Land of the Midnight Sun: Your Guide to Northern Norway’s All-time Paddling Adventures

Story by and photos courtesy of Mariann Sæther

Imagine mountains polished down to gentle giants. Cascading rivers flowing to the ocean, and in between the land and sea lie picturesque fjords waiting to be explored. For your all-time river and sea kayaking adventure, the coast of Helgeland in Northern Norway is your next destination.


THE CLASSICS

Let’s start with the classic rivers. Four hours north of the city of Trondheim, which even sports an international airport, the area of Hattfjelldal and Grane awaits you. These two townships are home to some of the most quality of whitewater Norway has to offer. As a whole, the region will test a Class III paddler or push the Class V kayaker, all depending on what type of paddling experience you are after. It also harbors two of Norway’s most renowned multi-day adventures, and provides world-class, free camping and a kayaker-friendly mindset amongst the locals. Sounds unreal? It is!


THE ULTRA CLASSIC

One of the rivers which has turned into an ultra classic is the big-volume Austervefsna just outside of the sleepy town of Trofors. It flows more than 35 kilometers through deep canyons and total wilderness – and sports two main sections. The first is actually the lower, and the most run: from the confluence with the Fiplingdalselva River and down to Trofors itself. At normal flows it is a gentle rollercoaster of big volume Class III-IV, but above 150 cms (5,300 cfs) it starts getting quite sporty. This section has also recently turned into a commercial rafting section, with the newly formed rafting and kayak outfitter RiverNorth, based in Trofors. The upper section, which starts in the town of Hattfjelldal, is slightly more demanding, and also a lot more remote than the lower half. Expect big waves, big boofs and big lines!

The Austervefsna never runs dry, as it drains a huge area from the Swedish border and a large part of the Børgefjell National Park. Even in the summer of 2018, when most of Norway was in severe drought, the river’s big-volume flows were largely unaffected. In normal seasons, it is a juicy river with beautiful scenery that inspires images of the Futaleufu River in Chile.

In Trofors, the Austervefsna joins the Svenningelva River where it becomes the Vefsna River as it flows to the ocean. Once the rivers merge, the drops get bigger as do the stretches of flatwater. That is why there are very few sections that are paddled below the confluence. Missing these sections, however, is a big mistake because this is one of the best sections for wild sea trout and salmon fishing! In the summer of 2018 the river was reopened for gentle salmon fishing after having been closed for several decades due to the parasite gyrodactulus salaris.

 

And as much as we’re all excited about the fish being back in the river – a friendly manner from all kayakers is required to maintain the good relations with the fishermen in the region. That also means that you need to be informed about the parasite and how it spreads. There are still many infected rivers in Norway and, if you paddle on any of them, follow the guidelines on disinfection before entering other watersheds.


SUSNA

Higher up in the watershed, above the town of Hattfjelldal, the river’s name changes to Susna. Flowing through a gentle valley full of deep forests with the snow never too far away, there are three main sections to paddle. The upper canyon only gets run with lower water levels such as 40 cms (1,400 cfs) or lower. While it is short, it is a sweet run with some serious consequences in a couple of the drops, so be aware. After two main drops and a few smaller ones, the canyon opens up and from Kroken the section called Classic Susna begins. It is the most run section on the river, mainly due to its amazing pool-drop character, and has a number of fun, sporty drops at most levels. The third section, the Lower Susna, is tighter in places and the recommended flow is below 30 cms (1,000 cfs). It is more technical in places with higher consequences than the upper sections.


SEA KAYAKING

If you find yourself kayaking the rivers near Helgeland, I highly recommend taking a little time to explore the coastline there as well. The region is famous for outstanding sea kayaking and a particular hidden gem, a fjord called Vistenfjord. It can be reached in two hours from Trofors and sits on the outside of the whitewater area, guarding the western part of the Lomsdal-Visten National Park.


THE WILD VISTENFJORD

This 22-kilometer-long fjord has a rich cultural history as well as magnificent scenery. People have been living along the fjord a millennia and it is even ranked as the cleanest fjord in northern Europe. You can choose to paddle the fjord from coast-to-inland, then catch the speedboat back to your car or vice versa. Either way, we recommend that you check when the tide is going in or out as the Strait of Aursund is a narrow passage that can be difficult to pass if you are up against the sea current.

 

Some gems to remember along the way is the lovely bay of Somersetvika – an old settlement with a magnificent view of the mountain Vistmannen (1066 meters). It is hard to fathom how people could live in this tiny bay, but indeed they did. A nearby cave has paintings from far away times, showing that this region has been inhabited for thousands of years.

At the end of the fjord, two families still live and work. On the farm Bønå they receive groups such as school classes and outdoor programs to show and teach the youngsters how to live by the fjord. Across the fjord, a young couple is renovating their family’s home and has restarted angling in the characteristic tidal river Strauman, which flows into the fjord right next to their farm. This river is unique in the way that the tidal current pushes sea water very deep inland inland, creating a natural habitat for sea and inland fish alike. To paddle up Strauman and reach the Lake Laksvatnet, you have to time the tide and paddle in when the current is pushing up the watershed.

The valley sides are particularly lush and green, due to a significant amount of chalk in the ground. The weather is dramatic and changes constantly. But this unpredictability only adds to the magical atmosphere of this wild place – and it is nothing short of spectacular once you make your way up the narrow straits of fjordriver to the first lake. For kayakers it is possible to paddle all the way up and past Lakselvvatnet, continuing upstream in  the tranquil river Sæterelva. Here, one could try the luck down the thundering Mølnhusforsen, or simply enjoy the gentle scenery. No matter what, this combined sea kayaking and river adventure is one of a kind.


LOMSDALEN ADVENTURE

The nearby Lomsdalen River is one to not be missed. It requires a hike-in between eight to 10 hours, including crossing three big lakes to reach the head waters. It flows through the heart of Lomsdal-Visten National Park, one of Norway’s most remote and least-visited parks. This is partially due to the lack of an established trail system and unstable weather, but also the fact that this national park is young – only having come into existence nine years ago.

For the keen kayaker, the Lomsdalen is as good of an adventure as it gets. With that said, it is not easy to catch it with the ideal flow! In June the passes and lakes are often still covered in ice and snow, and in July the river starts to dry up. The river comes up quickly with rain – but also gets low very quickly in dry periods.

The best is to wait for the ideal weather pattern and then make the big push to the put-in. Ideally, it should rain heavily for one or more days and then clear up, which would be your day to get to put-in. With low water, the bigger slides and drops become un-runnable, but there is still plenty of whitewater to enjoy on this source-to-sea adventure.

The fjord can be reached in one day from put-in, but it is such a beautiful area that most groups spend an extra day on the river, making it a 2.5-day trip. Upon reaching the fjord in Storbørja, you have to get lucky catching a ride out on a boat, otherwise you have to paddle 8 km to reach the small port of Nevernes. This is your takeout and hopefully you have a shuttle driver ready for you!


GLOMÅGA

The queen of multi-day adventures in Norway is the Glomåga River, which actually splits the second biggest in Norway in half. The Svartisen Glaciar is situated almost perfectly on the Arctic circle, which means you cross the Arctic border both on the way to the put-in and again on the descent. How cool is that?!

I have one bit of serious advice for this river: NEVER run it in bad weather! This is simply because the beauty of the place should be visible in glorious sunshine. As you cross Lake Glomvatnet, one of Norway’s largest hydro reservoirs, you see amazing glacial arms that stretch into the water. The hike into the headwaters is gentle and only took us three hours the last time we paddled it in August 2018. Some have done this entire run in 18 hours, but I would say this is a place and a river that is meant to be enjoyed, so don’t rush it. We allowed 2.5 days for this past trip, but I would even add an extra day next time to do some hiking and to enjoy the magnificence of the area.

Once on the river, the riverbed is small and fickle but down toward the Lake Flatisvatnet, which marks the divide between the upper and the lower Glomåga, the action picks up. There are some big drops that have been run, but mainly portaged, and a few other mandatory portages. In the end, the focus is not really on the whitewater in this section, but rather on the amazing views of the glacier resting on both sides of the river as it descends to the lake below.

The lower half starts gently, but the action quickly picks up with two bigger rapids before the start of the canyons. In the first canyon the water is swirly and the rapids are really fun. Soon the river becomes more blocked, until a must-make right-to-left ferry above an un-runnable section of siphons. From here begins a long, 500-meter portage. After a grueling hour-long portage, you can reenter the canyon where some of the more tricky rapids await.

About seven hours into the paddle, there is a noticeable change in the composition of the riverbed as marble becomes the dominating rock. As you float through this short, marble section of the river, it is hard not to become fascinated by this new landscape. A quick, last portage around the tourist attraction called the Marble Castle, marks the end of the canyons. However, the last big drop is waiting just downstream, and it is worth making sure you’ve got a some extra energy saved for this one. On a positive note, if a portage is necessary, it is very short. From here down to takeout, some gentle rapids will guide you through the final sections of the river, and hopefully you have set up the shuttle with cold beers waiting for you after this splendid adventure through the heart of the Svartisen Glacier.


WRAP-UP

As a whitewater destination, Helgeland is on the rise. As the summer nights are magic, and the weather usually pretty good in July, it is the new place to be to properly enjoy Norwegian rivers and fjords. But be aware – once you have found your way up to land of the Midnight Sun – it is hard to leave, and easy to return.

 

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Read more on Mariann Saether, who recently claimed a creek racing women’s world title at Idaho’s North Fork Championship.

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The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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