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  • Writer's pictureHiker Tom

Europe: Part 3

A Day To Remember

Over the past few days all of the nerves and doubts that I had felt in the lead up to, and during, my travels fully evaporated; that is not to say that they are gone for good, but that for a short duration my excitement and elation outweighed them so comprehensively that they seemed not to exist…

On Thursday morning I awoke anxiously to catch the bus to my next destination, Svolvaer. I was anxious because for the entire time that I had been in the Islands up to that point many sections of the main road had been closed and there had been no bus service running. It was evident from local news outlets that many people had been working tirelessly to clear the roads of snow, however, the more problematic source of closure lay in the extreme avalanche risk in some of the western regions of the Islands. Owing to the shear ruggedness of many of the peaks, avalanches are a constant threat there, and given the vast amounts of snow that had fallen during the storm the threat was on high-alert. Numerous avalanches had already cascaded onto the road in some parts, and residents of the villages of Ramberg and Flakstad had even been evacuated from their homes for several days as a safety precaution. Understandably, then, parts of the road had been closed and all bus services to Svolvaer were suspended – leaving me in an anxious state, wondering whether I would reach my next destination anytime soon. So, when on Thursday morning I checked online for updates and saw that my bus was due on time I felt a wave of relief – my journey could continue. The bus journey from Reine to Svolvaer really was stunning! I realise that I have already made similar remarks about the train journey from Trondheim to Bodo, but it is unavoidable. If the ten miles of coastline I had hiked on the previous two days had felt like the best I had ever seen, then this bus journey was that feeling extended for seventy-five miles. I watched like a child in a candy shop as a vivacious sky coasted by above icy beaches and snowy mountain-tops. For three hours I was in awe. The simple fact is that in Norway the journey is just as good as the end result, be it via train or bus or boat; you are not merely paying for a means of transportation, but an experience too. When that bus finally arrived in Svolvaer I was truly sad to leave it. I knew that I had some amazing things ahead of me, but I could have stayed on that bus indefinitely.

Looking out of the bus window

Friday came around and I no longer had to wait for what I had been excited about for a period of weeks. Thanks to a truly awesome Christmas present from my girlfriend Sorrel, I was to take part in some guided snowshoeing in the mountains around Svolvaer. In my past I have done a large amount of mountain-hiking as well as a fare amount of skiing. Naturally, snowshoeing has been an activity that I have wanted to attempt for quite a few years now, so to be given this opportunity in Norway was the perfect present! I arrived on Friday morning to be told that the other member of my group had cancelled at the last minute, and therefore my snowshoeing party would consist of just me and the guide. The company were highly apologetic to me for this, but I myself couldn’t think of a much better prospect than having a one-to-one guided experience in the Arctic. My guide was a brilliant gentleman named Tord. He was super informative about the local wildlife, history and culture, as well as being fun-minded and a good teacher. He was an interesting person too, and throughout the trek our conversation rarely faltered. At the beginning of the day he offered the option of three routes: one would give the chance of seeing a moose but was the shortest, another was a longer and more scenic route, and the third was a trek up the nearby fjord and by far the most difficult. My initial reaction was to jump straight in at the deep end and tackle the fjord, but after hearing Tord say that even he would struggle to complete that route given the current amount of snow, I eventually opted for the second route (which was also the longest).

Tord and I, having ascended the snowy ridge

Snowshoeing was a lot of fun, a lot of hard work, and very fulfilling. Up until then I had been in the vicinity of all of these beautiful mountains, but had been limited to hiking along the well maintained roads, and the one time that I had ventured off path I had found myself waist deep in snow and struggling with every step. By contrast, the snowshoes enabled me to glide through thick snow at normal walking speed without focusing all of my concentration on every step, and as a result I was able to fully absorb my surroundings. Along the way Tord showed me the tracks of foxes, weasels and grouse, as well as dens where moose had slept, and even an old hut built by travelling Sámi people which, I learned, was effectively a sauna. We had been making good progress along the designated trail and so Tord decided to take me ‘off-piste’. Rather than zigzagging our way up the ridge, he took me straight up the side through deep snow and thick foliage. He had wanted to display to me how hard snow-shoeing could be, and he succeeded. At one point we were climbing a near-vertical slope and every step was a serious labor as I tried to dig myself a firm foothold in the snow. It was a genuine case of the proverb ‘one step forward, two steps back’ as every attempt to climb the slope simply resulted in me sliding further down it. Of course Tord made it look easy and offered to help, but I was determined to reach the top on my own. Eventually I developed some technique and clambered slowly to the ridge’s summit; my breaths were deep and frequent, the tops of my thighs burned, and I was covered in snow from top to bottom, but the rewards from the top as I allowed myself to relax were spectacular.

A Panoramic view inland towards Lofoten

On the ridge-top Tord poured me a hot chocolate from his flask, and we sat and regained our composure whilst admiring the 360° views: the Norwegian mainland was across the sea in front of us and the Lofoten Islands were in every other direction. For a moment we stopped speaking, and the void left by our voices was filled with an astonishingly powerful silence. There was no low drum of cars on a nearby road, no far-off voices chattering, nor were there any birds singing in the trees. The wind had even died down and left the air around us still. The absence was absolute, and closing my eyes at that moment felt as far away from the routine hustle of work and study as I would ever be.

A distant Norwegian mainland

On the descent we continued ‘off-piste’ and Tord encouraged me to go as fast as I could, safe in the knowledge that the thick snow would prevent me from picking up too much speed and hurting myself. After a few attempts at increasing my speed I found myself almost leaping down the side of the ridge from one foot to the other, the powder was giving way beneath my feet without any resistance and we were covering ground effortlessly. I hate to use such a clichéd description here, but the sensation really was what I imagine walking on soft, white clouds to be like! Then, for a final bit of fun, he showed me the fastest way to descend. By leaning back slightly and transferring your weight onto the rear of the snowshoes it is possible to slide through the snow – effectively skiing. I consider myself to be a fairly decent skier, but was unable to master this art. Numerous attempts resulted in me falling in all manner of ways into the snow, but it was great fun, and indeed a quick way down the ridge. With our snowshoes off Tord took me on one last adventure that perfectly rounded off the trip. He drove me out to the nearby peninsula where the famous fish-drying racks were stood. These racks are used to dry the locally caught Arctic Cod over a five month period, and they are unique to North Norway, specifically Lofoten. The drying process turns the cod into something the locals call ‘Stockfish’, a dried form of the fish that can be kept for up to ten years without going bad or losing any of its nutrients, you simply soak it in water when desired and it returns to its freshly caught state. Tord explained that it was what the Vikings used to eat whilst on long voyages at sea, and it is now the mainstay of the region’s economy, being exported to many parts of Europe and Africa. Furthermore, almost everyone who lives in the Lofoten Islands will have some involvement in this process (albeit fishing, gutting, or drying the Cod) throughout their lives. Up close, these racks were quite the sight, and the smell was so overpowering that I could still smell it on me later that evening. It was certainly a worthwhile experience. This had not been paid for, and he did not have to take me there, so I am very grateful to him for taking the time to show me such a vital part of his local culture.

Arctic Cod heads hanging to dry on a traditional Norse rack

Later that evening I dined in a local restaurant that Tord had recommended to me. I had been planning to save money and cook for myself, but given the recommendation I decided it would be a great way to continue a fantastic day. My meal began with a shot of warming vegetable soup, followed by numerous local delicacies which included Lamb, Salmon, Stockfish… and Whale. When I saw whale on the menu I was presented with somewhat of a moral dilemma, but was assured by the waitress that the catching methods were humane, and that the only hunted species were those that had a significantly large population (everything was entirely legal). I decided that I would likely never have the opportunity again, so I tried it. It had the colour and texture of beef – though perhaps slightly more rubbery – and a subtle fishy flavor. I’m not sure I could have eaten a lot of it, but the small portion that I did have was tasty! After dinner I now turned my attention to something which I had thus far been trying hard not to think about: the aurora. Before coming I knew that the Lofoten Islands were located directly below the aurora oval, and that I would have a chance of seeing them. However, all of my time here had seen consecutive cloudy skies at night – far from ideal viewing conditions – and I had begun to think I may not see them at all. On Friday night my luck changed. A clear sky was forecast and I was determined to stay up late in an endeavor to see the lights. The owner of the restaurant I was in told me about a location which I should go to. It was about three miles inland by a frozen lake and he assured me that it would be dark there away from the coastal light pollution. The walk there was long and made harder by the fact that the further I got from the coast the colder the temperature dropped, but I could not have received better advice that night! Above my head there were stars in every single direction, and as the night wore on, the aurora came out to play.

The Aurora Borealis emerging from thin air

To begin with there was a mellow glow in the distance. Over the course of an hour that glow gradually grew stronger both in volume and colour, but lay stagnant like a blanket over the mountains until, after what seemed like an age, a sudden elastic snap sent a wave of shimmering particles above my head and the sky convulsed with ridges of purple and green, and as quick as they had come they were gone. This brief encounter amazed me, having begun to expect failure it was special to see the sky lit up in such a way, and it shocked me how quickly they could come and go. For the next hour I stood in the cold air and watched the lights return to their dormant state. I began to feel the cold in my limbs, and the irrational part of my mind began to imagine hidden dangers in the dark where in reality there were none. Eventually I consigned myself to the fact that I had been lucky to see what I had seen and began to walk home. When I looked up again, however, only a few seconds later, I was totally unprepared for what I saw with my own eyes. Seemingly out of nowhere an explosion had taken place above me as granules of solar energy moved this way and that like a flock of birds that each fly autonomously and yet move in perfect unison as a whole. At one moment the sky to my left would erupt with yellows and greens and almost immediately after a separate section would shine with bright pinks and whites – I could not tell where the next burst of light would take form. My fingers and toes were no longer cold and the dangers lurking in the dark were no longer present as a course of adrenaline pumped through my body, such was the effect that the lights had on me! They were unlike anything I had envisaged they would be. They move rapidly and unpredictably in a wide spectrum of colours – a far cry from the slow-moving beast that I had expected to see, and what I had originally foreseen as a pleasant experience had turned out to be one of the most exciting spectacles of my trip so far.

The most spectacular light show on earth

This time they were there to stay, and I stood by that lake watching them for at least another hour. The perfect end to an already exhilarating day.


📚Read: Europe - Part 4 📚

📚 Head back to: Europe - Part 1 📚


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