Lofoten Islands Autumn 2013 Travels
…This story picks up after I dropped my camera in a lake in Sweden. My original plan was for about 10 days or so hiking around Sarek national park before returning to Lofoten for about a week to hopefully catch some Autumn color. Well, needless to say, my plans were altered a bit.
Leaving the hut at Saltoloukta, I was lucky enough to catch a ride with a fellow hiker for the 2 hour trip back to Gällivare, arriving sometime around noon. And more importantly, early enough to catch the train to Narvik.
One can technically buy tickets while on the train in Sweden, but there is quite a markup compared when buying at a station in advance. Gällivare is not exactly a bustling town and there is no ticket agent at the small, pre-fabricated building that is serving as a temporary train station while the main building is being serviced. What exists in just a simple ticket machine. Unfortunately, with America lagging behind the rest of the world in our credit card technology, the machine didn’t accept mine. Hmmm…
I though about just paying on the train, then I noticed some teenage girl sitting in the corner listening to some headphones. In my best attempt not to look like some creepy old guy who had just been in the mountains for some days, I asked her in my bad Swedish, well, I actually used Norwegian, mostly the same anyhow, if she spoke English. Upon affirmation, I explained the situation, and if I could give her cash if she could buy me a ticket with her credit card. Thankfully, the Swedes are trusting people, and she said yes, and got me a ticket. Had the roles been reversed, I would have probably thought some sort of scam was underway. In a gesture of a thanks, I gave her a bit of a tip for her effort, though I didn’t have any small bills to make the correct change anyhow.
It was mid afternoon as the train arrived in Abisko, the sun shining nicely overhead and groups of hikers milling about the place. I quickly wondered if I shouldn’t get off the train and spend the night in the Hostel. But this would have delayed me getting to Lofoten the following day, a Saturday, so I stayed on the train and continued on towards Narvik. Up to this point in my life I have successfully avoided having to spend any nights in Narvik. It’s a somewhat grim, industrial-ish place, and it seems to always be raining.
Sure enough, as the train neared the Norwegian border the clouds thickened and the sun disappeared. Soon, the heavy clouds turned to rain as the train descended the edges of the Fjord. Welcome to Norway.
The train pulled into Narvik in the early evening, heavy rain drops falling from the sky sending passengers running as they exited the train. I immediately regretted not getting off in Abisko. Too late now.
My first thought would have been to stay the night in the train station, but it was closing 30 minutes after the arrival of the train. I knew there to be a hostel in Narvik, and sort of knew where it should be. But after 30 minutes of walking around in the driving rain, I was merely wet, and still had no shelter for the night. I simply couldn’t find the place. It turns out that I could find it because it no longer exists.
Somewhat out of hope, and now wondering if I should start walking up the hill and look for a place to pitch my tent for the night I received some directions to another place that might be a hostel. It was a bit hard to find, right down by the train tracks, but it was indeed a hostel, and even not overly expensive by Norwegian standards. After a quick trip to the supermarket and a frozen pizza for dinner, I settled in early to bed for the night. It happened to be a Friday night, and the reception to the hostel, a separate building, was actually a bar. Norwegians party late into the night…
Saturday was spent on the bus, traveling from the mainland, through Vesterålen, before finally reaching Svolvær. Being a Saturday, the Norwegians seem to slow down the public transport system in preparation for Sunday’s near total shutdown. (Travel tip: always try and avoid traveling on Sundays, you’ll likely end up stuck in some random small town.) This meant I had some weird 2 hour stop in Svolvær before the next bus to Leknes, where I had to wait again for an hour before the final bus to Stamsund. I gave thoughts to hitchinking, but it the rain it would have been a futile effort.
I have complained about this before, but for such a bad weathered country, and Lofoten especially, the bus stops are shit! The Norwegians seem to have no shortage of money to build endless tunnels and bridges, yet someone in the transportation department seems to have forgotten about us poor tourist that might have to wait and hour or two for a bus. If your lucky, there will be a 3 sided plexiglass structure with an awkward, uncomfortable bench. But good luck escaping the elements when the rain is blowing sideways.
After what felt like and endless wait I was on my way towards Leknes and another hour to wait for my last bus. Around dinner time I finally wandered back down the driveway to Stamsund. I caught Roar getting out of his van and he was surprised I was back so soon. He informed me that my corner bunk was still free, so I headed back up to the loft and took my old bed, which I had left barely a week before. Later that evening I told him of my happenings over in Sweden and we worked out the best way for me to get a camera sent over. The waiting now began.
I could have gone anywhere while waiting for a replacement camera, but I knew Stamsund would be the best place. It is a place I can go, and more likely than not, know someone who’s there, or someone who might show up in some days or weeks. As luck would have it, a few friends from over the years were already there, and a day after my arrival, another friend made during the summer showed back up as well, back from her adventures to the north. It seems to be a small group of us that revolve around the arctic, and Stamsund in particular, the special place that it is.
In my wait I learned something about international shipping. While you might have something expedited out of the US, Norway only has one speed: slow. From placing the order, it only took a couple days for my replacement camera to reach Oslo. I had been going nearly crazy checking the tracking number every few hours to see if any progress was being made. Once arriving in Olso however, the camera entered a black hole, and progress seemed to stop. After several days, one of my (Norwegian speaking) friends put in a call to the UPS office in Oslo for me. They didn’t have much more info than I did, only saying that the Norwegian post was now in control, and it should show up ‘in some days.’
So it became a routine for the better part of a week, checking the tracking first thing in the morning, and last thing before going to bed at night. ‘In transit’ was the constant status, day after agonizing day.
The Autumn this year was another mild and calm weathered one, the same as last year. Beautiful days and clear nights. Northern lights filled the sky on more than one occasion. I quietly wept. Ever try taking a photo of the Northern Lights with an iPhone? Good luck…
On the morning of Tuesday, September 24th, 12 days since my camera took the plunge in lake Sitojaure, and over a week since it had arrived in Norway, I was getting somewhat worried that my camera might have disappeared somewhere. I put in another call to the UPS office and received the news; it had been delivered. What? Where? Not at the hostel, that was for sure.
I didn’t mention earlier, but part of my concern was that there are 3 streets in Stamsund named more or less the same. In the back of my mind I had some vision that unfamiliar UPS driver might end up at the wrong place, my camera sitting in the rain on the porch of some strange house; lost again. But upon a bit more clarification with the UPS person, it appeared that it arrived that morning at the Joker mini-market/post office just around the corner. I put on a jacket and immediately ran up there.
Relieved that my camera had finally arrived, I now was gritting my teeth over my next concern about the whole situation. How much import duty was I going to have to pay on a $3,000 camera? I was planning for the worst, 25%. I had been taking cash out of the ATM whenever possible in preparation, somewhat held back with a $300/day limit, and the fact that the ATM in Stamsund was removed last summer, the nearest one now 15 km away in Leknes. I also worried that my account was probably getting dangerously low. So it was in Nervous anticipation that I walked up to the counter and asked for my package. I was asked for ID and then told to sign that I had received it. ‘That’s it?” I questioned, somewhat unsure. ‘Yep, have a nice day…’ came the reply. Phew! Not sure how I escaped that one. Relieved of my worries and camera in hand, my face was now a smile from ear to ear as I jogged back to the hostel under the bright sun and clear blue sky.
I now had six days remaining on Lofoten.
The weather gods must have felt sympathy for me, for what followed was five days of absolutely perfect weather. I hit the mountains in a mad dash, four peaks in four days before my knee started to complain a bit. When weighed against the chances of having my camera back only to sit though a week of rain and gales, which was very much possible, if not the likely state of things at the end of September, I got lucky.
First up was Grytdalstind, a somewhat obscure peak that seems to have received little traffic over the years, probably because what as what starts as a trail turns into nothing more than meandering sheep paths about half way up. Finally even losing the sheep trails, it was a steep climb over loose rocks and blueberry bushes to the knife-edge ridge which makes up the summit. Surrounded by higher peaks, it is no wonder that few people head up there, but it still makes for a challenging afternoon with some nice views down to Unstad beach.
The evening arrived with clear skies, which to me meant the possibility of Northern Lights. It had been a strange Autumn thus far. With a high amount of clear nights, the Aurora often remained quiet. Then, during the cloudy days, I would check the Aurora forecast and later learn that thy sky had been filled with them in clear areas. Never the less, a clear night was not to be wasted. So I hopped in my rental car and headed out to the coast for what would likely be a long wait. Just after 22:00, I began to notice that faint hint of green appear on the northern horizon. By 22:30, a large, bright green arc filled the sky from horizon to horizon, growing in intensity over the following 30 minutes until it began to fade again. My first night back with a camera, and the best Aurora of the season thus far. Lucky again.
Wednesday arrived with clear blue skies and a good forecast for the next couple days. I wanted to sleep up high, hoping to photograph the northern lights from the top of a mountain. On these clear Autumn nights, the temperatures had begun to drop to a few degrees below freezing, but that was no worry of mine, I could suffer a cold night for epic photos. I set my sights on Reinebringen. I had spent the night up here once before, in the summer of 2010, and even if the Northern Lights never appeared, with such fine weather, I was still almost guaranteed some nice images. So in early afternoon I started heading west towards Reine.
I arrived at the summit ridge in mid afternoon with nice puffy white clouds in the sky and began my wait till darkness. The air was cold, but as long as the sun was above the horizon, I was warm enough. Once the sun fell behind the mountains, the temperature quickly dropped and I was forced into my tent and sleeping bag to keep warm. I had, unfortunately, set up my tent in a somewhat awkward position, with the entrance slightly lower than the back; this was the only way it would fit. In order to keep an eye on the sky, I needed to have my head poking out the front of the tent. And so there I laid, in the somewhat uncomfortable position of my head lower than my feet, staring up at the star filled sky. My position also meant that I only really had a clear view towards the southern sky, so every 10 minutes or so, I would crawl out of my sleeping bag and look towards the north..
The hours passed and I could feel my head growing tired. Finally, just before midnight, a small green glow appeared on the northern horizon. I hopped out of the tent and sturdied myself against the cold. The aurora remained faint and appearing so late in the night likely meant that I was not going to have a repeat of the previous night’s display. Disheartened and cold, I returned to the warmth of my sleeping bag. My thoughts now focused on what the dawn would bring.
I had set my alarm to wake me before sunrise, but as it sounded in the early hours of the morning I didn’t have the strength to get out of bed. I was tired and it was cold, not a productive combination of elements. I let the hours pass until my tent was finally in sunlight and I willed the energy to stir from my sleep. I want to think that I didn’t miss anything interesting, but I probably did. Maybe next time. By 10:00 I was back at the car and driving east towards Stamsund, blue skies overhead.
Back in Stamsund later that day I wanted to be lazy, I truly did. But I couldn’t. With a few hours left until sunset I took the car to Holandsmelen, a small hill to the north of Leknes. I didn’t quite know what to expect, only that it should be a somewhat easy hike, but a hike none the less, so I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about laziness. Beginning in forest, the trail soon left the tree line, wandered across some bogs, before the final ascent towards the gentle round summit. I arrived with near perfect timing, having about 20 minutes on top before the sun disappeared behind a layer of clouds hanging low on the horizon. It was nearly dark before I arrived back at the car.
Friday arrived with more blue skies and I knew I wanted something a bit bigger. There are several mountains on my ‘to do’ list, but looking at maps, I decided on something new, Kroktind. Not in much of a rush I headed out in mid morning for the 45 minute drive to the trailhead. The route begins by following a cross country ski track, before climbing steeply up a low pass. From there the trail circumvented a small peak before entering a beautiful alpine cirque with a small pond, just beginning to freeze over in the cold night, and then finally climbing to a wide ridge which leads to the small, exposed summit. Another perfect day, and in a t-shirt on a mountain top at the end of September, amazing! Sea eagles circled high overhead while the wilds of Ausvågøy stretched into the distance. The clear silhouette of Vesterålen stood further away still. This was as good as it gets on Lofoten, and in September no less! I put a mental note to come back and camp down by the lake sometime in the future, and thought it could be a nice ski tour in winter.
Saturday brought more sun, but by now the winds were beginning to pick up and I could tell the weather was going to shift. I had given the thought of one final mountain, Himmeltindan, the highest mountain on Vestvågøy, but my laziness won and I was content to stay at sea level and eat popcorn.
The weather finally turned to rain and wind for my final two days on the islands, but this was okay now. Despite all the setbacks, I had accomplished more than I imagined I would have and so I settled into my next worry; would the Hurtigruten ferry make it to port at Stamsund? Roar always likes to tease me that I’m going to miss the boat. And indeed, I think he must have a weather machine in his garage at the hostel, as I often seem to leave on days of gale force winds, unsure until the last moment if the boat will arrive. On a couple occasions, this has even led me to buying last minute plane tickets for the final flight of the day off the islands and back to Bodø. But at last, the ferry pulled up to port in the choppy waters of the harbor. I said my goodbyes to the Islands and stretched out on a seat to get my 4 hours of sleep for the night. After four visits to the islands in 2013, I did not know when I would see them again…