Kayaking the Salten Coast – Umbrellas, wind and Trolls.
I look at the blue and white umbrella above me and think once again that this is the most unusual kayaking accessory I have ever used. The sunlight bounces off the water and the breeze tugs at the umbrella pulling me along at least as fast as I could paddle. Looking over at the other members of the group I see Sandy looking enviously at the umbrella pulling me along. Jamie, the only other paddler with an umbrella pulls his out with a smile reminiscent of Mr. Bean and he too is soon coasting along under the power of the wind. Umbrella sailing is just one of the experiences of this trip along the Salten Coast in Norway.
Most of the other paddlers on this trip are very inexperienced which really doesn’t matter in this area. Dozens of islands provide shelter from all but the strongest winds which means we can almost always find a sheltered route that everyone feels comfortable paddling. A good thing this week as we have been beset by storm after storm which has found us wind bound on a couple of occasions when even the sheltered routes are too rough to paddle.
All around us and reaching far into the distance sculpted granite peaks rise out of the sea. In the far distance across the channel dotted with the occasional ship heading north to Narvik, the rugged mountains of the Lofoten Islands stand like dark blue cardboard cutouts against an angry dark sky. It looks like rain is coming our way once again. To our left the coastal range mountains rear up from the shoreline, dark valleys below snow covered peaks looking like the ideal place to find trolls lurking. There is something magical about the very air here. We are more than 160 kilometres (100miles) north of the Arctic Circle yet this is not a true wilderness area. Tiny fishing villages with red painted houses dot the shoreline, nestled in protected bays with stout looking boats moored in the water and neatly maintained yards looking like they should be far to the south. The weather though keeps reminding us that although the waters look as if they might be tropical with a deep turquoise colour we are very far from the tropics.
The wind keeps increasing and with a sudden gust my umbrella is blow inside out. Struggling to control it I eventually get it furled and stowed under the deck lines. We are paddling through a channel with granite rocks covered in lichen running in an almost straight line for several hundred metres (yards) on either side. Everywhere I look there is evidence of the power of the glaciers which sculpted these mountains and valleys a few thousand years ago. Another gust of wind is accompanied by a spattering of big and very cold raindrops. The group stops to pull rain jackets on over our PFDs and with our hoods pulled up over hats and some wearing gloves we look like a group heading out for a winter paddle rather than an August camping trip – another reminder of just how far north we are! Weather here changes very fast and with the increasing rain and wind we put our heads down and paddle into the safety of a small bay behind a lighthouse on a rocky islet jutting out into the channel.
The sky has turned a dark leaden gray and the wind is whipping the tops off the short choppy waves. Rounding the point the wind pushes us on the beach and we quickly pull the kayaks high above the high water mark and first set up the lavuu. A lavuu is a teepee like structure which is the traditional shelter used by the Saami people in northern Norway, Sweden and Finland. Also known as Lapps the Saami herd reindeer in the mountains and here on the coast of Norway are prominent in the fishing communities. The lavuu goes up quickly with all of us helping and we are soon inside sipping on hot soup as the wind driven rain drums on the taut canvas. Soon after we have finished our lunch the rain stops long enough for us to set up our tents and explore the local area a bit.
We return to the camp for a quick dinner and then as the wind dies we walk over towards the lighthouse. The sky seems to be on fire silhouetting the lighthouse in a circle of clouds seemingly aflame from within. Behind, the mountains of the Lofoten Islands hold back towering dark clouds which ominously promise more wind and rain before the night is finished. The long footbridge leading out to the island on which the lighthouse and lighthouse keeper’s quarters are perched is also home to a tiny restaurant – yes here in the middle of nowhere there is a restaurant. We wander around the grounds looking in doors, shouting for someone to hear us but the entire place seems deserted. Our hopes of a hot desert or hot chocolate dashed we return to our camp and slowly one by one drift off to our tents to sleep. I wake in the middle of the night to the sound of rain and wind pelting the tent but we are warm and snug so I quickly fall asleep again.
The next day dawns calm, bright and sunny. Wanting to take advantage of such calm paddling conditions we are on the water early. Rounding the point and heading deeper into the maze of islands we wend our way through small channels and passages which seem to open up before us and close behind us. The water is so still that the other paddlers are mirrored in the oil smooth surface. Our goal today is to find a campsite below three tall mountains standing together like three cloaked sisters. The top of the peaks is often wreathed in mist and from high on one side a thin white line marks the passage of a waterfall at least 200 metres (500 feet) high. I imagine climbing the paths to that falls through rocks shaped like frozen trolls caught out in the sun. It is no wonder so many of the characters in popular fantasy literature come from the mythology of Scandinavia. Looking around at the gnarled rocks and twisted trees here it is easy to believe in Trolls, Elves and Dwarves.
We paddle into a small bay totally protected from even the smallest breeze and stop for a long lunch break, a break so long I almost fall asleep in the sunshine. It seems amazing that this is the same area that was so cold and wet yesterday. Climbing a small bluff as the others are paddling away I am surprised at the colour of the water. It looks just like a tropical beach area with soft turquoise water stretching into the distance. The water is so clear I can see the seaweed growing in clumps along the sandy bottom. The kayaks wakes anchor them to the waters surface trailing behind like long streamers. As we leave the shelter of the bay the wind freshens and pushes at our back helping us along to our next campsite. This area along the Salten Coast has no designated sites for camping and each afternoon finds us looking at possible sites which will fit all of our tents. The sites range from almost lawn like smoothness to sites interspersed between trees along white sand beaches and other sites on rocky shelves. Today the search takes longer than normal but we end up on a multi-leveled site with the lavuu perched high on a rocky ledge. Wandering back from a walk towards the waterfall high above us – without discovering any trolls – I am reminded of an old paddling song when I see our camp spread out in front of me:
Close by the water’s edge silent and free.’
The words run through my mind as I sit beside the lavuu watching a glorious sunset turning the sky into an impressionist painting of reds, oranges and deep blue accented by whispy white clouds which seem to catch fire as they catch the sinking light of the sun. The sunsets here seem extra colourful – perhaps because we are so far north and the sun hits the atmosphere at a sharper angle. Looking out over the maze of islands and channels which hide tomorrows paddling route I let my eyes wander higher and in almost every direction I see rugged mountain ranges holding station on the horizon.
Morning of our last day brings brisk winds holding the promise of snow in the air – another reminder of how far above the Arctic Circle we are. We pack up our tents for the last time and quickly load the kayaks. What took two hours a week ago takes just half an hour now. The new paddlers are becoming seasoned sea kayak trippers! There are clouds building again to the west but for now we are sheltered from the real fury of the northern winds.
We paddle through dozens of rocky islands, some with nothing green on them at all and a few with stunted trees twisted by the wind. An few hours paddling brings us to a sheltered bay with brownish green seaweed clinging to the rocks along both sides exposed by the retreating tide. We land at a small beach at the end of the bay for a quick break. Wandering back from the beach I find tracks. First I think moose but no it is cows, dozens of them. It is a reminder of how settled this area is. I wonder if there is anywhere else this far north of the artic circle where I would run into cows on a sea kayak trip?
Our take out for the end of the trip is at a small village, really just a couple of neat clapboard sided houses painted red and white, where the road comes right to the waters edge. We land one by one on the tiny beach and then start sorting all the gear ready for transport back to Narvik. We stop for lunch when all the personal gear has been separated out and there are piles of life jackets, paddles, dry bags and communal gear in semi organized heaps around the kayaks. Part way through lunch a mini bus arrives and we rush through the last food so we can all pile onto the bus. We leave Howie , one of our guides, standing in the midst of the pile of gear and head back to Narvik where a warm shower and hot dinner await. The other guide stops us on the way with all of our travel luggage in her van. A quick exchange and she is off to pick up Howie and the gear and we are off on a great bus trip back to Narvik. The road to Narvik and the short ferry between two sections of road are trips worth taking in themselves. The Norwegians are masters of mountain road building with soaring bridges and deep tunnels cutting through the rugged mountains. We emerge out of the last tunnel in Narvik and shortly we are all clean dressed in fresh clothes and looking at each other in the Breidabikk Guest House with that post trip questioning look, ‘Is that really the same person I saw yesterday?’
Howie and Asa, the other guide, join us for a last dinner and in the morning we all go our separate ways. Looking down out of the airplane window I can see the area we spent a week paddling. It takes but a few seconds to pass over and then the coastal mountains of Norway are spread out below. I see dozens of other paddling options….I am going to have to return, again and yet again. Maybe on one of those future trips I will find some trolls or dwarves or elves and I will definitely be taking an umbrella.