Photos and Words by Ryan Salm
In the spring of 2017, paddlers Ryan Salm, Dane Shannon, Jenna Minnes and Jason Layh traveled from their home in Lake Tahoe to the frigid land of Norway. Their plan was two weeks of SUP exploration through the icy fjords of the Lofoten Archipelago, located in the northern reaches of the country. The following excerpts from Salm’s journal document the hardships, triumphs, astounding natural beauty and unique culture they experienced in the Arctic.
Walls of Foreboding
They don’t boast of calm seas and beautiful weather in Lofoten. Framed pieces of artwork displayed on the walls of hotels, restaurants and public buildings of the small hamlets dotting the landscape depict this place as all gales, lone ships on high, cold seas, giant breakers on beaches and snow-capped peaks. The stories in these works tell tales of difficult winters and the tough lives of fishermen lost at sea.
The Journey Begins
The sun continues to revisit my thoughts as it often does in the Arctic during late April. It must have set at least four times from behind peaks in the last three hours. Alpenglow clings to the tips of massive granite domes and I can’t be sure if true night will ever arrive or if dusk will simply hang out until morning.
It’s day one of the paddle journey and we awoke to calm seas and visions of grandeur. A hint of uneasiness has descended upon the group; paddling through Arctic open ocean can have that effect.
Our day’s journey lead us from our camp in southwest Moskenes toward A–the final town on the island chain–after which we backtracked past towering coastal mountains and fjords to the main attraction of Reine. There we poached a mustard yellow fisherman’s cabin, known as a rorbu, to escape the cold.
Sund is a fantastic surprise, a fishing village lost in time. There are some new buildings standing, but it’s the chronicles of the past that catch my eye—boats and fishing cabins so old they defy logic. There’s an intense feeling of desolation as I watch a lone fisherman walk down the street in the distance, past the decrepit remnants of a vessel.
Norwegian Johnny Cash
Our goal was to paddle, portage and hitch to end up in Nusfjord. There we would catch a short ferry ride across the strait, which is known for wreaking havoc on fishing vessels. Little did we know the tide was nowhere near where it needed to be for us to exit at the end of the fjord.
In groups of two we decided to check out our surroundings on foot. Jay and Jenna returned 30 minutes later inside a diesel Euro Van driven by a giant 18-year-old Norwegian boy. He said if we paid for petrol, he would take us wherever we wanted to go.
As the pedal hit the metal, he cranked up the stereo, which blasted a Swedish version of the Hank Williams classic, “Jambalaya.” From the driver’s throat came a deep bass voice somewhere between Johnny Cash and Luciano Pavarotti.
He sped along, telling us there was, in fact, no ferry in Nusfjord. His father advised him not to let us paddle across the strait as we had planned. It was way too dangerous.
He dropped us in Ure after numerous stops and we commenced the most perfect paddle of the trip. We dug our paddles through quiet seas, past salmon farms and beautiful rock island outcrops.
An Uneasy Feeling
We are constantly reminded of the dangers that exist in all straits of the Archipelago. People seem to fear for our well-being, especially as the tides change, when the water from the Norwegian Sea flushes through the narrow passageways and off the weak hulls of our inflatable vessels.
When we woke it looked gloomy, a low ceiling of clouds hanging thick and ominous. And while the sea was more or less calm, you could feel that she was hiding something.
It began simply. The winds began to build from the southwest when we set out on a diagonal path across the bay. Small manageable rollers bobbed us up and down as we took shelter behind various island outcroppings.
Dane and I pushed onward but in the process, lost touch with Jenna and Jay. As we passed one island, a fjord lingered to the west and the winds increased considerably from that direction. To our east lay a couple of staggered rock islands and beyond that the sea extended into an abyss toward mainland Norway.
I paddled onward while attempting to hold my balance and gear weight in place. A large roller swept over my side, caused my load to wobble and knocked me off my feet. At that same moment, a large gust of wind from the west blasted through, grabbing my attention in an instant. Only then did I realize that what we were doing out here was completely real. We were amateurs in this Arctic world.
Watch: The Lofoten Journals
After a brief pause I got my shit in order, got back to my feet and found an eddy. At that point, I turned to notice Jay waving in the distance. The same wind had spun Jenna and she was losing her grip. For an instant, it appeared that she was being pulled backward toward open seas. But she pushed through.
The day progressed with moments of calm glass, multiple rain showers, bouts of freezing feet, shivering and awe for the sheer magnitude of this true adventure.
The sky teased blue skies and tried to bait us into crossing the channel. We discussed the crossing while shivering and all agreed that although it appeared calm, a gale hung in the distance. Moments later, the wind began to rip and the sea began to flutter as a north wind raged through the channel.
We’ve since found an old beat-up pier and fisherman shack with an unlocked door, set up our tents out front and borrowed a shelter to hunker down with some hot food.
Who knows what our fate might be had we tried the crossing.
No Fin, No Problem
We sit on the corner of the dirt road trying to hitchhike down the empty E10 highway. 500 pounds of gear and four people throwing rocks into puddles and waiting, a full shit show of tourism and dysfunction.
Four hours later, half the team has committed to walking back to the small hamlet to ask random people for a ride. Meanwhile, a passing car stops at our intersection. Dane and I jump at the opportunity.
As our driver pulls over to let us out, it becomes apparent that we’re perfectly situated at the top of a downwinder to Henningsvaer. Dane and I don’t think twice and start to inflate. In an attempt to lighten our load, we give the driver the paddle bag, which unfortunately contains Dane’s fin.
After about 10 minutes of regret, half-blame and making fun of one another, Dane decides to do the downwinder anyway. We load up, catch the breeze and cruise. What began as a junk show turns into a true day of travel; one of hardship, questions, hitchhiking and bliss.
Since we awoke to a couple of inches of fresh snow two days ago, a renewed sense of magic has followed us through our days. The snow made it feel like the Arctic of my imagination. Low clouds hung in the slices between the rocks. Flakes fell effortlessly into the sea as we paddled to Kalle with no roads or civilization in sight.
We stopped at the Lofoten Ski Lodge and their crew took us in like family as we exchanged stories all night. The evening took an unexpected turn when another guest introduced himself as part of a film crew and asked, “Would you guys be interested in drinking free beers for a few hours?”
We happily obliged and proceeded to fill in as extras during a bar scene for a low-budget Hollywood flick starring actor Jamie McShane.
Struggle for Control
My feet feel like chunks of ice as I remind myself not to stray from concentration. Just below my inflated board lies a black abyss with an occasional reflection from the grey sky above. The cry of a seagull brings me back to the moment.
I was lost in my own thoughts as I worked to keep myself afloat amid the pounding currents, winds and waves coming from all directions.
I guess that’s what the fisherman mean when they speak of the maelstrom that occurs in all the large channels.
We’ve come to a decision. A classic northwest wind blew as we set our course across the strait, caught the wind and sailed past fish farms, islands and snow-laden summits. Before we knew it, we’d traveled over ten miles.
That strong northwesterly blew us all the way down to a small group of rocky islands, a virtual crossroads in life and this adventure. Part of the group had decided to stop in a tiny gap between two rock outcroppings when a giant ferry came full bore into the harbor. I quickly hollered, turned and burned just as the enormous wake hit my board, slammed the rocks and rebounded, causing me to hold on for dear life and surf it out.
Jenna was not so fortunate and found herself in a dangerous position. The ferry’s large wake plowed right through the narrow hallway where she had stopped. Moments later, she was up to her chest in the Arctic waters.
Jay and Jenna came on this trip looking for the adventure of a lifetime and in that regard, they were not disappointed. But after this latest frightening incident, both decided to count their blessings and call it quits two days early. No matter how beautiful, they were no longer interested in tempting the Norwegian Sea’s fury.
Riding Into the Sunset
Dane and I grabbed what we needed and headed back to sea to reconnect with that perfect northwesterly. With the breeze at our backs, we pushed onward for eight more miles. Across the horizon, the endless fjords of Norway’s east coast were alight in a pink glow. The sunset continued to resurface through gaps in the mountains, blasting alpenglow on scattered islands and lighthouses.
We stroked through two small channels around a large rock island and into a hidden beach, our campsite for the night. Once set up, around 11 p.m., we climbed a mossy knoll as the full moon rose over the Arctic.
While the rest of the crew had to catch a flight back home, I had plans to stay an extra week. I loaded up my board, said my goodbyes to the crew and began a solo journey to nowhere specific.
After paddling across the bay, taking a quick bus ride and hitchhiking in an ‘80s VW, I found myself on a gravel pullout with over 100 pounds of gear, a paddle bag and a board.
About 30 minutes later I was picked up by a man named Gustav. After hearing my accent, he immediately changed the classical music on the radio to country. It’s clear to me now that Norwegians love country music and why shouldn’t they? If Lofoten isn’t pure country, I don’t know what is.
We cruised the backroads until he dropped me off at a secret trail. A short hike later, I found myself sitting atop a spectacular bluff, staring out at the breathtaking scene: a rugged moonscape of emerald bays, dry and snow-covered peaks, an entanglement of pure beauty.
It was one of the best views I have ever seen.
A Final Dance
Another crossroads. Arrows and signs pointing to A, Svolvaer, Fredvang, Ramberg and beyond.
Kvalvika is desolate at 5 a.m.. I stand on an empty roadway with no cars in sight. Despite an aching left knee and my best efforts to talk myself out of it, I know damn well that I’m going paddling again. Otherwise I’ll be sitting here for hours or days.
Looking out toward Ramberg is ominous but the winds are blowing my direction. I inflate, pack up my gear and set out solo across the bay, sticking close to the shore.
Reaching the first bridge, the current and maelstrom begin to show their colors as rollers move in from all sides. On multiple occasions I almost bail, often docking and scoping the scene ahead. Every time I pull over, I know deep down it’s just nerves and I’m going to paddle across.
The first crossing goes fine. On the second, the tide begins to shift. Winds come from the south and the current is swirling. It’s confusing and I almost bail to walk the bridge. But looking at it, I realize I have no interest in walking. I turn to face the fury of the Norwegian Sea, one last time.
The article was originally published on Standup Paddling
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