Lofoten Winter Journeys – Part 1

Lofoten Islands Northern Lights February 2013

Photo: Northern Lights over snow covered mountains. Vik, Vestvagoy, Lofoten Islands, Norway.  Feb 19, 2013

After a 4 hour drive from Wales to a hotel near London’s Gatwick airport our stomachs were hungry for one last meal before flying to northern Norway the following morning.  Bringing our bags to the room I noticed something missing, my pack of clothes I was planning on wearing on the plane, having just worn some old clothes for the drive, and wanting to start off as fresh as possible for the shower-less week(s) that would follow.  Frantically searching the car, it was nowhere to be found.  The contents of the missing bag (later found to still be sitting on the bed): Shell jacket, fleece, winter soft-shell pants.  Key items to my warmth for the coming weeks.  I did my best to enjoy one last meal in the pub, but my mood was soured by my stupidity; I never forget things.

After pulling out of the hotel at 6am the following morning for the short drive to the airport parking lot I noticed the car feeling a bit funny.  Hmmm.  Getting out of the car at the drop off area, one of the workers came up and asked if I knew the rear tire was flat. Shit!  With a plane to catch, there was nothing that could be done now.  We were not even out of the UK and the trip was not exactly off to a good start so far.

An uneventful 12 hours of airports and airplanes put us north of the Arctic Circle in Bodø, and just a ferry ride away from Lofoten.  My mission now, with only 45 minutes until stores closed at 8pm, was to get into town and maybe, hopefully find an affordable jacket of some sort.  We hurried as fast as possible through the icy winter streets to Bodø’s center.  First however, I needed to stop off at an atm for a bit of cash to pay for the rental car on the following day.  In my haste I ended up at the ‘Valueta’ atm, right next to the normal one.  I noticed something was odd when it asked me for the amount to withdraw in US currency, but in my distracted and rushed state, I proceeded.  Moments later $300 US in crisp $20’s popped out of the atm. Shit!  Now I was worried that my bank wouldn’t let me pull out money the next day, thus I’d have nothing to pay for the car with.

Finally arriving at the Intersport sports shop with about 20 minutes to spare I actually had a bit of luck and found a nice jacket at 50% off, making me the proud new owner of a ‘Too Blue’ Norrøna Falketind jacket.  Although a good deal by Norwegian standards, it is still the most expensive jacket I’ve ever bought and I would have rather skipped the expense.  Though it is a pretty sexy jacket, so I’m sort of only half grumpy about it.  But, to continue the trend of the last 24 hours, I wouldn’t be allowed to leave the store without a bit more bad luck.  This time, and for whatever reason, I forgot the camping gas that I had also purchased.  I thought the clerk had put everything in the bag, but it must have stayed on the counter, only for me to discover it missing several hours later while sitting at the ferry waiting room.  I was now beginning to feel like a walking disaster.

Last year on my February Lofoten trip, I somewhat annoyingly found out that the ferry waiting room is now closed at night during the winter months, stupidly spending an evening outside in the cold huddled up in my sleeping bag when I should have called the number on the door, that said to call it, which would have let me in.  This time I called up the harbour office straight away and we were soon out of the cold.  Over the years of spending many a night in the waiting room on my way to and from the islands I’ve heard various stories about various miss happenings at the place, ranging from drinking and drugs to prostitution, though never witnessed anything sketchy myself.  First came the CCTV cameras a few years back, but it must not have been effective enough, so now they take to locking the doors during winter.

After dinner of bread and butter, we sat around counting down the hours until the 01:30am ferry that would take us to Lofoten.  Sometime after 10pm I heard some banging on the doors, followed by some drunken sounding yelling and cursing and then more pounding on the doors.  A man was there, sleeping bag in hand, yelling at the door and kicking it.  Uh oh.  We tried to ‘play asleep’ but it didn’t seem effective.  He moved around to the other door where he could get a better view of us just sitting there, not quite knowing what to do.  Soon the insults were directed to us, along with various threats about stabbing and shooting, and request to ‘Wake up!  Let me in!  What, are you scared of me?’

The shouting and banging continued for several more minutes as the man went from door to door.  Needles to say, I’m glad the doors were locked!  I sort of hid in a corner, out of site, and made a call to the harbor office.  They said they could see what was happing and that the police would be by soon.  And not to let him in!  A few minutes later, the harbor office called me back, letting me know the police were now outside.  One of the officers stayed outside talking to the man, while another came in and chatted with us.  We were informed that the man was ‘known to them.’  Something a local drifter that doesn’t take offers of help. I’m not sure if he was drunk or on something else, but my guess would be yes.

After about 15 minutes of the police talking to the man, he seemed to be off on his way back into town and the police drove off.  I’m not sure what ever happened, but at least we were left in peace the rest of the night.  And finally 01:30am arrived and we were on the ferry, bound for Moskenes and another couple of magical weeks of winter on the Lofoten Islands.

Normal people would fly, and we probably should have too.  But initially we weren’t sure if we would immediately rent a car, or maybe spend a few days hiking and camping around Reine. But as the day of our arrival on the islands came, and combined with the weight of our packs full of climbing gear, not to mention other crap that I needed to bring back to California at the end of the trip, picking up a car right away was deemed the best option.

Luckily I’m sometimes smart, or at least partially.  In my great wisdom, and cheapness, I purposely chose the Wednesday ferry, because instead of going directly to Moskenes, about 4 hours sailing, it first stops at Værøy, adding another 2 hours to the journey.  And that means 2 hours more sleep, almost 6 hours total, often times my only chance at rest for 48+ hours.  Though I usually tend to find someplace to crash out early on my first night.  Last year in August, after catching another ferry and hiking out to Horseid beach, I was out by 3:00pm as it was raining anyhow and unlikely I would miss anything interesting.

I’ve written and complained about this before.  That for such a (often) cold place, with marginal weather at best, there is shit-for-all places to wait if relying upon public transport.  In Moskenes at 06:00am, the best place happens to be in the small hallway outside the toilets, which luckily, are open 24 hours.  In February last year, I made the mistake of walking to Reine instead of waiting in Moskenes, where I sat 2+ hours in the open wind at -5˚C while waiting on the bus.  I learned my lesson, keep warm, and dry, in the toilets, ignoring the odd looks of any stray people who might stop by for some relief.

Originally planning on catching the 09:00am bus, we caught the one at 06:40 and rode to Leknes with all the half, or fully, asleep teenagers on their way to school.  I feel sorry for the poor kid living in Å, that’s a long ways to go each day!  I hadn’t scheduled the car pickup from Stamsund until noon, so we killed a few hours waiting in the mall, the only heated place in Leknes at that time of day where you don’t have to buy anything.  I also needed to wait until it was past midnight back in California, 09:00am in Norway, so I could try and take the correct currency out of the bank this time.  Fortunately I was successful.

And in a bit of extra luck, and the savings of a couple bus tickets, when I called the car rental guy, he happened to be in Leknes as well and could take us to Stamsund.  I guess that canceled out the cost of my lost stove fuel.  Now how to make up for the forgotten jackets?  Maybe I just need to take some decent photos that will sell…

I knew to request a large car this time, as it would be home for the two of us for the following week, and then just myself for another week after that.  And so I was cruising in style in a mid 90’s Toyota Carolla wagon.  Doesn’t get the best gas milage, but at least I can fully stretch out in the back.

Driving in Norway in winter is a unique, and sometimes frightening experience.  When temperatures are cold, they don’t fully plow or grit the roads, just make a compact layer of hard snow, and clear away any excess.  With the Norwegian studded winter tires, this is no problem to drive on, probably 75-80% traction compared to normal roads.  The scary part comes when the temperatures rise to a few degrees above freezing and it begins to rain.  Then you’re driving on a sheet of wet ice that is slipperier than anything known to man and even the Norwegian tires struggle at times.

And then comes parking, or attempting to park.  Most of the normal roadside pull outs are covered in snow, as they are left unplowed.  I have most pullover places, or at least the decent photo location ones, memorized, but then comes the risk of pulling out a bit too far into that side of the road extra hard and compacted snow and getting stuck.  If I’m successful at anything in life, it is this process.  Though luckily I’m also pretty successful at getting un-stuck.  But the lack of parking does leave a bit of a dilemma for winter photography.  Do I just pull over, still with enough room for passing, and figure I’m on some sort of important mission and not concern myself with blocking the road.  Or do you drive on by, and miss a potentially scenic scene?  I guess it depends, and I tend to do a bit of both.

[Part 2 HERE…]

Reine Lofoten Islands Norway

Photo: Rorbu in winter, Lofoten Islands, Norway.  Feb 2013

Vik beach winter Lofoten Islands, Norway

Photo: Winter tide at Vik beach, Vestvagoy, Lofoten Islands, Norway.  Feb 2013

Lofoten Islands winter Landscape

Photo: Snow covered sea ice in inner Flakstadspollen, Lofoten Islands, Norway.  Feb 2013

2 replies
  1. Brian says:

    Such a great article, thank you for posting! I have had tons of bad luck and unfortunate forgetful moments while traveling too and it’s really a bummer, but just like you did one simply must move on and make the best of what is next. I really enjoyed your frugality, as I am too! I just made a trip to Ireland and planned to sleep in my rental car the whole time and did the first night, but then found reasonable accommodations afterwards though always fell asleep too soon after a shower to charge all of my electronics! Fortunately I charged my phone and GPS while in the car and had plenty of camera batteries. I didn’t use my laptop much on the road. So would you really recommend a rental car for the Lofoten islands for a week? I do like the added flexibility and freedom, though I heard the ferry is more expensive then and I can only imagine its an expensive rental in Norway! I studied abroad there for several months and never cut my hair because even a haircut was an astronomical price to me! =)

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