Kayaking Norway’s Lofoten Islands
By Greg Lais
The Lofoten Islands jut out of the sea in a snow-capped fairy tale landscape above the Arctic Circle. Warmed by the gulf current, the Lofotens are a fascinating mix of northern European wilderness, ancient homesteads, and eye-popping scenery that comes at you around every bend.
The trip was Liv Arnesen’s idea. A former teacher, Liv is Norway’s foremost arctic explorer, having skied solo across Greenland and to the South Pole as well as traversing Antarctica with American explorer Ann Bancroft. For several years now Liv has wanted to start Wilderness Inquiry style trips for people with and without disabilities in Norway, so we decided to give it a shot.
The trip was also supported, in part, by the Arthur B. Schultz (ABS) Foundation. Among its many interests, the ABS Foundation has strong ties to Norway and is interested in helping to foster integrated outdoor adventures in Norway. The foundation’s namesake, Arthur “Art” Schultz, grew up in Norway and immigrated to Minnesota after World War II, where he earned his degree in accounting from the University of Minnesota. Along with Art, Erik Schultz, who is the ABS Executive Director, and several other directors, including Pam and Dave Staley, Mike Testa, and Linn Kincannon joined us for the trip. In addition to the ABS contingent, we also had Minnesotans Hunt Greene, Rosie Lais, and Jim, Sarah, and Peter Frey.
In addition to our American crew, we also had three Norwegians and a Swede. The Norwegians included Hilde Ingvaldsen from the Beitostolen Center, Jann Engstad, our Lofoten expert, and Liv Arnesen. Lena Conlin is a Swede who happens to live in Bozeman, Montana.
Three members of our group, Jim, Hilde, and Erik use wheelchairs. All are accomplished paddlers who enjoy a high degree of mobility, but our Norwegian hosts were concerned that they would not be able to use their wheelchairs on the trip. This concern proved unfounded.
Our group met in Bodo (pronounced “Bood-u-ua”) at the ferry that took us across the strait to the Islands. Bodo was heavily bombed by the Nazi’s in WW II, so today it looks like a modern city of glass and concrete—not quite what we expected in Arctic Norway. After meeting everyone we settled in for a 6 hour cruise to Svolvaer, a fishing community on the Lofoten Islands. We watched from the deck as the Lofotens rose out of the sea like a jagged set of shark’s teeth set against a purple sky. They looked forbidding and enticing at the same time.
We had a chance to get to know each other a bit while we were on the boat. I could tell that we had a crew of seasoned travelers who would well at getting along together —an important part of any trip like this. It was fun to watch everyone meet our celebrity leader, Liv, mainly because Liv is such an unassuming, down to earth character. She blended well with everyone else.
Our first day we visited fishing villages and heard about “Village Kings,” local patriarchs who dominated the economic and social scene for hundreds of years, requiring fishermen to pay a sort of tax in the form of “stock fish” (dried cod). I suppose it was Arctic Norway’s form of feudalism—long gone now but still evident as part of the cultural heritage. We also visited a restored Viking long house from 500 AD in a place called Borg. It was impressive and I could not help thinking that the ancient Norwegians were building these structures about the same time that the Mayan’s were building great cities in Central America.
The next day we set out to go kayaking in the Oystfiord, a finger of the sea that splits the islands. Our Norwegian and Swedish guides, Jann and Lena, gave extensive training sessions on packing and paddling as we loaded all of our gear into tandem and solo kayaks. As always with kayaking, packing all of our gear into the boats takes some time. After a little bit of figuring we strapped the wheelchairs to the back and mid decks of the kayaks.
We set off paddling on a sunny day toward our island campsite. It was invigorating, all of us were excited to get on the water and enjoy the kayaks. The sun sparkled off crystal clear waters and patches of snow glinted off the jagged peaks. It was hard to believe we were paddling above the Arctic Circle. After crossing one channel we wove in and out of islands, opting for the long route to camp. All of us were in awe of the scenery. Coming to the first campsite was like arriving at Shangri-la—it was unbelievably beautiful.
Firm, white, sand beaches made for a smooth place to disembark from the kayaks, removing one of the big concerns we had for this trip—basic accessibility. For an outdoor campsite this place was fairly accessible. The biggest obstacle was a 3 foot hillock between the beach and the main camping area on the grass. Once over the hillock the folks who used wheelchairs were able to get around fairly well. We set up all of our gear and established a colorful little oasis with our orange, red, green and yellow tents. There was one big tan tent, called a Lavo, that looked somewhat like a tipi. This was our kitchen, dining area, and refuge from the rough weather that was to come.
The next day we all awoke to great coffee and a wonderful breakfast made by Lena. It was fun to try the different Scandinavian foods. I became especially fond of shrimp paste on a cracker. We got back in the kayaks and headed out for the famed Trollfjord and the historic scene of the 1890 battle over access to fishing rights. Wealthy ship owners used their steamships to cordon off the Trollfjord, where huge schools of cod were crammed together. Ordinary fishermen, who carried out their fishing operations from small boats launched an attack on the steamships. They threatened each other with knives and hooks but eventually moved off without spilling any blood. The wealthy ship owners were forced to submit. This story is testiment to the fact that Norwegian sentiments toward warfare and violence have evolved significantly since the days of the Vikings.
Approaching the Troll Fiord was like approaching a movie set. At first, we could not tell where it entered the mountains. Then, the narrow passage opened up and we were at its mouth. Sheer mountain cliffs plunge straight into the water, forming an almost perpendicular wall on either side of the fiord. We paddled in, keeping our distance from the walls in case of a rock slide. As we went, we saw rivulets of water cascading down the lush green sides, forming a scene reminiscent of Rivendell in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” movies.
It started to drizzle a bit so a portable lunch “Lavo” was set up on the shore at the end of the Troll Fiord. The Fiord itself is only a couple of kilometers long. There is a sort of a wider opening at the end, almost like a lagoon. We entered the Lavo and feasted on a sumptuous lunch, again prepared by the energetic Lena. It was quite a day.
The rain did not let up for two days so we decided to stay in our camp rather than move to another site that was more exposed to the wind. Mike and I went out and caught a couple of codfish with drop lines. Despite the rain we did a number of day trips and made the best of it.
The next day we broke camp and enjoyed a tail wind as we paddled through some very scenic places. Long ribbons of water streamed down emerald green mountain sides. Brightly colored fishing huts dotted the shoreline—some of them occupied for hundreds of years. We had to keep reminding ourselves that, although we were in Arctic Norway, the warm gulf current has made this place habitable for a long, long time. We could almost see the Viking long boats coming down the fjords in the mist.
By the end of our trip we were a tight little community—old friends who knew each other pretty well. We were excited to discover that the Lofoten Islands are so beautiful and accessible. We have already been planning our next of what we hope is many trips there.