My trip to the Lofoten islands off Norway’s north coast was even less planned than usual. I’d seen an otherworldly photo of sharp-peaked mountains rising straight from the sea on Reddit and decided that was all the reason I needed to make the thousand km rail journey from Oslo into the arctic circle. I was already in Norway, so that counted as “in the neighborhood”.
The railway ended in Bodo, and from there I took a three hour ferry ride across the pitching Norwegian sea. Near the end, people began pressing their phones against the bow windows. I saw the grey-blue sea, the grey-grey clouds, and a jagged strip of bright sky between the clouds.
The ferry drew closer and I realized the bottom layer of clouds were actually mountains perfectly silhouetted against the sunset. Naturally, Tolkien’s Valinor (the land of the gods beyond the westernmost sea) came to mind, with it’s coastal mountains raised by deities as a barrier around the Undying Lands.
The grey silhouettes resolved into green slopes whose rocky roots met the sea without any interceding beaches. The ferry disgorged its vehicles and a handful of other backpackers who picked up rental cars from a wooden shack. I asked about transportation, but there were no cars available for the next week. Apparently everyone else had made plans more than five minutes in advance.
I hefted my pack and followed the gravel road away from the dock. At the end of the road I took a mud path down and up the seaside cliffs until I found a relatively level patch of ground to stake my tent.
Until the 19th century, much of the Norwegian population lived in isolated homesteads surrounded by wilderness, and this history is reflected in the government’s recognition of Allemannsretten (all men’s right) to travel and camp anywhere beyond 150m of structures (with reasonable limits). As a consequence, Norway is a hiking and camping paradise, and I’ve yet to meet a Norwegian who doesn’t enjoy climbing mountains and owning thousands of dollars worth of high-end camping gear.
I finished setting up my tent, watched the 10pm sunset, and got to bed so I could sleep in the relatively dim twilight before the sky started to brighten again at 1am for the 4am sunrise.
The next morning I returned the the ferry dock/bus terminal to look at schedules. In 15 minutes there was a boat that ran every other day to the tiny island Værøy, which a quick Googling revealed to have impressive topography and a couple 5-star ratings. I had a water filter, food for days, and a favorable weather forecast, so I took a chance and got on.
I’d read that the legendary Maelstrom lay near our route, and awkwardly asked the ticket guy about it once we were underway, in the same way you’d ask the subway conductor if you’d be passing the entrance to the kingdom of the mole people.
“Ja,” he said. “Over there.” He pointed starboard. “You can take a tour there from Reine.”
Amazingly, the maelstrom is actually a thing- a unique whirlpool that exists in the open ocean due to the phenomenally strong tidal currents created by the tides flowing between the different sea levels on each side of the Lofoten islands. However, Norway’s public transit keeps a meticulous schedule that doesn’t allow for detours past the Carybdis of the north.
I landed on Værøy with three other backpackers- a Norwegian taking French and American friends on a road trip through the archipelago. None of them had been to Værøy either, but there was a helpful map at the dock. They left to find the Cliffs of Ten Thousand Birds((Not the actual name, but Værøy’s cliffs are an important breeding area for tens of thousands of sea birds)) and I walked to the village center to figure out what I was doing.
About 500 people live on the island, with 400 of them employed in fishing. Massive wood frames filled most available spaces for hanging and drying the winter cod catch. I found an information office and a bored-looking 6ft tall young woman with shoulder-length platinum blonde braids, sea-ice blue eyes, and no features to distinguish her from every other Norwegian woman I’d encountered gave me a map and confirmed that I could, in fact, camp anywhere.
I walked a few km out of town and through a narrow pass in the sea cliffs to a white sand beach. Further along the path a sign indicated that the scattered piles of white stones were remnants of a paleolithic settlement, and that ancient cave paintings could be found in the caves off another beach (cf. Game of Thrones S7E04). I walked around the ruins and made camp. I felt comfortable leaving my things unattended- there are no wild animals bigger than geese on Vaeroy, Norwegians seem especially trustworthy (it’s amazing how many public services rely on the honor system), and figured no one would bother hiking all the way out there to steal my dirty laundry.
Thirty lbs lighter, I set off for the hills. I initially followed a road uphill, but it led to a dark tunnel entrance with “FORBIDDEN ENTRY” written in so many languages that they probably meant business. The simplest reason might be it’s a government access road through the mountain to the other side of the island and there’s a risk to pedestrians of getting hit. More exotically, it could be an old uranium mine, or the entrance to the Tombs of Atuan. Vaeroy’s second highest peak houses a NATO radar facility, so I’d also hate to knock over a Patriot missile while fumbling in the dark.
I took a path outside the tunnel and stripped down to my t-shirt. Despite being hundreds of km inside the arctic circle, Vaeroy is the northernmost place on earth that never experiences sub-freezing winters thanks to the gulf stream, and I had the rare good fortune of hiking on a sunny summer day. I reached the first ridge and got my first taste of Norway’s pulse-quickening views.
The trail reached a rocky outcropping that ended abruptly in a thousand-foot drop to the turquoise waters below. Go on Instagram and you’ll find no shortage of Norwegians dangling their legs, striking yoga poses, or taking jumping pics on these precipices. Personally, I like to keep at least a two-foot margin between me and the possibility of untimely, splattery death. If we had another couple years and thousand dollars, I’m sure I’d have some amazing VR captures to share, but for the present images and words aren’t sufficient to capture the grandeur of the place. You’ll have to go there yourself.
I hiked another hour up the ridge line to the NATO radar station. A Cold War era sign prohibited photography, but NATO seems to have chilled out since then. A set of wooden steps and dirt trail snaked along the outside of the radar dome to overlook the southern half of the island. Here I encountered a Norwegian guy wearing a viking-caliber beard and designer hiking clothes. His camera drone hovered obediently at his side beyond the cliff edge. Usually when I find someone else atop a mountain I ask for a photo and offer to reciprocate, but in this case I’d been replaced by a flying robot.
The subject of the photos itself was extraordinary and reminiscent of the outer cliffs of Easter Island’s volcanic craters. The sparkling blue water, sunshine, and sand seemed like they belonged in Polynesia more than the Norwegian arctic.
The map at the ferry landing had mentioned an unmarked path used by locals and “expert walkers” to reach the secluded beach with the prehistoric cave paintings, and I thought I saw some distant tracks in the grass. I waded through the brush until I reached a narrow path leading along the cliffs. In places the cliffside opened window-like onto the pristine beach below. There was a steep slope that could conceivably be followed down, but I estimated at least a 1/3 chance of either sliding to my doom or getting trapped at the bottom. Instead I found a sunny outcropping and sat down for some mixed nuts and contemplation.
After contemplating the life that had brought me to that point and my place in the universe for a solid 20 minutes, I took some cool selfies:
Then I followed the dirt track to around the edge of the grassy plateau. It was a perfect hike- sunny skies, warm without being hot, breezy without being windy, and not another soul in sight. I worried a little that there’d be no way anything else in Norway could top it.
I looked down the cliff and could barely spot my tent on the beach below with my telephoto lens. I passed several stone cairns marking the edge and made my way back to my first stop at Haen.
The light was changing toward sunset, but and I watched the waves rolling below for a while. I’d have had to have waited several more hours for sunset, so I hiked back down, through the gap in the cliffs, and down to one of the white sand beaches. I dipped a hand in the water- surprisingly warm, but still as cold as a Boston beach in the summer. I tested the consistency of the sand with an eye toward sandcastle potential. It was excellent- the sand was as smooth and silty as any I’d found, and it was a shame I had no carving tools and an extra six hours, or I might’ve really jumpstarted the Norwegian sand sculpting scene.
I walked past the ancient ruins and found my campsite undisturbed. A full moon had just begun to rise over an island in the harbor; if I was reading the signs correctly, that meant I should make ramen for dinner. I poured out 400ml of water and put my ultralight cooking gear to its maiden test. pot + stove + gas + spoonfork + ramen = $65 for some okay ramen. I hope to amortize that a bit in the future.
The next morning I packed up, walked 3km, and hitchhiked with an old fisherman the rest of the way to catch the ferry to the main island chain.