Going out on paddling trips in the deep blue waters of the Aurlands- and Nærøyfjords was a dream I’d cherished since first coming here two years ago. Because kayak rental is, however, expensive, and sometimes not allowed without proper certification, nothing ever came of it. Maybe one day, I figured, I’d have friends with a kayak, or own one myself, making the odds for the whole adventure to actually happen much better.
Fast forward to early spring 2016. After returning from a season in the Arctic PJ and I were watching a Norwegian adventure TV-show where the contestants had to find riddles along a river in Finnmark. They hiked to the river carrying packrafts in their packs. A few days later we sat around talking about the upcoming summer in the fjords. In an instant of revelation, PJ proposed that we too should buy some. Though I’d been really excited seeing them on the show, and I’d been following some people on Instagram who’d regularly flooded my feed with pictures of themselves in colourful blow-up boats, the idea just never occurred to me. In the instant PJ mentioned it, a little light went on in the back of my brain, and life suddenly made much more sense.
In the end of July, our long-awaited rafts finally made it to Flåm. The weather forecast on our next two consecutive days off didn’t seem too shabby by the standards of this summer, so it was time to finally go out and do something with all these water-related ambitions. But first of all, before setting out anywhere, we headed to the basement to check our gear setup and find out how these things actually work.
It had been a long time since I had to check my setup before going out, and this made it all the more exciting. We have become so routined when we go hiking that it does not take us more than 10 minutes to assemble our gear and put it in our packs. Now, we had a whole new array of equipment and a new setting that we needed to prepare for. First, we looked at the boats, how to inflate them and where all the parts went, and then I looked at a new Guiding Light pack from Aarn that we are testing for Sqoop. Those packs are sold as waterproof thanks to their inner liner, so what better way to test this than to tie them to the front of a raft.
The next evening we drove to Gudvangen in pouring rain, and postponed launching ourselves until the next morning. For our very first time we’d need some time to figure out how to attach our gear and that did not seem very appealing in the conditions of the moment. As the rain abated in the morning, we blew up the boats and set out to paddle all the way out of the Nærøyfjord to Stigen (a bed and breakfast only reachable by boat) and to climb a mountain called Beitelen, whose peak overlooks the landscape where the two fjords meet.
The rafts were surprisingly stable and easy to handle. Though they are slower than a classic kayak, they moved much faster than we anticipated, and within an hour we had gotten 5 kilometres from our launching spot at Bakka. Progress for some reason became harder from there, and soon I had to realize that my grand plan of paddling all the way out of the fjord, on to Stigen, climb the mountain, and paddle back, was way too ambitious for a single day. We paddled to about 3 kilometres of where the arm of the Nærøyfjord meets the Aurlandsfjord, sat around to have lunch, and turned back. This was a fun trip after all, not a die hard expedition, and learning to set goals is a hit-and-miss sort of thing.
We also just wanted to play around a bit and enjoy being on the water. It was a beautiful, sunny day, with a lot of people paddling on the fjord. We thought we came close to a pod of porpoise, the fjord dolphins, but as soon as we approached they disappeared. There were many beautiful small waterfalls along the fjord that I’d never really appreciated that much from the boats I’d been on.But what was most impressive was the hanging valley above Rimstigen and the mountains around it. Being in such a small boat and slowly moving through the landscape, we got an entirely different impression of things we’d seen a good few times before. The new perspective made us appreciate living in this place much more once again.
I was happy that we’d gotten our rafts in bright colors and that my paddle was yellow, because the boat traffic along the fjord is a non-stop business. In Norway we could only buy them in dark green, and that didn’t seem like the safest option on a green/blue fjord. Now, seeing the endless passing of ferries and tourist cruises, I knew that by waiting we had made the right choice. On a sad side note, from our renewed perspective we could also see how much pollution all this boat traffic leaves. Though protected, in many places the water surface was covered in a shiny, dirty, oily blanket, the result of boat exhaust and of the many old vessels sailing the fjord, releasing tiny bits of oil in the water. Looking at it from up close, and hearing the non-stop roaring of engines, it did not seem hard to understand anymore why wildlife in the area is struggling.
We found a camping spot overlooking the mountains right by the old postal road, an old track that was used for communications between east and west. After setting up camp we walked a part of the track through silent, breezy forests. Though we had a few companions on our grassy patch no one else was out there: the quiet made me feel relaxed to the core. Flåm was suffocated with people during July, always putting a hinge of stress on our lives. There’s no way around them. Sometimes it’s so necessary to get away from it all.
We did not entirely abandon our plan to visit Stigen or Beitelen. Though paddling out and around was too ambitious, there was yet another option: paddle back to Bakka the next morning, load everything in the car, drive to Undredal and restart from there. After a quiet morning waving to the early boats and seeing a lonely seal pass by, we found ourselves in the middle of tourist extravaganza again when we arrived at the waterfront by the Undredal café. Yet again it was not a hard escape. As soon as we were in the boats everything relaxed around us. The water on this exposed part of the fjord was much rougher, leaving PJ with doubts on currents and winds for the way home. I was only thinking one way. On this mountain, that has been standing out in my field of view and has been topping my to-do list for so long, I shall go.
The walk to Stigen would in many places – where people have a sounder vision on what is very steep – probably be considered a via ferrata, yet here it’s but another walk up to another impossible place where people used to farm for a living along the fjord. The view though, already here, is spectacular. Because it cannot be reached by road it’s eerie quiet, as are the tracks around it. We expected some half obvious, half bush-bashing trail to the top, but to our surprise the world heritage people had made several tracks of formidable standard in this area, that we had all to ourselves. This is one of the few places around here where I’ve seen forests that look relatively untouched by grazing animals, where old trees stand tall: PJ and I spoke little to each other on the way up, simply enjoying being there.
On the peak of Beitelen the forest suddenly opens up to a straight 600 meter drop to the foot of the mountain, overlooking the dramatic network of arms that come to and from the Sognefjord at this spot. We looked far into the Nærøyfjord and far out into the Sognefjord. We could see as far as Bakka on one side, and as far as the Jostedalen glacier on the other. It was a place I did not want to leave, because it was so beautiful, so quiet, and I guess in a way it reminded me of hiking through New Zealand: seeing human activity from far below, skirting the outskirts of society, going deep into nature to places few venture around.
Back on the water we came to a pleasant surprise on something that had completely slipped our minds: we had paddled to and from Stigen exactly with the tide, and now we had the wind in our backs too, so we gently let ourselves blow back into Undredal. We did not do it perfect from the first time. We did not nail it down. We did not bring everything we needed to, and we did not leave everything that was unnecessary. But we had more fun that we’ve had in a long time.
Going back to work the next day it felt as if we’d been away for weeks, and getting back into the masses hit both of us with a shock. The only thing I could think of for most of the day was that I just wanted to blow up my boat and paddle away.