across the fjord in his fishing boat, pulling our kayaks behind (while we all held our breath). We were overwhelmed with joy and gratitude and could not say thank you enough. To top it off, he provided us with homemade fish cakes and cod fish that Sophie and Tom enjoyed immensely over the next couple nights. He declined money for fuel and gave us his phone number telling us to contact us if we ever ran into trouble. This is one of the greatest gifts of traveling, meeting locals who are not only inspiring, but who renew your faith in the goodness of humanity.
After a shorter day of paddling, we camped on our first proper sandy beach. Melissa quietly walked the shore and collected lots of unique shells. We sat around a small campfire and reflected on the amazing stories so far experienced.
The next day we paddled into Lodingen, where we explored the town to warm up and relax before setting off to camp at another beautiful sandy beach. The next day was filled with blue skies and perfect, glassy water. We paddled in and out of a protected bird refuge island chain, and managed to beat the massive tide change as the tide was going out and we needed to sneak through a small canal.
We pulled up to yet another sandy beach where a local was outside working in his yard. Both him and his wife were from the capital city, Oslo and for six months a year they rent a house in northern Norway where they play with their three children and hike to the tops of the surrounding, jagged mountains (so hardcore!). He spoke of how he had skied down many of these very steep peaks. When he noted that the weather was projected to get bad the following day, which we knew from our weather app, he advised that we go see the famous trollfjord before the clouds blocked the mountain.
Exhausted after an already long day of paddling, we pushed on to an island in the middle of a larger fjord less than a mile for the must-see fjord. We left our stuff on the shore to lighten our load and paddled into the fjord where we were able to enjoy it all to ourselves before a loud party boat of sorts, filled with tourists, arrived. It was a bit ironic to be in a remote fjord in the middle of Norway hearing a live band on a party boat playing Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” while tourists took tons of pictures of us on our little kayaks…
The fjord is as narrow as 100 m and incredibly steep, but we felt as though we’d been spoiled with views like this throughout our trip thus far and could tell this was a definite tourist trap. After enjoying it and snapping some photos we retreated to our campsite after 52.5 km (about 32 miles) of paddling.
The next day we paddled to the town of Svolvaer, where there is no question we were overwhelmed by the amount of tourists and hustle and bustle. We did some quick shopping and as soon as we got in, we got out headed for a smaller town down the coast. Unexpectedly, the waters here were the most challenging, as there did not seem to be any no-wake zone and MASSIVE ships plowed by us, causing wakes we had to turn head on into or else or kayak would roll and we’d be in severe trouble.
A little tricky navigation of the coast line took us longer than we anticipated and we faced a small bridge with shallow water, due to the low tide, to get to our camping destination. We got out of the boats and pulled the boat up the tiny rapid before barely being able to paddle across a small bay. We sent Tom and Sophie a text who were just behind us and in that short amount of time they were faced with pulling their boat through the mud for several hundred meters.
We enjoyed the kitchen and communal room as well as some laundry. The next day we left at high tide and had the opposite problem where we we’re just able to fit underneath that bridge due to the high water. The currents, wind and waves made for tough paddling and we felt the conditions were unsafe so we turned around a rocky point where we found an even more beautiful campsite to take a few days to let a powerful storm with large swells pass through as we hike and explore the surrounding towns.