The Lofotens islands in the far north of Norway are inside the artic circle, a place where in summer the sun never sets and days simply blend into a hazy season of sunlight of many shades, and in winter the black sky illuminated by endless stars and the spectacular aurora borealis dancing over the horizon funnelling the solar winds.
Mountains are big and sky's and seas seam bigger still, these are the reasons the Lofted islands are often talked about amongst us sea kayakers, a place where remote islands offer both challenges and rewards in equal measure.
Its difficult to imagine a more evocative and inspiring landscape to put the art of paddling into practice, but how often are these much talked about islands actually paddled? And more importantly what is it actually like to paddle there?
Last year Jerry Webb returned to the Lofotens with a group of sea kayaking friends looking for adventure, I decided to ask Jerry if the Lofotens lived up to their spectacular reputation.
Why did you choose Loftoten, did you consider any other locations in Norway?
I was really wanted to see more after a ten day trip I did there in 2015 organised by Mike Arkley of Mountain and Sea Guides, where a group of eight mostly 2* and 3* BCU paddlers spent a week paddling around the Raftsundet, the scenic highlight of the Norwegian Coastal Voyage you can do with www.hurtigruten.com. The area is unspoilt with few visitors, sandy beaches, and spectacular mountain scenery. I try to travel back to Northern Norway each year, and the Lofoten Islands have the kayak hire and outfitters you need plus options for staying in rorbuer (fishermen’s wooden cabins on piers over the water) as well as camping. Car hire is easier in this area but tourism here has been limited by the season being so short – only twelve weeks or so – and the islands being time-consuming to get to (two days of plane and ferry travel from the UK).
Senja and the area around Tromso have fabulous kayaking opportunities too as you’ll know if you follow reports, but the infrastructure there is just much more basic, meaning that you’d need to take your own transport and sea kayaks from the UK to paddle further up in Nordland or Troms districts. Further south is lovely too but North of the Arctic Circle has a special appeal, it is just more remote and spectacular in terms of wildlife and scenery.
You have been to Norway before, what draws you back?
I think two things – the summer light puts everyone in a party mood, and it is pretty sparsely populated adventure playground. There’s so much unspoilt wilderness up there – twenty-four hour sunshine in June and July, often for days at a time. At the same time it’s much cooler than further south would be at around 20 degrees during the day, and midges are not a problem as they are in Scotland. I find the people very friendly and they appreciate what they’ve got – as you know they’re intensely proud of their natural environment and they have that special character that comes from living for generations in isolated settlements, depending on their expertise at sea for travel and their livelihoods. At the same time, the development of the road and tunnel network over the last thirty or so years is having a major impact on people here - working age people move south to the towns and cities for better opportunities, and smaller communities struggle to be sustainable as a result, so there’s a feeling of wanting to contribute something and support them in a small way as well as wanting to get back into the unspoilt coastal environment there. Canada, Alaska and New Zealand could be competitors but you can get to Norway on a short-haul flight.
What are the paddling highlights of Lofotens?
I’ve been visiting since the 1990s but I’ve only paddled here for three weeks, all my previous experience was on foot or by bike – both very popular since the area is covered by excellent topo maps – you can download charts and 1:25,000 maps of the Lofoten Islands using sites like https://kart.gulesider.no/s%C3%B8k/sj%C3%B8en since the Norwegian government has a very open arrangement on mapping.
For shorter trips, the site www.ut.no is excellent for finding places to get onto the water and routes of a couple of hours duration. Our trip saw us wild camping or using huts so we planned the route based on availability of sea kayak rental primarily – we started the trip on the water at Stamsund Youth Hostel because it’s a convenient first night after arriving on the Hurtirguten from Bodø (the airport on the mainland) - https://www.visitnorway.com/places-to-go/northern-norway/bodo/ - collecting kayaks dropped off by local outfitter Lofoten Aktiv on arrival. Our route took us generally north-east up the more sheltered inland-facing side of the island chain where there are at least options for getting off the water if the weather changes – which it can, very rapidly. My route on the previous trip started and finished at Ørsvågvær camping near Kabelvag which is midway between the really jagged mountains and frankly intimidating coast of Moskenesøya, the most southerly island, and Trollfjord and the Raftsundet, which many people say are the highlights of a kayaking trip on the islands. Starting in Stamsund saved us a long commute with all of our kayaking gear. More experienced paddlers from the Tromso sea kayak club often visit Delp for its surfing opportunities, but we were primarily aiming at the Trollfjord area on our last trip.
What are the accommodation/ camping highlights?
Every night was different but the intention of wild camping all the time was dropped on the days when the weather turned on us. You really can have four seasons in one day – no snow fortunately but we were caught out by sea conditions worsening or improving when we least expected them to. For example, we had a real battle through steep waves and katabatic winds in the evening of the first day and fought our way into shelter at Rollesfjord Camping, but then at 2 AM after a couple of hours sleep it was so flat calm and sunny that we decided to abandon our cosy cabin for a very early start in order to get around the next headland. Ultimately as the days passed, we found ourselves alternating between beaches and shoreline camping followed by a day or two at a fixed base, making the most of the weather window each time. Wild camping is a right in Norway as it is in Scotland, and there are hundreds of options, your best bet is to study the maps and look for sheltered spots with road access if needed.
Did you meet any local heroes/local characters?
We certainly did, particularly on the occasions when conditions were just too rough and we needed to hitch to sort out a hire car and a hut for the night. I doubt that I would have been picked up in Scotland in heavy rain wearing a streaming cagoule and carrying a BA, but the driver that afternoon couldn’t have been more accommodating and took me on a twenty-mile round trip into town flatly refusing any contributions for his time or fuel. There are loads of oddball people up there, but fortunately everyone knows everyone else as you’d expect, and word soon gets around – people are looking out for you more often than not.
Did you make it to the surfing beach where North of the sun was filmed?
No, to my chagrin we ran out of time and didn’t get to paddle from Reine to the beach as planned – one for next year perhaps, since it’s a magical place, especially on a calm sunny evening. There’s enough to keep anyone busy for a month in the area I’m sure, it’s just a question of time before I get to spend a night camping there watching the Midnight Sun track around the horizon.
Did you meet many other paddlers?
We expected to, but the majority of rentals are made to people looking to hire for just an hour or two and somewhere sheltered - perhaps we were a bit early in the season being there in early June but I think it is fair to say that sea kayaking is a novelty on the islands, although this may change now that Jan Engstad and Olly Saunders have published their Lofoten Islands paddling guide. Even so, I don’t imagine it will get crowded there – it’s a vast area, and the level of expertise needed keeps numbers down I think.
Is equipment hire easy?
Easier for day trips than for a small group, unless you are working with a guide known to the outfitter. Basic plastic boats – mostly Prions – can be rented to groups from Henningsvær and Svolvær rental outlets, and sit-on-tops are available by the hour from a business in Stamsund, but aside from these locations the larger part of the rental scene is dominated by Lofoten Aktiv, which is owned by Jan Engstad. Jan will move boats between locations for your group but you need to be aware of his guiding commitments and to plan well in advance, which doesn’t sit easily with the need to be flexible to suit the weather.
What was the most challenging part of the trip?
Without doubt, unfamiliarity with the tides and currents and with the general lie of the land when viewed from the kayak in swell was the biggest challenge to us. We had a GPS and binoculars but we found it hard to keep an accurate track of our position and were sensibly aware of the dangers of getting caught out by tidal patterns that we didn’t understand. We’ve paddled together extensively for a couple of years - preparation notwithstanding, the big challenge was balancing what we wanted to do as a group with how prepared we were to take risks individually. At the time, none of us was a four star BCU paddler so we erred on the site of caution and shared decision making as much as possible. With hindsight – and more money – we’d have got more out of the trip by paddling with someone with much more experience of the local area from the perspective of a paddler than we had between us, not sure how the Lofoten Paddling Guide will influence things for the first groups to use it after its publication (it came out a couple of months after we got back).
What was the most surprising part of the trip?
For me personally, I often travel alone, so the most surprising part of the trip was watching the group dynamics evolving as our plans changed to fit the circumstances. I learnt more about what must go on inside the head of an experienced tour leader in a week than I have done through ten or twelve guided trips and the thinking and communicating effort was intense at times, on the water at least. The area demands respect, and you need really to work with a land-based support crew at least some of the time to get the most out of it. In the summer window of good weather that might seem like overkill to an outsider, but we spent more time on the beaches than we’d expected that we would, sizing up our options and trying to determine whether the next move would be a good thing or would get us into real trouble – it would have been great to have been able to say, “Tell you what, let’s call it a day and get the boats on the van to get around to the other side of this island” – but we didn’t have that option!
How did your group fair?
Well the good news is that we’re all still great friends – being outside our comfort zone at times was stressful but we also had a load of laughs and we’re all itching to get back out there for more paddling!