The Adventures in Arctic Summer

As we drove in our white minivan straight up north towards the arctic on E4, I took a sigh of relief that finally, this trip was happening. For the past two weeks, we were on the brink of canceling the plans many times. We had been unsuccessful in finding a rental car that could fit 6 people. Eventually, after spending a couple of afternoons calling each rental agency in Gothenburg and Stockholm we somehow found a white minivan at a fuel station in Västerås, a small town an hour away from Stockholm. At last, we had found our ride for the next ten days.

Fully aware of the anti-petroleum sentiments in the north of Norway, we started our journey in a van covered with ugly stickers of an oil company. Nevertheless, the ugly exteriors of the van were easily outdone by the vastness and comfort of the interiors. We were six, and the maximum capacity of this minivan was nine, so there was plenty of space for everyone.

After making a few quick pauses along a few lakes on the way, we made our first stop at Skuleberget at Höga Kusten. When we went to the information center at Skuleberget to know our options for hiking up the mountain, we were presented with two options, either to take the long but easy route which was 2km long or to take the short but steep route which was 600m. Of course, the word ”easy” was too hurtful for our egos and we chose to take the steep route, well, wrong choice. It was a climb of 300m in a distance of 600m, so almost a climb of 80%, most of the trail was stairs or rocks with ropes for support. All this was still doable, but, it was one of the once-in-a-year 30°C days of Swedish summer. By the time we reached the summit, all of us had our shirts dripping in sweat and had to take them off. Thankfully, there was a small cafe atop Skuleberget selling ice cream and without losing a second we headed straight to it. The cafe offered a majestic panoramic view, and it was definitely worth all the sweat.

We were calmly enjoying the view with icecream until someone noticed that the area was full of blueberries, so the next half an hour went by in plucking blueberries. For the obvious reasons, we took the ”Easy” route back to our van and proceeded on our journey up north. The warm sunny day had a perfect ending with a magical sunset worth stopping for. 1000km and 12 hours after leaving Stockholm, we entered the Arctic circle and spent the night in Jokkomokk.

A perfect sunset, somewhere near Jokkomokk

As we continued on our journey the following day, we were still 600km away from our destination in Norway. En route, there was a plan to hike to a lake called Trollsjön in Kiruna close to the Norwegian border. As we started our drive from Jokkomokk up north, we could see that the landscape has completely changed from what we had seen in the 1000km journey before entering the Arctic circle. Our drive was pleasantly interrupted several times by reindeers and arctic foxes wandering onto the roads. Not just the landscape, but a cultural change was also evident with all the places marked in Sami in addition to the usual of Swedish. I picked some words in Sami too; like Jaure is a lake and Johka is a river. The lake we were headed to also has a more popular Sami name called Rissajaure.

A couple of hundred kilometers after leaving Jokkomokk we found ourselves struggling to find a public toilet along the road. One of the signs along the road suggested taking a couple of kilometers detour for getting to a public toilet, with some people desperate for a break, we drove in that direction. Turns out this was right next to the famous Ice Hotel. While looking for a toilet, we had accidentally arrived at one of the most famous places in Sweden. I remember reading that the Ice hotel is built every year with fresh ice from a frozen river nearby, so I was skeptical if there would be anything worth watching there. Turns out, they have two of them, one is built every winter from the fresh ice, and there is another one called Ice Hotel 365, open throughout the year built inside a controlled temperature cave. We spent the next couple of hours going through the hotel. Every room was designed by an artist and was adorned with ice sculptures of different themes in each room. On top of that, there was an ice bar in the hotel lobby, serving drinks, in glasses made of ice. Who could say no to that!

Of course, this spontaneous stop delayed our plans but gave us an advantage that when we started our hike, most of the other hikers were headed back, so no crowds. Although, we realized the downside of not having more hikers very shortly. No other hikers meant, no one else on the trail to follow, and one of our friends who was a few meters ahead took a wrong turn. An hour later when we came on a straight path, and still couldn’t spot him, we discovered that he had gone 4 kilometers in the wrong direction. So we spent the next hour waiting for him to come back. Once he arrived we continued to the lake. The path to the lake went through a stone valley that dates back to the ice age. The valley, filled with huge boulders and rocks of different shapes led us to the lake. Being hailed as the clearest and purest lake in Sweden, we had plans to take a dip, but what we didn’t consider was that it was an alpine lake. So unless there was a sauna right next to the lake, there was no way anyone was going in that lake. Taking a dip was a far fetched thought, dipping hand for 10 seconds was enough to freeze us, 30 seconds was the longest that I could keep my hand in and even that made it go numb.

Following the unplanned delays, at around 10 PM we continued our journey to Senja Island. The moment we crossed the border to Norway, the landscape changed in a matter of minutes. The mountains became dramatic, roads became curvier and every rest stop looked like a dream landscape. After resisting this urge a couple of times, we stopped at one of the rest stops along the water with a perfect view of mountains on the other side. It was close to sunset, so it helped me get some nice photographs.

By the time we crossed the bridge from mainland Norway to Senja island, it was already past midnight. Except, it was middle of summer in the arctic circle, so there was no such thing as night. There was a period of dark blue sky between 23:30 and 12:30 and we could see the signs of the sun rising again. Had we come a month earlier, even that wouldn’t have happened. The dawn sky was dramatically orange and when we stopped for our first break on Senja, we were unknowingly next to one of the famous attractions of Senja: Tungeneset, which translates to Devil’s Teeth. Under normal circumstances, I would have stayed a couple of hours waiting for sunrise, but after a long tiring day, everyone was so exhausted that after a quick stop we continued to our Airbnb.

The Devil’s teeth

Observing the sunset and sunrise within a span of 1 hour gave me an idea. Why can’t we plan all our hikes so that we can observe both sunrise and sunset? Although it would be a bit cold, but we were prepared for that. Everyone was instantly on board this plan, it turned out to be one of the best decisions on this trip. So for the rest of the week during our time in Norway, we spent our days eating and playing board games combined with a little bit of sightseeing, and during the ‘nights’ we went to befriend the mountains.

Senja and Segla

On our first day in Senja, we spent the day relaxing and sitting by the fireplace in our amazing Airbnb, which was 20 steps away from the sea. The island of Senja is like a hand with tens of fingers placed in the sea, all those fingers are the mountain ranges and between them is water. The roads are along the periphery, so the mountain right in front of you across water might be an hour of drive away. While sitting along water, we kept on debating where is the mountain that we are going to hike in the evening. We the drivers spent most of the day soaking the sun on the patio while sipping tea looking at the clouds forming and disappearing on the mountain opposite to us. These were not any ordinary peaks, most of these mountains are a kilometer high and rose vertically out of the sea, a typical north Norwegian landscape, something I had never seen anywhere else.

In the evening, after dinner, we geared up for our first hike. Now, if you know me personally, you probably know that there is no such thing as a perfectly executed plan on my trips, the universe tries it’s best to throw the most unexpected hurdles. When we drove through an almost uninhabited piece of land with almost no other cars on the road, we were surprised when we had to stop in a queue of several cars. Confused by what was happening, I asked one of the other car drivers about the situation. He said that the tunnel was closed every night for repairing and it opens only twice for a short duration. They were waiting for it to open in an hour. The second scheduled opening was after 3 hours. If we missed that window, we’d have to wait till 6 AM for the tunnel to open. Not only that, there was another tunnel after that which remained closed completely for maintenance and we would have to drive through an old unpaved road.

So the adventure had started, we waited some time for the tunnel to open, and then we drove through the water streams on the bumpy unpaved road along the ocean. Eventually, we reached the starting point of our hike and were welcomed by a sign saying: Don’t poop on the trail, which definitely wasn’t a part of the plan.

This hike was probably one of the biggest reasons we had Senja on our itinerary. However, now we had only 4 hours to finish the hike and get back, else we would have to wait till morning to leave this part of the island.

The mountain of Segla has a unique shape, if you understand Swedish/Norwegian, Segla translates to ”the Sail” and it does resemble it, the only difference is, this sail is 700m tall. To get a perfect view of Segla, we hiked on the mountain opposite to it. It was a comparatively easy yet scary hike, with a vertical drop of 600m on one side of a part of the trail. When we arrived at the first peak, we had a perfect vantage point to witness the sunset, we stayed there for while as the clouds seemed approaching us and I let my camera absorb the view. The best part of hiking in this part of the world was the complete absence of crowds, we could see no one else on the trail and had such an amazing mountain by ourselves. As I was taking photographs, I zoomed in to a couple of tents on an adjacent mountain, it was definitely wider than the narrow trail we stood on and overlooked the other side of the sea. Intrigued, we climbed down from the peak we were on and hiked atop the other mountain. We were pleasantly rewarded with an amazing view of the sunset that was not visible from the other side. After the sunset, it became quite cold and our shivering bodies prompted us to head back. Eventually, we made it to the tunnel much earlier and spent almost half an hour waiting outside the tunnel watching Netflix.

Just explain the enormity, that red dot on the right is a person, and those small white dots on the left side are the 200+ houses in a village

Andoya

As we bid goodbye to Senja after a nice couple of days, we still had the weather on our side, at least the sun. It was a warm day yet the wind kept us from getting too hot, we were thankful for the wind unaware of what it had in store for us later. Our next destination was another Norwegian island – Andøya.

Now if you wish to go to Andøya from Senja, you have two choices, take an expensive 1.5-hour ferry or drive 7 hours all through mainland Norway crossing several bridges and tunnels. We went for the ferry without realizing it’s popularity until we were at the port. The queue for the three-times-a-day ferry extended for almost half a kilometer from a small ferry port and we were on the waiting list. If our car didn’t fit on the ferry, we would have to wait for another 5 hours for the next one (or drive for 7 hours). Luckily, ours was the second last car to fit on the ferry, and almost 40 cars were left behind. Happy with our luck, we rushed to the upper deck as we bid goodbye to the sharp peaks of Senja and headed to the sharper peaks of Andøya. Soon the excitement of being on the deck was overcome by the annoying squeking of seagulls, forcing us to head into the cabin. I was a bit surprised that every table in the cabin had sickness bags (barfbags) on them; I didn’t have to wait too long to get that question answered as the ferry headed out of the fjörd away from the wind protection provided by the mountains into the open ocean. Those pleasant winds that we were thankful for took no time before turning violent and hitting the ferry making it shake like a bottle in the ocean. This was followed by the longest one hour of our trip, by the end of the ferry ride, everyone was visibly seasick, and had made a pact to not take another ferry in the north sea. Our bad mood didn’t last much longer as we arrived at our Airbnb just a 5-minute drive from the port. The apartment was right on the beach with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the beach and across the sea was a view of mountains that looked straight out of a lord of a rings movie. This was easily the best Airbnb I had ever stayed at.

After spending the day relaxing, playing, grocery shopping, and eating, we headed to another midnight hike. This was a tough one, not just the non-existance of trail, or having to climb up over boulders, but it was the wind that made life tough. There were moments, we would climb up a hill and the wind would hit hard enough to lose balance. The peak we were headed was called Måtind, and to reach there, we had to climb one mountain and cross another three mountains connected by narrow trails. Every time we reached the peak of one mountain, we would feel that the destination had gotten farther and the wind had gotten stronger. But we were neither afraid of the wind, or the steepness, but the scariest thing was the fear of missing the sunset before reaching the peak. Eventually, we made it there just 10 minutes before the sunset, and the view was beyond our imagination. We stood on a peak 400m above the sea with white sand beaches on both sides overlooking many other beaches in distance and a view of infinity in front of us as the sun was hurrying to disappear into the horizon, just to come back an hour later. On one side sat a small island shaped like a mini volcano, famous for being home to puffins, a unique orange beaked bird found just in the Atlantic islands. We would have gone for a puffin-watching or a whale-watching tour that Andoya is famous for, but for doing that we would have to be on a boat, and remember, no one wanted to do that again.

We headed back after we signed our names on the tourist book, and this time we were hiking back in the perfect direction, we hiked up walking towards the sunset, and now we hiked back waiting for sunrise in front of us. We walked back with the wind pushing us from behind, energized by some 90s beats, we climbed down to the minivan. By the time we arrived started our ride back, the sky was exhibiting some amazing dawn colors and prompted us to make another stop before heading back.

Lofoten

A five-hour scenic drive through the amazing Arctic landscapes took us from Andøya to the popular archipelago of Lofoten. Unfortunately, we were welcomed by bad weather on Lofoten, which allowed us to take a much-needed rest day after 4 continuous days of hiking. We had rented a huge Airbnb with a big living area, which became a perfect place for non-stop board games…or shall I say board game, because we played Katan over and over for the next three days. Inbetween, we did sporadic touristy sightseeing, ate pizza and relaxed for the next 24 hours.

Lofoten is as touristy an Arctic town can get, luckily for us, the midnight hike plan worked like a charm and there was almost no one on the trail when we headed for our next hike. We were in a village called Reine for our next hike, or shall I call it a climb since it had 1600 stone staircases. The reason behind those staircases being over-tourism. The trail had gotten so damaged that the Norwegian government spent a million kronor and build stone staircases on almost 95% of the trail. This was done by Nepalese sherpas who specialize in building staircases on difficult terrains. But those were no normal stairs, each staircase was almost twice as high as usual staircase you would find in a building. 1600 staircases later, with sore legs, we climbed the last 50 meters of the trail which felt like an eternity and gave a perfect idea of why this trail was considered dangerous enough to be closed for 3 years. When we reached the summit, we had the perfect explanation of why this was such a popular hike. You are on the top of a 450m mountain, overlooking small village islands connected by curvy bridges with gigantic mountains in the background. On the other side, sat a hanging lake which would be probably somewhere around 50-100m higher than the village, sitting there like an overhead tank. Like all the mountains in this region, the peak was very narrow with a very vertical drop, which offered us an amazing panoramic view as if we were on a helicopter. We watched the dramatic sunset as clouds moved across the mountains in front of us. An hour past midnight, with an evident sunrise happening soon, we headed back to our minivan.

Walking to the summit of Reinebringen

The following day, the weather became shitty again, but, overtaken by the boardgame fever, we were not much bothered by what was happening outside. The next evening, with some sun shining, we headed for the last hike in Lofoten to Ryten.

Ryten is a mountain overlooking the very famous Kvalvika beach, it was a moderate-difficulty hike, but by this time we had seen worse, so this seemed like a cakewalk with pleasant weather until bad luck struck us again. The most enjoyable part of this hike is that when you reach the summit, there is a perfect view of the beach and ocean in the background. It looked promising as we were climbing up and we couldn’t wait to see how would be the view from the summit. When we reached the peak, a group of hikers was taking turns to take a picture on a spot with the perfect backdrop of the beach. As it was getting windier, we thought, let them take some pictures, and hide behind a rock away from the increasing wind. What we didn’t realize, this wind also carried clouds with itself. And within a matter of minutes, we were engulfed in the clouds so dense that let alone the view of the beach, we couldn’t see people 10 meters away. After waiting for a good half an hour, we realized that the weather was more stubborn than us. Consequently, we headed back to the parking, stopped on the way for a few pictures and then got back to playing the board game.

One last adventure

Our hiking trip was complete but adventures were not, the next day we set off on the longest drive of our lives. 21 hours, 1600 kilometers, and two drivers headed back to Stockholm. On our way back, the weather teased us by being perfectly sunny and calm. As we were heading towards the Swedish border, we were waiting to reach a town called Narvik to fill up the fuel tank before continuing to Sweden. But the GPS took us through a faster route that skipped Narvik and we didn’t notice it until we crossed borders to Sweden. While we were in the middle of an uphill road in Abisko national park, I looked at the fuel marker which said 70km of fuel left, and then I looked at my navigation app which said 65km far from next fuel station. As I announced the numbers, I could sense a wave of panic. In a fraction of seconds, the AC was off, so was the music, I turned off the mandatory headlights justifying it for the perfect sunny day, and tried my best to drive at the most economic RPMs while everyone mentally calculated the number of kilometers they would have to push the van if we ran out of fuel. Eventually, we made it to the fuel station without having to push it.

The last sunset of the trip somewhere in the north of Sweden

The music on a road trip easily suggests how tired everyone is, as we headed to Stockholm, still more than a thousand kilometers away, the upbeat music on our way up was replaced by slow old music and everyone seemed tired but mentally refreshed and content with the time spent up north. No amount of pictures or videos could represent the wonders of nature that we had witnessed, and I would recommend everyone to visit these places at least once. My previous three trips to Norway had been more of driving than actually spending time at places, so this one was intentionally planned to create more memories than photographs and was fairly successful in doing so. Between our first trip in 2016 and this trip in 2019, I have discovered one thing for sure, if you really want to discover a place, hiking outdoes every other option. Photographs are just a byproduct of the time spent with nature.

4472 kilometers later, we were back home after an unforgettable experience.

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