Top 5 Rides: Island Hopping in Arctic Norway

Difficulty: Medium

Attractions: Mountains, fjords, coastal beauty, wildlife, the midnight sun/glorious sunsets

Best Time: Early Summer to catch the Midnight sun and see the puffins

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Into the Arctic

Our Arctic adventure began on the fat, padded seats of a train. Yeah, not as much fun as a genitalia smearing bike saddle, but we were hoping to make fast tracks north before the winter chill. The bikes were safe and sound in the storage section in the front carriage, and the dogs managed to squish together on the floor underneath our legs. The landscape zoomed along on fast forward.

24 hours of train-a-thon later (book in advance for cheap rates) we had covered most of Norway’s railway network and reached the end of the line: Bodø. We unloaded our bikes and dogs in the most awkward, tripping over panniers, tail squashing style possible and settled into the Arctic air.

Cue surprise number 1. Poor old Bodø, at least we thought, might have escaped the worst of Nazi wrath, being way up in the Arctic and all. Nope, sitting on the coast between Russia and England it was WWII carnage. Most of the town was destroyed and the buildings standing today are cheap, concrete replacements.

Surprise number 2. Drumroll….. It was shocking just how un-shocking the temperature was. We were in the Arctic, but it was mild, tame, quite pleasant really. In fact the weather proved to be warmer and less volatile than the south of Norway. Well done Gulf Stream for all the hard work, and congratulations to global warming for a star, supporting role. Add some friendly banter with the locals and an invitation for cake and coffee [and homemade  Baileys (and some dog snacks)] and all in all, it was a very warm welcome to the Arctic Circle.

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The Island Hopping Begins

We took an evening ferry towards the jagged mountain peaks of the Lofoten Islands which are best known for 2 reasons: outstanding beauty and naturally dried fish. The bad news is that the peculiar sight of the fish hanging from rustic, wooden seaside drying racks is only available in Winter and early Spring. The good news is that the outstanding beauty is going to allow me to use my thesaurus to smoke every last superlative out of hiding. Oh, and that fishy smell never goes away.

We pedaled off the ferry at the front of the cue excited to have finally made it to the Arctic islands. Ah! The smell of the sea air, the rugged mountains, and…  what? What!?! A flat tire? We are only 50 metres off the damn boat! While the campervans, motorbikes, and the backpackers smiled, lingered, and then waved goodbye, we went about fixing the problem with the mechanical efficiency of a subterranean mammal.

By the time we fixed the nail puncture, patched up a slow leak and cooked some dinner, the island was asleep. Normally at midnight we are also dead to the world from a day of pedaling, but we soon realised that if you can adjust your body clock (granted, that’s not an easy thing to do), the nighttime is the perfect time for cycling in the Arctic summer.

Even though we were too late in the season to see the midnight sun, visibility never fully disappeared. A prolonged dusk was rolling into an extended dawn; a magical lighting to show off the spectacular mountain silhouettes, small islands and the glistening water. Cycling the night provides a serenity that is drowned out by the daytime flow of engines on Lofoten’s main arterial road.

Which leads me to surprise number 3…. Despite all the mountains and jagged peaks, the cycling is relatively easy. The mountains drop sharply away to a narrow brim of coastal road where you can enjoy the scenery without the struggle. Tunnels are the trade off, which eliminates most of the potential mountain passes. (I myself enjoy a good struggle now and then).

The unfortunate thing about the Arctic Islands of Norway is that many of the most tempting, remote roads are also dead ends. To explore them all could take weeks, maybe months. We chose to visit Unstad on the Lofoten Islands, a surf beach rated as one of Europe’s best, nestled into an amphitheatre of mountains, its own little world. Others have raved above the beaches of Utakleiv and another highly recommended leaving our wheels behind and hiking to the sandy shores of northern Moskenesøya. It’s a place that beckons to be explored, but a problem with Zoa’s rear wheel meant we had to straight line it to the nearest bicycle mechanic.


A Mechanical Setback

Two days of cycling later we arrived to the nearest bicycle mechanic in Sortland. “What better place to sort out a problem” I said to a mechanic. He didn’t laugh. “The irony is fantastic. Coming to Sortland to sort out the problem.” Awkward silence.

Closer inspection revealed it was a damaged boss. Lots of grease squirting and hmmm’ing later we were passed on to another mechanic, then another. Nobody had the parts. Sending replacement parts to Arctic Norway would cost a small fortune. Nobody even had a 26 inch replacement wheel.

“Maybe there is one other option“, a mechanic finally told us. He went home, searched through old bikes in his garage and came back triumphant with a replacement wheel. To put a cherry on top he gave the bike a full tune up, obsessing over brake pad alignment with delicious zeal. The cost? “Don’t worry about it, we’ll charge the next customer double.”

We continued on to the island of Bø, the western-most of the Vesterålen Islands, feeling rather chuffed. The kindness of a stranger… so simple, yet so powerful. The island of Bø is not only interesting for its name. We detoured onto a quiet road heading for the isolating fishing community of Hovden (only recently accessible by road) excited at the prospect of some bird watching. Unfortunately all of the Puffins and their puffed up friends didn’t bother to wait for us. They had all migrated elsewhere. All that was left were seagulls, squawking and shitting everywhere.

Having said that they were pretty attractive seagulls, and we did find one of our most spectacular camping spots of the trip. Nestled amongst wild blueberries we pitched at the mouth of a fjord, and enjoyed a sunset over the Norwegian Sea.

With around 5 million residents spread across the country, and so much undisturbed nature, wild camping in Norway is usually easy and spectacular. Furthermore it is “Every Man’s Right”, and besides on uncultivated lands, (and a few other little * appendages), camping wherever you want is customary law. In fact roadside information centres with toilets and facilities can sometimes make it feel more civil than wild.

One thing to keep an eye on though is the weather. Norway is all mountains and fjords, one giant waterfall really. Much of the time the sky is on the move with clouds, some light and wispy, some dark and heavy, dancing around the sun as if on fast forward. Other times a thick carpet of clouds is rolled out across the top of the mountains and the sun is hidden on pause. A light shower might settle into a downpour, and a downpour might settle in for days, weeks. Our cheap ‘waterproof’ raingear was enough to get us through 12 months in less intense European climates but it was knocked out in the first round by Norway.

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The Whale Route

`We backtracked to Sortland and then re-routed north to Andenes at the northernmost tip of the Vestervalen Islands. We boarded the ferry to Senja, labeled The Whale Route (only open in Summer and due to close by the end of August), with warnings of 5 metre waves at sea. The mornings earlier ferry crossing was cancelled due to the conditions, and we soon found out why.

The scheduled two hour ferry seemed to drag out to eternity, as the ship zig-zagged its way through the high swells. The novelty of the up and down, and side to side soon disappeared. The dogs were sliding across the floor, our books and corn chips began tumbling off the table, and Zoa became the first to stumble for the toilet. An onboard mechanic acknowledged that it was not really the best ship for this route. “It was made in the 70’s for fjords. It’s too narrow for the open sea. Yesterday we had to clean up a lot of accidents on the floor.”

Indeed… not long after the mechanic strolled away so smugly with his I’ve been on ships my whole life, this is nothing attitude, a particularly rough patch had me doubled over and cursing the corn chips. A domino effect was triggered.  Paco, the small dog, lost control of his faculties on Zoa’s shoe, which in turn had her grabbing for the nearest bag. By that time I was ready for round two. How to win friends and influence people.

By the time we reached the sheer cliffs of the island of Senja, the big dog Jack was the only one left standing. There may have been whales out there, but we certainly didn’t see them.

The problem with Norway is that it is like a wine tasting where you are being handed one glass of fine wine after another. There is no break to cleanse your palette and one glass rolls into another. Before you know it you’re drunk on scenery and it can become a case of just ASF (another stunning fjord), ASW (another stunning waterfall) or ASM (another stunning mountain).

The island of Senja was blessed with plenty of all three. We took the northern coastal route which wound through sheer rocky mountains, and alongside white sandy beaches, often with the help of some well lit tunnels. With the tunnels being mostly downhill in our west to east direction, and the island being fairly low on traffic it was an easy operation.

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Northern Lights

That was until the lights went out. Some of our scariest moments of the trip have come from busy, poorly lit, narrow tunnels, where we could only pray that our pitiful lights would be seen by traffic. The guttural roar of trucks amplified by the tunnel walls can reverberate shivers of panic down the spine. As we headed towards the open mouth of the tunnel in Senja it felt like we were entering a dragon’s lair. We quickly turned back.

While we stood and pondered a group of Norwegian cyclists came out of the darkness towards us. The father and his two daughters confirmed the lights were completely out the whole 2km length of the tunnel, their warning underlined by a series of trucks whizzing past us at high speed. Thankfully the wife was driving along with them in a support vehicle and she offered to escort us through the tunnel. Very fortuitous timing! If we could advise one thing for cycling in countries high in tunnels like Norway and Italy, it is to invest in strong lights and safety vests. You have been warned.

Another ferry took us to island of Kvaløya, where our Wildlife Officer Paco’s nose began to twitch furiously. Jack’s ears pricked up, and he started hopping from side to side in the trailer. We bet each other who would be the first one to spot a moose. Our eyes scanned across the stunted forest searching for movement, and within 5 seconds we had a sighting. “Look, up on the ridge by the big boulder.” Not quite a moose as expected, but we were excited all the same to have our first reindeer sighting. Shortly afterwards another dark and hairy reindeer ran across the road in front of us leaping up the side of the mountain gracefully until we lost its antlers among the tree branches. (By the time we reached the North Cape, they had started to become as exciting as a flock of sheep.)

The weather was starting to chill down and the sun was setting earlier and earlier. As we pedaled into Tromso, one of the larger outposts of the Arctic, we received our final surprise of the story. A city with a friendly, open atmosphere. Nobody seemed too rushed or quick to avert their eyes. While sitting in the city centre we spent hours in the company of strangers, chatting about nothing and everything, just like old friends.

To continue with us, onwards to the North Cape, read the story A Week in the Life: The Arctic Autumn

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